| Summer's Grand Finale
Grand Teton (13,775’)
Elevation Gain: Approx. 7000’
RT Mileage: Unknown – likely 12-14 miles
Route: Upper Exum Ridge (II, 5.5)
Climbing Team: Ryan & Matt
The famous Ranch Shot - Taken from the internet
Ryan's view of the Tetons
This was one of the best climbs I’ve ever done, and one that I had looked forward to since my earliest days of mountaineering interest. My friend Rob had done it many years before and we had spoken often of it this summer as it became more and more likely that I would get the chance to attempt it. When Ryan & I decided last minute that we would have to dayhike it, I asked Rob’s advice. “It won’t be too bad, if you guys get good weather you’ll beast it.” That gave me confidence as we set out. We briefly discussed his plans for the S Ridge on Snowmass, and we wished each other luck.
On Saturday as we were arriving back at the car and feeling accomplished, tragedy was striking back in Colorado. With dead phones, I didn’t find out until I got home Sunday night.
I miss you man…I keep wanting to tell you about the climb. I wish you could see what an inspiration you were to us all. You’ll always be with us.
The Tetons are a rugged mountain range that rises abruptly from the valley in the Northwest corner of Wyoming. The Grand Teton, towers above the rest at 13,775ft, and whether you are a climber or not, this monarch demands your attention and is the namesake of the National Park. For over a century now, this range has been a haven for American climbers, the guidebook “Teton Range” is the size of a textbook and has hundreds and hundreds of routes. Above all others, two “standard routes” shine above all others as test pieces in American mountaineering.
A great photo taken from SummitPost showing the Upper Exum Ridge
The Grand Teton most likely saw its first ascent in 1898 by William Owen, Franklin Spalding, Frank Peterson & John Shive via the Owen-Spalding Route (II, 5.4). Though this route is technically the easiest (as well as shortest), it is not the most popular. It is often crowded with guided parties, is in the cold shadow of the Teton most of the day, and has loose rock. The premier mountaineering route on the Grand Teton is the Upper Exum Ridge (II, 5.5), which was first climbed by Glenn Exum in 1931.
The original summit photo from 1898
Glenn Exum outside Exum Guides HQ
I came close to buying this book at the Ranger Station
Glenn Exum is a pioneer of American mountaineering. While still in his teens, he made a daring, solo, first ascent of the ridge that now bears his name. The Wall Street step over strikes fear into the hearts of most aspirants in modern times, but the classic first ascent includes a jump of this section by Glenn. Looking at the gap, it is almost impossible to grasp what he was thinking and how he psyched himself up for this maneuver. In an equally astounding feat, the second ascent of the Upper Exum Ridge was made by Glenn’s partner and co-founder of Exum Guides, Paul Petzoldt. After guiding a group up the Owen-Spalding Route earlier that day, Paul also solo’d the ridge (though climbing across the Wall Street gap in a more traditional fashion).
Almost a century later, this route remains a true classic and test piece. These visionary climbers left a lasting mark on the range and sport for which they lived. Exum Mountain Guides continue to bring clients up the Teton year round and are considered to be one of the most prestigious guiding services in the country.
The Direct Exum Ridge Route (II, 5.7), was pioneered five years later in 1936 by famed American climbers Jack Durrance and Kenneth Henderson. This route is steeper and much more difficult than the Upper only as is documented in Roper and Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
Summers Grand Finale
Like most who call the mountains home, the Grand Teton has captured my imagination since the first time I saw a picture of it. Unlike many other ranges in the lower 48, the Tetons display a rugged beauty that seems to exist outside of time itself. The fact that the easiest route to the summit requires technical rock climbing makes this task a daunting one. For the summer of 2012, I had two peaks in mind, goals that stood above the rest; Mt Rainier and The Grand Teton.
As the summer wore on, it was time to pick a weekend and find a partner. Ryan was the obvious choice and we agreed upon the last weekend of August. After debating for quite a while how to plan our trip, we finally settled on a weekend, driving up on Friday, dayhiking Saturday and returning on Sunday. Some friends thought this was a little ambitious, but hey – days off of work are hard to come by!
Luckily, my friend’s Mary & Kristina were interested in a visit to the park and agreed to drive us there on Friday night. This was paramount as it enabled us to sleep during the 9 hour drive and be (sort of) rested for our 2am start. We figured if we could do the 5,000ft approach in the dark and be on the Lower Saddle at first light, we would have plenty of time to complete the route. Having talked to many friends about the dayhike, most of which telling us we were crazy or it would be a nightmare, we figured we were in for a 20+ hour day.
We left Denver a little after 4pm on Friday and made good time, arriving at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead shortly before 2am. The parking lot had hundreds of cars in it, as expected, but no one was up and moving. We figured that parties had either packed in, started before us or would be starting after us.
