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Flattop Loop

December 18, 2009

In writing this trip report, the initial title was “Escaping the slippery slope of incremental decision-making on a last minute hike up Flattop” but that didn’t really work for obvious reasons.  I revised it to “The Slippery Slope of Flattop” but that also didn’t really work because it implied a trip report about slipping down a steep and/or icy mountain slope, which wasn’t true. Ultimately, I decided to go with the title you see above which accurately indicates the primary object of the trip, even if it doesn’t foreshadow any lessons learned.  I hope that is alright.

On July 29, 2000, my regular climbing partner, Brian, was sick and no one else was available for a last minute mountain adventure.   To get some exercise, I had resigned myself to a Green Mountain linkup with other nearby peaks.

My lack of enthusiasm kept me from getting a prompt start; it wasn’t until 1:30pm that I got myself ready to go.  As I was leaving home, I happened to notice that my RMNP Annual Pass was expiring 2 days hence.  In a spur of the moment reflex (I dare not call it a decision), I drove to RMNP with gear for Green Mountain.

Naturally, the traffic and parking were horrific at the height of tourist season and so late in the day.  But I was desperate and found the mental strength to push on.  I parked in the Bear Lake parking lot and started hiking at 3pm.

Wearing shorts and a tank top and without a hat or jacket, I didn’t expect to get far on my hike up Flattop.  In fact, I would have been satisfied with a couple mile hike to treeline.  I certainly started with the sense that the inevitable thunderstorms would chase me off.

As you might guess, I’m a fan of the good-plan-ready-now instead of the perfect-plan-ready-tomorrow.  But it turns out that it is also important to carefully distinguish between a good plan and a bad plan.  It turns out that starting with a bad plan leads to spur of the moment changes to deal incrementally with problems and new ideas; and the new overall plan, as seen in hindsight, can end up making no sense at all.

The standard route from Bear Lake to Flattop Mountain An 8 mile round trip gaining 2,800 feet in elevation.

But, to my amazement, the clouds in distance stayed away all the way up to the broad flat summit of Flattop.  Overjoyed with my good fortune, it occurred to me that it would be fun to finally bag Mt. Otis while I was there; I mean, it was just on the other side of Hallett, how long could it take?

But when I looked to gauge the distance to Mt Otis, I couldn’t see it.  And since I didn’t have a map, I figured the best thing was to start hiking towards Mt Otis until I could see it, so that’s what I did.

While I was moving, it occurred to me that it would be even more fun to also descend Andrews Glacier, since I’d be so close, and create a magnificent loop route.  I reasoned that the extra distance couldn’t take too much longer than just heading back down the way I came up, and I would have salvaged the day with a great adventure.

For a mountain adventure, I love a loop route.  Compared to an out-and-back or “lollipop” route, a loop route means covering and navigating more new ground.  Since the terrain never repeats, the risk of route-finding failure compounds until the final steps to safety are taken. In other words, in a loop route, there is always a chance of having to retrace the entire route until the final few steps.  Uncertainty = Drama.

My imagined route to Otis

Once I could finally see Mt Otis, I noticed that it was actually further away than I expected.  Without much of a pause, I figured I had better hurry if I was going to make it to Otis and beyond before the storms came on.

I actually did hike faster for about 5 minutes before a little birdie whispered in my ear, “YOU ARE BEING STUPID!”

The spell was broken.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was foolishly slipping into some very dangerous decision-making.  I didn’t have a watch with me, but I knew it had to be around 6pm.  That meant I only had 2 hours of daylight left.  And I didn’t have a head lamp, either. And like water from a breaking dam, all of my really bad assumptions started crashing down:

  • the hike down Andrews Glacier and past Loch Vale was certainly going to take a lot longer than the Flattop trail and certainly more than 2 hours before adding the time it would take to summit Otis
  • using hiking poles for a descent of a lump of ice (Andrews Glacier) probably was going to be tricky if I couldn’t find a scrambling descent along the north side (which I had done before but later in the season)
  • if I had to back off of Andrews glacier, I was going to have to retreat all the way back over and down Flattop, potentially a 3+ hour affair that would start just as it got dark
  • and I was essentially naked with no extra clothes in case I did become caught out in a storm or after dark or both.

This was just too stupid, even for me.  I backed-off.

But I hadn’t completely lost my nerve.  It occurred to me that there was another way that would be shorter than going back down the Flattop trail; and it would involve only a small gamble.

My imagined escape route back to Bear Lake

I decided to head northeast to find the Hallett Peak climber’s descent gully which I’ve used many times to descend into Tyndall Gorge for the hike back to Bear Lake, passing Emerald and Dream Lake along the way.  I just hoped that there were no impassible obstacles between me, standing near the top of Chaos canyon, and the climber’s descent of Hallett peak.  I bet my life that there weren’t.

