Last summer, Chris Dickson and I ventured into the Tetons to attempt the Grand Traverse. Here are some thoughts I wrote:
Blasted by the wind, I jump out of the car at a rest stop on I-80, my first touchdown in Wyoming in nearly a year after a summer trudging around the Colorado mountains working for Outward Bound, carrying a pack far too heavy and hiking with students far too slowly. So this is what freedom tastes like; stale diesel fumes from the truckers blasting by at 80mph; the rank stench from rest stop urinals too long since their last cleaning; the gritty dust of the Wyoming desert etched into the creases on my face; eyes sore from squinting into the setting sun for too many miles across the plain.
Such is the seasonal work lifestyle.
Change is in the air though. Torn between two worlds, I have recently taken a full-time job teaching high school in Telluride, temporarily at least leaving behind the nomadic lifestyle of bouncing between work and a month in Indian Creek. Last year I skied 100 days and climbed just as many. The transition is going to be rough, even living in such a place as Telluride. At 23, it seems as though I am poking my nose into the increasingly challenging world of typical adult life, constantly navigating a maze of decisions; full-time job and stability, or seasonal work and flexibility? Caught in the gravitational pull between polar opposite masses, I sit in limbo, inertia zero, waiting for a nudge one way or another.
Now with only six days off between my last Outward Bound course and the start of my job, I point the wheels north and rally towards Jackson and my friend, climbing partner, and roommate Chris waiting in the Tetons.
After a day of prepping, researching, and hiding in the Jackson Library while Chris tries to resurrect his ailing computer, we join my friend Jed for dinner and pick his brain for last-minute beta on the granddaddy of all the alpine climbing in the Tetons; we’re going for The Grand Traverse. For me, it will be a harsh introduction to climbing in the range; I’ve never even touched the rock in the Tetons, let alone climbed all of them in a single push, not to mention I’ve spent the majority of the summer just walking around with a heavy pack and not climbing.
Eight cams, eight nuts, and eight runners. That’s Jed’s recommended rack. One 60m, 8.7mm rope. A sleeping bag and pad each. No tent, minimal rain gear, light puffies. Two days of food. It still weighs too much, but we have to suck it up and go. The alarm goes off at 4 am. Perhaps not the most alpine of alpine starts, but we’ve got a splitter weather window and are willing to push the time a bit more. We’re hiking out of the parking lot exactly at 6am, fueled by excessive amounts of coffee and a few bites of oatmeal. Above us, the skies are smudged with smoke from the conflagration of wild fires devouring the parched Pacific Northwest.
The endless switchbacks up the East Face of Teewinot crush our souls until we reach tree line and put our helmets on for the loose gullies leading up to the summit. With parties above and below us we take our time picking around the loose blocks and gravel strewn across the mountain. In two weeks a pair of climbers will fall to their deaths after getting off-route on this face, but today we stick the route-finding and scramble to the summit at 9am. Before us the ridge stretches into eternity; a maze of gendarmes and slabs littered with patches of ice.
We solo around corners and over knife-edge blocks, pull the rope out for a trio of rappels, and use our axes for the first and only time slipping our way up the East Face of Mt. Owen as we participate in every climber’s favorite activity, kicking steps in nevé wearing approach shoes. Exhausted by nearly 8 hours on the go, I take a quick nap on the summit, intentionally facing away from the intimidating North Ridge of the Grand Teton. Beyond Mt. Owen, the soloing and rappelling continues before we find ourselves racking up in Gunsight Notch, shivering and swinging our arms in the cold west wind.
The base of the North Ridge brings us to a cross-roads. It’s 5pm and nearly 1200 feet of technical climbing, plus the complex descent down the Owen-Spaulding route on the opposite side of the Grand, loom ahead of us. Continuing means doing it mostly in the dark. The easy choice means bivying where we are, climbing the North Ridge in the morning, and, in all likelihood, bailing after hiking down the O-S.
“Fuck it. Let’s go,” I say and Chris leads off into his block, bringing us to the bottom of the Italian Cracks in one long simul-climbing pitch. I take the rack and blast up the series of beautiful granite cracks. Just as I run out of gear and rope I find myself on a ledge and bring Chris up. He leads off again through a series of juggy overhangs and I find him comfortably at the top of the North Ridge blinking in the sudden sunshine of the West Face. Two more pitches of simul-climbing and we top out the Grand Teton at 7:30pm and scramble down to the O-S rappels just in time to see the last of our light disappear behind the thick blanket of smoke. As if on cue, my headlamp splutters and dies, along with the rest of my mental capacity for decision-making. Blind and bonking, I stumble down to the Lower Saddle, an apostle following the small orb of light from Chris’s headlamp five feet ahead of me and we collapse into our sleeping bags right next to another team.
Early morning light spills over the high desert of Wyoming, seeping through the layer of smoke still blurring the edge of the sky. Below us, Jackson ebbs in and out of view. Neither of us feel completely wrecked and we discuss our options over a shared cup of coffee. We are caught again, in the pull of two decisions. Bailing from the Lower Saddle would merely put us in the company of many strong climbers before us. We decide to finish what we started, and hike out of the Lower Saddle bivy at nearly 9am.
The Middle and South Teton flow by. Legs invigorated by a night of sleep carry us quickly across the talus field between the two, interrupted momentarily by a confused and psyched Chilean photographer with a backpack full of camera gear and a mouth full of questions. We pull the rope out only twice, once for the 5.7 pitch up the Ice Cream Cone and once rappelling off of Cloudveil Dome.
The West Ridge of Nez Perce is a convoluted mess of gendarmes, slabs, and scree-filled gullies that takes the last of our route-finding ability to navigate. At 3pm we straddle the narrow summit block of Nez Perce, bodies exhausted and souls refilled to bursting. During the descent we cross paths with two guided Exum parties who started the day before us on the traverse. Our water bottles long empty, we guzzle from the ice cold torrent of Garnet Creek pouring off the snowfield. We shoulder our packs for the last time and totter our way down the Garnet Canyon trail back to the car and lukewarm beers.
Katie Ives once wrote, “within this wild and uncertain life, beauty is the only certainty we can know.” As I step back into the world of schedules, deadlines, and grading tests, I wonder what wildness and uncertainty will come. An object in motion will stay in motion until acted on by an outside force. All it takes is a nudge and driven by the desire to teach, my inertia is now rolling towards the professional life. And I wonder, where will the uncertainty take me? Let the wild rumpus start.