. . . and Upward

My last post covered our move onward from Yellowstone into Jackson Hole, WY and Grand Teton National Park. I covered the horizontal part of our journey, so now you’ll get the vertical part of the story.

I should forewarn you: this isn’t going to be the tale of an entirely pleasant expedition. Of course, there are moments of beauty and triumph and strength, but this is also a story of weakness and disappointment and guilt. Do I wish I’d never attempted to summit the Grand Teton? The jury’s still out on that one . . .

After packing up our campsite from the night before, picking up our crampons and ice axes, and organizing our backpacks, we didn’t get a start up the Grand Teton from the Lupine Meadows Trailhead (6730 ft.) until about 11:00. Nonetheless, it was a gorgeous day. We started our climb in good spirits, but I quickly began entertaining doubts. It had been a while since I had undertaken such a strenuous hike, and I was feeling out of shape. Our goal for the day was a backcountry campsite named the Moraine, and it was located at 10,800 feet — a mere 4100-foot climb. Our packs were extremely heavy; in fact, nearly everyone we saw on the trail commented on the bulk of our packs. I estimate the weight of my pack to have been 60 lbs. easily. I was carrying, after all, a tent, a sleeping bag, a climbing rope, a harness, climbing shoes, a helmet, various other climbing gear (carabiners, an ATC, slings, etc.), food, lots of water, a stove, a water pump, cold weather clothing, an ice axe, crampons, my camera, and who-can-remember-what-else. Despite the fact that I had most of the shared camping gear, Mike’s pack was easily just as heavy since he was carrying additional climbing gear. Weighed down by the monstrous packs, we trudged steadily upward.

Our “before” shot at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead

A pretty mountain lake on our hike up

Side view of my enormous pack

A Teton, yes, but not the one we’re after

After what seemed an eternity, we came upon the first of the backcountry campsites, the Platforms (9000 ft.); I took this as a good sign since we were more than halfway to our campsite, but the going only got tougher. Shortly after the Platforms we encountered the first bit of snow pack on the trail. The footprints of other hikers made navigation easy enough, but I nervously eyed the gentle slope culminating in a fairly heavy snow-melt stream below. My trepidation notwithstanding, we continued on past two more campsites (the Meadows at 9300 ft. and the Caves at 9700 ft.) and several more patches of snow and ice. All along we had our sights glued on a distant ridge we thought might be the edge of the Moraine. Ha! Once we crested the ridge, we realized that we couldn’t even see the features that defined the edge of the Moraine. At one point we took a wrong turn and headed off-track for a half an hour or so. With every footfall at this point, I repeated the very banal mantra: “Almost there. Just a little farther.”

First hints of snow and icy streams

Mike readies his axe (though whether for hiking or murder is hard to tell . . .)

Look, Ma! I’m hiking on snow in August!

I believe we found our campsite just before dark, but we had to set everything up in the dusk. As I pitched the tent and sorted gear, Mike hiked back down the mountain (!) to find a supposed water source. Unfortunately, he did not have any luck on his first try despite having disappeared for 45 minutes or so. We decided to make-do with what water we had for the night. We hurriedly ate our dinner hunched down between some rocks, which barely protected us from whipping, frosty winds. When we climbed into our sleeping bags for the night, I felt every ache and pain from our 4000-foot ascent. You’d think such a strenuous day (after the poor night’s sleep due to our “bear scare” the night before) would knock me out, but I’m not one to sleep well while camping. I tossed and turned all night.

The view from our campsite at the Moraine

Our goal for day two was to hike the remaining 2500 feet to the Upper Saddle of the Grand Teton (13,300 ft.) before beginning our technical climb. The technical climb was supposed to be a cake walk. The route is known as the Owen-Spalding route and is rated an easy 5.5. It is only a few pitches, and by the end of it you can stand atop the Grand Teton at 13,770 feet. After summiting, we planned to hike back to the Moraine for a second night of camping before heading the rest of the way down. However, even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and I’m not sure we had the best-laid plans to begin with . . .

In the morning we took too long to depart for the summit, and then we took too long to do everything else, as well. We sluggishly went about prepping for the day. Mike tried once more to find water to no avail and returned with a bit of snow packed into our water bottles for our morning hike. Then we stared at the seemingly-vertical wall of ice and snow that we had to hike up in order to reach the Lower Saddle (11,600 ft.). Most years see very little ice and snow persisting into August, but we had already learned that this was a special sort of year. Having never used crampons or an ice axe before, I trumped Mike in terms of uneasiness, but with only a little bit of freaking out, I managed to follow the upward tracks in the snow. Finally, we reached the Lower Saddle where we found a lovely stream at which to refill our water bottles with water rather than ice. We stashed our crampons and ice axes, having passed the parts of the route most covered with snow and ice. Things were going fairly well at this point, although we were a bit further behind schedule than we would have liked. I started feeling a bit under the weather at the Lower Saddle, but I attributed it to nerves and pushed on.

