Saturday, September 14, 2013

9/12 A Grand Update

A lot has happened since my last update! Catching quickly back to speed:

We left Wild Iris on the 8th. We had a great, short session on the Zorro wall. We did El Goucho and Zorro, both of which are SUPERB routes. In my opinion, two of the very best at Wild Iris. We were thinking about doing one more route before heading north for Jackson, but (SUPRISE!) a storm started to roll in, cutting our day shorter than planned.

Fortunately, we were very excited to go to Jackson, WY to meet up with Jamie, our friend from Asheville who's lived in Jackson since mid July, and also catch the Giants opener. Jamie's an awesome guy who, without his help, we would not have even considered attempting the Grand. Originally, we did not plan to do the Grand. It was too ambitious, neither of us having any mountaineering experience at all. We were going to do a small wall in the area that we could easily accomplish in a day. Fortunately for us, Jamie offered to guide us up the Grand, an opportunity I was eager to take him up on.

For those who are not familiar with the Grand Teton and mountaineering in general, let me explain. Summitting the Grand Teton involves mountaineering skills. Mountaineering involves lots of hiking, route finding in unknown territory and a bit of technical rock climbing. When I tell people who aren't climbers that I'm a climber, most associate that with mountaineering, but that is NOT the same. What I do is technical rock climbing. This involves skills for climbing sheer rock faces. What it comes down to is this; mountaineering is technical rock climbing with  A LOT of hiking before it and the chance for serious injury.

Let me put this simply. The Grand Teton is one of the most sought after summits in the continental United States. It involves a heinous, 6-7 hour hike just to get in the vicinity of the general climbing area. You are in an alpine zone, far about the treeline, where the weather can change at any minute. For me, it is scary and so far out of my comfort zone I wouldn't even consider doing it without the help of someone more experienced.

Anyway, we got to Jackson on the night of the 8th. We decided to splurge and get a hotel room since we hadn't showered in days and didn't want to inconvenience Jamie. We met him at Snake River brewing in downtown Jackson to watch the Giants hand the game to the Cowboys. The next day, we slept in at our hotel room and took a nice rest day around Jackson. Jackson is a beautiful town with a very cool vibe to it. The town feels a bit upscale as it caters to tourists, but it never felt pretentious, an important distinction.

After having a fairly productive day in town, we met Jamie for a carb loading dinner. Alanna made an awesome pasta meal and we finalized our plans for the day. With trepidation, we parted for the night and went to sleep for before the big day. Or rather, I TRIED to go to sleep. I was nervous, very nervous. Laying in bed, every single possible bad scenario ran through my head; A grizzly bear attacks us during the hike, the weather changes drastically and we get caught in a freak storm, a plane crashes into the mountain as we're climbing (yes, I actually thoguht about that). The only solace I found while tossing in bed, thinking about worst case scenarios, was that Harrison Ford was known to make rescues with his personal helicopter. Now THAT would have made for a  story worth telling my grandkids.

After tossing and turning for several hours, the alarm rang at 2:00 am. Yes, 2 am. Oh, I may have forgot to mention, most sane people do the Grand in two days. 1 day is spent hiking to the climbing, the next for the climbing and the decent. Alanna and I didn't have any backpacking gear, so we figured, what the hell, let's do it in a day...

After waking up and throwing our packed bags into Jamie's car we headed for the trailhead. Our spirit's were high and we were filled with adrenaline. Because of this, it did not feel like we had a mere couple of hours at sleep at 2 am. We made it to the trailhead by 3:00 am, suited up, turned on our headlamps and started our long uphill journey at 3:20 am...

At first, it was easy. The hike itself wasn't easy, it never was. It was unrelentingly uphill. But our spirits were easy. Jamie and I chatted while we marched upwards, maintaining an even pace through the dark. Up we went, through the lower pine forest, up the switchbacks of sagebrush, and then finally into the large talus field. A VERY large talus field. For hours we hiked through the darkness, carefully jumping  between rocks, unable to see anything our headlamps weren't illuminating.

