That September morning arrived with a dash of chill in the air. It was brisk, but not overly bitter. The sun lay dormant beyond the glowing Gros Venture range as I drove towards Teton Village, WY. It was one of those odd years. The venue that Exum Mountain Guides had used to train thousands of Grand Teton summiteers was no longer available for our use due to a massive rock fall incident. So we had been working diligently to prepare a test piece in the rock gardens of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in an effort to prepare for the mission itself.
Sandie and Carey arrived with smiles on their faces and glee in their hearts. They introduced themselves and we instantly bonded. Their high energy and infectious camaraderie dated years back to before they took to professional lives and families (we won’t talk numbers). They had been traveling on ladies' only adventures for years, and had been working toward the goal of combining hikes with technicality.
We were soon on our way, ascending toward 9,000’ in the gondola. The air grew crisper and the winds whispered upon the hillside as we stepped off the gondola and started our trek for the rock buttresses to the south. Strolling through the [now] autumn wilting wild flowers and the arid western air, we talked casually about the days to come and the lone night we would spend at high camp. We arrived at the base of our first multi-pitch climb and went through the technicalities of our day; the knots and hitches and rappel and belay and rope carry and gear cleaning and movement technique, as well as safety precautions and the rest of the preparation necessary for successful mountain ascents.
Sandie and Carey were quick to pick up on the intricacies of climbing as they had some prior background. We were soon on our way ascending easier rock to adjust to the change of pace as we progressed towards more difficult and exposed objectives. The first of our climbs went off without a hitch and we rewarded ourselves with a break perched atop the climb as we watched other guides maneuver through the terrain. We snacked in the illuminating autumn sun as I pointed out the distinct landmarks of Jackson Hole. I was quick to promise even more astounding views from our camp in the coming days.
This first day was one of learning, gratitude, and self-assessment. Our highpoint came at the rappel; large, 30 meter overhanging abseil with a convex nature. You must commit mentally to the security of the system, the gear and the rope, as you walk towards an edge that you cannot see until you are standing right atop it. As though they were born for this experience, the ladies flawlessly descended the rope, even stopping to grab some glamour shots along the way.
We walked the Lupine Meadows trail (sans Lupines - June flower), early that next morning. They joked with me as I showed up in a puffy coat and running shorts. I jabbed back that they would be envious in less than an hour when my legs were breathing upon the sweaty switchbacks to come. I have never counted, but legend says 20, maybe even 30, switchbacks as you ascend from the valley floor into Garnet Canyon. Don’t believe the rumors though. The heat sweltered to a nearly unwalkable high as we crossed the 3 mile junction. Luckily for us, the light breeze from the mouth of the canyon blew down on us like Mother Nature’s air conditioning. We took lunch about 5 miles in, under the shadow of the massive Middle Teton. The intruding black dike that so perfectly dissects the north and south of the mountain stared down upon us as we grazed on our diverse selection of trail snacks. I told the ladies of the legends and lore surrounding the Grand Teton as it poked through the North Fork of the now high alpine canyon. We continued up to 11,600’ whereupon shelter, warm drinks, and a pile of gear to sort greeted us.
The sun shone its last rays over Sandies’ neck of the woods, the Idaho Mountains, aglow with their magical hue of glittering gamboge as the sun sank below the horizon for the evening. My warnings of low appetite, but extreme deficiency of calories kicked in and we ate somewhat forcefully under the silent stars. The Grand Teton was so close, yet impossibly far as the forecast began to shift toward an incoming storm. We decided we would awake as if conditions were normal and continue on toward the summit if possible. So there we were, bordering hypoxic as we “slept” under the now screaming sounds of the winds promise of what was to come.
Three o’clock in the morning arrived as it usually does at around 12,000 feet; in a daze of excitement, fatigue, and aches in the body. A soft early winter snow had dusted most of the upper mountain, glazing areas with verglas, a thin and unclimbable ice. The conditions were hazardous at best. The stars shone, and the promise of sunlit rock awaited us as the quick storm had passed silently in the night. Carey decided that she accomplished the adventure she had sought and would enjoy the rest of her journey at the hut as Sandie and I departed for the uncertainty ahead.
