Immediately upon returning from 2.5 months of skiing, climbing, and surfing in South America last summer, my friend Robin and I decided to head to Wyoming for a short climbing mission. Our goal was to safely climb Grand Teton National Park’s namesake mountain via the Direct Exum route. This climb is a moderate mountaineering route, but climbed less frequently than some of the other, often guided routes on the mountain. In fact, during my only other time in the Tetons–a 2008 trip with my parents–we sadly watched the aftermath of a recovery on this route, with the Teton rescue crew helicoptering away with a body box beneath.
Because Robin and his dad were coming to Wyoming directly from the summit of neighboring Utah’s highpoint, King’s Peak, we did not start the long slog of an approach until 7:30pm. We gained thousands of vertical feet from the valley floor to the moraine of 13,770 Grand Teton over a matter of hours, mostly in the dark of night.
We easily found a safe and protected place to bivy and prepared for a nap. The approach had tired us already but we were super anxious to get on the climb in a few hours. Robin was holding up fine, despite having finished a 35 mile hike just hours prior to this one. We ate a bit of food, drank some water collected from the glacier runoff, and crawled in our micro-tents just in time to hear the beginning of a drizzle, pitter-pattering upon my bivy and his.
The previous night, I went to bed around 2am. I had awoken early to finish packing, and was on the road to Jackson, Wyoming by 9 or 10am. After driving a few hours, Robin and his father met me in Evanston, Wyoming to carpool for the remainder of the drive. I was excited to learn that they had successfully reached the summit of the highest mountain in Utah the previous afternoon. We were all in high spirits as we drove the couple hundred miles to Jackson.
But now we were in our bivies, at 11,650 feet, 4000 vertical feet above where we had started 5 or 6 hours prior. It was raining, we had heavy packs, and we really didn’t want the infamously unpredictable and volatile Teton weather to shut down our short window of opportunity to climb the classic mountain before we had to return to Salt Lake City for the first day of orientation at Westminster College. We were both to be heavily involved in the welcoming of the Freshmen class, and we shared a mutually short window of climb time.
I obviously can’t speak for Robin, but I know that I didn’t sleep well. I was excited to climb, nervous the weather would disallow it, and even more nervous about making the decision of whether or not to climb. But, that time eventually came.
After only 2 hours of tent time, we easily crawled out of our bivies to the realization that the current weather was perfectly practical. It was realistic to safely begin the climb, so we stashed unnecessary gear, pulled on harnesses and backpacks, and finished the approach to the Upper Saddle.
As the ever-cliche alpenglow smothered summits, starting with that which we were directing our day’s efforts, we hiked. At the Upper Saddle, we attempted to rehydrate ourselves with some more glacial runoff. Unfortunately, we were unable to find the flowing streams that we imagined would exist. Instead, we were forced to drink water from an insanely weak trickle of water. To disguise the obvious the fact that we were sure it was simply runoff from Exum Mountain Guide’s Upper Saddle Hut (where clients and guides slept and, undoubtedly, needed to use unavailable bathrooms), we mixed a bit of Gatorade mix into the dirty “water.”
With a rumbling stomach (which is apparently what happens when you drink lemon-lime Gatorurine), we finished the beautiful approach without getting too lost.
At the base of the first pitch, we encountered the first team of other climbers we’d seen. It was a couple, not much older than us. As we roped up and buckled our helmets, they brushed off their jeans and tightened their baseball hats. As we placed our first cams, they asked if we knew anything about the route. We opted to neither guide nor advise them. As we finished the second pitch, we were happy to see that the couple had made the smart decision to turn around. It is very, very possible that they were both more experienced and skilled than us. But without packs, they had no emergency gear. Without helmets, they had what we deemed insufficient safety gear We had the route to ourselves, and we were quickly gaining altitude.
By the time we were only 3 or 4 pitches up, the wind had become so relentless and bitter that we were wearing every piece of clothing we’d brought.
Although the day’s weather had begun wonderfully, the wind had grown strong enough to make climbing staggeringly hard at sections. One of the pitches, known for its vertical black face and featured climbing, was suddenly much, much harder for us than the 5.7 rating it holds. We struggled against twin ropes acting as sails, flying in huge arcs between the climber and his belayer.
The “V-Pitch” definitely ranked as one of our favorite pitches on the climb. To the left of the arete which we climbed was, by my approximation, a 2000+ foot vertical drop to the ground below. As you can see in the picture, we were within inches of this precipice. Coincidentally, this is the exact situation I live for. By this time, we had been simul-climbing most of the route, doing everything in our power to stay safe while reaching the summit (and returning to the ground) before the distant storm caught us. Having never spent time in the Tetons, it amazed us how quickly the weather changed. The wind had brought clouds and a looming dark sky.
