Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Great Grand Teton Adventure of 2013

Everyone else had already moved on and up. I was last, the straggler, the “weak link” in the group (at least that’s what my brain kept saying to me). There I was, hanging on to the etrier on the Pownall-Gilkey route of the Grand Teton, the most iconic peak in Wyoming, the state I lived in from the time I was 4 years old until I graduated high school when I was 17. An etrier is a rock climbing aide, something the Jackson Hole Mountain Guides have placed on this route to help their less experienced clients like me ascend the smooth rock that is mostly devoid of obvious handholds or footholds. Unfortunately, a rock climbing novice like myself has no idea that I should be putting my feet into the stirrups as well, and I’m just there trying to pull myself up with the strength of my arms alone. I thought about calling our guide, Mike, for help, and quickly discarded that idea. I can’t do that! I’ve got to pull through this. I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on. I can’t be the one out of our group of 4 clients and 2 guides to not make it. I’ve got to do it. Gritting my teeth and pulling with every ounce of strength in my body, I somehow manage to lift myself to the point where I can get my feet up on the rock and pull and walk myself up, at last surmounting the crux of the route. My arms feel like lead weights slumped at my side, completely useless for the moment. My lungs hold absolutely no breath, but finally I’ve managed to overcome at least this one significant obstacle on my way to the summit.

The dream to climb the Grand Teton was by far my oldest climbing dream. Older than climbing Mt. Shasta, older than climbing Mt. Whitney, older than climbing any other mountain anywhere else in the world. When I was young - before my 8th birthday is about as close as I can peg it -, my parents took us on several vacations to the Tetons and Yellowstone areas. To be honest, I was so young I scarcely remember any of it. My one memory of Yellowstone is looking at the scalding blue waters of one of the boiling pools near Old Faithful, and having my father tell me that some guy had died the week before because his dog jumped in and he had jumped in after him, killing them both. So out of all the wondrous sights of Yellowstone, only trauma survived all these years.

For whatever reason, though, the memories of the Tetons had lingered on much longer. Granted, I had been there more recently, if only by a few years, having taken a trip there to see my father when I was a teenager. Much more than that though, another day at Grand Teton had stuck with me since I was even younger. We were passing in front of the range one summer day - I’m guessing I was about 7 but I could have been younger - when we stopped at a roadside pullout to take in the view. There was a woman there painting, as the vision of the mountains was quite inspiring from this vantage point, indeed. While I was definitely too young to remember the details of the transaction that ensued, the end result was the painting of the Tetons came home with us. This very painting would hang just outside my bedroom door for the next ~10 years of my life until the day I moved out of the house after graduating from high school. So by a rough calculation, I passed this painting a minimum of 8,030 times, and probably many more than that.

So climbing the Grand Teton was something I had always thought about, consciously and unconsciously. When I began actually climbing, much later in my life, the knowledge that the Grand is not the tallest mountain in Wyoming could not even deter my fascination with it. While climbers know the Gannett Peak is the tallest in Wyoming, it’s fair to say the vast majority of people in Wyoming (non-climbers) do not know nor care about Gannett - the Grand is the most respected mountain in Wyoming by the general public, the most visible sign of the beauty of Wyoming, not some hidden mount tucked deep within the Wind River range.

Of course, I also soon learned that climbing the Grand Teton was by no means an easy task. Far from a walk-up or even a scramble, the Grand requires the use of ropes on every conceivable route. Since rock climbing was never a primary focus for me in the mountains, the dream seemed to fade far to the background for many years. The past few years it had grown a bit closer, as we began to do more challenging scrambling trips on our Colorado trips, but still my level of competence on rock never approached that to which I would dare to believe the dream to climb the Grand could become a reality.