Rough route taken up Flattop and down Hallett. Note: photo from a different trip.

I started with a very fast pace and quickly found that the ridge from the summit down to the climbing area was unbroken.  But I also found that finding the descent gully was hard coming from the “wrong” direction.  Every gully started to look like the descent gully and I had to check out every one to avoid passing it by.  But eventually I came to the right one; it looked just like all the other gullies except for a few details that I couldn’t remember until I saw them.  It would have been impossible to figure out how to get down without direct, personal experience with the terrain.

The descent gully is a loose mess, but it goes.  And I was able to get my body, including a just recently functioning brain, down to the Tyndall Gorge in working order.  Then I worked my way down past the climbing area which was devoid of climbers at that late hour.  And straining to beat the sunset, I hurried down to Emerald Lake and reached the easy hiking trail with plenty of light left.

I had the trail to myself as I made my way past Dream Lake and then Nymph Lake, and finally to the Bear Lake parking area.  I reached my truck right at sunset for a 5 hour round trip.

On this trip, my biggest danger was my own carelessness.  But, hey, I got in one more Rocky Mountain National Park adventure before my pass expired. And I got a cheap reeducation on mountain sensibility.

The routes imagined and taken


The Three Apostles

March 7, 2009

Ice Mountain had long been on my list of peaks to carefully and proudly summit.  Many years later than I expected, I finally arranged a weekend trip to collect it and the other two Apostles.  The plan was to get the Three Apostles (North Apostle, Ice Mountain & West Apostle) over the June 24-25, 2006 weekend, doing all three peaks on a single day.

Our route path

Our route path

We met after work on Friday and drove to the 4WD trailhead for a few hours of sleep.  We arose and left camp at approx. 5am on Saturday.   

It was a humid place (river, puddles, lakes:  water everywhere) and the temp was around 30F.  My small pack and a sunny day forecast convinced me to leave my bulky fleece in camp.  And it was the right decision, but I did suffer for the 15 minutes it took to work up a full head of steam.

Worst Physical Discomforts
1. Nausea  (afraid you won’t die)
2. Cold  (afraid you will die)
3. Pain  (fear of permanent damage)
4. Hunger  (true mental torment)
5. Dehydration  (slow misery)

Within minutes we reached the TH which had two trails:  one was marked “Huron Trail” and the other one wasn’t.  We started toward the 3 Apostle’s Basin (as best we could tell) at a very fast pace to work up some heat.

We stayed on the obvious trail until we came to a well-signed fork:  Lake Ann (to the right) and Apostle’s Basin (to the left).  The Lake Ann alternative immediately crosses a substantial footbridge.  We went left and followed without difficulty a good trail (including a log creek crossing) to the terminal moraine between Ice Mountain and West Apostle. 

From the moraine there was no distinct trail, so we angled left toward North Apostle around the cliffs at the foot of Ice Mountain until we reached a lovely grassy ledge.  From this vantage point, we were able to triangulate on a probable position using Huron and our map.  Deciding that were below North Apostle, we angled back toward Ice Mountain up and into the couloir between North Apostle and Ice Mountain.

It is very good to be lucky in the mountains, and we got very lucky and received a beautiful day.  The moderate temperature and light wind made for one of the most comfortable approaches I’ve ever had.  And the views of Mt. Huron and the surrounding peaks were awe-inspiring.  A great start to a hard climb. 

Missed water refill lake in background

Missed water refill lake in background

I intended to stop for water at the tiny lake shown on the map at 12,100ft but we found ourselves 100 feet above it before we spotted it.  Rather than descend to get the water, we continued upward to some running snowmelt a few hundred feet higher, where I managed to slip on some ice and nearly tumble into a watery grave far below.  We continued up past a snowfield extending down from a fine looking couloir that reach up to nearly the top of Ice Mountain’s Northeast ridge.  All that was left to reach the saddle between North Apostle and Ice Mountain (13,100ft) was a section of large & rather loose talus blocks. 

After a brief rest on the upper saddle, we hurried up and then down North Apostle with some very easy scrambling. And then we readied ourselves for the crux of the day…Ice Mountain. 

The plan for the day was to try to make the Ice Mountain Northeast ridge work and then bag West Apostle before heading back to camp.  However, if the conditions were too dangerous, we were prepared to back off and reattempt from the much easier West Apostle side on Sunday.  Naturally, we’d rather finish the three peaks in a single push to minimize the approach hiking. 

