I had about a week to myself hanging out at the American Alpine Club Climber's Ranch in Grand Teton National Park. I had no fixed plans and no set partner. My only goal was to climb part or all of the Exum Route on the Grand, one of the 50 classic climbs in North America. Here's how it went down.
In case you haven't read it, there's a blog post that talks about the previous few weeks I spent traveling, climbing, and working with Jen. It talks about the hikes and climbs we did that led up to this trip– Jen flew out on the third of August, and this story picks up the very next day.
After a half rest-day to get supplies and do some editing at the library in Jackson Hole, I woke up early the following day with a big hike in mind. I wanted to do the Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon loop as a day hike. I had a simple map for the trail, and figured if I could make good time to the top of the Divide (8 miles) I'd carry on and do the entire loop, about 20 miles total car to car.
It was a gorgeous hike that I'd recommend to anyone who can move fast over easy ground. In the earlier part of the day I managed 3 miles an hour, which made up for slower progress when I got up to 10,000 feet. Starting in Paintbrush I think was the better choice as well, as it felt shorter and steeper, with more tree cover. This meant I got the hardest part of the hiking out of the way and could be off of the Divide ridge before any afternoon thunderstorms might feel like rolling in. It took me about 8.5 hours total, car to car from the String Lake parking lot.
This hike and others were critical in helping me keep my legs feeling strong but also getting my lungs lots of time above 9,000 feet. I rested the next day and started to make plans for my next hike or climb. I hadn't partnered up with anyone yet at the Climber's Ranch, so I looked for easy scrambles that I could do without a belay partner. I saw in the guidebooks that the southwest couloir on the Middle Teton was such a route, so I read up on it and packed my bag for an early start!
A long approach hike up Garnet Canyon led me through switchback trails, across boulder fields, snowfields, talus, and finally revealed the saddle between the south and middle Tetons. From here I ditched my heavy pack (worn for training!) and crammed some water and snacks into a small summit bag. I also brought my helmet since the final few hundred feet is through a narrow alley and rocks can get kicked down onto you pretty easily.
I left the car at 7am and hit the summit at 12:30pm. It's roughly 7-8 miles and about 6000ft of elevation gain. I made it back to my car in 3.5 hours– the hike down was obviously much faster!
Another rest day. The legs get pretty worked from the long approaches.
Oh and I saw moose that day too.
I met this guy Pat, an ice climber from the Northeast, and we made plans to go climb Guide's Wall the following day. It was a relatively short hike (2 hours or so) to a fun 4-5 pitch route in Cascade Canyon that we made easy work of. I took the lead on a 5.9 variation pitch and took short fall working the finger crack. Fun! Thanks for the catches buddy!
Looking for something a bit more chill on a rest day, I found some sport cragging with a sub-mile approach, mere minutes from GTNP. I partnered up with Sam, a climber who reached out to me from my note on the partner's board back at the ranch. A half day of sport climbing was a nice reprieve from all the hiking I'd been doing lately. I'm pretty sure I spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping in a hammock. More moose stopped by to say "hi" as well.
After having a second set of partners for the Grand bail, and time running out, I asked Sam if she wanted to do the full exum route in a few days, and she was psyched. We set plans in motion to camp up high and do the lower and upper exum, then hike out immediately after. I took a few rest days and did some work and made sure I had all the food and supplies we needed. Got the permit, got packed the night before, and then made it happen!
Our plan was to have a casual morning start while the temps were cooler, hike the 6ish miles up to the Moraines and set up camp. It was long, hard hike with the heavy packs. Bear can, tent, rope, trad gear... everything added up. It didn't help that I brought my big camera with me too! Our goal was to get up at 3am to do the last of the hiking to find the base of our route right as the sun was coming up. Things started just as planned, but didn't stay totally on target...
We woke up at our target time, and both felt decently rested and energized for the long day ahead of us. With headlamps lighting our way we hiked up to the saddle, greeted by very high winds and lots of other climbers leaving for their own routes, but mostly the Owen-Spalding route. We took our path over to the Black Dike, and began searching for our route. We lost nearly an hour, as we got off-route and started up too early on something that was 5-sketchy at best. We quickly determined we had made an error, but had to rap down from a fixed cam that we're guessing another unfortunate party had left after making the same mistake.
Finally on the correct route just after first light, we had a couple of other parties arrive right around the same time. We managed to climb around each other fine enough, letting faster groups go ahead and going in front of slower parties ourselves.
The climbing crux for me came around the 5th pitch, the Black Face. It felt very hard for "5.7" so all I can think is that I got a bit off route. With a light rack, thousands of feet of exposure, and climbing over terrain that felt more like 5.9 than 5.7, I got a little spooked. I could feel the tension coming through in my body, so I breathed slowly, focusing on each move and tried to move confidently– telling myself, "I know I'm plenty strong to climb this, it's just a mental game, I can do this." I made it to the belay ledge with two pieces and a few stoppers left, just enough to make an anchor to bring up Sam.
After that pitch, our fifth of the day, Sam took the last lead of the Lower Exum and after I made it up, we checked the weather and took 2 minutes to discuss our gameplan. We had agreed that if weather was looking bad then we'd bail down Wall Street. We watched as dark clouds made their way south of us, and to the west the skies looked clear. We pressed on.
Route finding got a bit tricky for the Upper Exum, much more so than we thought it would. There was 5th class climbing everywhere, so we did our best to read and re-read the guidebook's description of the routes and look for cairns, chalk, etc. We also had expected it to be crowded, but we didn't see another soul on the entire route! We only found a few of the first pitches (golden stair, friction pitch, V pitch) but ended up heading too far climbers right above the V-pitch and climbed up a rocky 5th class gully to finally reach the summit. It took us 7 hours from the start of the climbing to hit the summit.
We descended the OS and finally saw one other party at a rap station, actually on their way up. We found the rap anchors exactly as described and the descent was easy to navigate, matching up exactly with the guidebook description. We got back to the saddle in 2 hours, got a drink of water, and headed back to camp to pack up and start the slog out of the woods. We got back to the parking lot right before it got dark! A short drive back to the ranch and beer and burgers were quickly devoured.
The climbing wasn't the hardest I've ever done, but the overall it was one of the most physically, and mentally, demanding experiences I've ever had. From dealing with routefinding and exposure on the side of the mountain at 12,000 feet, to the miles and miles of hiking with heavy gear at high elevation.
The skills, experience, and strength needed to do a route like this self-guided (most ascents of the grand are guided) took years of development. Whether or not I realized it, all of those single pitch trad climbs I've done in the Red, the long approach hikes with heavy packs in Northern Michigan, and experience doing easy multipitch climbs in Colorado, enabled me to succeed. Couldn't have done any of this with all the partners I've had along the way. Matt, Patrick, Heath, Jon, Adam, Geoff, Nolan, Jen, and many others I’m sure.
With the Grand ticked off my list, I packed up and drove back east the very next day. Until next time, Wyoming!