Then a great opportunity came up. Not for me, but for my wife, who is climbing the 7 summits. A sponsorship deal to help her with the costs to climb Carstenz Pyramid came through, and suddenly we were tasked with programming a summer that also would serve as a training regimen for this demanding and different type of summit climb. Carstenz is typically thought of to be more of a rock climb than any of the other 7 summits, so naturally I came up with something along the lines of “Hey, what about climbing the Grand Teton to prepare for it?” and just like that the trip was decided upon. I may not be climbing the 7 Summits, but every once in awhile I can sneak my own ideas in here and there!

As I would find out later, I really had no idea what I was getting us into.
Gear check at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides HQ

The first step was choosing a guiding company to climb with. Using a guide was mandatory for us, as we had no previous experience on Class 5 terrain. There are two options for guides on the Grand Teton - Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. They are both highly regarded companies, and the decision between the two is wholly a personal choice. I ended up speaking on the phone to both companies before we made our decision, as that seemed the best way to ascertain the pros/cons of each company, rather than just the boilerplate info they have on their websites. We chose JHMG and here are the reasons:

  • A four-day ascent over a two-day ascent. JHMG’s flagship program is a 4-day Grand ascent. Day one you climb to their Corbet High Camp, Day two is learning the skills you will utilize on your summit climb, and Day 3 is your summit day. Day 4 is reserved for returning to the trailhead. However, in the event of inclimate weather, Day 4 could also be used as an extra summit day. Exum does only 2-day climbs. They do their preparation/skills classes not on the Teton but on lower elevation crags, and you need to stay the nights after these in Jackson Hole (or wherever you are staying). Take a look at prices of Jackson Hole hotels in the summertime, and prepare for the sticker shock. But it’s not only that. The actual GT climb is only a 2-day, so if the weather is bad... tough bounce. We didn’t want to travel all the way to Wyoming just to get rained out.

  • JHMG provides food. Well, they aren’t cooking for you, but it’s better than backpacker food. Frozen microwave type dinners are brought up by the climbers (each member carries a little bit) and then kept at Corbett High Camp. When meal time comes, dinners are then boiled in hot water (yeah, no microwaves up at 11,000’, go figure?). We’ve tried this type of alpine cuisine preparation on our own on Shasta, and its a great way to enjoy a pretty tasty meal without a lot of mess. Exum only gives you hot water - so you’re pretty much on your own. As their rep told me on the phone “our guides are climbers, not cooks”, which is fine, but the guides for JHMG are not cooks either, but they do seem to know a little bit more about how to get the most calories possible into their clients, therefore giving them a higher chance at success. While not as much of a dealbreaker as the extra summit day was, this certainly was a strong point in JHMG’s favor.

  • JHMG prefers to climb the Pownall-Gilkey route, which by most things I’ve  read is rated at 5.8. The hardest part of Carstenz Pyramid is typically rated at 5.8. While there’s no guarantee that for any particular trip this will be the route they take (conditions, fitness, and weather can make that dictation at the guide’s discretion) at least that’s what’s on the table. Exum takes either the Owens-Spalding route (5.4 - considered the easiest on the mountain) or the Exum ridge (5.7 by many accounts). This was probably the least weighing factor on our decision, but it played a part nevertheless.

So with our guide service question decided upon, I purposely set the dates of our summit day climb to coincide with my 44th birthday, if we were to summit on day 3 as scheduled. These things don’t happen by accident. When it’s your birthday, you can be anywhere you want to be. So I decided I wanted to be with my wife and for us to be on the summit of The Grand Teton.

We arrived in Jackson Hole on the evening of July 5th. Seated on the right side of the plane, we were treated (as I had also planned) to a wonderful view of the Tetons at sunset as the plane descended. Upon landing I realized that I essentially remembered nothing about this place from my childhood. Even though I spent the vast majority of my formative years in this state, and had visited this area so many times, I was no different than any other first time tourist.

