It all started last Wednesday night around 6 p.m. when we dropped the boys off at Sarah’s. It was hard to say our good-byes, but of course a little exciting too, thinking about the adventure ahead.
We drove through the rain and then sun, and then dissapearing light, where we wandered into Alpine, Wyoming. We parked off the highway next to a couple sleeping diesels, in a dirt parking lot, next to a motel. We blew up the queen air mattress, which filled the entire back space of the Highlander, plus some. We watched as a drunk guy staggered around outside the motel, puking and talking to himself.
I kept picturing him coming up to our windows, mid-sleep, and scarin’ the crap out of me. Needless to say, it was a pretty restless night, and 5 a.m. came much faster than I would’ve liked. But 5 a.m. also meant hitting the road again, to drive the last hour to Jenny Lake Park Ranger Station, which meant we’d be getting our backcountry permits soon, which meant I wasn’t complaining about waking up at 5 a.m. to take on this awesome day! I tore open my Rokit Fuel “Naked Formula One” bar, and anxiously downed it, as if me eating fast would somehow get us there faster.
We arrived at the Ranger’s Station about 6:30 a.m., there to wait out the hour and a half until they opened. (now I was wishing I’d savored my Rokit Fuel bar a little more) Two other guys, Cory Eales and Jeremy Bauman, pulled up in their Xterra and Texas lisence plates, the exact same time, and we quickly struck up a friendship with them. We found out I think everything you could possibly want to know about Amarillo, Texas, and it didn’t take long for me to gain great respect for these two dudes, who travel far and wide, frequently, to seek out adventure in the great outdoors. (They drove a long 17 hrs. to have a chance to hit up the Grand… and we were complaining about 5. And they drive up to Colorado nearly every weekend to play.)
8:00 rolled around with 10 people (give or take) waiting in line for their shot at “The Grand,” and being 1st or 10th person in line didn’t seem to make a difference, as all the spots were already filled for the most sought after spot, “The Lower Saddle.” There were, however, plenty of spaces available at “The Meadows,” and so we took what we could get, and it turns out it all turned out, as I think the Meadows was the best base camp we could’ve asked for.
After getting a short run down of the mountain, a quick overview on the weather, our “poop bags,” and the last copy of an outdated description of the “Upper Exum Route,” we were off to “Moosely Seconds,” where Dev rented a pair of much needed mountaineering boots.
Another 20 minutes, and we met up with our Texan buddies again, and spent a good hour organizing stuff and passing out Rokit Fuel bars and cereal packets. Not a single person turned down the free goods, and most people were excited about the whole foods based snack, that just so happens to taste freakin’ awesome, and provides a long lasting boost of energy on the mountain! (and even though it’s a family owned biz, I would’ve been sportin’ these bad boys anyway, if given the chance… their just that good)
It was a 5 1/2 mile hike to base camp, and I thouroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Usually annoyed of switchbacks, I really didn’t mind this time, and it was fun being challenged by what I’d guess was my 50 lb. pack. I packed light, until you add in all the heavy climbing gear, harness, extra shoes, winter get up, and of course always the killer… water. But depsite the big pack on my back, I felt pretty dang good, and other than a few altitude induced dizzy spells, it was a power-charged hike.
Switchbacks through steep wildflower ridges, trudging up inclined boulder fields, skipping across rocks through a stream, below a fresh mountain waterfall, (which we drank straight up) crossing a couple snow covered slopes, and then officially entering base camp!
I think it took us about 2 hrs. to get there, and arriving in the early afternoon, we had plenty of daylight left to just shoot the breeze, soak in the summer sun, reflecting off the snow glacier we were camped on, and generally just slow down to appreciate the immaculate beauty that only Mother Nature can offer.
Dev leveled out a section of snow behind a huge boulder, where we set up our (appropriately named) “Kelty Teton 2.” We were well protected from the elements, and savored some peanut butter on pita bread, jerky, trail mix, and some broken up homemade cookies with P.B., raisins and dark/white chocolate chips. After a great lunch, we chilled out on our self-proclaimed boulder… Dev using his pack as a back rest, and me using Dev as my comfort zone, as the skies of blue hung overhead, and the sun danced over my exposed skin.
After a couple hours of relaxing, we decided to climb up a glacier right above camp, to try out our ice axes Cory and Jeremy kindly let us barrow. It was nice to feel the familiar burn in my calves on the way up, and then boot skiing down the mountain, practicing a little self-arrest, but mostly just taking advantage of a chance to play in the snow the end of July.
Cory, Jeremy, and a 40-something year old french woman, watched on as we came down, cheering us on and making us feel way cooler than we really are.