But, as always, we joked and had a great time climbing. Because we were climbing only a short distance apart while simuling, we were constantly talking (and trying to avoid the inevitable getting lost). The gatorurine finally caught up with me, and I struggled with some stomach issues for a good 25% of the route’s middle pitches. Robin, I’m sure, remembers that better than I.
We reached the summit 8-ish hours after leaving our bivy spot. We think we were the first people to summit that day, and enjoyed a really cool view in all directions. Unlike any other summit I’ve been on, we were blatantly standing atop the tallest peak in the area. We looked down on everything. It was a great place to be.
As we began to descend, we encountered a group of 3. We continued past them after getting some route advice (they were climbing the Owen-Spalding route, our descent path).
We were surprised at our need to rappel a snow couloir considering the time of year (late August!), and were happy at how fast we were getting off the mountain. At one point, we agreed to let another descending party use our ropes to rappel an ice section. Although kind, it was a mistake, as the other team was very slow and apparently inexperienced, and had a very hard time rappelling the steep section. We lost a lot of time there.
We had done quite a bit of research about this climb. Being our first time in the Tetons, we wanted to be as prepared as possible. Ultimately, we were very happy with how we negotiated the climb. We were well aware of the “death gulley” parallel to the descent gulley, and it’s home to way too many mistakes and ultimate tragedies. It is a gulley that is inviting at the upper reaches and very dangerous as one makes his/her way down it.
Well, “inviting” is definitely the right word to describe death gulley. We were hundreds of vertical feet into the gulley before we realized how horribly mistaken we were. Very aware of this location, reknowned for its constant tragedies and more recoveries than rescues, we became very, very careful. In fact, Robin and I somehow ended up separated, with him taking the very reasonable (but longer) lower route across a portion near the bottom of the gulley. I, for some reason, took a shortcut across a very steep 1000 foot wall, traversing as it steepened, obviously untraveled, and with an ever-increasing presence of poor, loose, and chossy rock.
But, eventually we reconnected. Extremely happy to both be alive, and aware of our location in reference to the normal route, we made our way back to the Owen-Spalding and down to the Upper Saddle.
But before we did, we got scared.
As I traversed the face, I saw some color beneath a rock. I couldn’t tell it if was my eyes, the rock, or a person. But I saw something I didn’t want to see in a location that ultimately ended up being where Robin and I reconnected. It was a backpack. An old The North Face backpack without a body, harness, or any sign of travel around it. Its ambiguity scared us, and we stood there, staring at it for a moment, before moving on.
We reached the upper saddle, passed the Exum Hut, and made sure not to drink any of the “water” trickling around the glacier. We had each carried a full Nalgene all day but had, ignorantly, barely drank anything (although we had forced ourselves to split a Clif Bar during the climb, and a chunk of cheddar cheese that Robin’s dad hooked us up with before parting ways a couple of miles up the trailhead).
We eventually returned to the Lower Saddle, where we retrieved our stashed bivy gear. Without taking a break, having been awake since 9am the previous day (it was now going on 4pm) with only 2 hours of “sleep,” we joked as we headed back down the Garnet Canyon trail.
As we lost ourselves in conversation about student government in colleges, I slammed on the brakes for the first time since the summit. Robin almost bumped into me as I turned around to point out the cuddly black bear that was nibbling 10 feet of the trail. We stood, staring at it for awhile, before realizing that it probably wasn’t the best place to stand. And that our bear spray was in the bottom of our backpacks. See about 1/2 way through this video for a glimpse of our proximity to the little guy.
Approximately 5 hours from the parking lot, we took bets (with the wager most likely being food) on what time we’d return. I think I ended up being something like 2 minutes off.
We reached the parking lot to find a very, very satisfied Mr. Robin’s dad. He didn’t know when to be expecting us, but 24 hours from the time we left wasn’t part of his thought process.
We ate an enormous pizza at Mountain High Pizza Pie and drove through the night (well, his dad drove through the night) to Evanston, where I jumped in my Audi and slept my way home. Behind the wheel.
23-year old Brody Leven is an Ohio-born traveler, currently writing from Chicago’s infamous O’Hare airport. He only refers to things as “infamous” when they are the most horrid places on earth and require 10-hour layovers, alone, on Christmas Day while on the way to a friend’s wedding 7000+ miles away and 1/2 way around the world.