A little word about our logistics, if it may help someone planning this same adventure. We flew in to the Jackson Hole airport, which serves a few major airlines. It’s the only commercial airport located in a National Park. Big jets land here, our plane into Jackson was actually larger (and more comfortable) than the plane we flew from Sacramento to Salt Lake on the way. Since sightseeing was part of our agenda, and since I hate relying on anyone else for transportation, renting a car was a necessity. However, there are only a few companies (the expensive ones like Hertz and Avis) that are onsite at the airport. So since we  got there late the first night, we just rented a shuttle to take us into town, a ride of about 15 minutes. The company was Alltrans http://www.jacksonholealltrans.com/airportshuttle.html and it was only $32 for both of us. A bit cheaper than a cab, and with the money we saved renting a car from Thrifty rentals (through diligent looking on Kayak and Hotwire I got a deal on this) it was well worth not renting from the bigger companies at airport. Although I had read a negative review (albeit one that was a few years old) on Trip Advisor regarding the Jackson Hole Thrifty, I had absolutely no problems getting our car the next day, and subsequently at the end of the trip dropping it off. (We also used Alltrans to take us back to the airport when our trip ended.) Renting the car by the week actually ended up being cheaper than renting by the day, so I didn’t mind the 2 days the car would spend sitting at the trailhead.

We spent Saturday and Sunday playing tourist at Yellowstone and Teton parks. I had hoped to get a little acclimatization hike in, but the distances involved really ended up throwing me, and we pretty much just accepted that there was too much to see and not enough time for getting in a hike. Although Yellowstone is right next to Grand Teton Park, Yellowstone is freaking huge. The best I could do was get us to Old Faithful on the first day, and on the second day we made it as far as the Yellowstone river falls. I have to say, I do remember a little bit about Yellowstone from my youth, and that is I remember seeing some bears along the road. Well, if you go there today, I would bet a pretty good sum you will not see bears like I did 30 years ago. All we saw as far as wildlife goes was lots of elk and bison. I actually got sick of seeing buffaloes. Sometimes we’d see a bunch of cars parked at a certain spot, and we’d think “ooh, they must see something” only to find out that spot just happened to be a rare spot where you can get a data connection for your smartphone. (A decent cell signal is really hard to come by in both parks).

Seen one, seen 'em all
My Dad made sure I was terrified of these things. Thanks Dad!

Back in Jackson Hole, I did sample one of the local brews from the Snake River Brewery. It was Ok, not incredible but not too bad either. A decent pale ale that if I could purchase in California I probably would - if it were on sale. I didn’t much care for the “Eye-P-A” by the same brewery though, and I usually like IPA’s. What was weird was that they only sold their beers in cans in the stores. (We also went to the actual brewery/pub itself, which also had typical, average food that wasn’t overpriced.) Maybe that had something to do with the odd taste for the IPA, I don’t know. We also tried some of the beers from the Grand Teton Brewing Company, which is actually located across the border in Victor, Idaho. Not bad either, and thankfully sold in bottles, but I wasn’t really here to drink beer, so I wasn’t really focused on developing a firm opinion of these beers. I can’t say that any of them blew me away though, honestly.

Snake River Pale Ale - OK, but why only in cans?

Finally on Tuesday, it was time to stop in at the JHMG office for our gear check. There we met Patrick, their front office person who also had been my point of contact for the last few months leading up to the climb. He is very helpful and very quick to respond to our questions. It was nice to finally meet him. In a back room we spread our gear out for him, and he helped us go through and separate the “needed” items from the “luxury” items. This definitely helped, as we both had packed really way too much gear to take with us - not knowing for sure what conditions on the mountain would be like. But it had been very warm (actually record-breaking hot) in the area recently, and a good amount of our cold weather gear would be staying behind.

With the rest of the day to kill, we took some more tourist time to walk through downtown Jackson and all the kitschy touristy sites there are to see. One stop we made was at the Million Dollar Cowboy bar. I made the mistake of asking what beers they had on tap. Silly me - they have NO beer on tap. Seriously? So we drank a can of Snake River Pale and left. I guess it was cool to see the stuffed bears and mountain lions, though.

