| Titans of the Tetons
Middle Teton: Southeast Ridge
Grand Teton: Lower Exum to Upper Exum
The big trip for this year was to be an elaborate trek of alpine objectives through the Colorado wilderness. Maps were scoured, timetables were scrutinized, schedules were aligned, an elaborate plot was conceived, and Mother Nature decided she just wasn't really all that interested. A combination of bad weather and personal life interruptions derailed the trip though hopefully it will happen next year. This report is not about that that story, but rather the trip that replaced it.
With time running out in the alpine rock season we found ourselves in desperate need for a grand adventure and I suggested that we accept a trip to the Tetons as a consolation prize. We pinned down the week of August 20th as a good time to go since it fit in our schedules well, and then promptly neglected to further refine our plans. I'm much more adept at procrastinating than planning.
Fast forward a couple weeks where we found ourselves one Thursday night just days away from when our trip was supposed to start. Even though I prefer to improvise we decided it might be a good idea to figure out just what the hell we doing. A brief search of Mountain Project yielded a fine array of high quality technical routes and a Google search satisfied our curiosity of camping logistics in Grand Teton National Park. The weather forecast looked good enough, so we set off on a lazy Sunday morning for the long drive.
We woke up Monday morning to find an unexpected rainstorm. Since climbing that day wasn't part of the plan, we took our time heading to the permit office and making the long trek in.
The Grand Teton, shrouded in mystery
The pack in was on a very good and gentle trail, but with several nights worth of food and gear the hike was strenuous. Along the way we were teased with glimpses of the Middle Teton, but the Grand lurked out of sight.
The Middle Teton
We found a great campsite under a large boulder, well protected from the possible rain to come. While cooking dinner we discovered that another team had their eyes on the same objective as us for the next day. Not being interested in fighting over starting times, we elected to find another route. Fortunately Chris had packed in The Climbers Guide to the Tetons, so changing plans mid-course wasn't a huge issue.
Middle Teton: Southeast Ridge
We settled on the Southeast Ridge of the Middle Teton. The approach seemed moderate and the climbing was rated classic with 4 to 5 pitches of 5.7-5.8 on excellent Teton rock. We set off before first light at around 5:00am with plenty of time to reach the base of the route, since Mountain Project claimed that the base of the route was only about 20 minutes away from the Meadows where we were camped.
We reached the base of the approach gully at sunrise after hiking substantially longer than 20 minutes.
Sunrise high up in Garnet Canyon
As soon as you enter Grand Teton National Park you know that there is something special about these mountains. They dominate the skyline unlike any mountain in Colorado and even the small mountains tower above you as giants. The effect is difficult to capture on film and really ought to be seen in person.
The Southeast Ridge in early morning
Our objective was the smooth buttress in the center of the picture above. The route description called for 700 feet of 3rd class to low 5th class scrambling through the Ellingwood Couloir and the broad buttress next to it.
At the base of the approach gully
The couloir was mostly melted out but a few lingering snow bridges made it challenging to keep the scrambling easy and required some careful routefinding. Along the way we managed to booty several items including: an ice axe, a snow flue, two carabiners, and a bail sling.
Interesting snow/rock chimney on the approach
The approach scramble seemed to take unusually long for only being 700 feet, which turned out to be a major theme of the trip: routes in the Tetons are loooooooooong. We finally reached the headwall where the routes were to start, though initially we had set up off route left of the true line.
A stunning flake system off route to the left of the actual line
Actual start of the Southeast Ridge
From the guidebook we had a rough topo of the route and a description which can basically be paraphrased as "climb up and left for 4 pitches" so we were more or less left to follow our noses.
I took the first lead and was greatly impressed at the quality of the rock. I quickly discovered, however, that the rock can be incredibly abrasive as I managed to bloody several of my fingertips in the process. The first pitch led to an obvious ledge where I belayed Chris up.
Chris leading pitch 2
The route description said to trend left, but going right seemed more correct. After pulling to the right of the roof Chris discovered that the line he took was a bit stiff for the grade and that he probably should have gone left. Nevertheless, he worked his way up to another good ledge.
Looking up pitch 3
Despite being off-route, the 3rd pitch was remarkably easy but had delightfully solid rock. It probably went at 5.4 at terminated at the top of a large notch where the Topo had indicated was the top of the 4th pitch.
The notch required a short downclimb followed by one more roped 5.7 pitch, terminating at the top of a minor tower after climbing a flatiron-esque slab.
Downclimbing at the Notch
At this point the route was mostly low 5th class scrambling and slab climbing, so we stowed the rope and soloed to the summit. Several hundred feet of somewhat discontinuous scrambling led us to the slightly lower south summit.
A rappel and additional short scramble granted us access to the true summit and a spectacular view of the Grand Teton. I also managed to add a blue tricam to my booty collection for the day.
The Grand Teton with our route front and center
On the summit we ran into a solo hiker who had came up the southwest couloir, which was conveniently our descent route which we had only briefly researched. I'm having trouble keeping score at this point. We descended down together and I was pleasantly surprised to find the southwest couloir a much nicer descent route than I had prepared myself for.