Rule of Pride

The first rule is to never take a big chance for pride.  Think about having to explain to St. Peter (or whomever) how you died.  If you don’t like the way it sounds, don’t risk it

A view of Ice Mountain NW Ridge

A view of Ice Mountain NE Ridge

The route up the Northeast ridge was rather exposed but quite solid, and the path was well beaten most of the way.  We reached the end of the climbable ridge and began following the directions we’d found in Roach’s 13ers Guidebook.

Steps to overcome crux:

1. cross the top of a steep couloir on the ridge’s west (right) side
2. climb around the left side of a large block (class 3)
3. climb up along the couloir’s west (right) side

The first step was obvious and only a little exposed; we had no trouble with it.  But the second step was impossible as we could not find a “large block” anywhere.  Brian thought the chimney straight overhead might go, but I wanted to continue to look for and follow the established route.  We didn’t see any way to “climb the right side” of the couloir we were in, so we crossed over (right) to the next couloir (hoping it was the “right side”) and climbed up the horrid, loose, black rock which I’d grade as technical (low 5th class).  

On top of the technical difficulty, the rock was very loose.  I had to test 5 holds to find one that I was confident in trusting with my life.  In hindsight, the chimney above the initial couloir we crossed when we left the ridge was probably the correct route.  Our Loose-Black-Rock-of-Death route topped out at near the summit level, and we quickly reached the summit block at approx. 11am.

It was borderline excessively risky, but we felt our rock climbing skills would be enough.  Since it was only a moderate gamble, I was prepared to explain how it all ended.

Just before traversing to the Ice/West saddle

Just before traversing to the Ice/West saddle

We rested a few minutes while pondering our route-finding difficulties, and then headed down the large gully that runs directly down from the summit to the West Apostle side.  This gully quickly joins another gully that runs down from the crease in Ice Mountain between the real summit and false summit.  The footing was more secure that it appeared or had any right to be, but still the descent was long and tedious.  We continued down until the ridge to the right (descending climber’s right) got low enough to easily mount (also when the cairns begin).

At this point, according to our route plan, we were supposed to do a descending traverse to the headwall on Ice Mountain above the saddle (now visible) between Ice Mountain & West Apostle.  There is no clean line as such on this hill; we traveled in more of a descending zig-zag fashion, like the edge of a toothy saw laid on a declining angle.  At least we had a solid idea of where we needed to end up, and so we just kept hopping gullies until we reached the headwall.  And I managed to survive yet another stupid talus hopping mistake.

At the saddle between Ice Mountain and West Apostle, we could see some dramatically steep snow descending toward the terminal moraine we skirted earlier that morning.  The views stirred our imaginations about a fast descent, but we soon settled on the duty at hand.  We had to climb up 500ft to reach the last of 3 summits on the day, and then still get down in one piece.  I was very tired, but had a food bar and ½ liter of water to power me home.

The remaining hike over and down West Apostle was the easiest ground of day.  We got down to the far side of the West Apostle and found to our delight that there was enough snow left to use for our descent.  I used a glissade to erase 700 feet in quick order, while Brian decided to plunge step, and practice his self-arrest technique a few times.  Finally, we worked back toward Lake Ann and a much needed water re-supply.

My glissade toward the terminal morraine

My glissade toward the terminal morraine

The rest of the hike to the TH/Camp was uneventful except for a couple horrible cases of fire-toes.  Back at camp sitting in a camp chair with my boots off, and eating watermelon, fire roasted sausages, and re-hydrated spicy noodles was wonderful conclusion to a perfect day.  Note:  all credit to Brian for the camp pleasantries; I couldn’t be trusted to even bring a pillow for myself.


# Description

Altitude Gain



Time Spent

(incl. breaks)








1 Hike to bottom of N. Apostle / Ice Mountain couloir



1.5 hours


2 Climb talus/snow to N. Apostle / Ice Mountain Saddle (see photo)



2.0 hours


3 Climb ridge to N. Apostle summit and return to saddle



1 hour


4 Climb Ice Mountain Northeast Ridge to summit (see photo)



1.5 hours


5 Descend back side of Ice and traverse to Ice Mountain / West Apostle saddle (see photo)



2 hours


6 Climb to West Apostle summit



30 minutes


7 Traverse to West Apostle false summit



15 minutes


8 Descend to saddle



15 minutes


9 Descend (glissade) to basin below Ice Mountain / West Apostle saddle (see photo)



30 minutes


10 Hike to Lake Ann to find Lake Ann trail



1 hour


11 Hike Lake Ann trail back to fork (to 3 Apostle’s Basin Trail) and finally to TH/camp



1.5 hours





12 hours


On Sunday, we drove out through Winfield into Leadville for my annual breakfast splurge mingling with the regulars at the Columbine Restaurant.  Instead of my normal Zone Bar breakfast, I splurged (artery-wise) on a 3-egg omelet stuffed with tomatoes, sausages, bacon and Swiss cheese, and a plate of breakfast potatoes with 2 pieces of toast slathered with butter and jelly.  I enjoyed the meal fully and without reservation about any health impacts in a way that is only possible after a full-out, hard-core day of exercise and living fully.