At last the first day of the climb had come. We arrived at the Lupine Meadows trailhead just before 10am, and soon met our guide, Mark, and our two teammates for the climb, John from Ohio and Donovan from Utah. We started up the trail to Garnet Canyon. The hike climbed out of the forest and then switchbacked up some meadows that were full of blooming wildflowers. Finally you enter the canyon and can see at last some of the mountain range - although not the Grand as that is obscured from your view. There’s a few places to stop for water (we had left the trailhead with only a liter, to minimize weight) and it was certainly a hot day for hiking, even as we gained altitude. We kept going up and reached Spalding Falls, where another break and some delicious cold mountain water was found.

Entering Garnet Canyon

I was kind of lagging behind the others already, truthfully. I don’t know if it was the altitude, or I was just not in the best shape. But I made sure not to look too bad, at least I hope not. It was a little bit concerning to me though. The last hill up to JHMG’s Corbet High Camp is a little bit of a climb, but I made it up into camp not too far behind and beheld our new digs for the next 3 days. The high camp has a community/mess tent, and then the individual climbers tents are spread out among above on the hillside. (Both JHMG and Exum provide sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and tents, so there is no need to carry this stuff up yourself. Kind of a nice thing both guide companies provide.) We also met our assistant guide here, Mike, who had decided to layover at the high camp in between groups. There was another group in the camp with us - although they were still on their summit climb and had not returned yet. The word was they should be returning “any minute now”.

Panorama of Corbett High Camp

Well, “any minute now” stretched on and on. It seems their planned summit day was being a very long one. As dusk began to settle on the mountain, the first returning members of their large team began to filter in. As our team watched, we all sat around and hoped out loud that our own summit day would not be turning into an epic 12+ hour marathon like these people’s was. But as long as it took, all the members of their team (all members of one family) had made the top, and that we took optimistically, although some of them seemed incredibly tired as they dragged themselves back into camp.

The roomy mess tent

The next day, day 2 was our training or skills learning day. After breakfast we started with a ground school, where Mark explained well what we would be doing today. There on some boulders right in camp we practiced some basic movements on rock, and how to properly use our shoes and feet for good placement. This was good because I did purchase new “Approach shoes” that I had never worn before and had specifically bought for this climb. Approach shoes can be described as a ”structured hybrid shoe that is built a light hiker or beefy sneaker with climbing shoe rubber on the sole”, and its really good for hiking scrambling and moderate rock climbing. I bought myself a pair of Salewa Mountain Trainers, and I have to say after doing this climb with them, I like them A LOT, and will definitely be using them from now on for our Colorado 14er trips.

Ground school

Trekking over to the training area from camp
Our Training pitch #1
Next up we were given a crash course in knots, belaying and rappelling, and we climbed up a nearby small tower to put what we had just learned into practice. We began by climbing some class 3 rock and some easy class 4, but roped up as we would be tomorrow on our summit climb. All in the group moved well, even myself, through these easy maneuvers. Once we reached the pinnacle of the tower, we were given a practice rap down. This was my first time rappelling, and this practice rap went very well, absolutely no problems. Next we were given a chance to climb a pitch that Mike guessed was “about a 5.8”. Gineth went first and did great, but got a little stuck at the crux of the climb, a small overhang with no clear easy way to surmount. I could tell she wasn’t happy about not getting through it, but she had really done very well and was just being difficult on herself. Finally she asked down and it was my turn. I was able to climb up to the same point, after a little work, and I too got stuck in the same spot. Hanging there, I did become quite aware that I didn’t want to burn myself out on the practice day. Arm power has never been a personal strength of mine, and I was acutely cognizant that if I was going to be successful climbing the Grand, I was going to need every ounce of muscle I could squeeze out of my limbs. So, honestly, I held back a bit and I too asked down after dangling there a while. Donovan and then John would both go on to surmount the puzzle and reach the top, but from where I was standing and belaying, it looked like an awful, awful lot of work. I was glad that I hadn’t tried, but still was a little worried if I had done good enough to impress our guides of my worthiness to climb. I wanted us to climb the PG - not some other less challenging route! After a little more practice moving and climbing while roped, we were done for the day. That night at dinner Mark and Mike explained to us the plan for the next day, and it was clear that we would be going up the route we all had expected to go up. Our wake-up time for summit day was decided as 2:30am, and so off to an early bedtime we went.

