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Climbing Grand Teton


 

by William Hunt

December 29, 2001

By Friday, Nov. 19 the weather forecast wasn't looking too good. Forcasted low were in the 0's F and some snow was possible. We weren't too concerned but I was not too optimistic that we would make the summit of Grand. Alex and I both agreed that we would have fun anyway, and we could always go for Middle or South Teton which both are much easier. Saturday morning we started the 1600 mile drive out there arriving Sunday at 10 AM. We stopped at a local outdoor shop to pick up a topo map and Alpenglow route pamphlets. The Alpenglow pamphlets have a few photos and route description. They are quite nice compared with the usual worthless information. The guy at the store got us some current forecast info via phone. It was forecasted that Monday should be OK, but by Tuesday the weather was going to be bad.

Hoping to use Monday as best as possible we decided to hike in that day. After organizing our backpacks they both weighed in at over 70 lbs each. We hiked in starting late afternoon from the Taggard lake trail head. There was about 1 to 2 inches of powder snow which was no problem to walk on. After 4 hours and 6 miles on trail going from 6700 feet at the car to 9200 feet in Garnet Canyon, we decided to camp, since it was dark, the nice trail became a path across serious talus, we were tired from driving for 24 hours, and it started snowing lightly. We setup camp in a small flat spot in the talus pile next to a large rock that had a small "cave" under it.

When I woke up Monday morning there was a foot of snow around the tent. The temperature was around 20 F. Snow was still coming down and visibility varied from 100 to 1000 feet. After shoveling out the tent, I put on my snowshoes and scouted up ahead. It was obvious that any progress from this point was going to be slow going. Alex slept in quite late and the storm didn't let up, so we decided not to move the camp forward that day. I was busy and entertained with wintering camping details since I really haven't done this type of camping before. After dark, I took a trip ahead to get some idea how difficult it was going to be to move the camp. It took 30 minutes to climb up the canyon about 1/2 mile and 10 minutes to come back down with no pack. It was surreal snowshoeing with a headlamp in the dark, in a strong wind with poor visibility.

By Tuesday morning there was even more snow and it was still snowing but not nearly as hard. We decided to pack up camp and move forward. The first mile went fairly well but required much effort because we were sinking as much as knee deep in the snow. The average grade wasn't very steep. We reached the Meadow and started up the steeper part of the north fork by Spalding Falls. The snow was even deeper and looser because it was blown in. After 7 hours of knee to waist deep snowshoeing with heavy packs and climbing up on pieces of talus that stuck up through the snow, we were exhausted. Alex had hit the wall. We both suspect he had depleted his muscle glycogen. I was doing better but not by much. Alex and I both agreed that we had never exerted so much total effort before. It made our hilly 90 mile bike rides look pale by comparison.

Since it was already dark we needed a campsite fast. I found a relatively flat camp spot on the steep slope below the glacier at 10300 feet. We set up camp quickly, and jumped in bags to rest and warm up. The temperature had dropped all day and was down to 5 F. By late evening it was down to -5 F.

By Wednesday moring the storm had picked up again. Snow was coming down at a good rate, and temp. was 0 F. Thanks to the wind and slope we were on there wasn't any accumulation at the campsite. By afternoon, it had let up some and I snowshoed with no pack up to the glacier at 10800. As the storm varied, I could see the lower saddle at 11200 feet. I had to retreat because my double boot liners were still wet from the day before. I forgot to keep them in my bag the previous night. By evening the temp. dropped further. By midnight it was -15 F. Just before daylight it was -20 F.

Everything had so much ice on it. There was over a pound of loose ice in the tent. The only thing that dried out was stuff we took inside our bags. Fuel use for melting snow was substantial. Alex always says that groups take way to much fuel, so I left it up to him to decide how much to take. It was obvious to me by Thursday morning that we had at most one day of fuel left at these temperatures. Alex's -30 F down bag was also not keeping as warm as it should. I was doing very well in my -30 F synthetic bag even though it was covered with ice and wet on the bottom agaist the rest. We agreed that it was time to hike out. We packed up camp and headed down the steep snow.

