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Grand Teton, Upper Exum Ridge


by Kelly Bates

December 29, 2001

It was early June, 2000, and my old roommate, army buddy, and college drinking pal Pete called me up. "I have an idea to climb ze Grand," he said, in a bad French accent. Well, that's about all it takes to get me to go adventuring, particularly with someone with whom I've shared so many other memorable climbing adventures (see the webpage on Things I've Learned for some examples). He's out in North Carolina now playing Special Forces games, so the schedule was all up to him. He figured that a week prior to the 4th of July weekend would be ideal for him, and got his tickets to fly into DIA. There were lots of adventures on his end out in NC leading up to actually getting on the plane, but those are not in the ken of this story, and are so not recounted here.

Anyway, my company and boss being really cool, and having upwards of 200 hours of off-time saved up, anything worked for me. I picked him up on Saturday afternoon, and spent a couple of hours drinking waiting for his gear to show up; the attendant wanted to deliver it to us in case it didn't show quickly, but couldn't seem to grasp the idea that 11,000' was no place she wanted to carry a 50# pack to. It eventually showed, and off we were to the bleak eastern plains of Wyoming. More interesting things ensued there, like bars closing at 9pm ("We close at 9 on weekends") and getting stopped for having NY plates on my car, and we spent a breezy warm night under a beautiful clear sky near Casper (you can pull off at any exit and not worry about anyone being around - WY apparently has no residents of the 2-legged variety that wander about after dark). The next morning we continued through the Shoshoni reservation and over Togwotee pass, and quickly pulled into the AAC climber's ranch in the Teton park. For $6 a night, a plywood bunk, showers, and a place to stay where there are other interesting people around. Not bad.

As usual, I woke up at 6am, and we decided there was no time like the present to start climbing. We had a wilderness camping permit for the Lower Saddle at 11,600' between the Grand and Middle Tetons, and off we went. The trek up the initially flat, but quickly steepening switchbacky trail to Garnet Canyon took about 3 hours (slow, but we had large packs and weren't in any hurry). My camera's battery died after 2 pictures in Garnet Canyon, as is the norm for me on fun climbs I'd like pictures of (see the Aconcagua story on my website). At the Platforms, the NPS trail leads a couple of hundred feet over a boulder field on the north side of the creek to prevent further damage to the Platforms' tundra; another 45 minutes of hiking and we were just about at the Meadows, where we broke for a few to inspect possible rock climbs on Disappointment Peak.

We went through the Meadows following other climbers up the Middle Teton Glacier moraine and rockfall, completely missing the steeper but less scree-filled NPS trail to the Caves; by the time we'd reached the top of the initial headwall and were on the north-side moraine proper, we'd had about enough of hiking with big packs. The final headwall to the Lower Saddle looked too steep to climb and descend safely with the loads we were hauling, so we figured, heck, there's no one here in the moraine anyway, let's modify our camping permit a little. We went just beyond the creek and rise to the Jackson guides' hut, and found a nice walled camp site. After setting up camp and snacking (and lounging in the sun for an hour) we decided to go out on a recon of the upper south face from the lower reaches of Middle Teton, above the Lower Saddle.

A wonderful 2" laid fixed rope secured to older climbing ropes ascends the right upper headwall, where water constantly runs down the rocks. Other parties had put in an ascending left traverse of the glacier snowfield, but the fixed rope over the rock turned out to be much more elegant of a line. The wind always blows (a little chill-illy) up at the saddle, and there were several tents already set up, with more parties coming up. Both the rangers' and Exum guides' quonsets were locked up tight, so we took a couple of pictures and ascended a few hundred feet on the north ridge of the Middle for a look at our route. Pictures don't do this mountain any justice at all. It looks completely unclimbable until you're actually on the ridges you're going to climb. Probably something about the scale and distance it's viewed from. Wall Street is almost invisible except as a thin line ascending right from above the Needle and WS couloir. Still, it's well worth an hour to scope the route out and get a perspective on what you're really doing.