Training pitch #2. About my high point.
The practice rappel

This night I did have a bit of a time trying to fall asleep, unlike our first night when I had slept deep and well. Just nerves, thinking about the climb ahead and what it would be like to step on the summit, all kept me tossing and turning and finding every rock and pebble hidden beneath the tent floor. Ultimately, sleep did come. And like almost every time you finally fall asleep while climbing, at some point in the middle of the night you awake and you feel the fullness in your bladder and realize you have to pee. I lay there a little while, putting it off, and eventually I noticed that Gineth too, was awake - at least at that moment.

“What time is it?” I asked. It seemed like she looked at her watch (I thought) and then answered me, “It’s 2’o’clock.”

Well, that gave me pause. Instead of getting up in the cold and stumbling over to the side of the camp to take a pee, maybe I should just continue lying there, since they would be waking us up in so short amount of time. It did seem to me that the night had gone pretty fast, and I felt like even though I obviously must have been sleeping for a while, I still felt unusually tired for it being 2am. After a few more minutes contemplating these thoughts, I finally asked my wife, “Are you sure it’s 2am?”

This time the headlamp definitely came on, and soon she announced to me “Uh, no. It’s only 11.”

I have no idea how she mistook “11” for “2” - I have a sneaky suspicion she wasn’t really as “awake” as I thought she was when I had first asked her. Nevertheless, after having a good laugh about it, and more than happily got up to relieve myself, buoyed by the knowledge I still had a good 3 more hours of trying to sleep, and that I could use every minute of it that I would get.

I awoke amid the flash of headlamps on the tent walls. After a few minutes, one of our guides was at our tent door and it was time! After a quick breakfast (I remember there was bacon - there was more but I was not thinking about food. I do know I ate something.) After not too long of milling around and talking, we departed camp somewhere around 3:15am.

Then there is this other major difference between climbing with JHMG or climbing with Exum. Exum’s camp is higher up, in the Lower Saddle. So there is a longer approach day, but a shorter summit day. Although that summit day occurs the day after your approach, being as their climb is a 2-day climb. Going with JHMG’s 4-day program there is a “rest” day - the skills and learning day - that you have to acclimatize a little further and regain a bit of strength. But on summit day you become immediately aware of this disadvantage, as you walk out of Corbett Camp and immediately descend. You know at the end of the day you’re going to have to go back up that, but I successfully put it well out of my mind.

There is a short flat section after this descent, although by the view of my headlamp I couldn’t really see much around me. Then came our first “climbing” obstacle, that our guide Mark described as some straightforward class 3 climbing. It was, however, pretty much up the side of a waterfall formed from the melting snows. We had seen this from above the day before. Being near the middle of July, it did appear that earlier season climbers had been able to ascend a snow slope to the left up to the Lower Saddle, but that by this time had melted out far too much. I got a bit wet, and did end up relying on the rope a little bit to pull myself up, using it as a bit of crutch. After a bit more hiking, we walked right up next to the Exum camp and into the Lower Saddle.

Looking back down at the Lower Saddle

Climbing up out of the Lower Saddle

Here the wind was biting a little at my cold legs. To save weight, I had left my “lucky pants” - my fleece pants that I wear on almost every climb - at home. Instead I was wearing my lighter North Face hiking pants. I had brought along my rain/Goretex pants, that I’ve probably only worn one time actually on any mountain. In general, my legs are warm when climbing, so I banked on this being true on the Teton as well. However, as the sun was just barely starting to rise this morning, the walk along the Lower Saddle was indeed downright cold for me, and I was glad when we reached a break point near a black wall.

