Ron was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle at the gate, directly in front of the airline desk. I stopped amidst the bustling passengers, creating an eddy in the stream of humanity flowing through Concourse C of Chicago O’Hare International. The pause allowed me to scrutinize the situation properly; it took a moment to place the features on his familiar visage in the somewhat unorthodox setting. Ron sat with an impish grin, hunched over his smartphone, clearly engrossed, wisps of gingery hair sneaking out beneath his off-white ball cap. He looked up with a smile and laugh.
I strode toward him, treading carefully around his small encampment in front to the desk, narrowly avoiding kicking over his iced coffee and ripping his phone charger out of the wall. I bemusedly surveyed the yard sale of his carry-on essentials spread across the floor, raised an eye brow, and turned to see his response. “It was the only power outlet,” he stated matter-of-factly. That settled the matter.
I placed my bags against the desk, retrieved my phone charger, and assumed my own cross-legged seat in the middle of the carpeted floor, attempting to settle in while also not interfering with the queue in front of the desk. Satisfied with our new base of operations, we immediately turned to the task of any climber flying into a small mountain town like Jackson Hole: identifying the other climbers. We set about scouring the apparel and luggage of the passengers arrayed in the vicinity, matching footwear, clothing brands, backpacks, and physiques to generate a pool of likely candidates. Satisfied with our people watching endeavor, we turned to the task of getting seat assignments for the flight, scored two berths in the exit row, and soon found ourselves flying over the Tetons at sunset.
To say that I was psyched would be an understatement. I was visibly shaking in my seat from excitement as the plane made a 180 degree bank to approach the runway and the Cathedral Group came into view. Ron and I had been planning this particular climb for the preceding four months. What started as an off-hand remark nearly a year prior had finally come to fruition. We were planning an early-season attempt of the Cathedral Traverse, a single-push climb of Teewinot Mountain, Mount Owen, and the Grand Teton.
As I am apt to do, I approached the entire experience with detailed planning. The first step was purely financial. Now that the plan was hatched, I had to ascertain that I could reasonably afford to do it. After a little analysis and some conversations with my wife, the answer seemed affirmative, leading to the much more time consuming processes of physical training and route research.
Nearly every source I referenced indicated that the traverse was best done in late summer, ideally mid-August, when the snowpack would be at its smallest and most stable. In these conditions, the traverse would largely be an endurance undertaking for Ron and I, as the technical crux of the route was 5.8, a grade at which we are both comfortable. Consequently, nearly all the information I collected about the route indicated that it would be possible to move quite quickly over largely rock terrain and that skilled climbers could probably complete the entire climb in approach shoes, and possibly in one long day. This assumed late summer conditions, though.
In early June, there is still ample snow in the Teton Range, which slows travel and complicates pure rock climbing with things like slush, verglass, and snow-covered ledges. Ron and I hoped to complete the traverse in one very long day, moving as quickly as possible, in favor of an athletic endeavor as opposed to a logistical one. Notions of the typical conditions for early June were somewhat sparse, but we anticipated that most of the rock climbing would actually be mixed rock, snow, and ice climbing. My training plans reflected this.
I laid out the framework for an 8-week training cycle that shifted from an initial focus on climbing-specific strength to a concluding emphasis on cardiac endurance. In my experiences at altitude, I have found that technically demanding climbing (and even moderate climbing) can feel very similar to climbing boulder problems while running wind sprints due to the necessarily increased breathing rate. As a result, I would spend significant time doing “the circuit,” a workout to which Ron introduced me. “The circuit” was simply a collection of about 40 bouldering problems across a variety of grades completed at a cardiac pace, running from boulder to boulder with no rest between problems. In other words, it would be like doing bouldering problems while running wind sprints. I am very fond of the circuit, and have developed them at each of the major bouldering areas that I frequent.
Unfortunately, the circuit would also prove to be the undoing of my climbing-specific training plan. Early in May, Ron and I found ourselves with a few other climber-types at the base of Table Rock, North Carolina. The unrelenting skies had unleashed a steady deluge of rain for the preceding week, shrouding the verdant hills and craggy outcrops in mist and drawing the entire visual palette in blues and grays. Hiking trails became creek beds, soaking feet and caking shoe soles in muddy clay. Rock faces became waterfalls, sending chilling tendrils of icy water down rain jacket sleeves and literally assaulting one’s gaze with fierce, sharp drops of water that stung the face.
Under these skies, Ron, Clay, Ryan, and I stood beneath yet another nameless trailside boulder, skin soaked equally by perspiration and precipitation, panting heavily, nearing exhaustion. Clay went first on this boulder, firing through the in-cut rails of the steeply overhanging rock, our first shelter from the weather for the day. He reached a high point on the lip of the boulder and elected to down-climb, not wanting to risk a wet, mossy top-out without crash pads and while wearing his approach shoes.
My turn was next, and with some resolve, I placed my pruned fingers on the wet, lichen-covered starting holds of the circuit’s twentieth or so problem. I laboriously hauled by butt off the ground, aping back and leftward through the overhang, moving deliberately and doggedly on the positive handholds. As I neared the lip, one final large move lay between my current painful exertion and the sweet respite of someone else’s turn. I swung my left hand out, slapping the hold, releasing my feet too soon, as a result of poor technique, or more correctly, little core control due to exhaustion. As my feet cut away from the wall, I fought to maintain control and swing them back into position, just as I felt a popping in my middle finger.