Since the various guide books rate the climb time from the Lower Saddle at 5 to 6 hours for competent climbers, we were in no hurry the next day, a lovely blue sky morning. We talked about climbing the Middle's NE ice couloir or some rock stuff on Disappointment after we got down, so we took our crampons with us to the Lower Saddle. Being such a nice day, Pete left his winter gear (including wind pants) in our hang-bag at the saddle, and off we went north past the Black Dike and Needle. Before leaving, I made what turned out to be the most prophetic statement of the climb: While packing, I decided to leave my headlamp at the camp. Pete pulled his out and put it in his pack, and I said, "Hey, if we end up needing that, then we'll know we're f**cked." Pete, always not-so- impressed with my gypsy-packing style, said that it was his one little thing he always wanted to carry. Since I usually always carry extra cold gear (hat and mittens, at the minimum), I let it go.

It's basically pointless looking for the Eye of the Needle; just climb left of the needle and then go up to the second little saddle. The first has a nice drop-off to the east face of the needle, but the second leads directly to the Wall Street entrance slab. The second has a small cairn on top, but you most likely won't see it until you're near the top anyway. The snow across WS couloir was ice-hard and a pain to cross, even with a tech ax and double plastic boots. At the beginning of WS the clouds came over and it got chilly, and we changed from hiking/climbing boots into rock shoes. Here's probably the only place where slightly larger rock shoes have any utility - you can wear thin (army-issue) wool socks in them and stay warm. We roped at the exit boulder from Wall Street to the ridge, and I got to start.

The boulder problem itself is a bit overwhelming for a first piece of climbing there; the foot ledge is small, the flat finger ledge even smaller, and it's rather dizzying to look straight down. Fortunately it's only about 5 feet around, and after that 'exposure' means very little. The first pitch included the boulder (we're still wondering about the picture of Exum leaping and clinging to the far wall; we guess he scaled the boulder and jumped instead of edging around it) and the Golden Stair. Quite a fun pitch, really, and pretty short. We decided to remain roped and swing leads all the way up, even on the 'scramble' ground, so at my next lead I was faced with the chimney and ice boulders entering and half-ascending the Wind Tunnel.

Oh yeah, and it started snowing as soon as I got on lead for the first pitch. It seemed to snow or graupel on us every time I had lead, so Pete got cold on belay and I had mostly sun for mine. The weather didn't look especially good, but it didn't look as bad as it could, either. So, up we went. We've climbed in far, far worse.

I swung after the second Wind Tunnel pitch and climbed some right-side crack variations to the base of the 'Friction Pitch.' I also had honors on that, but don't be fooled by pictures of that pitch in the guide books. It starts out (Kelly's variation, probably) as a vertical dual off-width, then goes to slabby face. Just as it gets lower-angled, there's a first piton hammered in. The climbing's not hard, just fairly vertical through the off-width with just about nothing to friction off of or hold on to. Larger pinch grips at the gym would be good training for this 20' section. I couldn't find anything friction on the whole pitch, but up higher it had a nice lay-backy left hand crack that leads to an overhanging block (off to the west, that makes a nice photo-op for being way up in the air).

The next two pitches were again fairly easy scrambling, and quickly led to the bottom of the obvious Open Book. This was by far my favorite pitch; not too high-angle, but still fun enough that I felt a couple of pieces of pro were in order. Nice laybacks and cracks on both sides get you up to a long, safe run- out (no sense making short leads). With backpacks, the next obvious crack on the ridge line was an left-hand undercling in an overhanging corner, and I felt it was too hard to be on-route. Plus it was full of ice, I'd already had a long (rope draggy) lead, and I couldn't feel my hands even in my fleece mittens. I instead belayed Pete up and took a traverse line out to the hard left (towards the cliffs) to a much easier ledge crack, and around back to the right towards the crest. Here I found the second piton, so I suppose that was the route anyway. One more pitch (no longer swinging leads) and I was on the crest with a fantastic view of the summit and the Ford Couloir heading up. I belayed Pete up and we felt we had 2 more 'pitches' of scrambling. And lo and behold, up the Ford come 5 guys in leather boots and crampons, 4 on a rope team and one solo with them.

