Friday, June 14, 2013

"Stable Summer Snowpack:" A Tetons Trip Report - Part 2

Part 1 available here:

We awoke late the following morning.  (Well, relatively late - sometime after dawn but no later than 7:30am.)  With our plans for the Cathedral Traverse thwarted, we needed to come up with a new objective that could be completed by Sunday evening as I had to fly out on Monday.  The choice was obvious.  We settled on either the Complete Exum Ridge or the Direct Petzoldt Ridge of the Grand Teton, to be decided when we arrived at the Lower Saddle and could better assess the conditions on either route.

We spent Saturday morning with a repeat of Thursday’s logistics, unpacking, drying gear, re-packing, getting a new permit, reloading food supplies, and gathering more beta.  Packing for this new climb proved an interesting endeavor.  For our Cathedral Traverse attempt, we both carried 30L packs, with much of the technical gear deployed at any given moment of the traverse, leaving food, water, and minimal bivy gear in our packs.  For our Grand Teton climb, we would hike to the Lower Saddle and camp, then climb the next day.  Consequently, we needed the full complement of camping gear as well as climbing gear.

Firing up the stove for dinner at the Lower Saddle.
We ended up with a comically mismatched pair of packs.  Ron had the “heavy pack,” loaded with the tent, cook set, most of the food, and all his personal gear, among other sundries.  His fully loaded 75 liter pack gave the appearance that he was ready for an extended expedition to Denali.  By contrast, my 30 liter pack, the only one I had brought with me, was bursting at the seams and featured a jangling assortment of ice axe, crampons, gaiters, gloves, helmet, and rope hanging off of it.  It appeared that I too was ready to attempt Denali, just with a severely undersized bag. 

We started up the Garnet Canyon Trail at a leisurely pace, stopping to snack and switch packs at intervals.  Yet more snow climbing up the Spalding Falls headwall and the Lower Saddle headwall brought us up the Middle Teton Glacier and to the Lower Saddle.  We made camp in the shelter of a large boulder, ate dinner in the tent, and hunkered down for a somewhat restless night of sleep.

We struck out from the Lower Saddle at first light, ascending to the Black Dike and traversing across the snow field at the toe of the ridges to the Stettner Couloir.  We booted our way up the couloir a few hundred feet and traversed on to the Direct Petzoldt Ridge across a broken ledge system to a point near the crest of the buttress.  The snow-covered ledges, cold temperatures, and lack of sun dictated that we would keep our boots on for the first pitch, and ultimately the entire climb.  As I had carried the coils to this point, my rope end was on the top of the stack, which meant I got the first lead.

I tentatively crept upward and leftward to a right-facing corner system and chimney, delicately yet quite deliberately placing the edge of my boot on small nubbins of rock, feeling for handholds through my gloves with cold, wet fingers.  I was hunting for the first piece of protection, in this case a micro-cam, our only attachment to the mountain.  A mantle move here, a traversing step there, some more protection, and I was soon at the base of the chimney, just a slot in the rock above me with a lonely piton about 10 feet off the ledge.  The slot terminated in a chockstone overhang guarding the belay ledge above. 

I shoved my left shoulder into the corner, braced hands against alternate walls, and stabbed the toe of my right boot at a crystal, hoping that if I just applied enough force it would not slip.  With that, I pushed out and up, placing my left boot toe on another small edge.  I was soon to the fixed pin and awkwardly forcing my way up the corner slot, cursing my ice axe on the back of my pack each time it managed to wedge itself against the rock so as to prohibit my freedom of movement, which it seemed to do incessantly.  I found myself underclinging the large chockstone, feeling for the holds above, and finally settling on an awesome hand-to-finger size slot.  A brief pull up and a high foot landed me on the belay ledge, amidst a whoop from Ron.  I was psyched, but also a bit intimidated; 5.5 in the Tetons in boots seemed a lot more challenging than my previous experience on the Upper Exum had led me to remember.

Ron arrived at the anchor and congratulated me on the crux lead.  I thanked him, but was a bit confused, as I thought I had just climbed the “easy rock to a ledge” below the first proper pitch.  After conferring with the topo, I confirmed that he was correct.  We had started with the crux pitch as a good portion of the easy rock at the base of the route was currently under snow.  Feeling a bit more relieved about my performance, I happily belayed Ron as he led off on the first off many leads we would swap.  A few pitches of enjoyable moderate rock (with notably exposed moves on Ron’s leads) took us through “the window” to the climber’s left side of the ridge. 

Ron just below the "window" pitch on the Direct Petzoldt Ridge.
At this point, we needed to cross back over to the right side of the ridge and continue along its crest to the summit of the buttress.  A challenging 5.9 pitch and a hundred feet of low-angle face climbing landed us on a small ledge on the back side of the summit of the Petzoldt Ridge, about halfway up the southern aspect of the Grand Teton.  We took a moment to adjust and reinforce the rappel anchor near the summit and descended into the notch between the Petzoldt Ridge buttress and the main massif of the Grand.

Above us were three options.  To our left was the hulking Exum Ridge.  A few hundred feet of loose mixed snow and rock guarded the weakness onto the upper portion of the neighboring buttress.  Straight above, uncharted rock led to the skyline, initially very steep but easing in angle after a few hundred feet.  To our right, the relatively soft snow of the Ford Couloir led directly to the skyline and snow field guarding the summit blocks.  We elected to follow the Ford Couloir, simul-climbing ever upward, one laborious step at a time, noting the boot pack of a pair of skiers who had ascended the couloir earlier that day.  After two or three rope lengths of snow climbing, my supply of protection was exhausted so I belayed atop a small rock outcropping on the climber’s left side of the couloir. 