Grand Teton: Lower Exum to Upper Exum
It was convenient to move camp from the Meadows to the Lower saddle, but the approach was still arduous with overnight packs. We settled into camp late Wednesday night planning for an early start. However, our enthusiasm for an Alpine start waned in the presence of a cold and windy morning, so we didn't get out of our sleeping bags until after 5:00am.
The silhouette of Exum Ridge
We finally set off around 6:00am a little before sunrise and braved a cold wind. We managed to convince ourselves that the day would surely warm up and we wouldn't need our down sweaters once the sun came up. We would later discover that this was a bad assumption for which we were doomed to suffer for.
Alpenglow on the Middle Teton
Traversing to the base of Exum ridge was easy enough, but we were challenged to find the actual start of the route. We located a reasonable-looking start and roped up as quickly as possible so we could keep moving and stay warm.
Bottom of our 1st pitch (off route)
At the top of this pitch I discovered the real first pitch with another party seconding it right in front of us. I brought Chris up and he started leading this pitch while I hid from the wind, shivering.
After many minutes cursing the wind I finally heard Chris shout "Belay on!" and took off climbing the pitch as fast as possible. I didn't even bother taking my gloves off since my fingers were numb. I stopped just long enough to grab the gear and took off the easy 3rd pitch, practically running.
Bottom of the actual 1st pitch
Near the top of the 3rd pitch things got a bit steeper and I needed to start putting in more gear, including an exposed move to mantle onto the next belay ledge. As soon as I mantled onto the Ledge I found myself bathed in glorious sunlight.
Chris coming up pitch 3
Unfortunately we had finally caught up to the group in front of us and they were moving at glacial speeds. We took the best shelter we could find, ate, drank, and even managed to put socks on with our rock shoes (as ashamed as I am to admit doing so).
After a solid half hour of waiting around, the second finally cleared the pitch and I was free to lead. I'm sure the left angling hand crack would have been delightful in warm conditions, but my hands were once again numb and the only thing I could think about was climbing to easy ground.
Waiting for the party above us to clear pitch 4
The 5th pitch consisted of a short but wide, awkward crack with minimal opportunities for protection. Chris clipped a few fixed slings on chock stones and found a wonderfully protected alcove at the next belay. We waited at least 45 minutes or more for the party in front of us to clear the famous black wall pitch, but we were much more content now that feeling was returning to our digits.
The steep black face looms above us
At first I was confused on the routefinding of the black wall. There seemed to be so many possibilities but after a while I discovered that the pitch was really just a giant game of "spot the jug". Despite being only 5.7, the pitch was steep, sustained, and gloriously fun. Halfway up the pitch I exclaimed to Chris that this may be the best 5.7 on the planet.
The black face
Chris cruising the black face
The wind had now died down to more manageable levels and we made quick work of the final technical pitch. We stopped at Wall Street to get our bearings, put away the rope, and took off on Upper Exum. We discussed the possibility of roping up for some of the upper pitches, but every time we encountered a difficulty we found it to be manageable enough to just solo.
Soloing Upper Exum
We finally topped out late in the day and enjoyed an empty summit to ourselves. We finished the remainder of our food and lounged around for a bit, then headed off to descend Owen-Spalding.
Alone on the summit
We had heard that finding the descent route for Owen-Spalding could be tricky, but the descent seemed intuitive enough. The wide "Sargent's Chimney" stood out like a sore thumb and funneled us down to the second long rappel, depositing us at the upper saddle.
But wait, the fun isn't over yet!
Since we neglected to take the 5.4 Owen-Spalding seriously, we neglected to pay attention to the crucial gully crossover and descended well below it. We found ourselves cliffed-out near the bottom of what we later discovered was "Wall Street Gully". Fortunately it seems this is a relatively common error because we found a convenient station of tat slung around a rock tunnel. A full 30m rappel left us at a second manky rap station consisting of a rats lets of pitons, quarter inch bolts, and nuts. A few minutes of maintenance made the anchor much more respectable and a second rope-stretching 30m rappel left us safely on the ground.
Alas, all good trips come to an end. We packed up camp as we enjoyed the last of the beer that we had hauled up, followed by the long Hike out and trek back to Boulder.
Died beer has nothing on the real thing.
The Tetons are awesome. Colorado mountains are simply cupcakes in comparison. The rock is amazingly good, the peaks are steep and imposing, and the routes make for big days. Every mountain feels like climbing 2 14ers in terms of vertical gain. The terrain is much more complicated and confusing, however and we found it difficult to even locate the base of the route at times.
From a rock climbing perspective, I found the protection to be a bit funky. Most cracks are slightly flaring and very irregular, so care is required to protect them correctly. The rock is extremely crystalline which also makes for unusual placements; I found myself fiddling with gear much longer than I would have in the park.
Teton weather is strange. It builds so much faster than in Colorado, where I usually have a good feel of when a storm is brewing. I can't count how many times I saw massive clouds build over a course of mere minutes, surely to open up on us, only for the same clouds to dissipate into nothing minutes later once they pass over the ridge. I would be very wary to challenge the weather on the higher peaks until I have much more experience with the local patterns.
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