Also, I was glad because I was lagging behind the rest. For whatever reason, this trip I had difficulty with the altitude, even though I’ve climbed many other higher peaks. I don’t know what it was, my conditioning (or lack of) or just the drier Wyoming air, but something felt different on the Grand Teton. Nevertheless, this brings me to a good point about the difference between the types of mountaineering I’ve normally done, and this technical style of mountaineering. There is more standing around in this style of climbing, as climbers in front ascend sometimes more difficult sections that only have space for one group at a time. This also increases the cold factor, as sweat is allowed to dry up a bit, and cold winds seep through a little more.

We traversed an easy section, but roped due to some exposure, and we were then faced with this circumstance. It was the crux section of the Pownall-Gilkey route, and another group (a father-son team on a 2-day climb with another JHMG guide) were still up dealing with the obstacle. So we waited. By this time our group had separated into two rope teams, Mark, Donovan and John on one, and Mike, Gineth and myself on the other. Since our group had slow me on it, we were last and waited again as Donovan and John proceeded up the crux pitch.

At last it was our turn. Although we were climbing parallel, so to speak, both climbers belayed by our lead climber (Mike) at the same time, Gineth was ahead of me and went first. She made good progress - until she got to the spot where the etrier was. It was tangled and wrapped up, and laying on the rock a little higher above where she was and out of her reach. Minutes seemed to go by, as she struggled to solve the enigma up the rock. Just when it seemed we would be there forever, she was able to muster the strength and pulled herself up the remaining slope. So now it was my turn. Slightly intimidated after watching my stronger partner have a tough time, I made good progress until I as well hit the same point.

The etrier was again tangled up and a little bit folded over itself, so it didn't hang down as far as it should have. I was stumped on how I was supposed to reach up there and grab it. Sitting here writing this at 800’ above sea level, I now understand clearly how I should have climbed up the etrier. Maybe tried to get my feet a little higher and pulled it down to me. But there on the mountainside, I was just trying to get to the top of the pitch. The only way I could see doing that was pulling myself up by sheer strength of my arms. Gritting my teeth and uttering several curse words, somehow someway I got up it. I never used my feet at all. I was able to launch myself up onto a ledge where Mike and Gineth were waiting. My arms felt numb, and I had to bang them together a little to get a little feeling going. But we weren’t done yet...

The next significant pitch lie ahead of us. While not as difficult as the one before, it was still going to require some work. Plus, my arms were still feeling quite rubbery. But there was definitely no going back now. Donovan and John were well ahead of us by this point, I imagine they both had had no trouble with this pitch. Our guide Mike deftly ascended the pitch and did his best to point out the most economical route, and also the “secret” hold - right above a permanent bolt fixed in the rock. Gineth again went first, and after some more moments when I wasn’t sure if she would be able surmount this one, she again made the right moves and made it up. I followed up, and then, just like before got stuck as well as I reached the bolt.

I knew the secret hold was there, just above me. But my feet were too low for me to make a stretch with my arms and grab ahold of it. It took what seemed like an eternity to find the right foot placement. At one point, I thought about (since I knew I was on a rope) just making an all-out jump for it, but knew that was undoubtedly a bad idea. I’m not sure, but I guess I at last remembered what Mike and Mark had taught me - climb with your feet, not with your arms - and I looked down and finally found a place where my right foot could go. This was the key that turned the lock, and I was able to easily reach up and get the secret hold no problem. The rest of the pitch was cake.