In that instant my serious climbing plans for the foreseeable four weeks or more were gone. I immediately recognized the same sensation from previous finger injuries. I had torn two pulley tendons in my middle finger that would take anywhere from four to eight weeks to heal, provided I managed to rest and treat them appropriately. With a departure date for the Tetons four weeks and one day away, I was more than a little concerned with how this would affect the upcoming trip. Nevertheless, I continued with my training plan, shifting the focus heavily toward the endurance work and substituting an ice axe for my left hand when dictated.
|The missing finger tip.|
Weeks later, I was healing well and the prognosis looked good for the relatively moderate climbing of our trip. Naturally, two days before departure I sliced the tip off my left index finger during a random slam dunk contest. (The dunk was spectacular, for the record.) I took solace in the fact that the climbing was not supposed to be too stressful, my hands would be gloved, and my fingers would probably be too cold to feel much of anything, regardless. One way or another, I was going to climb.
|View after our first night in Jackson Hole|
Our arrival on a Wednesday evening in Jackson Hole, Wyoming was uneventful. Baggage claim and car rentals seem to move with the same plodding pace regardless of location. We crashed in the back of our white rental van near the Grand Teton National Park entrance and started the next day’s work around dawn. We spent several hours on Thursday shopping for groceries and last minute gear, getting permits, gathering conditions reports, packing and re-packing, studying the route, leaving us with a full but leisurely day. I settled into my sleeping pad on the van floor excited and anxious for the coming climb.
|The Jenny Lake Visitor Center|
I startled awake at 1:30am Friday morning to the blaring claxon of simultaneous phone alarm clocks. I jolted upright and was greeted with equally energetic motion from Ron’s side of the van. It can be challenging to be excited at 1:30 in the morning, but we were clearly both ready to go for the day’s adventure, alpine starts notwithstanding. Ron brewed coffee and I ate granola under the dark sky of a new moon, the stars bigger and brighter because of it. The dusty gravel parking lot of the Lupine Meadows trailhead was deserted save for two other unoccupied cars. A lukewarm breeze made its way lazily down from the summits of the great peaks to our west, creating the only stir on an otherwise quiet, calm night.
With packs on our backs we began the laborious approach to the Cathedral Traverse, a climb of nearly 6,000 feet to the summit of Teewinot Mountain. The plan was to reach its summit by dawn, continue over the sub-peaks 11,840 and East Prong, climb the Koven Route on Mount Owen, descend into the Gunsight Notch, climb out of the notch onto the Grandstand, and ascend the North Ridge of the Grand Teton. Finally, we would finish the day by descending the Owen-Spalding to the Lower Saddle and hike the remaining 8 miles back to the car.
Switchbacking steadily uphill through meadows and forest, we encountered our first snow at 9,000 feet, still below tree line on the approach ridge. At the ridge crest, we donned gaiters, helmets, and ice axes, in preparation for 2,500 to 3,000 feet of sustained snow climbing, broken occasionally by rocky ledges and blocky towers. According to local guides, Teewinot was expected to be in good condition as a snow climb. In general, the mountains throughout the range had finished their major “shedding” of snow and rock for the reason. As I kicked the first steps climbing out of the stunted pine trees, I found the snow to be pleasantly soft, able to hold steps well but requiring little extra effort in trail breaking.
We took turns kicking steps, making steady progress up the moderate snow slope toward the towering “Idol” and “Worshipper,” two significant towers protruding a few hundred feet in height out of Teewinot’s east face. At this point, our lack of acclimatization was showing, as the 10,500 foot altitude left both Ron and I breathless and in need of more frequent rests than either of us would have liked. Undeterred, we continued steadily upward at a somewhat slower pace.
Leading the charge beyond the Idol and the Worshipper, the snow grew steadily softer, in some places frustratingly so. I soon began a game of “two steps forward, one step back” with the snow, sinking to my ankles and sometimes my knees as I weighted a step in the snowpack, leaving Ron with post-holes to walk in. In the wet snowpack of early summer, such significant sinking while kicking steps can be a sign of instability, but I did not give it much attention as it was not yet dawn and the locals had assured us of a “stable, summer snowpack.”
|Ron on our way up the "central cleft" of Teewinot|
Passing over a series of broken rocky ledges, we came to the central cleft of Teewinot’s east face, which terminates in a large notch at the skyline, a few hundred feet below the summit. Dawn was fast approaching, and I estimated that we were about an hour behind schedule. Ron and I discussed this briefly and agreed that once we crested Teewinot, it would do much to help us gain momentum for the rest of the traverse and we could probably make up for time lost on our snow slog elsewhere on the climb.