After coming down the second or third time, the sun was settling more and more behind the saddle, and the first signs of a cold night urged us to pull on our beanies, and a couple layers worth of jackets.
Dev struck up a flame on our ghetto little camp stove, and I worked on purifying water for that night and the next day.
After waiting about 8 out of the 15 minutes we were suppose to wait for our “Backpacker’s Pantry” vegtable parmesan pasta to finish, we chowed down on the half-cooked noodles. But somehow it was still one of my favorite camping meals. Either I was just really hungry, or it really was gourmet Italian in a bag. We finished off with some peppermint patties for dessert, and basically called it a night.
It was semi-light as we tried to doze off, trying to keep from our minds the excitement of the Alpine Expedition that awatied us. Well, that technique worked for probably 3 hrs, until I woke up around 11:30-12, like a giddy, hyped-up squirrel on crack, rearin’ to go. By the utter pitch blackness of the sky, I knew it wasn’t even close to 5, our decided “get up and go” time. But try as I may, I was tossing and turning, popping up every 10 minutes, and feeling insane that neither of us had a watch. All I knew was that our Texan friends planned on leaving at 3:30, so once I heard them stirring about, I’d just have to wait out another hour or so, and we’d be off!
Well, after what felt like a good 6 hours, which in reality was probably only 1 hour, I heard some ruckus outside, and head lamps were dancing across the night sky. Without my contacts in, I couldn’t quite make out who it was, but I knew it was coming from the direction of our buddies. That was proof enough for me, so an hour it was, and I was buggin’ Dev to get this show on the road!!
After pullin on our boots, throwin on our packs, with our lights set for the trail, and our ice axes in hand, we trucked up toward the first beast of a glacier, passing our friends’ tent and then doing a “second take,” as we noticed their ice axes outside their tent, and no sign that they had left yet.
I’m guessing it had to have only been 1:30, and after convincing Dev to come back to bed, the night of eternity finally came to an end after drifting in and out of sleep, dreaming strange dreams, and being nudged back into reality, as Dev shook me awake. There was at least a glimmer of light in the sky this time, so we guessed it was a good time to go. Finally, the time had come!
The first glacier was insane… at least as far as someone who’d never been on something that required an ice axe. The path that we had seen people charging up the day before, seemed almost non-existent, as the human impressions had turned to solid ice overnight. Without crampons, it was doable but hard, and we relied heavily on our axes to get us up the steep terrain.
The second glacier looked even steeper, if that was possible, but as many illusions in the wilderness, it actually wasn’t as bad as I imagined. The morning was now evident in the sky, even though it would still be a while until we felt full sun. I was officially “in the zone,” as I felt my heart pump inside my chest, shedding layers as the mountain put up it’s front. I started counting steps up the icy incline… 1, 2, 3.. 17, 18, 19.. 32, 33.. 48, 49.. 56, 57. I’d book it as fast as my manly calves could go for 60 steps, then a 30-40 second break and on again. It worked well, and I felt like I was making better time with short breaks, than I would without taking a little breather here and there.
As we came up over the saddle, it was a relief to be on at least partly-level ground for a couple of minutes, and the adrenalin started kicking in, just at the sight of the Grand towering over us.
The winds were relentless, and I felt like I was experiencing the first stages of a massive hurricane, minus the water, and plus an on and off headache, as we gained in elevation.
I had to use the bathroom, and with nothing to hide behind, I thankfully found the “lower saddle base camp bathrooms,” also known as wood panels that covered the essentials, but exposed you enough to wave to people as they walked by you “doing your business.”
Dev pointed out a stash of “poop bags” in a half cave near the restrooms, but not wanting to be disrespectful or harmful to the environment, I opted to carrying my load all the way up. It wasn’t until 3/4 of the way to the top, that I realized those poop bags were probably only being temporarily stored, while climbers made their ascent, and then reclaimed their “goods” on the way back down. Needless to say, I carried my own human waste on my back, all the way to the Grand Teton summit and back. Now how many people can say that?
After our little pit stop, and ditching our coats and mountaineering boots, we pulled on our approach shoes, talked to a couple dudes, got some much needed beta, and headed upward.
The first mile was just steep switchbacks, which quickly turned to scrambling, and then some easy-grade climbing… not hard enough to rope in, but enough to make you more aware of your foot and hand holds.