And just like that, we had surpassed the most technical part of the route. The rest of the way was a lot of moving while roped. There was some really good climbing, involving a good amount of hard work, although nothing compared to what we had already done. As I got up one pitch, where an Exum group waited for us to clear out, I bumped my helmet solidly on a rock above. I turned to look up at the Exum folks - their guide said something nice, but one of their clients, an older guy, looked at me really weird, I’ve no idea what his problem with me was, nor what about thumping my head on a rock that had so offended him. No worries, I was aware now that the summit was not far off. We came around a bend, and then we saw Mark, perched on top a rock and waving at us - from the summit!

We were there in what seemed like seconds but was probably a few minutes. A few times, I thought about what this summit meant to me, and I wondered if tears would flow. But then I would in turn just be overwhelmed with the simple idea that this is a summit, not the highest summit I’ve ever been, not the last summit I ever will be on, not my first rodeo. Just the summit of the Grand Teton. John was the first to greet me, congratulating me. Summarily, they departed, and it was only then that I realized they had probably been on the summit for at least a half hour. But now was our time.

Gineth and I on the summit
Summit panorama - Gineth (left) and Mike Lewis (right)

I have to admit, I am definitely someone who likes to send a message from the top. My go-to application is my Spot 2. Unfortunately, I bought a new Iphone a month before, and had not set up the Spot with my Iphone. Unaware that I had to connect to the internet with the Spot App before  trying to use it on the summit, my Spot was basically dead weight. The summit offered no salvation, as I saw the now familiar “Verizon 0” on my phone. It was my doggone birthday, and I was standing here on top of the Grand Fucking Teton, and how was I ever going to tell anyone about it?

Although the data signal was weak, I was able to get and receive texts. So immediately I had to respond to a few “Happy Birthday” wishes with Thank-you’s and exclamations of where I was standing right now. Remarkably, Gineth told me she could connect  to Facebook, and so I tried and was actually able to post a Status Update. Not my favorite way to announce where I was, but it would have to do. We continued taking many photos and enjoying the incredible views from the compact top of the Grand Teton for almost 30 minutes before it was time to get going. Knowing we were far from done, we reluctantly said goodbye to the summit.

The weather had not been too much of a concern this whole trip. Like Colorado, it seemed mostly the thunderstorms that are so common were more of an afternoon occurrence. (We would find out on Day 4 that this isn’t always the case though) When we had left on Wednesday morning, the weather forecast had called for 30% chance for afternoon thundershowers, but mostly after noon. We had reached the summit right at just before 10am, and the skies were mostly clear and non-threatening. All in all, this was one trip I scarcely worried about the weather - although an incident on the way down would make me think.
A "butt-scoot" on the way down

We downclimbed fairly moderate terrain until we came to the rappel station, where again we caught up, at least for the moment, with Donovan and John. Bottlenecks must be common at this point of the climb, although we were lucky enough there weren’t any other groups between us. We stood around and waited our turn, although I must say I was still so high from summiting that I barely noticed minutes go by.

The "real" rappel

When it was my turn, Mike got me set up for the rappel. Mark was below, and was making sure everything would go alright from there. So there was nothing to worry about. Confident from my trial rappel the day before, I began stepping down with little to no trepidation. Everything was going smoothly and no problem. I started to feel my harness tighten up around my abdomen. As I rappelled further and further, this tension got worse and worse, until soon I was actually starting to feel pain. This pain intensified, even though I knew that I must be coming close to the end as I heard Mark’s words of encouragement as I got lower and lower. Then, just as I knew I must be so close to touching ground, I stopped.

I’m not sure what was going through my mind. I had been letting out the rope for the rappel just fine, but suddenly I  froze. Mark’s voice was in my ear and I knew I must just be inches from touching earth. Yet still I couldn’t move. Suddenly, my body started rotating, and I was spinning. For some unknown reason I could not make my brain let out more rope so that I could touch ground, and I just started (at least it felt like) pinwheeling there in place - probably like one feet above ground. Mark tried to tell me - his voice almost laughing (and no, I’ve no hard feelings about that - I’m sure I looked hilarious) to just let out a little more rope. The bad part was I really was feeling a HUGE amount of pain as the harness was pressing against my abdomen. After what seemed an eternity, but was probably less than 20 seconds, I finally felt my feet touch the ground. Not my finest moment in mountaineering, thank goodness Mark may have been the only soul who saw that.

