Climbing The Grand

We hike in the black of morning. It's a little spooky. I cannot say what lies beyond the arc of my headlamp. As the well-worn trail turns into the uncertainty of rocky debris, I find myself treading carefully, even repositioning rocks that I think could harm the person behind me, my husband. Ridiculous, I know. Stars squint and sparkle through the darkness above. Headlamps from other climbing groups caterpillar along below us. Today we are climbing the Grand Teton in the heart of Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park (GTNP).

We are paying to climb the Grand, at 13,770 feet the highest of the Tetons, my husband Hy and I, with our friend Alan, who works for Exum Mountain Guides. Yes, we are paying for rigorous physical exertion and occasional high terror. I like climbing with Alan because he’s so fussy. Basically, he tells us what to do and we do it. He’s always saying, “Face the danger!” which is especially helpful to Hy, who’s prone to turning his back to deadly drops just for a better view. Alan put the kibosh on that. I’m a rule follower. After finishing a challenging pitch, I can’t wait for Alan to say, “Take a seat. Don’t move.” I love waiting for him to reorganize all his ropes and carabiners and knots.

Take a seat. Don’t move. I had no idea climbing the Grand could be so easy! That must be why more than a couple thousand people climb the Grand every summer, as long as the weather’s good, of course. A typical midsummer attempt could include any of the following observations: Crap, it’s hot! Can you believe it’s snowing? It’s so cloudy I can’t see a thing. Is that lightening over there? Wind chill in July? Where’s my umbrella?

Not to be flippant. The mountain is dangerous, precisely because of that unpredictability. In 2010, seventeen climbers spread out among three different groups were trapped on the Grand during a massive electrical storm that devolved into snow and freezing rain. All but one survived in what one writer termed “the most complex rescue in the park’s history.”

The Grand is tantalizing to so many because it’s so accessible, as are many of the mountains in the 40-mile Teton Range. No are-we-there-yet-hikes through rising foothills. The Tetons explode from the valley floor into gorgeous, cranky spikes of granite. If you’re good enough, have plenty of daylight and are spot-on with weather, you can do the 18-mile round trip from Lupine Meadows in a day. Most mortals take two.


Our expedition began yesterday morning in the parking lot at the Meadows, just south of Jenny Lake. We put in some dusty tramping the first three miles, rising over Taggart and Bradley Lakes. Then we turned northeast up into Garnet Canyon, following alongside Garnet Creek. Because Hy was the official photographer, we have no photos of the approach hike. Instead, I can describe to you the spectacular presence of the Middle Teton, with its striking black dike, a slash of diabase—igneous rock—that slices it from top to bottom. The chunky boulder fields that made me glad we brought along hiking poles to keep us erect. Our turkey-and-cheese lunchstop in the Meadows where it would’ve been nice to snooze in a patch of wildflowers alongside the creek. Or picking our way through the crazy, mixed-up lower and upper moraine fields to reach the orange climbing rope that anchors the way up a Class 4 pitch to our destination, the Lower Saddle. At 11,600 feet, that’s a gain of 5,000 feet in 7 miles.


In the first half of the 19th century, fur trappers referred to the South, Middle and Grand Tetons as the “Trois Tetons,” teton meaning “breast” in French. I know that sounds enchanting, mostly because French words often sound a lot better than English words. However, members of the government-sponsored US Geological Survey that explored the Yellowstone-Teton region in 1872 wanted to name the highest Teton Mt. Hayden, in honor of Ferdinand Hayden, the geologist who led the expedition. Park history reports that “the proposal was met with cheers and Hayden not only accepted, but stated that he considered it the highest honor of his life.” Too bad the name failed to gain a foothold. Big Breast must have been more compelling. With political correctness 125 years away, there’s no way anyone would have considered calling the Tetons the Teewinots, a sensible Shoshone word meaning “pinnacles.” There is, however, a Teewinot Mountain in the Teton Range.

Ironically, Hayden is in the news today, as members of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Great Sioux Nation are pushing to change Yellowstone National Park’s Hayden Valley to Buffalo Nations Valley. Apparently, Hayden favored killing American Indians who did not acquiesce to farming and ranching. His words in an 1883 geological work that he co-wrote seem to support that view: “The Indian is a savage, with all that the name implies. He is cruel and treacherous in the extreme, and naturally so, as war and hunting are almost his sole occupations.”