Next up was Wall Street, which is really just the front door to the Grand. But it’s the most intimidating intro I can think of. From a distance, it didn’t look too bad, but I was also working hard not to overthink it, and to focus on the “here and now” and not what was ahead. Once we came up on it, and I got a closer look, I suddenly realized why they call it Wall Street, or at least what that name means to me. It was the first real mental “wall” that stood in my way like a 250 lb. Tongan on steroids, looking down on my 105 lb. frame, as I try and pick a fight with his brother. This was almost the turn-around point for me. The 10 ft. ledge with a good thousand foot drop, soon turned into a foot and a half ledge, where a boulder stook out enough that it’d throw your balance off to the point of possibly “no return,” or there was the more obvious, white-knuckling option, to climb down a tiny ledge, out around the boulder, then back up the other unseen side. The actual technique needed to pull of such a manuver wasn’t especially intimidating, but the exposure was enough to make me pee my pants in my sleep, unless I was able to forge past the mental block in my head.
We were following 2 other climbers from Georgia… 59 year old Bruce, and 30-something year old David. They luckily had about twice as much gear as we did, and that was a big reassurance to me, as were were carrying every piece of trad gear we own, which is pretty limited.
But my biggest reassurance was pausing for a quick conversation with the Creator of us all, the God that I have to thank for every breath I breathe, and for every opportunity I have to enjoy the Masterpiece that only His hands can articulate. Ever since the transition from the single life to married life, and then married life to parenthood, (with a 1 and 2 yr old at home) my willingness to take risks has taken a nose dive. Of course I love adrenalin-induced activities, and I think all of those involve some vunerability, but I don’t want to be stupid. I don’t just have a lot to live for, but a lot of someones to live for, and I plan on doing my part to stick around as long as possible. Whenever God takes me, if it’s sooner or later, I wouldn’t mind one bit, dying doing something I love, or dying in the mountains. But I don’t want it to be because I was being careless, or ignorant or prideful. I want to die of say a heart attack at the age of 86, when my body just can’t quite hack it anymore. But whatever age or time, I want to die trying, die fighting, die ‘living’ if that makes sense.
Okay, so I got a little side-tracked. The good news is, since I am sitting here today writing this, it means we didn’t die on Wall Street… and I didn’t expect that we would. We roped up, and had enough protection to feel semi-comfortable on a very discomforting ledge.
The 2 guys from Georgia went first, and let us use their rope and protection. A 18-19 year old kid came up right before we were ready to give our shot at it, and he was climbing solo style, up on the Grand for the first time, and without any type of back up rope or protection. We watched as he climbed down around the boulder, and my heart raced, watching him cling on to that rock face, as if his life depended on it, which it did. I was just praying that a violent gust of wind wouldn’t come up and sweep him off the sheer wall as he made his way around the obstacle. We never ran into him again, but I assume he’s still roamin’ the planet somewhere.
Being the last to climb up the crux of Wall Street, I used my technique of just focusing soley and wholly on the task at hand, the rock in front of me and not the ground hundreds of feet below. At one point, I felt like every muscle in my body was tensed up, with the thought of an unexpected sneeze somehow throwing off my balance. If I fell, it wouldn’t be deadly, and I would probably only incur a very small amount of pain, but I still didn’t want to fall. I stradled the wall, as I reached my right leg down the ledge to a good foot hold. Once I had that, I could breathe a little… reaching for a few awesome hand holds that found me back up the other side with the rest of the guys, and then I could really breathe. I was breathing so much now, that it’d never felt so good to breathe!
Looking up at what was ahead was a little overwelming, but I was happy, and for me, half the battle was won with conquering my fears on Wall Street.
From that point, the climbing started getting fun… really fun. We would rope up for a pitch here or there, but mostly we just simul-climbed our way higher. We had 20-30 ft. of rope between Dev and I, with the remaining stuffed in my backpack. We would climb at the same time, trying to keep the rope semi-tight. Dev led, putting in gear, pretty run out, and I would take it down as I climbed up. It was easy enough climbing that there were only a few times I was a little nervous… Okay, really it all kind of made me nervous, but I felt confident enough to keep moving onward, and when it got to me more, I’d ask Dev to belay me when he found a good spot. That way worked like a charm, and it helped to keep moving… thinking enough about what we were doing and not being too hasty, but not thinking too much about the constant exposure and cliffs on all sides. We climbed that way for 10 pitches or so, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. The morning gusts on the saddle were now far behind, and we were baskin in the sun light, pushin’ our bodies, fighting an occasional elevation-induced dizzy spell, and just lovin’ the scenery and being together in this rad place!
The climbing was solid and enjoyable… that is, up until we ran into the next major “could be” contastrophy. The route became more and more vauge. Obviouslly we knew we needed to keep on in the “up” direction, but it seemed to me there were a hundred different ways to get there, and they definately didn’t all fall into the same rating/exposure category.