The approach hike for either OS or Upper Exum routes
After a few moments of packing we were off. The first 1.7 miles of the trail went by very quickly, with barely any elevation gain, the beginning of the trail is even asphalt! We arrived at the first trail junction 37 minutes into the hike, all alone and in complete darkness. From here you stay straight and begin switching back up a hill with a moderate slope. On this section of the hike we saw some animals, mostly eyes in the distance, some of which we assumed to be bears. Ryan was sure entertained and tried to carry on a bear conversation for ages while I was in another world hiking for hours in complete darkness.
Shortly after 3am, while on this section of the hike, we saw our first headlamps. They were a group of 4 with Exum Guides that were going after Owen-Spalding, and they were only the first of many. As we progressed, I began to feel as if I were in New York City instead of a rugged range in Wyoming. The higher we got the more headlamps were visible both in front and behind as parties that had camped were starting to move.
3 miles in there is a junction where you make a sharp left to continue into the canyon. The trail stays mellow for a bit before heading into the moraine and steeper terrain. There is some decent boulder hopping at points on the trail and care must be taken not to fall through, the water doesn’t help either. We slowly gained treeline and the shadows of enormous peaks were somewhat visible around us. We arrived at the base of the fixed ropes section around 530am, still in complete darkness, yet surrounded by maybe a hundred headlamps.
It sure felt good to have the approach over, but I must say it felt a little weird and uneasy being surrounded by so many people of varying skill levels. There was a line to get on the fixed ropes and Ryan and I quickly decided to scramble up next to them. For one, I didn’t want to be in anyone’s fall line and the climbing was only 3rd class (possibly low 4th). I cheated on one section briefly grabbing the rope, but we were quickly above the difficulties and back on switch backs. Around 6am, as the sun was starting to give us a bit of a view, we dropped our packs on the lower saddle. This would have been an amazing place to camp, but we both agreed we had no interest in carrying packs all the way back there.
Looking up and to our right we could see headlamps high on Exum Ridge, headlamps that belonged to climbers who had started much earlier than us. We were acutely aware of the possibility of being stuck behind other groups and the last thing a mountaineer wants is traffic on a route. The sun rose fairly quickly and we didn’t really need to wait much at all before we were off and moving again on a well-defined trail heading towards the Upper Saddle (between the Grand and the “Enclosure.”)
Initial class 3 scrambling above Lower Saddle
It is important to note that up to this point, both the Owen-Spalding and the Upper Exum Ridge share the route, so make sure you know where you are going and are not just following the crowd. The early goings of Exum, when you first break off from OS seems to confuse a lot of people. I was highly impressed with Ryan’s route-finding here and was very grateful for his experience that far outshines my own.
The first bits of Class 3 above the Lower Saddle
As you pass beneath the first tower, which contains the “Eye of the Needle,” you will see a class 3 gully the goes up and right from the trail; this is your exit, take it. Scramble up about 100 ft. or so to a large platform and to your left will be the “Eye of the Needle.” Pass through the eye and arrive on a rather large ledge with a boulder at the end. This step around is a bit spicy, but you have many options. Once on the other side, follow a faint trail up and over a rib and the route will quickly become clear. Below you is the Wall Street Gully (DO NOT DESCEND THIS ON THE WAY DOWN!! Many tired climbers have met their demise this way) and across the way, in full view, is the Wall Street Ledge. Make your way across some loose slopes to the base of Wall Street. The approach is officially over, plenty of class 4 and 5 climbing stands between you and the summit.
About to enter the Eye, Ryan is already through
Going through the Eye of the Needle
First view of Wall Street from the other side of the WallS treet gully ona rib
Wall Street is a large ledge and there is plenty of room to sit down and rack up. Luckily, we had timed everything just right and we had no one in front of us. We quickly decided that Ryan would take first lead and he got to work building an anchor while I got the rest of our gear together and flaked the rope. The “crux” on Wall Street is known as the Wall Street Gap and it is an awkward move that sits nicely above 700ft of air. This is the infamous section that Glenn Exum jumped across in 1931, but I assure you, there would be no leaping for Ryan or I.
Here we go....On Wall Street about to rope up
I was nervous; this was the part that everyone talks about. The exposure is real, unlike anything on any 14er standard route. I watched Ryan make his way onto the ledge and around the boulder. It was difficult to see him but I could hear him struggling, the move was certainly giving him a run for his money.
“You got this man,” I thought, painfully aware of the possible consequences should he take a fall. Would our anchor hold? If not, a long ride awaited us both. Before my mind could follow that thought too far to conclusion, Ryan yelled “Off Belay,” and my spirits rose…for a second anyway, before remembering that it was now my turn. At least I would be on top rope.
He pulled the slack in and put me on and before I knew it I was on my way. Four or five steps in and the ground drops out from beneath you. I stepped across, smearing my feet and reached up for a handhold with my left hand. I quickly found it and pulled myself up and over. “That wasn’t so bad,” I thought, but of course had I been in Ryan’s shoes I would have been singing a different tune.