The snow field between the Moraine and the Lower Saddle. See that diagonal line in the middle of the picture? That’s where we’re headed.

Go-go-gadget crampons!

I don’t think this picture accurately captures how steep the climb felt, nor does it capture the size of the sloping drop to my left.

Water! Finally!

A look back at the Lower Saddle while trying to decipher route-finding clues

The next section of the climb is where I truly began to lose confidence. It started off well enough with our first marmot sightings and a clear trail. The trail soon disappeared, however, and we found ourselves scrambling up a large boulder field of loose rocks. To make matters worse, other hikers up above/ahead frequently sent small rock slides crashing down behind them. There were no close calls or exceedingly large rock slides, but this fact did little to dispel my fear of the possibility. We had seen a rescue helicopter make several trips the day before, and it was rumored that the bird was evacuating someone with a broken leg. We never found out for sure what happened, but the Grand Teton is famous for several extreme rescues. I’ll pause my tale for just a bit to fill you in on some other, more harrowing tales.

The Grand Teton has been the site of many rescues over the years. Just one year before we attempted our climb, 17 climbers were caught on the peak in a lightning storm. One climber was killed in a fall that resulted from the storm, and the other 16 suffered an array of injuries brought on by the lightning strikes. All 16 were evacuated by rescue teams. Lightning and afternoon storms are huge dangers in mountaineering, so we were lucky to have such phenomenal weather for our attempt. Another rescue, though not as dramatic, had a touch of glamour. Harrison Ford has a residence in Jackson Hole and is an avid aviator. When one rescue call went out for a hiker suffering severe dehydration, Han Solo ferried the woman to safety.

We were lucky enough not to require rescue services, but I was far from tip-top shape as the day progressed. We spent a huge chunk of time just trying to figure out where we were supposed to hike. You’d think that the path to the top would be pretty obvious, but it wasn’t, and we constantly second-guessed our route. All the while I was feeling queasier. Was it something I had eaten? Was it the altitude? Was it sheer nerves? I’m still not sure, but I knew I was feeling worse and worse. After what seemed like (and nearly was) ages, we reached the Upper Saddle (13,300 ft.) and could finally see the technical climbing route. It was already about 3:00 in the afternoon. What’s more, we could see that we’d have to wait for some climbers staged ahead of us before we’d even be able to begin climbing. With hours of exhausting climbing, rappelling, and down-climbing ahead of me; thousands of feet of exposure below me (literally — the technical climb on the Grand Teton begins above a 2000-foot-or-so drop); and a growing feeling of queasiness inside of me, I lost it. No, I don’t mean my lunch; I lost my composure.

The view from the Upper Saddle (13,300 ft.)

Other people climbing

I started to panic about all of the obstacles and how crummy I felt, and then I started to panic about panicking. If I couldn’t keep it together just because we were running behind schedule and I wasn’t feeling my best, would I be able to keep it together climbing above a 2000-foot drop? Would I make a stupid mistake in my compromised state? Would I make an iffy situation ten times worse by pretending nothing was wrong? I started to doubt my abilities. Then, I began voicing my doubts in strangled, schizophrenic half-sobs:

“Mike, I dunno if I can . . . I mean, what if I . . . ? But we came so far, and we’re so close. And you’ll be so pissed at me if we have to turn around because . . . no. I can do this. I can do this, right? I mean, I feel like shit, but so what? I’m a bad-ass. I’ve done things that were just as hard as this before. I can climb a 5.5 — no problem. I know I can. Hell, I can climb much harder routes than that. But it’s so late, and I’m so tired, and I don’t feel so well. We won’t get back to our tent before midnight. I don’t know if I can make it that long. What if I get sick while we’re climbing? What if I make a mistake? I don’t feel like I’m in the right state of mind . . . You’ll be mad at me if we turn back though; at least, I would be mad at me. I’ll be so pissed at myself, but I’m not sure I can . . . What should we do? What should we do?!?!?”