See all trip reports

Friendship Born of Teton Adventure

March 1, 2009

Brian and I had been climbing together off-and-on for just under a year.  This was sufficient experience to trust our lives to one-another on belay, but not enough time to become good friends. We were ready for a big adventure to build a lasting adventure friendship.  A friend of mine from Chicago, Mark, had just finished and raved about his late-July trip to the Tetons; it was the obvious choice.

Our big adventure began on Saturday, August 14, 1997 with an eight-hour drive to Grand Teton National Park, just outside of Jackson, Wyoming.  We were planning to climb the Grand Teton and whatever else we could fit into our week of freedom. Our expectations were soaring, but reality was even better; the forthcoming combination of suffering and success was a classic alpine adventure!

Our initial plans were designed to work around the four problems reported by my friend, Mark, based on his recent trip:

  1. Close-in camp space was impossible to find:  full for the summer
  2. Permits for the Grand Teton were hard to get:  be lucky or climb another
  3. Snow and ice covered nearly every route up the higher Tetons:  bring ice gear
  4. It stormed every afternoon:  prepare for bad weather

It seemed luck was going to play a larger part than normal in our Teton adventure.


Brian and I left the Denver area late Saturday morning.  The plan was to find a campsite somewhere near the Grand Teton National Park Rangers Station so we could make an early visit on Sunday to acquire our backcountry permits.

Approaching the park, 8 hours later, we could see the impressive mountain range.  This was my first visit to the Tetons and the sight reminded me of the Alps — the jagged rocks thrust up violently and suddenly from an otherwise calm flatland area.  I couldn’t wait to stand on top of the Grand Teton.

We arrived at the Park entrance at Moose Junction at about 6:30pm and to collect a 7-day entrance pass and to check out the campsite availability.  Consistent with Mark’s experience, all close-in campgrounds were full.  Our only option was Gros Ventre, which was 15 miles away.  But all that really mattered was the permit; we planned an early start to be first in line.


At 7:20am, we got in line to await the 8am opening of the Ranger Station.  When the Ranger Bob showed up 40 minutes later, we were fourth in a line of fifteen parties.  We listened in on the negotiation of those ahead of us — they were getting permits for the Grand for Monday and Tuesday.  It was going to work out.  At 8:30am, we got our turn with Ranger Bob.  We told him we wanted the Grand for Monday.  He nodded reassuringly and checked his computer.  Nothing was available on Monday.  And nothing was available on Tuesday.  And we couldn’t reserve a camp site more than 2 days in advance.  “Oh well” he says, “I guess the other permit issuing site is giving away all the permits.”

My heart raced and my vision clouded…’what other permit issuing site?’…’what are we going to do now?’  I think I was about to pass out, when Ranger Bob said that if we have something else we want to do first, he could get us into the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton later in the week on the same permit.

“Okay, we want to do the CMC route on Mt. Moran, so give us the CMC campground for Sunday night and then we want to do the South Buttress on Mt. Moran so give us Lake Leigh campground 14 for Monday & Tuesday and then give us the Lower Saddle on the Grand for Wednesday & Thursday.”  Yes, yes, yes.  A complete reversal of fortune, only 30 seconds later.  Life is good.

With the permit obstacle behind us, and me recovered from my fainting spell, we needed only to get ready to start hiking.  And then it started raining, and, off we went into the wild gray yonder . . . with wet everything and high hopes.

Now, any fool with 10 minutes of research could tell you that the problem with Mt. Moran is accessibility; there is no trail to the foot of the mountain.  The only reasonable way to approach the CMC camp is to rent a canoe, paddle for 1-2 hours, stash the canoe for 2-3 days, carry the paddles with you to keep the canoe secure, etc.  But we were in a hurry to go; and we didn’t know where to rent canoes.  We decided to just hike it.  I made a joke about Chef’s line in Apocalypse Now, ‘Never get out of the boat,’ he said.  We laughed like the fools we were.

We hit the trail about 1:45pm.  The rain was still falling and the mud was unbelievable.  Yet, despite 75-pound packs, we both felt light and nimble with adrenaline.  It felt good to get started.