The central cleft featured a steep, hard-packed snow gulley down its fall line that made for more laborious step-kicking but ultimately easier climbing if for no reason other than one did not slip back down the mountain with each step. Beyond this gulley, we continued up and rightward from the cleft toward the summit, on the northern end of the mountain. Here we encountered still softer snow, making continued climbing soggy, chilly, and frustrating. Instead of continuing rightward, we elected to head straight up to the rocky tower just to the side of Teewinot’s central cleft and traverse to the summit from there. This would avoid the snow which was becoming increasingly frustrating and risky. We anticipated that this would add 5th class rock climbing to what was otherwise supposed to be a 4th class rock and snow ascent, but we welcomed the change.
As I was the better pacer for endurance work like step-kicking and Ron was the more talented technical climber (regardless of any handicaps I might have incurred from two less-than-functional fingers on my left hand), he led the first pitch. A short 5.6 hand crack with an awkward protruding chockstone soon gave way to an easier face to the top of the tower. A pitch of relatively straightforward down-leading took us across the traverse to the summit.
|Ron on the summit of Teewinot Mountain with the peaks of Cascade Canyon behind.|
From our vantage on Teewinot we could scout the rest of our route. The intervening peaks 11,840 and East Prong that lay between us and Mount Owen still featured open snow fields on their summit plateaus. More importantly, “the collar” of snow around Owen’s summit cone loomed full and heavy with evidence of recent “sun devils” or “pin wheels,” sheets of snow that unfurl their way down the slope, collecting surface snow and rolling up into a spiral shape as they go. They can be indicators of instability in a wet snowpack. Beyond that, however, the north ridge of the Grand Teton appeared surprisingly reasonable.
|The Grand Teton (left) and Mount Owen (right) as seen from Teewinot.|
At this point, Ron and I decided that the best course of action would be to head back to the van. We were running a little behind schedule, but more importantly, the sun was now up, the snowpack on Teewinot seemed weak, we had every reason to believe Owen’s collar would be in similar shape, and most importantly, if we wanted to complete the traverse in a day, we would not have the luxury of waiting until the conditions were safer for snow climbing. We snapped a few photos and began the moist descent through the increasingly soft, wet snow.
Whatever disappointment we might have felt at deciding to retreat was soon overcome by the exuberance of having climbed a peak. Further, we still had two more days of climbing with which to do some other objective. Finally, in a most unpleasant manner, the mountain would soon confirm our suspicions about the hazard the snowpack presented.
Ron and I were soon back in the central cleft traversing down and south across it. The descent down its steep central gully was particularly laborious as the near-vertical snow was no longer hard-packed but was instead quite soft snow atop rock, verglass, and gray ice. We cleared this obstacle and rested a moment on a rock ledge in the broad cleft before continuing across another chute. We no longer felt significantly pressured to be ever-moving as we had ample time to return to the van.
In short order, Ron crossed the chute and proceeded just a few steps to the shelter of a snowfield under a small rock buttress. I pulled my ice axe out from between my shoulder blades and backpack and readied myself for another precipitous and nerve-fraying crossing of steep wet snow. As I made my way to the edge of the rock, a few snow balls came cascading down the chute, slowly picking up speed as they careened and bounced down the trench in the snow. Within moments, a sheet of slow-moving wet snow crept over skyline and began barreling down the chute.
“AVALANCHE!” I shouted across the chute to Ron. I quickly gauged Ron’s position relative to the slide. We were both in relatively safe locations, but as any good avalanche forecaster will tell you, the best sign of avalanches is avalanches. In other words, I knew that more slides were probably in store for us, and we still had about 2,300 feet to descend before reaching the relative safety of treeline.
Once the slide finished, I moved as quickly as possible across the chute to Ron’s stance below the rocky buttress. On the plus side, the slide had scraped all of the wet snow out of the chute, leaving stable hard snow upon which to boot across. Slightly spooked, I made my way to Ron and determined we were both quite confident that we had made the correct decision regarding our retreat. Unfortunately, the terrain separating us from the trailhead involved crossing numerous avalanche paths with spontaneous natural avalanche activity.
As we began making our plans for extricating ourselves from our current situation, we heard the familiar sound of rockfall skipping down the main gulley in the central cleft, first a few pebbles, then some bowling ball-sized rock, and finally a large slide of massive wet snow and torso-sized boulders rocketing down the central cleft. Either of the two slides would have taken one or both of us all the way to the foot of the mountain, and they both happened in places where we had been in the last thirty minutes. Doing my best to make light of an otherwise potentially perilous situation, I looked at Ron and said, “‘Stable summer snowpack’ my ass.” We shared a tense laugh and started flaking out the rope.
We pitched out the entire rest of the descent to treeline, variously rappelling, down-leading, and traversing one at a time from islands of safety across avalanche paths. The hope was that if one of us was to get caught in an avalanche, the belay from the other would be secure enough to ensure we were both still attached to the mountain at the end of it. Further, if there was a burial, it becomes a much simpler task to find a survivor when he or she is attached to the end of the rope. The reality was such that if either of us was buried, descent to the victim would likely have otherwise been far too slow and risky to be of much use. After four grueling hours of this and a least a half dozen more natural avalanches, we collapsed into a heap in the snow just inside treeline, dehydrated, hungry, and with nerves frayed.
On to Part 2...
On to Part 2...