Late-August

 Somewhere around three in the morning both Sam and I rolled out of our respective homes into the Albertson’s parking lot. We had a big objective for the day; to summit Teewinot, The East Prong, and Mount Owen all in one push. We started the journey a touch after four in the morning and trudged up endless switchbacks until we broke the tree line just in time for sunrise. For a few minutes, the east face of Teewinot was ablaze in the morning sun. The Tetons at sunrise are one thing, but to be in the mountains as it happens is a truly special experience. By this time we had made new friends on the trail, a couple from Utah, and chatted with them for the remainder of our scramble. In what can only be described as a rather anticlimactic moment we looked up and found no more mountain to be left. The summit of Teewinot is a sharp slab of Granite that juts into the sky and offers little in terms of a place to rest and take in the scenery.

Standing atop this mountain I felt a mix of emotions that when combined left me in a very neutral state. I was shocked at the relative ease with which we had just romped up this mountain, one that had denied us only a month before and left me doubting my abilities in the alpine. I was proud of my growth and how this summit now felt so casual. The views were stunning and the sense of accomplishment was one I had not felt in a while. But with the summit we also received our first glimpse at the rest of our day. We could clearly see the ridge we would have to traverse and the intimidatingly steep east face of Mount Owen. After only five or so minutes at the top, we quickly began our descent and continued to push on.

After this point, we felt as if we were on our own. There is no trail for this traverse and hardly any beta. We simply knew we had to move west and that’s what we did. Through a mixture of down climbing, scrambling, rappelling, and more climbing we found ourselves atop the East Prong, but our prospects for the summit of Owen didn’t look all too good. We had spent far too much time on the traverse and made the decision to backtrack and try to find a route down to Delta Lake. Sliding down roughly 2,000 feet of loose rock is something I would never wish upon my worst enemy. But like all things painful in this life the scree eventually came to an end and we we were able to make it to our cars just after sunset.

This experience was wildly successful in my eyes despite our inability to complete what we had set out to do. Never in my life had 6000 plus vert in a day felt so easy. My confidence had been renewed, which was desperately needed given my lack of recent success. With cold snowy weather on the horizon, and an alpine season that was rapidly coming to an end, I knew that this next week would likely be my one and only chance to finally reach the summit of the Grand.

The forecast called for howling winds on the summit but the Lupine Meadows trailhead was a calm, clear, 32 degrees at three in the morning. The parking lot was eerily quiet. All one could hear was the shuffling of feet and the packing of gear. The mood was more somber than one would expect. Not much talking happens. Sam and I took off and said all of four sentences to each other for the first two hours of the day. We were making good time and had almost come to the end of the Moraines by the time the sun first peeked over the Gros Ventres in the distance. I was feeling as good as I ever had in the mountains. Our original plan was to climb the entirety of the Exum Ridge. 12 pitches of climbing on top of an already massive day is quite the undertaking and upon our arrival at the Lower Saddle we almost immediately changed our plans. Our approach from the east had been protecting us from the westerly winds which were now howling by with gusts of up to eighty miles an hour. The combination of the wind and sub-freezing temperatures created a very inhospitable environment and we agreed that we needed to spend as little time exposed to this weather as possible. We shifted to just climb the Upper Exum, six pitches of very cruisy 5.6 climbing. One of my favorite aspects of alpine climbing is the flexibility required to be successful. I feel as though past versions of myself would have felt flustered in this situation but neither Sam nor I skipped a beat. We simply kept moving and adapting.

The beginning of the Upper Exum is without a doubt the most intimidating part of the climb. To access the route one must make a move balanced on your toes with almost no hand holds. Slowly balancing, adjusting, and rebalancing with a drop of over a thousand feet directly below your feet is an intimidating experience to say the least. This was without a doubt the most exposure I had faced so far. While I was on belay, a fall was really not an option. I will admit that I was not as composed as I would have wished to be. A guide from the party behind us offered some encouragement and advice. After a few heart-thumping seconds I had cleared the gap and was yet again standing on solid ground.

The rest of the climb consisted of some of the most special hours of my life. We were blocked from the wind, the sky was a piercing blue, and the view was one I had only ever seen from a screen. The rock was incredible, and the climbing grew more enjoyable with each move. I wish for your sake as a reader there was more struggle, more drama, more something to this climb but there honestly was not. All that I can now remember was a bliss I had only felt maybe a handful of times in my life before. I had brought my camera with me but decided almost immediately upon climbing that this day would be for me. I wanted no distractions to take away from this moment. A dream I had had for years was coming true right in front of me and it was even more special than I expected it to be. With each foot we moved closer to the summit I was filled with equal parts excitement and sadness as I knew that this would soon be coming to an end. After a few hours of climbing I looked up to find a small party sitting on some rocks with nothing but sky above them. We had made it to the summit.

Sitting at 13,775 feet, over 7000 feet above the valley floor below was a sensation I will never forget. It is one that I am afraid I will keep chasing for far too long. Everything about that moment felt simple. The pain in my legs, the burn on my face, the cold air around me, the howling wind, it was all so simple. There was nothing except the moment in front of me and that intoxicating sense of accomplishment. It feels dramatic to write or explain to another person, especially when to some the Grand is more a playground than a lifetime accomplishment, but for me that is what this felt like. A lifetime of ups, and downs, trials, and tribulations had somehow all coalesced into this exact, perfect moment. It was done, I had done it. I hope to never forget those first moments standing atop the Grand for as long as I may live.

Ever since that day I have felt different. A sense of confidence and surety has washed over me and allowed me to approach life with a new vigor. Everything seems achievable and nothing feels out of reach. To say that life is looking up would be an understatement. Coming back here was a risk and one that so far has paid off in ways I never could have expected. I am feeling eternally grateful for everything that has led me to be where I am today. Before I had even left the summit I was already thinking of what would be next. What would give me that feeling again? How could I push myself even further? I am still not positive what that will be just yet, but I am nonetheless as excited as ever.

 

Music from this time:

“Ya Mum’s Ya Dad” – Good Boy

“For Emma” – Bon Iver

“Alaska” – Pinegrove

 

Books:

“The River Runs Through It” by Noman Maclean

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