We headed up the end of the ridge and across the snowfields to the last short scramble up a snow & rock field, and there was the summit. 10 pitches, including scramble pitches, and it had taken a full 10 hours from the Saddle. The other guys we met on the last scramble to the summit turned out to be employees from an outdoors shop in Provo, UT, and knew the route down. We decided to team up to get off the summit block more quickly and efficiently. They kept on their crampons pretty much the whole time, even on the rock scrambles and rappels down; I kept on my rock shoes. Because of that, I reached the first 70' rap just as their quickest had an 8mm rope tied into it. I had a rope on my shoulders and another in my pack, so I got to go down the single strand and clean the route (they didn't toss very well), and moved quickly over to get the second 120' free rap set up.

The second (major, to the upper saddle) rap was fully free-hanging and isn't someplace you want to be if you don't enjoy rapping or trust the setup; I stuck around at the bottom and changed back into double boots while the rest of the party descended. The third-to-last guy was coming off the rope and moving down to my semi-protected shelf when something fell and hit him dead smack on the head; the rope had moved as another climber got on and knocked off a rock, about the size of a beer can. I got sprayed with shrapnel, but fortunately was facing the other way still. Phil (one of the UT guys) was a bit staggery, but didn't appear to have a concussion (yet). He sat down to get himself together as the other two descended and I pulled and packed the ropes. The sunset was beautiful, but still we shouldn't have been so high when it went down.

I walked down with Phil and Josh through some nasty, steep, icy snow fields, as it got darker and darker. The sun had never warmed the snow col to the point we could plunge step, and I began to wish I had brought my crampons. About the time it got really dark, I saw Pete waiting for me on a rock ledge below, obviously remembering I didn't have a lamp. The next couple of hours were a real pain, in the dark, on the ice, without crampons. At one steeper (50 degree) snow pitch we were reduced to turning into the ice, plunging our axes in at our feet, and walking down like descending a ladder. That took Pete a good half-hour with leather boots and was far harder physically than anything we'd been called upon to do before. Three members of the Utah party had headed on down the route to the Black Dike, obviously in a hurry to get back around to their camp on the Teton Glacier (all the way around the mountain), leaving behind Phil (who had forgotten his lamp) and Josh (who was diabetic and starting to act a little hypoglycemic); we caught up with these two at a big ledge in the couloir that we'd initially climbed behind the Needle to gain access to Wall Street. Their 'buddies' radioed them to start climbing down, but we were of a mind to pull out the rope and rap down to the trail, a good hundred dangerous feet below us in the dark.

We got the rap set and ran down it to the snow, immediately west of the Needle, and sent Phil and Josh on their way (good two dudes, but their friends were getting panicky and butt-headed on the radios). I again packed up the ropes and started following Pete down, close in step behind so I could memorize the terrain as he descended and follow him. His batteries completely died about 50 feet below the bottom of the rap.

Fortunately, pack-rat Kelly had some spares in his pack. We found the main trail to the Lower Saddle quickly, and met again with Phil and Josh at the Black Dike, where their buddies were nowhere to be seen. I saw three headlamps down at the saddle, and assumed they had descended and abandoned their plan to circumnavigate the mountain that night. We were all out of water, so we had Phil and Josh follow us down to the saddle as well. We did indeed find the other Utah folks down there, in the cold breeze, getting rehydrated, and also (happily) found our ditty bag with the crampons and extra clothes. After drinking a couple of quarts, we wished them well wandering up and down the saddle to stay warm all night, and headed down. We easily cramponed down the glacier and quickly turned off the headlamp to conserve whatever battery juice we had left, and in the clear sky the stars and Milky Way were more than enough to get us safely down to the vicinity of our tent. When we finally got there, it was 0115, and we'd spent more than 17 hours out playing. We had our last two bites each of the summer sausage we'd left at camp, and went quickly to sleep. Getting down the next morning with the packs on (by the proper NPS trail, this time) still took another 4 hours, and we immediately headed straight for the climbers' ranch for showers and to reserve bunk space.

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