Since there is no trail directly to the climb, we planned to make the best of the only trail in the area.  Our great plan was to hike the Leigh Lake trail for 3 miles (and up 1,000 feet), then divine the right spot to leave the trail and head down 1,000 feet to Leigh Lake.  This approach was planned to set us up to angle over to the gully that we’ll hike up 3,200 feet to the CMC campground.  We didn’t have GPS in those days, so we just had to wing it.

Map of Mt. Moran approach & climbing routes

Map of Mt. Moran approach & climbing routes

Visibility was poor due to the rain, and with the trees obscuring the view of the lake it was impossible to tell when to cut over.  Our logic dictated that something of a trail would have developed with people cutting over — not everybody takes canoes, right?  And the guide book mentioned an abandoned NPS trail that we might be able to find.  What could go wrong?

After a time, we abandoned the search for a trail and cut over.  Down the slippery slope, through muck and mud.  This was the worst terrain I have ever walked in and it was made all the worse by 75 pounds on my back.  Twice, my foot sunk in mud after stepping over a fallen tree causing my knee to hyper extend.  I started to think that getting out of the Tetons with my health would be an unlikely success.

As we neared the bottom of the slope, it became clear that we had over shot the lake by a half mile.  So we had to hike back a half mile through wet, tangled undergrowth and over fallen trees.  Eventually, I gave up the drainage creek I was following and climbed up the next ridge (about 50 feet tall) to try to see an easier way.  On the other side of the ridge was another, bigger creek, however, along the top of the ridge itself was a deer path that had better footing and had less vegetation than anywhere else.  Following this track, we made our way to the Leigh lake.  All that was left was to cross the various creeks via fallen trees to make our way over to the Mt. Moran ascent gully.

We finally reached the Mt. Moran ascent gully at 4pm, leaving us 5 hours of light to find the CMC camp.  But we still had roughtly 3,200 feet of elevation to gain over loose boulders and wet rocks. Oh well, at least the rain had stopped.

As the hours ticked by, I was moving slower and slower.  We were worried about finding the camp in the dark and so Brian moved ahead to see if he could find it.  My legs were spent — hours ago — and I had to rest every 15 minutes. With dusk approaching, I kept looking left for Brian.  Finally, I was barely able to make out his silhouette waiving his arms; his voice was lost in the wind.  I had climbed too high.  To reach Brian, I had to do a descending traverse 300 yards left to reach a dirt trail that would take me up 150 feet to the CMC campsite.

About halfway, as I was stepping carefully across a steep, wet, grassy slope, when, shiiiiiiiiiiit!  Down I went, sliding down the grass in my self-arrest position with no way to create friction on the slick grass.  After 50 feet, the slope angle lessened and I was able to grab at some long grass to stop myself.  No injuries, but all my clothing, which had dried over the past 5 hours, were soaked and I was now covered in mud.  I could have been pleased at my luck to avoid injury, but instead I was pissed off.  But the anger stirred up enough energy to get me into camp before total darkness.

Setting up camp was pure torture, with the cold wind and dripping trees tormenting us.  And once we could lie down, the cramps started.  We were doomed to toss and turn until early morning.

Our adventure had become a nightmare.


We left camp about 8:30am, which was about 3-4 hours late.  Neither of us could get out of the tent at first, and then only I couldn’t.  But after our late start we took off pretty fast, following the footsteps of the party ahead of us.  We reached the base of the climb at noon, just as the 1st party was turning around.  “We just called the weather service; storms should be coming in around 2:30pm.”  It was a 3-4 hour climb, so it was a prudent decision.  But we had gone to too much trouble to get here to give up without a serious fight.  Up we went.

The climb was very easy.  The route finding was fairly simple and mistakes cost nearly nothing; many paths worked.  Seven pitches later, Brian finished with a simul-climb of about 300 feet.

We summitted around 3pm . . . no weather at all.

From the top, as from below, Mt. Moran is a majestic peak.  It is built like a giant U-shaped fortress with monstrous pillars at each of the ends.  A glacier rests in the middle and temps adventure for another day.  And, it was a beautifully flat summit.  While sitting on top, I had a feeling of great relief; we had avoided a “no summit” fate.   Time to go down.

U-shape seen from near summit

U-shape seen from near the summit

The required scrambling was fairly safe with only a few exposed moves.  About half way down, we found some rap anchors and descended easily with only a single stuck-rope incident.  We got off of the technical section and back up Drizzlepuss to the packs at about 6pm — when I felt a couple of drops.