After that it was just hiking downhill as usual, including a fun climb through the “eye of the needle” and no doubt climbing down is much more fun than climbing up. I felt better and better, as we lost foot after foot of altitude. Soon enough we were back at the Lower Saddle and I was actually able to pass some of my teammates, finally making me feel like not the absolute weakest climber of the bunch. (I’m sure I was, but at least for a moment I didn’t feel like it)

We came to another stop, as we had to descend again the waterfall area we had climbed up in the dark. Our guides fixed another semi-rappel here, and despite my completely disastrous experience at the Upper Saddle rappel, I was much more able on this, as my thoughts were all about just getting back to camp - which I could actually see at this point, although the fact that I would have to climb back up to camp was in my mind, but at least sufficiently pushed to the back corners of my brain. I reached the snow patch below and began the short flat walk over to the last hill back up to camp.

A little hard to discern, but Corbet Camp was about 2/3 up that scree/boulder slope on the left side

And oh my God, what a walk back up to camp that was. I was completely out of gas. From my extreme exertion on the crux of the Pownall-Gilkey, to the thrill and rush of being on the summit, and then my pirouetting at the base of the rappel station, to this last long walk across, there was simply nothing left, yet I still had to get back up there. That’s where camp was, where food was, an where sleep would be. I had to get up there. It was tough, but finally I made it. I had just enough energy to crawl back up the smaller hill from the mess tent up to where our personal tent was. Not long after that, I let sleep overtake me, and got a good 2-3 hour nap. While the rest of the group had taken 10 hours, it had taken me 10:30 to complete the round trip from camp, which I was told was still an admirable time, and far far less than it had taken the family who had summitted 2 days before us.

The fourth day greeted us in the morning with dark rain clouds. After a week of being in the area and not giving too much thought to the weather, we had just missed foul elements by just a single day. We postponed our hike back to the trailhead for a good long time, as the rain came down in heavy sheets around the mess tent where we were holed up. I guess luck was on our side this time. Finally we gathered our stuff and made the final walk back down to the trailhead. We had done it. We had climbed the Grand Teton.

Saying goodbye to Garnet Canyon

We had not just the luck of the weather, but also the excellent experience and direction of our great guides, Mark Postle and Mike Lewis, to thank for our summit. The logistics and instruction provided by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides was everything we could have hoped for and more. We were paired with two first-rate other climbers, Donovan and John.

I’ve climbed a few pretty cool mountains. I’ve climbed Mt. Elbrus in Russia, and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, two of the world’s 7 summits. I’ve climbed multiple peaks over 14,000’ in the USA, I’ve climbed the Mexico volcanoes and I’ve reached 20,000’ in Bolivia. The Grand Teton was harder, to me, than any of these climbs. Sure, maybe on some other mountains the altitude had gotten to me and maybe my legs just couldn’t carry me to the summit. But none of those mountains beat my body down - all over, not just legs - so thoroughly as did the Grand. It is the hardest climb I’ve ever done... but I summitted.

We spent our last day in town in relaxing and packing to leave. We did get a last chance to walk through downtown, and do some last minute souvenir shopping. In one gallery, Gineth spied a beautiful photograph, and I eagerly agreed we should purchase it. It now hangs in our own home, and I pass by it every day.

I spent so many years of my life trying to escape Wyoming, then trying to escape the memories I had of Wyoming, that I forgot all about the best parts of the state that I come from. I'm proud today to say this state raised me, and this state made me who I am today. Thank you, Wyoming, for the awesome welcome home/birthday party you gave me for 2013. 

Grand Teton Summit