Who knows how long that tortured monologue went on? Eventually Mike broke in, and it became a tortured conversation. He assured me that he wouldn’t hate me if we turned back, though I could hardly bring myself to believe him. He said, in fact, he wasn’t sure he would fully trust me to belay him over a 2000-foot drop in my current state. I couldn’t really blame him for that. I tried to calm down, and we went back and forth for at least a half an hour trying to decide what to do.

Eventually my panic won out, and we headed down, dejected and defeated. Mike was quiet and reserved, though he tried to put on an understanding face in my presence. I cried and mentally kicked myself for being such a pussy. Though we saved ourselves several hours of waiting and climbing and rappelling by skipping the last 400 feet of our climb, we had an exhausting and disheartening hike back down 2500 feet to our campsite. After hours of hiking, we returned to the Lower Saddle and retrieved our crampons and ice axes before hiking down the snowy slopes. Mike wanted to have some fun in the snow and decided to do a bit of glissading just off the trail. I stuck to the trail and began hiking back over the rocky outcrops of the Moraine. There, in the middle of the trail, my queasiness finally caught up to me, and I was sick before I even had the time to find a better spot away from the frequently traversed path. After a few minutes of weak-kneed, fuzzy headed illness, I managed to stand up again. I splashed some water from my water bottle across the path in an attempt to clean it. Since I didn’t have enough water to do a good job of that, I collected some rocks to cover up the spot where I got sick, preventing other hikers from stepping in it. By this point, I was fairly close to our campsite, so I staggered back towards it, rejoining Mike. We had a dispirited meal, and then we crawled into our sleeping bags. I apologized and cried a bit more while Mike forgave and shrugged. We fell asleep eventually.

This is where we topped out, thanks to me

Mike’s almost-summit shot

Mountain shadows on the valley below

Other hikers descending from the Lower Saddle

Z for Zysman

For such a spectacular failure, we had gone a long way. On the final “adventure” day of our road trip, we had to descend 4100 feet with heavy packs and heavy spirits. By the end of the day, I was in excruciating pain. I don’t do very well going downhill because of my feet and knee problems, and going down more than a vertical mile in less than 24-hours was miserable — especially after such an epic fail. When we arrived back at the car, I was ready to be home in Phoenix, ready to put the whole Teton episode behind me. I had to be at ASU for the fall convocation meeting in a day and a half, so we pretty much bee-lined it for the desert. Mike drove 98% of the way back, I’m pretty sure. As a matter of fact, he probably drove 98% of our entire road trip; every time I get behind the wheel I get sleepy.

So, our trip ended on a bit of a downer. Don’t get me wrong: the Tetons are beautiful and there were many wonderful parts of even this misadventure. However, I don’t think I have ever been more disappointed in myself. It sucks to discover that you have limitations. It’s a complete bummer to let down someone you love, especially when he insists he understands. The simple fact is that I was not as prepared as I thought. The lack of bad-assery on my part caused some serious cognitive dissonance. I like to think of myself as superwoman, but this episode brought that idea crashing down. I’m not the “Amazonian queen” I see in my mind’s eye (I borrowed that particular descriptor from Cheryl Strayed, whose book Wild I recently read). At the end of the day, I’m a pretty average chica — no super powers here. Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew. Sometimes I get sick or feel weak or lose control. Reality bites.

Mike says the trip was much more positive for him. Sure, he was disappointed by our failure to summit, but that didn’t haunt him like it did me. It wasn’t his failure, after all. Also, he insists that these near misses are just a part of mountaineering. So many ascents don’t go as planned, and climbers turn back all the time for a variety of reasons. What I find most aggravating is that my reasons were internal. It wasn’t weather that forced us to retreat, it was my physical and psychological weaknesses. A month later in my Outdoor Survival class at ASU, Kozak’s “Fear Model” lecture really struck a chord with me. Kozak talked about how certain factors can enhance fear and panic, and the ones that had a hold of me on the mountain were sickness, altitude, and lack of experience mountaineering. I guess I have some things to work on.

Even now, almost a year later, I debate whether I’d like to go back or not. I feel like I have unfinished business with that mountain. At the same time, the whole episode still inspires a bit of a panic and a lot of dismay. Will I return to the Grand Teton in the future? Only time will tell.

Despite my failure to summit the Grand Teton overshadowing the culmination of our road trip, I am thankful that I got to witness so much of America the Beautiful first hand on our whirlwind tour. There are few landscapes as powerful, sublime, and humbling as those in the West, and I’m grateful that these landscapes have shaped me for better or worse (but mostly better) over the past seven years of my life.

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