Within 10 minutes, the worst hailstorm I’ve ever been caught in began to beat the living hell out of us.  I put my helmet on to preserve my skull and suddenly had the feeling that I was in Ray Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man” on the rainy planet where the astronauts were going deaf and crazy from the rain beating on their helmets.  Of course, my hands continued to be beaten as I scrambled down the rocks to the trail.  Within seconds, the ground was covered in ice — a white blanket covering the ground, obscuring the holds, and eliminating all friction.  It was quite a mess.

We reached camp at 7:30pm for an 11-hour round trip.  The weather-feared party greeted us with news of their bets that we wouldn’t have made it back until much later (or at all?).  I was delighted to surprise them.

The tent beckoned and I did not refuse. Before long, Brian had the courage to speak of our planned climb of the South Buttress.  In fact, our bivy permit for this night was at Leigh Lake, site 14.  But I was a beaten man and had no intention of going any further that evening.  Brian continued to try to persuade me until another rain shower settled the question.   A bite to eat, and then, nothing.


The next morning, we had clear skies and, by dawn, sunshine.  It was a gift from Heaven.  We couldn’t resist laying out all of our wet, nasty clothes and gear in the sun. The sun felt so good.  A little after sunrise, we started down the drainage gully, needing to lose 3,200 feet of elevation to reach Leigh lake.

It took us only 1.5 hours to get down to the lake, but it was still a God awful effort and misery.  We hit camp 14 by 11am, and took a break.  Brian stripped down to just his bibs, pretending to be an extra from Deliverance and attempting to dry the rest of his clothing.  I filtered some water and tried to remember what it was like to be young and strong.

We still had to ascend 1,000 feet of elevation, up that trail-less muck to escape the Wild. As we started up again, it became all too clear that every drop of water that had fallen for the last 3 days was waiting on the leaves of the underbrush, just for us.  Rather quickly we were soaked again.  And without the rain, this crossing of the jungle was accompanied by a plague of mosquitoes.  Thank God for bug juice.  But even when the bastards don’t bite, they still hang over and all around your head in a black cloud.  I bet I still have some in my lungs.

We did eventually make it out of the jungle.  God, what a misery.  As we stepped out onto the trail, two attractive women hiked by with big smiles on their faces.  “Great day, isn’t it?” they said.  All we could do was smile in return, thinking, ‘Never get out of the boat.’

If only we had Wikipedia back then:

Mount Moran is a massive and impressive mountain which would make it an attractive prize for mountaineers. However, the comparative difficulty of the approach to the climbs makes it a much less popular climb than Grand Teton and the other peaks which surround that summit. No trails to the region around Mount Moran have been maintained for over twenty years, and any approach overland requires a great deal of bushwacking through vegetation, deadfalls and bogs along the perimeter of Leigh Lake. Instead, most climbers choose to canoe from String Lake, across Leigh Lake and then pick their way to their respective route; but even this may require some overland route finding. As a result, most climbs on Mount Moran tend to take several days even when the technical portion of the climb is comparatively brief.

A few easy miles later, we reached the car and our dry clothes & socks.  Oh, the joy of conventional things long taken for granted.

We headed into Jackson for supplies and food, and then back to set up camp at Gros Venture.  After setting up, we once again laid our wet clothes over every bush in the site.  While the sun was not hot (too late), the wind was stiff and dried our clothes and gear very well.  We spent the late afternoon planning our gear and packing — determined to make the packs lighter this time.  It was a nice rest until a storm hit at dusk.  It was so fierce that I thought I would be hit by lightning while lying in my tent.


We broke camp in time to hit the trailhead at first light.  We found a parking stop right at the trailhead — a good sign.  The fog was thick . . . thick as soup.  I hoped for a long, flat warm-up before the elevation gains began.  But it was steep right away.  While disappointing, this was probably for the best.  We had to go from 6,700 feet to 11,000 feet in about 7 miles.

Four hours later, we hit the Meadows . . . the first campground and the best for climbs on Disappointment Peak.  Our excitement was beginning to build again.  We were really going to do it.  The weather was cooperating. .  everything was good.

Yet, we had much altitude yet to gain.  I kept making progress, but the trail was another endless hell.  Higher and higher.  Forever and ever.

Below the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton

Below the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton

We agreed to take in a rest at the start of the Moraines campground.  Despite everything, we had made good time and could afford a good rest.  I wished out loud for another day to rest before the climb.  I badly needed time to fully recover.

While it seemed like forever, it really only took 6 hours to reach the Lower Saddle campground.  It was similar to climbing the staircase on the Sears Tower three times with 70 pounds on your back.

At the Lower Saddle, we picked out a site with substantial protection from the wind and set up for a hurricane. We were done by 3pm and had nothing to do for hours — a great change of pace.