I was concerned that while breaking down camp my feet would get too cold. They were getting quite numb, but after we started moving downhill they warmed back up. The temp also warmed up some as the sun started poking through the clouds. After a few hours the it was quite sunny and we could see the valley and sometimes we could see Grand. Getting down proved to be serious effort. The steep snow slopes were awkward to snowshoe down. Both of us fell over many times buring ourselves in snow. By the Meadows travel was much easier. The talus pile near the end of the good trail was like probing for crevasses on a glacier. One wrong step yeilding falling though the snow. Alex fell though in one place and bent the frame of one of his snowshoes. After that it was relatively easy snowshoeing back down the trail in about 1 foot of powder. Skis would have been nice at this point. After 8 hours we were back at the car. Alex was wearing pretty thin the last mile. We were both glad to get back to the car and let it do the work for a change.

Epilogue:

I have heard some interestesting comments about our trip, so I thought I would put in a few of my own. I really did enjoy myself, even though there were moments when I was cursing the equipment. I know there are many who know me who think I have gone insane. Sometimes I doubt my own sanity, but somehow in this stuggle to climb a mountain agaist impossible weather conditions suffering pain and physical abuse gave real meaning to a climb even though we were technically only on the approach.

There are many climber who put too much emphasis on reaching the summit. If I really wanted to be sure and reach the summit, I would come "in season", or climb a much easier peak. At first when Alex suggested that we attempt Grand "out of season" I didn't want to go. After thinking about it, why do I climb anyway? Is it just to reach the summit? It's the climb that I enjoy. Reaching the summit is just a moment during the trip. Also, I figured that no matter what the outcome I would get some cold weather experience, get on a mountain I hadn't been on before, and get to test out some of my new gear.

Thanks to mother nature I got a taste of what Denali climbers have to do. On the coldest night it took me 1.5 hours to melt snow for 4 quarts of water and another hour to cook enough dinner. My MSR XGK II ran for 2.5 hours at full tilt. It's no wonder we used up our planned 7 days of fuel in 5. I really tried to do everything I could with my OR Expedition Mitts on my hands, but some things needed the grace of fingers. I tied cord loops on the the zippers that I was using regularly. If the mitten or boot liners weren't dry and warm, my feet or hands would get cold quickly. My Marmot Gore-Tex shell was really iced up, especially the jacket zipper, even though it has double storm flaps over it. Even with the ice it did what it was suppose to do, keep the wind and snow off of the under layers. After a few hours of exertion, my thin balaclava turned into a ridged piece of ice. Even the simplest things seem to be over complicated by below zero weather and strong winds, like pulling the tent poles out of the straps. The North Face Oval-25 tent has little O-rings on the tent pole ends that can be quite a bit of work to pull out when iced up. I quickly discovered that rubbing the tent pole at the joints across my mitts would free frozen joints fast. For a while I had the binding on one of my Tubb's shoeshows in a place where it kept coming undone. This was really annoying since I couldn't rebind them with mittens on. I am going to modified my Tubb's so this doesn't happen in the future. My The North Face Tangerine Dream -30 bag was my best friend. I could jump in it and warm up everything. I guess I was lucky not to get frostbite. The tips of my thumbs are still a bit sensitive even though there is no visible damage.

On the subject of climbing deep powder snow with heavy pack using snowshoes, it's an extreme amount of work. I understand physics quite well, and I knew that most of the energy would be wasted compressing the snow instead of gaining vertical elevation. I didn't truely understand this until putting it to the test. Alex and I both agreed that the snowshoe climb was 4 to 5 times as hard as a rock or hardpack snow. Alex equated 1300 feet of powder we did to 6000 feet of rock. I know we have climbed 3000 feet in less than 1/2 the time. We are not super athletes but we both train hard and we are both well above average in terms of aerobic capacity (VO2 max). Alex runs 3 to 5 miles almost everyday, and I bike for a similar workout. Alex has a good since of calorie use from his 6 month continental divide backpacking trip. He guessed on the peak day we each burned about 8000 cals. All I know is I ate a tremendous amount of high calorie food and I still lost 6 lbs (2 or 3 was problably difference in hydration level). What little fat I have is definitely much thinner.

Joel was asking if there is a moral to this story. I don't know of any specific one, but it did make me appreciate how a few hour hike in the summer can turn into a multi-day epic in the winter. When I return to Grand sometime to climb "in season", that 1.5 miles of the approach will have special meaning to me that many other climbers may never understand.



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