We were past the mental crux, and pretty well committed. I was feeling good about our summit chances and the weather. After taking a peak around the corner and deciding I was comfortable on the terrain, I untied from the rope and went to explore while Ryan had the privilege (ha-ha) of coiling the rope and entertaining some ladies behind us on the route.
If there is one absolute about Upper Exum, it is that there are infinite route choices. Many a climber have said “I’ve climbed Upper Exum x amount of times and never touched the same rock twice.” As we traveled unroped after Wall Street we made our way up what we thought was the Golden Staircase, but likely it was just some rock. This section went at low 5th class and both Ryan and I felt comfortable continuing free solo. After the false Golden Staircase, some 3rd Class ledges led to another pitch. The 2 woman were travelling roped together and were simul climbing. They chose a line immediately to our left. This may or may not have been the base of the “Friction Pitch,” but it had some healthy exposure and solid 5.4 moves. Ryan moved ahead of me as I contemplated one move in particular. After checking to make sure I was still comfortable soloing, Ryan moved forward a bit and I pulled the move and was relieved to find a large ledge waiting. In my opinion, this is the actual base of the Friction Pitch and provides an excellent belay stance.
A party can be seen topping out on the Golden Staircase
High on Upper Exum - beautiful day, beautiful views
Approaching the belay ledge for friction...this section was 5.4 and made me a bit nervous soloing
“Let’s pitch it out,” I said, “I’ll lead.” Ryan agreed, but the girls whizzed past us as they continued their simul-climbing adventure. We might have felt a bit silly, but we were in no rush and I wanted some lead practice. I placed 2 cams as an anchor and started up. I placed a #1 about 8 feet off the ground and then an extremely questionable nut placement a feet or so after before realizing that this pitch and pro did not speak the same language. I continued up for a bit and found myself face to face with “The move.” The crux of the Friction Pitch is a 5.5 friction move that many consider to be the crux of the entire route. I pondered it for a minute, accepted the fact that none of the holds were really good, accepted that I’d likely hit the ground if I fell and committed to the move. I let out a huge sigh of relief when my hands found proper holds and I ran out the remaining section before coming to rest on yet another large ledge. I quickly built an anchor and belayed Ryan up. Ryan would have felt comfortable free soloing this section and I thanked him for being patient and letting me lead it.
Above the friction pitch are very wide class 3 ledges and we again packed away the rope, this time for good. We stayed on the right side of the ridge crest and made our way towards what we hoped would be the “V-Pitch.” Like many others who have done this route, even multiple times, we never did find it. I wish I could offer more beta, but we still don’t really know where it is (other than it is on the left side and you must cross over to find it). We stayed right and took the first gully that went. The gully got extremely narrow and the climbing turned out to be harder than it looked, plus the rock was extremely loose or just dirt. The fall line wasn’t awful, but it still would have hurt a lot. For me, this was the crux of the day and I was extremely relieved to pull myself up and over the final move. From here, a beautiful, but optional, knife edged ridge stood between us and the summit. It was almost hard to believe that we were about to top out, excitement ran through me as I reflected on what we had done, or more importantly, what this meant to me.
Soloing in the Wind Tunnel
Above the 5.4 move and feeling much better
After 5-10 minutes of fun scrambling on the ridge crest we arrived at the summit of the Grand Teton.
Ryan on the summit of Grand Teton - Congrats dude!!
We didn’t linger long on the summit as the views were obscured by smoke and we wanted to be ahead of the large guided party on the summit. After some route-finding we started making our way down Owen-Spalding and quickly found the first rappel. I think this would have been fine as a downclimb, but we had the rope and the anchor was set. We waited briefly for a soloist to descend and another climber to finish leading the chimney before rappelling.
Summit Block, right for summit, left for Owen Saplding and descent
The 2nd rappel would be more difficult as we only had a single 60m with us and were a tad confused as to what our options were. We found the main rap station and saw a guide setting up for his clients. “A 60 will barely make it, if it’s dynamic,” he said. We felt uneasy, but it didn’t matter yet since we had to wait in line. In the cold shadows of Owen Spalding, we were not happy. It was cold.
2nd OS rappel - My red pack can be seen in the upper left corner.
The guide’s first client called up that there was a knot in the rope (The guide was lowering the client on belay with 1 strand and allowing them to rappel with the other…). After fixing that situation we were thrilled when the guide took pity on us having to wait for them and suggested we rap their rope. “Hell yea!!” I thought and Ryan and I quickly executed the 120ft single strand, free hanging rappel back to the saddle. This is a very cool rappel.
We carefully downclimbed to the lower saddle and the hike out was uneventful. It seemed like a different world with the sun up, and I enjoyed the views. We arrived at the TH at 3pm to our friends waiting for us.
Never gets old
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):