Brian resting in our shelter during a brief period of good weather

Brian resting in our shelter during a brief period of good weather

In order to be productive, we spent some time scanning the rock formations for the Lower Exum start.  Our plan was to do the entire Exum ridge — a Grade IV climb — so we needed to have a flawless, early start in poor light.  The rock looked pretty good and we wired the approach.

Suddenly, the weather started to change.  It was hail again, and it hit us hard.  We scrambled into the tent and hoped it would pass.  The storm reminded me of Hurricane Andrew, which I lived through in Miami.  But we were tired and now used to going to sleep by 8pm, and the storm soon faded from our consciousness.


Morning came quickly, and thankfully, we were well rested.  I suppose our bodies were just getting used to the abuse.

It was still pre-dawn, but the lack of stars foretold weather problems.  Eventually we could tell that the ground was white and the air was white with fog.  And it was cold.  We agreed to bail on the Direct Exum route, and try only for upper Exum Ridge.  “We’ll do the lower Exum tomorrow,” we said to each other.  We were the only party to head out. We were thinking that the weather would clear by 9-10am, and then we’d be in position to summit.

Up we went, feeling our way higher and higher.  We’d find a trail and lose it, again and again.  The rock was completely covered in ice and snow.  We managed to move higher up the snowy, icy rocks without ice ax or crampons (which we left in the car to save weight).  But there was no way to reverse those moves, so I scavenged every rap anchor I could find.

Brian trying to figure out where we were in the whiteout

Brian trying to navigate in the whiteout

We reached the top of the gully we were in at about 11am.  The fog was still thick so we weren’t sure where we were.  After a bit of scrambling around, we finally found the Upper Saddle.  So we had missed the Wall Street and the start of the Exum ridge some time back.  Our only remaining option, that we knew, was the Owens-Spalding route.  So, we moved over to the start to see if we could figure it out.

Routes taken

Routes taken

But once we stepped over to the Southeast side of the Upper Saddle, the wind was at hurricane speed and the apparent temperature intolerable.  We were freezing.  There was no way to stand in it for climbing or to belay.  But we didn’t want to bail prematurely.  To be sure the day was really lost, we spent a miserable hour waiting for the weather to improve.

On the one hand, this was an incredible adventure — the mountain to ourselves, total whiteout, etc.; on the other hand, we could die very easily.

I could not remember giving up on a climb before, but it did seem like the right thing to do. So down we went.  But this time we had to find the trail.  We could not go down the way we came up — no way.

Two steps into the decent, Brian asked where the trail was.  I lifted by head (and took my eyes off of the icy trail) to tell him that I had placed rocks to mark our trail when suddenly I was falling.  And hitting the ground, I continued moving, sliding on the ice toward the precipice over the North face.  Somehow, I managed to trade a left shoulder muscle for my life and stopped the slide.  We renewed caution, we managed to find our way down in a fog that never lifted.

Back at camp, I took a 3-hour nap before waking from hunger.  I was running short of food.  I had brought too little for 2 days, and then needed to ration it into a 3.5 days supply.  My wait for dinner was agony.  And the rest of the trip promised to be body fat burning experience.  Finally, it was time to go to sleep to the wild sounds of my tent being torn to pieces by the hurricane winds.  Nature is beautiful.


In the morning, the ground and sky were clear.  I ate two of my last four PR Bars.  We took an early start to avoid being caught behind large or otherwise slow moving groups and with a clear day and our new experience on the mountain, our route finding was much improved.  We decided to focus on the Upper Exum Ridge to maximize our chance of reaching the summit.  We moved quickly up the mountain and found Wall Street without much effort.  Everything was good.

We were the first on mountain — route finding all the way since no footprints could guide the way.  It was a beautiful and cold alpine experience.  Brian and I made very good time despite.

Our progress slowed a bit when the snow and ice accumulations blocked the normal route, or when the route took us to the north ridge where the winds were bitterly cold and very strong.  But what a feeling: the mountain was ours and the adventure absolute.  Still, we knew that a serious weather change or a minor fall could mean a failure to return home.  We relied on our wits and each other to survive.

As we reach the top of the “friction pitch” we saw a lone, red helmeted climber below us.  Our sense of serenity was gone.  But what courage!  The rock was very slippery and he was wearing hiking boots!

Summit day route

Summit day route

It turned out the guy was an experienced soloist.  During our short conversation (while I belayed and he rested), I described our previous day’s adventure.  I was explaining that we were lost and in the wrong gully, when he interrupted with “not Death Canyon?”  Further discussion determined that we were not in Death Canyon, which he explained has only one safe crossing, which is right at Wall Street.  Not a friendly place.