This went on for several hours, until around 6:30 am when the sun peeked through the canyon. By this time, we had already been hiking 3 hours in pitch black, so the change was most welcome. I felt myself re-energize, as the beauty of the valley we hiked through surrounded us. Of course, this only lasted for a few minutes before the now illuminated vastness of the distance before me became evident. Sighing, I put my head down and continued uphill. There isn't much to say about the next several hours. We hiked, we rested, we ate beef jerky, and then we hiked more. Finally,by around 9:00 am we reached a major landmark, the lower saddle.

The lower Saddle is base camp for many climbers who plan to do the climb in 2 days. We were very pleased that we made it to the camp by 9 am. 5.5 hours to do the hike is not too shabby, and we were happy. We took a nice, well deserved rest here and took in the gorgeous views. At this point, we were around 11,000 feet. The summit of the Grand is 13,770, and the trailhead is somewhere around 6,000. Needless to say, we had covered a lot of ground. From the lower saddle, we could see that the peak of Grand was covered in a cloud. The forecast called for mostly sunny skies so we were disappointed about this. However, the sun was high in the sky and we assumed that by the time we were in summit position, the clouds would be burnt away by the sun.

After our small break, we put our packs back on and started the long class 4 scramble to get to the base of the technical climbing route. At this point, I was nervous. I was nervous for myself and for Alanna. I knew that she was completely capable of any of the scrambling we had to do, but like myself, she had never been in an alpine setting like this. Even more, she had never even done a multi-pitch climbing route. I swallowed my nervousness and pushed on as we followed Jamie through the class 4 terrain. After a bit of route finding, we managed to find the route we were looking for...

...Which was in a complete white out due to the cloud still swirling around the peak AND also smattered with ice. So, we waited, hoping the clouds would move away, allowing us to see our route a little more clearly. As we waited, several Exum guides passed us on their descent (they were camped at the lower saddle the night before so they were able to get a much earlier start than us). They informed us of the nasty conditions of the route we were planning to do, cementing our decision. We would have to turn around without the summit.

Suprisingly, after this decision was made, our spirits lifted. I know that I was nervous about the technical, exposed climbing that was coming up next, and I'm pretttttty sure Alanna shared my feelings, if not even more so. Once the decision  to turn around was made, that nervousness faded. Regardless of the fact that we did not summit, I was still proud. It's a tough thing to do what we attempted, doing the Grand in a day. We made a very solid effort and I did not feel ashamed for turning away. That said, I would have LIKED to have made the summit, but there's always next time!

I would like to say that after making the decision to turn around, the story was finished, but that's not the reality. We still had to go back down. Normally, I would look forward to an all downhill hike after a day of climbing. Normally, I'm not running on a mere couple hours of restless sleep and haven't spent the past 8 hours relentlessly marching uphill. Regardless, we hiked down. At first, it was not bad. We made it back to the lower saddle easily. Then we moved into the big talus field. This is where it began to get tough. Constantly having to hop around the rocks is murder on your knees and I had already put mine through the ringer. By the time we made it halfway through the talus field I knew that I was going to be hurting BAD the next day.

The descent was not all bad though. It was an energizing sight to see what we had missed during our morning twilight hike. The Grand Teton park is absolutely beautiful. Massive sheer faces surround you creating and intimidating presence, but a calm river runs through the middle of the valley , grassy fields teeming with life surrounding it on both sides. It's a magical place and certainly one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.

Needless to say, I couldn't fully appreciate it because my everything felt like it was about to explode. Seriously, my EVERYTHING.

FINALLY, we made it out of the talus and to the switchbacks. My groggy memory told me that after the switchbacks we should be close to the car. I set my jaw with determination and pressed forward through the sun exposed switchbacks. Our eyes were down, there was no talking, just moving. Finally, after what felt like an eternity we reached the end of the switchbacks. Hooray! A sign pointed in the direction of the parking lot! We were close, right? WRONG! 3 more miles! 3 more long and grueling miles.

The rest of the hike was much the same. There was no talking, only walking. After what felt like days, we emerged from the woods to the warm embrace of a gravel parking lot. I've never been so happy to see a parking lot. With dark eyes but happy spirits, we threw the bags in the trunk and decided where we would eat...

After a filling mexican meal, we went back to Jamie's where we promptly passed out, well before any self respecting 20 something should. The next day, after lounging around and chatting with Jamie's roommate we hit the road for Oregon, first stop Smith Rock!

(all of these pictures were taken with my cell phone)

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