We reached the Exum Quonset hut, planted on the shoulder of the Middle Teton, late in the afternoon. The Grand rose to the north, in front of a pile of nasty-looking clouds. My husband and I claimed sleeping bags and a back corner of the Quonset as it gradually filled to capacity with other climbing groups. Once twenty or so people are packed in there, the hut is no place for a loner.

A young woman wore a blue beanie with a 52 Summits logo on it. She explained that she and her companion were climbing all 52 in a year, with 15 in the bag so far. I tried to do the math in my head, wondering if every trip was a guided affair. A friendly Japanese guy described climbing Mt. Fuji in a T-shirt. At first he refused to pay for an expensive drink at the restaurant at the top, but he was so cold he eventually broke down and bought two. One of the guides, a woman who’s a geologist for an oil company, ripped open a can of tuna and dug in. I noticed a tall guy over by the door, who hung half-in, half-out, queasy from altitude sickness.

At bedtime, we arranged ourselves at the back of the hut like crayons in a box. A wide wooden bunk above us held another four or five. Plus, several slept on either side of the door. So the night went by. Like. This. A total snorefest. I leaned over to my husband halfway through and whispered for him to shoot me right then and there. Sadly, he was asleep. Later, I wriggled out of my bag, crawled over someone’s legs, put on someone else’s shoes because who knows where mine went, and crept outside to pee toward the state of Idaho. I felt the Grand breathing over my right shoulder, a lumpy incarnation of Jabba the Hutt.

The guides rousted us at 3:45 AM. Breakfast was an Oliver Twist affair—”Please, sir, I want some more”—as we circled up and a guide came around with hot water to fill up our cups and bowls of coffee and oatmeal and Ramen noodles. Just then, a fresh-faced young woman in a pink shirt popped into the hut. An Exum guide, she had hiked the approach in less than a couple hours to meet up with one of the climbing groups. Instantly, I wanted to be just like her. I imagine most of the guys would have paid extra to switch guides.

So that’s how we find ourselves in the early morning hours. We’re taking the classic Owen-Spalding route. I already doubt my fortitude, acumen and desire. Yet, being over 60 at least we can afford stuff like this. The down side is that it’s so much work. I figure if a five-year old can do it (2011) or an 80-year-old (2007), surely we can at least knuckle our way to the top. Later, I called Exum to find out the record for the oldest and youngest of their clients to summit. The woman on the phone explained they don’t keep records like that because that would only encourage people to break them. Maybe they’re worried about 90-year-olds scampering to the top in record time or some lunatic climbing with a baby in a backpack.

The Grand Teton wasn’t conquered until 1898, according to Billy Owen, the guy who did it, along with three other gents, including the route’s other namesake, the Reverend Franklin Spalding. The problem is, a pair of Hayden explorers, Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson, in 1872 claimed to be the first to summit the Grand. Stevenson subsequently wrote an account for Scribner’s magazine, highlighted with an artist’s imaginative depiction of Stevenson clinging perilously to a ledge as rocks fall away beneath him. Owen, a feisty little man, made it his life’s work to discredit Langford and Stevenson, perhaps considering their endeavor 19th-century fake news. In 1929, he made sure his effort was memorialized with a bronze plaque that he had hauled to the summit. The plaque disappeared in 1977. The controversy continues to this day.

We finally reach the Upper Saddle. That was the easy part. The night’s let up, the sky’s gray going on pink. This is where the intimidating stuff begins, including the belly crawl, which, Rev. Spalding discovered, was one of the keys to reaching the summit.

Alan coaches us on the crawl, a horizontal maneuver on an exposed ledge hampered by an overhang. He recommends we climb across it on the outside, like crabs sidling along. We’d earn style points and avoid the embarrassing split, riding the rock like a cowboy, with legs splayed to either side, or hugging it for dear life. We are a couple thousand feet-plus above Valhalla Canyon. In Norse mythology, Valhalla translates to “Hall of the Slain.” That sounds about right. I do not look down.

Next up is a series of chimneys. Even though the Owen-Spalding is the easiest route up, I’m sweating my brains out in the Owen Chimney and twisting my arms into weird pipe-cleaner shapes. Too bad I skipped so many Les Mills Body Pump classes. Somehow I lack the vision, or optimism, that transforms slight depressions and scant fissures into obvious handholds. But why worry? I’m on belay, after all. I’m a spoiled 21st-century tourist in my sticky-soled shoes and Nano-Air jacket with a guide to catch me if I do something stupid. Just imagine the early climbers 100 years ago—heavy wool, hemp rope, beans in a can.

