Climbing Grand Teton


It’s 3 AM, and the rain that had been hammering the thin roof of the tent most of the night seems to have mostly stopped, at least for now. Mostly exposed at High Camp, a little over 11,000 feet on a mountain in a bad storm, there isn’t much opportunity for sleep, especially when the lightning is so close that the flash and boom happen at exactly the same time. Earlier, I’d asked the guide what we should do in the event of lightning. The answer was short and sweet: “Try to sleep through it, because there ain’t anything else you can do.”

Easier said than done. I’ve been awake most of the night. So has Cole. Everyone in camp isĀ  probably awake. If the thunder didn’t do the trick, if the nervous anticipation of a summit push didn’t do the trick, I’m pretty certain the echoing crashes of rocks falling in a frightening landslide did. I start to question the wisdom of my decision to try this mountain thing again…

But first, a little back story. When we left off on this dormant blog almost exactly a year ago, Michael Cole, John Layfield and I had unsuccessfully attempted to summit Middle Palisade Mountain.

John, Cole and I near the summit of Middle Palisades Mountain – August 2013

After that adventure, we needed a new goal; another, bigger challenge to undertake. The new objective? After some deliberation, we decided to attempt to summit one of the tallest and most famous mountains in Wyoming – the beautiful and daunting Grand Teton itself.

John decided to sit this next adventure out, so Cole and I set out to learn everything we didn’t know on Middle Palisades. A year of intense training followed; early morning lifting of very heavy things, all day climbing of scary things that jut improbably high in the sky, and helping Amazon’s profit margin by purchasing every gadget, gimmick and piece of mountain climbing gear ever invented.

Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park – April 2014

Rock Climbing in the Shawangunks – May 2014

Climbing Plastic in Nashville – June 2014

Rappelling in Wyoming – August 2014

Knot Practice – All Year Long

Fast forward a year, and Cole and I are as ready and willing as we’ll ever be. Two weeks before the big expedition kicked off, we traveled to Wyoming for a final climbing class with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. We honed our climbing skills on nearby crags. When the class was over, I snapped this picture of the reason for all of our training – The Grand Teton:

A Grand Day Looking at The Grand

I also took a picture of Grand Teton two weeks later as we drove to meet our guide at the base of the climb:

Not Quite as Grand

Mother Nature was upset. The radar told the whole story…

Rain, Rain… Go Away!

It would be a soggy slog, but at the trailhead, Noah, our Jackson Hole Mountain Guides guide assured us we would do everything in our power to summit, Mother Nature be damned.

Cole, Noah and Frenchy at the Trailhead

We slogged. We sloshed. We made our way up the trail, ever higher towards our day’s goal of high camp.

Cole on the Trail

Onward. Upward.

Upward. Onward.

Even More Upward Onwardness

For over six hours we made our way up the trail, first through the lovely Lupine Meadow, then through some rocks, which gradually turned into boulders. Reaching Corbet High Camp at 11,200 feet was a welcome relief. The camp consists mostly of a domed kitchen tent and several ‘Deluxe Accomodation’ Mountain Hardware tents, complete with pre-slept-in sleeping bags.

Corbet High Camp

I say mostly consists of, because there is one other interesting feature of Corbet High Camp – a feature that was conveniently neglected in all the glossy promotional material.

That feature?

The commode.

Noah Explains the Bucket

The Wag Bag. The Honeypot. It’s not as bad as it seems. Actually, it’s much worse. Each Restop bag consists of a silver outer pouch, and a double bagged interior shit sack. The whole shebang fits inside the bucket. When you are done your business, you tie the inner bag, then tightly zip the silver bag, then – I am not making this up – write your name on your little silver souvenir, put it in a bin, and before you leave High Camp you are required to find your bag, and finally you get to CARRY YOUR TURD OFF THE MOUNTAIN IN YOUR BACKPACK!

Yup. That happened.

After our lesson, we retired to the spacious kitchen tent for some hot drinks and dinner.

The temperature in camp was about 30 degrees. The weather rapidly changed from clear and beautiful to cloudy and dark. At dinner, our guide Noah told us that the weather looked questionable at best. He said he never says never but summiting might not be possible unless we catch a big break. It never hurts to try, so we decided to wait and see.

I took these two pictures from the kitchen tent just a few minutes apart:

5:54 PM

6:03 PM

The view we had of the valley was spectacular, while it lasted.

After dinner there isn’t much to do, so we retire to our luxurious tents.

Home Sweet Home

The rain starts soon thereafter, and doesn’t let up until nearly 3 AM. Generally speaking, summit day has an alpine start. ‘Alpine start’ is secret code for ‘stupidly early’, usually sometime around 2 AM. The reason for this early start ridiculousness is to beat the afternoon thunderstorms that always seem to crop up. You don’t want to be anywhere near the summit in a thunderstorm, since lightning tends to hit the tallest thing, like a n00b poser wannabe climber standing on top of a mountain.

Noah came to get us at 3:30 AM. He said the weather had been stable enough to try for the summit, but he didn’t feel confident about conditions further up the mountain. We suit up, strap on our head lamps, and start off toward the top of the mountain – hopping from boulder to boulder in the complete blackness.

Slowly we work our way up to the Headwall, then to the Lower Saddle. Soon, we start noticing what we dreaded we would find back at camp – snow on the ground.

Exum Guides has a camp further up in the Lower Saddle. We notice that none of the Exums are awake. Their tents are shut tight. No headlamps are heading toward the summit, which is not a good sign. After a short conference, we decide to push forward toward The Black Dike, which is where the climbing gets much steeper and much more technical.

Exums – All Snug In Bed

The sun rises, and we can see the conditions have worsened from merely bad to really awful.

So Close…

We reach the Black Dike at 12,500 feet and it’s obvious. It’s not going to happen. The final climb to the summit follows the Pownall-Gilkey route, which is more or less a three pitch vertical rock climb. There is too much snow and ice on the rocks to make climbing to the summit even a remote possibility. As I learned on Middle Palisades, summiting is optional, but returning to the trailhead is mandatory.

Getting so close to the summit only to turn away was quite a disappointment, but both Alpine Rule Number One as well as Modern Rules of Alphabetization state that safety always comes before summit.

As a postscript, the weather worsened, and we ended up climbing down in a snowstorm, then pouring rain. The entire nine miles down felt like a forced march. I’ve never been so happy to see a rental car as I was that day. The next night the freezing level dropped to 8000 feet, and Corbet High Camp ended up with four inches of fresh snow! Jackson Hole Mountain Guides said that the summer on the upper mountain is pretty much over. We were on the mountain for the first snowfall of the season, many weeks earlier than normal, which is just my luck! Of course, it’s all part of the alpine game, and as frustrating and disappointing as not standing on the summit may be, Grand Teton will always be there, and of course we will be back next year to give it another shot.

If you liked this little story, leave a comment…. maybe I will make blogging an annual thing.

Categories : Climbing


  1. Paul Lanciaux says:

    So good to read of your adventures, and so well written. Proud of you…and maybe a little envious too.

  2. Bob Stepanian says:

    Great read! Marc, you missed your calling. You should try writing a novel

    Uncle Bob

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