We reached one point where going left meant climbing out on the edge of some super sheer, exposed cliffs… which made my stomach churn again with Wall Street memories. Going straight meant hiking through a mix of rock and a melting snow glacier, wet and heavy in the summer sun, and seemingly unstable and ready to slide. Going right meant partially crossing over the tip of the glacier, then climbing steep and slippery rock just above the glacier, to get to the other side where it looked dry, but where the route beyond that was unpredictable and unseen. Would the risk involved be worth crossing over to the dry rock, only to find we had taken the wrong route and would have to re-trace our steps? In any case, there would be a little risk, stress and uncertainty.
We opted for crossing the wet rock above the tip of the glacier, as we found a path that was minimally in the snow, and although the rock wasn’t completely dry, it wasn’t completely wet either. Plus, it was easy climbing. The circumstances and situation uped the intensity a little for me, but I wasn’t worried about the climb as much as just hoping we were headed in the right direction. And of course I didn’t really love the thought of somehow slipping out on the rock beneath my feet, and falling down the deadly glacier.
There are times as a climber when you let things get to your head, slowing your progress and limiting your usual confidence and ability. This was one of those times. It’s funny thinking about it now, because I know the danger and fear in my mind was much bigger than reality. But at least at the moment, I felt that surge of panic that sometimes creeps up to remind me that I am only human… a lowly visitor to this vast, majestic piece of nature, where the threat lies in my decisions, my mentality, my awareness. And then there are all of the things I have no control over. Afterall, you can’t reason with Mother Nature. You can’t strike up some sweet deal and say “okay, if I attempt this, and give it my best effort, you can’t chew me up and spit me out.” We are always prone to the fury of the mountains when we invite ourselves there. You can’t go expecting that they owe you something, that you’re not inferior, that by some ultra-ego you have worked so hard to build for yourself, that you can somehow rule over them, and take posession over something that was never meant to be posessed. The most you can do is show deep respect, honor the opportunity to be a traveler here, use the brain in your head for common sense and safety, but don’t expect to do something big without running into challenges that involve a little risk, and require faith in yourself to pull through those fun mental blocks.
After overcoming my mental block on the glacier/rock/where the he%$ are we pitch, things got easier again, at least for a little while. Around the bend, we still weren’t 100% sure we were on route, but the climbing was fairly easy and we could see far enough ahead of us to know that if we weren’t on route, we were pretty dang close. The summit was now in view, and that boosted our motivation and drive to get there!
With about 3-4 pitches left, we simul climbed again until the last pitch, where we met up again with our buddies from Georgia. The last climb was short… probably only 25-30 ft, but it scared the crap out of me. Some of it probably had to do with my mental/physical exhaustion, but I forced myself to fight through it, knowing how close we were. At this point, we were a little off course, hence the reason the climbing was harder and more exposed… by the end of the trip, I had a love/hate relationship with that word “exposed.”
Coming up over the top of that last pitch, we thought we were at the top, but quickly saw the “true summit” just a few hundred yards in the distance. We decided to call it good and headed down.
JUST KIDDING! Of course we made the short scrambling trek to the summit of the Grand Teton, this monsterous peak we came all this way to stand on.
The feelings and emotions that ran through me as I took those last steps up on to the summit are undescribable. It was as if not only every fear and anxiety of the climb was released, but every doubt, insecurity, frustration, humiliation and hesitation I’d ever had, came rushing out of me without any reserve to hold in the escaped emotion. Every grace I’d been granted was embraced, as I looked down around me at the incredible landscapes. I might as well have been on the top of Everest because that’s how big I felt. Up here I could look at the world as if everything was in perfect harmony… as if there were no unjustices, no competition, no prejudices, no discrimintation or division, no abuse or broken hearts or kids crying themselves to sleep tonight. No drugs or addictions, no divorce, no corruption, no war. I love how nature is the perfect judge, the perfect teacher, the perfect coach. Nature doesn’t favor a white man over a black man, a rich man over a poor man. Your wealth, social status or “class,” your skin color won’t save you in the wilderness. Nature doesn’t care if you’ve got a Beamer or a run down Buick in the parking lot. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a mansion in Beverly Hills, or a boarded up apartment in the ghettoes of L.A. or an old country house in no man’s land. When you’re in nature, you’re as vunerable as the next person. All of the things that matter in civilization, in society, no longer matter. No one cares if you’ve caked on the Estee Lauder make up, you’re sportin name brand clothes or cologne, or if you went to Yale University and have four Master’s Degrees, or your a high school drop out. The only thing that will save you up here, is leaving all of those things at the trail head, and submitting yourself to the rules of Mother Nature… realizing that the power here is much greater than your own, and respecting that power every step of the way.