We approached the first pitches of technical climbing under the guidance of a headlamp and my intimate knowledge of the terrain. The rock was slick, and our timing was not impeccable due to the difficult nature of the climbing. Sandie and I decided it would be best if we did not tip toe to the line of no return. We opted for the safer option and decided to continue ascending toward the west summit, otherwise known as the Enclosure. We moved fluidly through the elements punching through snow, avoiding ice, and climbing effortlessly upon the granitic gardens of the Grand Teton. We pushed toward the blank slab of the East Face of the Enclosure whereupon we practiced our hand jamming technique on the weakness that allowed passage to the summit. There we stood, six o’clock in the morning, at 13,200’ high atop the Teton Range. Astounded by the alpenglow, we both sat in silence and absorbed the moment. It was bittersweet. After all, Sandie was not standing atop the Grand Teton, but it was in that moment that she drew deep into the depths of introspection and produced a fatigued smile declaring, “I’ll be back next year.”
That trip was one of growth for Sandie and Carey, coming to know themselves in a more intimate way than they had dreamt possible. They pushed beyond their boundaries and rewarded themselves with the possibilities of adventures to come. To understand oneself as a climber, one must accept the journey. The journey to struggle, perservere, imagine, hope, brave and endure.
Autumn gave way to winter in the Tetons and the snow fell in meters upon the high peaks. The Tetons emerged from the early winter storms in their dazzling white dress. Too formidable for climbing, we shifted our efforts to skiing. It wasn’t too far from the new year that I received a message telling me that I should gear up for the august full moon. Sandie was a woman of her word. She was coming back, under moonlit skies, to summit the Grand Teton in fine alpine fashion. Her focus was now not upon gaining the summit, but doing it via the world famous Exum Ridge.
Sandie arrived in Jackson with a motivation that transcended anything I could have imagined. She was prepared, mentally and physically, to give it everything. Her distance training, verticality at the climbing gym, and focus on training were readily apparent and nearly an alternative reality to just one year before. We departed the Lupine Meadows trailhead with a sense that the world was ours to conquer. As we strutted toward Garnet Canyon we were already casually cutting time off of last years pace and the excitement continued to build in knowing we were more than ready to tackle the rambling ridge that rose above us toward the summit of the Grand Teton.
That night came and went under the illumination of the unfathomably full moon. As is the nature of sleepless nights high in the alpine, we departed the hut in a stupor. Sandie was full of excitement and anticipation as the moon shone so brightly that headlamps were optional as the loose path glowed under the bright white of the solar sky. We meandered toward the first technical pitch in a fraction of the previous years time due to Sandies’ hard efforts in preparation, along with cooperation from Mother Nature. We obtained the wall street ledge under the darkness of pre-dawn skies. The most famous rock climbing move in the Tetons, the “step across,” was on my mind as I debated whether or not to even tell Sandie it even existed for the time being. I opted to share the information with her at the base of the Golden Staircase, AFTER we had made the highly exposed move and entered into the first true pitch of the Exum Ridge. She was delighted to hear that the move was behind her, even though she would have made quick work of it regardless of eyes on the exposure below.
We climbed all of the classic pitches in effortless fashion and moved together teeming with excitement. The golden staircase shone with the first rays of dawn. Sandie's face erupted with a smile that couldn’t be removed by anything within the bounds of our universe. The wind blasted from the west as we gained the Wind Tunnel Pitch and made technical variations to enhance the difficulty of the experience. Sandie was in prime form. We moved through the hardest section of the Friction Pitch with modest effort before turning the corner to the wild exposure of the V pitch. After moving through the black hole, we had arrived upon the summit ridge and were casually basking in the feeling of glory as we ascended closer to one of Sandie’s life goals.
Atop the summit tears were shed and a loving embrace was had. We were a team. Sandie complimented me and I her, we had worked in unison to attain the highest point of the Teton Range. Yet, I would argue the summit was more than just a high point to her. It encapsulated her heart and soul. Sandie had poured years of effort, motivation and determination into this achievement. The journey was the final reward, a culmination of all that had come, and what was still yet to come. It translated to the infinite experience that the mountains hold. The summit of the Grand Teton wasn’t just a notch in Sandie’s belt, rather it was an experience that would dictate her label as an alpinist.
As it is with all summits, you are only halfway to the finish when you crest the highpoint. So we enjoyed well-deserved snack and departed toward the trailhead with the highest sense of accomplishment. Our mental, physical and spiritual beings had passed one of the standing tests of time of American mountaineering, The Grand F****** Teton.