Our paths finally diverged when Brian opted for a new route (harder, but protectible) instead of the snow/ice filled chimney on the standard Exum Ridge route.  Our route took a bit longer and by the time we summitted, he was gone.  The mountain was ours once more and the summit views were as majestic as imagined.  From a 3 by 4-foot perch, we could see the whole world.  But the wind was deadly.  Accordingly, we could not stand it long, and soon headed down.

Grand Teton summit

Grand Teton summit

We hoped our new friend’s footprints led to the rap station, since we didn’t have a good idea how else to get down.  They did.  The raps were covered in ice, but we prevailed and soon stood within a few feet of the previous day’s farthest progress.  Still, nothing looked familiar.

Scrambling and sliding down loose rock and ice covered slabs; we slowly worked our way down.  I yelled to Brian that I thought we were in the wrong gully, but he assured me that we were in the right place.  Some time later, I could see far below us the crossing to Wall Street . . . we were in Death Canyon.  Oh shit!

But we made it.

At that point, Brian and I were prepared to write a book about the Grand Teton entitled, “How to do everything wrong, yet summit and survive.”

Ten hours after leaving camp we returned triumphant.  It was such a great accomplishment in our minds, it seemed inappropriate that no one else knew or cared.  But we knew that we had summited on two Tetons despite all of our problems — weather, logistics, permits, food, pack weight — the feeling of accomplishment was total.  The trip had been supremely satisfying.

One last night in the tent; tired but happy

One last night in the tent; tired but happy

Even though we got back to camp around 3pm, we were too tired to hike out the 7 miles and 4,500 feet to the car and deal with finding a place to sleep.  So we decided to stay another night and hope the rangers didn’t find out.

But the real issue was food.  I only had a single freeze dried dinner left, and that would be gone soon.  And I was already starving.  I had been living on only 2,000 calories a day for 2 days — and Saturday was going to be very lean.  My pants did not stay up very well anymore.

Dinner at 6pm, sleep at 8pm.


We woke after 11 hours of blissful sleep.  I never slept as well before or since.  There was no reason to hurry, except that I had no food for breakfast or thereafter.  I had yet to beg Brian for mercy, but it would not be long before I’d kill him for what he had left or even to eat his leg raw.

By 9am we were hiking, and Brian was thinking about his pending sacrifice. Down we went, and down, and down, and down.  At least the weather was nice, finally.  Halfway down, Brian pulled out a package of pepperoni slices he could live without.  It was the best meal I’d ever eaten.  It was the best decision Brian ever made.

Four hours later, we hit the parking lot and I had freedom from the oppression of my pack.  Despite people in cars waiting for us to leave, we could not bring ourselves to move quickly.  We enjoyed the small pleasures of fresh clothes, sandals, water and food.  Total heaven.

We decided that 8 hours confined in a car was too much for 2 men without a shower for 7 days, even for very good friends.  So we drove to the campers’ shower, and enjoyed another forgotten pleasure remembered.  Clean, we drove to Jackson to find a celebratory lunch before the long drive home; we each ate a large pizza.

The heroes arrived home to empty apartments, but with thoughts of their next adventure.  And Brian and I have been adventuring 40-45 weekends a year for the 12 years since; and we are great friends as well.

See all trip reports

Lightning Safety

December 1, 2008

It is vain to look for a defense against lightning.”

~~ Publilius Syrus, Maxims, 1st century B.C.


Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. Once generally feared as a weapon of the gods or God, scientists now tell us lightning is just a gigantic spark of static electricity that will kill or maim us just the same. People once avoided lightning above all threats to life due to the heavenly implications of being a target. When we play in high, exposes places where lightning lives most often, we should still trespass with trepidation and calculated respect. We manage the risk of lightning death or injury by exercising restraint to control exposure and using safety practices to minimize vulnerability when exposed.

Click to see full essay, “On Lightning Alert

Yield and Overcome

December 1, 2008


What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy…We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.

~~ Sir George Leigh Mallory, 1922


The personal rewards of adventuring atop the high peaks are potentially massive, and depend only on our ability to manage risk. And we must manage risk, not embrace or avoid it. We manage risk by balancing risk with reward to achieve frequent success against difficult goals while avoiding dangerous mistakes and traps that encourage irresponsible behavior. To manage risk well means to: (1) understand which risks threaten us during our high peaks adventures and (2) manage those risks in a way that suits us. No one can tell us how to be safe atop the high peaks without first asking us what we enjoy and what makes the experience meaningful. It is this personal nature of managing risk atop the high peaks that forces us to examine the topic for ourselves.

Click to see complete essay:  “Yield and Overcome

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