In fact, I’m amazed by the sheer ballsiness of these pioneers. In 1923, three Montana State College students were the first to summit the Grand since Owen and company 25 years earlier. Owen was still a fixture in nearby Jackson and enthusiastically explained the route to them. With a dozen bacon sandwiches, six pounds of raisins, 12 chocolate bars and an Eastman Kodak Brownie camera, they climbed the Grand in a day.

Now that I know what the Owen-Spalding is all about, I shake my head, thinking of Paul Petzoldt in cowboy boots scaling the Grand for his first time in 1924. Petzoldt, the wunderkind of 20th-century American mountaineering and a Teton legend, was only 16 years old at the time. He later called himself a “damn fool” for pulling off such a risky stunt. He and a friend started up in overalls, carrying rolled-up quilts diagonally over their shoulders stuffed with sardines, pork and beans and candy bars. Add to that a “lasso” and a borrowed pocketknife that was indispensible chopping hand- and footholds in the ice.

In 1929, when Petzoldt was 21, he was given the climbing concession in GTNP’s inaugural year as a park. Later, he trained soldiers as a member of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. He also founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming.

Alan has done an excellent job of getting us to the top safely. We rope up, the three of us, and finish off the surprisingly easy stretch to the summit. Clouds stake out the top, draping us in a damp mist and obscuring a spectacular view. Another client and guide join us at the top, having come up Exum Ridge, the most popular route on the Grand.

Glenn Exum, he’s another story. He reminds me of Errol Flynn and Clark Gable rolled into one. But only an old person would get that. If he were to join us then and there on the summit, photos tell me he’d have a smart pencil mustache and a jaunty Tyrolean hat with a feather in it. Exum was alpine-chic with the skills to back it up. As a 19-year-old on only his second trip up the Grand, Exum, at Petzoldt’s urging, discovered a third climbing route. While Petzoldt led a pair of clients up the Owen-Spalding, he sent Exum to explore a ledge leading toward the southeast. Wearing too-large football cleats borrowed from Petzoldt, he came to the end of the ledge, only to encounter a yawning gap with a thousand-foot drop. After some on-the-spot soul searching, he leaped across, and from there took a straight line up to the summit. Thus, Exum Ridge was born. While Exum discovered his lifelong profession, Petzoldt gained a guiding protégé and a whole new route to add to his guiding repertoire.

The pair ran the guide business together before Exum took over in 1955, building Exum Mountain Guides into the concession it is today, the oldest guiding service in North America.

I’m not exactly euphoric at the top because I’m already wondering how we’ll down-climb all those chimneys. Not to worry. Partway down, Alan presents us with the ultimate shortcut: a 105-foot rappel! He busies himself on an outcropping, setting up the belay while I imagine all that possibly could go wrong. Hy descends first and handily executes a lovely, self-controlled trip to the bottom. When it’s my turn, it’s over I go, keeping my feet on the surface of the bulging overhang until I lose contact and drop into thin air. After a bit of a pirouette and some seesawing between my feet and butt, I nail the landing.

That’s the last of the drama. We work our way down, by now basking in sunshine. Below the dike, I can see home base, the Quonset hut, at the far end of the Lower Saddle. After refueling and repacking, we retrace our steps down through Garnet Canyon, all jelly knees and sore toes with occasional skids and slips through the talus.

Alan has hiked ahead, fresh as a daisy. Back at Lupine Meadow, we dump our packs and jump up on the tailgate of the truck. Alan has left us two Montucky beers. Normally I’m a beer snob, but the Montucky tasted pretty good, especially with the Grand Teton behind us.

Alan has devised what you could call his Philosophy of Fun. It’s a handy system to gauge someone’s level of enthusiasm. He explains that Type I is “instant gratification,” having a phenomenal time from the get-go. Type II requires a couple hours of reflection, but always ends in, “Let’s do that again!” Type III is a little more nuanced. It can require months, even a year, of reflection and doesn’t always end with, “Well, now that I think of it, I’d do that again.”

That’s where we are with the Grand, still ruminating. Would we do it again? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do something else.

Photo: David Anderson