Ron joined my seat perched on the small ledge and we rested a moment, feet dangling off the slab and over the couloir.  Below us, hundreds of feet of bright white couloir gave way to rocky and snowy slopes that terminated in the lateral moraine of the Middle Teton Glacier, some 2,000 feet below.  We were feeling the effects of the altitude, consecutive early mornings, and the somewhat surprising swelter of steep snow climbing as the sun crept overhead, reflecting dazzling light and heat off the uniform snow.  Food, water, sunblock, and a short breather were in order.

With our rest stop completed, Ron readied to lead upward when the two skiers appeared on the skyline of the couloir.  They clearly intended to ski the couloir, and not one to spoil fun for others in the mountains, we gazed back to our left at the uncharted rock beside us.  I put Ron on belay as we scoped the various features.  We exchanged a collective glance that said, “Why the hell not?” before Ron set out while the skiers came sidehilling and jump turning past us.

Ron’s lead proved to be one of the most non-trivial on the entire mountain, concluding with a dicey mantle onto a sloping arête and delicate slab climbing to a small stance.  I repeatedly watched as Ron approached the next tenuous move, tested the sequence, backed down, and looked for more options.  This process was repeated two or three times until Ron could confirm the best possible sequence, commit to the move, and push himself upward.  I grew more nervous at the belay as he edged farther away from his last protection, unsure of whether to hold my breath or shout encouragement.  I prepared myself for the possibility of a fall, determining my contingency plans should the single ice axe in soft snow that was serving as the belay fail. Thankfully, Ron did not take an unplanned ride down the mountain onto his rope.  After a few tense and seemingly interminable moments, Ron shouted, “Off belay, Derek,” and it was my turn to follow his proud lead.

The stance Ron found for the anchor was too small to accommodate both of us, our packs, and the rope, so I literally grabbed the rack of gear from Ron as I climbed by, stopping a short distance away on the lead to put on my crampons.  My trepidation about the coming pitch and its apparent dearth of protection belied my enjoyment of the moderate mixed climbing that followed.

I launched from my small rock outcropping onto the snow above, confidently and steadily climbing 50 feet up the tight couloir to the first piece of protection in the rock bordering the left side of the couloir.  Another 20 feet of snow led to a second piece of protection and a high step across into the left-facing corner bordering the right side of the couloir.  This small side step avoided the overhanging headwall above the couloir, instead sneaking along an icy runnel in a slot to the side of the overhang.  The thin layer of gray ice and granular snow provided just enough purchase for the pick of an ice axe and front points of my crampons.  The variously frozen water crunched slightly with every swing and kick, forcing delicate movement, the occasional scratching of crampons on rock, and side-pulling the rock in gloved hands.  I finally reached the skyline after 160 feet of climbing only to find an additional 100 feet of snow barring the next belay stance.  Ron took to simul-climbing 200 feet below me as I finished the final steps to the snowy notch.

While I was excited for the climbing, I was also growing increasingly tired and weary of the mountain.  I was ready to summit and begin the descent.  Three pitches later, I haggardly approached Ron’s anchor, still shy of the summit ridge.  I stood next to Ron in the snow, shoulders slumped, head down, gaze transfixed on some unspecified point just in front of me.  I closed my eyes, and with a deep breath relaxed, straightened my posture, and began silently taking the rack from Ron’s harness and clipping it to my own, one piece at a time.  With renewed resolve and exhausted determination, I looked to Ron for the belay and the unspoken response of his facial expression communicated his acknowledgement, understanding, assent, and trust. I smiled wryly, “We’re almost there,” and set off panting into the final rocky step.

Ron and I on the summit of the Grand Teton.
The summit proved awesome in its magnificent vista as well as its intense wind, both serving to underscore the power of a planet brimming with savage energy and ordered chaos, of which at that moment I could not help but feel only a small yet somehow giant part.  I sat next to Ron huddled against the howling stream of air.  We snapped a few photos and began the long journey downward.

As we descended the west side of the peak toward the Enclosure, the mountain decided it was not quite done with us, even if we were done with it.  Our entire descent to the Lower Saddle some 2,000 feet below was plagued by constant winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour, with gusts to at least 70 miles per hour, sufficiently large to knock both me and Ron over and on one occasion literally pick me up off my feet.  Breaking camp was an interesting process, but a few glissades soon led us down Garnet Canyon to fairer conditions.

On the glacier below I had about seven miles of hiking during which to reflect upon my recent experiences in the Tetons, and there was much to learn.  At one point during the previous day’s approach, Ron and I discussed how climbing had changed his life.  Prior to climbing, Ron had participated in the prototypical behavior emblematic of the extended adolescence of the modern young adult American male.  He and his circle of friends spent much of their time drinking and partying, establishing their credibility and worth based on who could drink more, bed more women, and mock their friends the most.  When he discovered climbing, he felt powerful in a new and different way; he no longer needed the partying to determine his worth over others.  This was evident in his climbing.  Ron is an extremely confident climber, yet he manages to maintain an air of affability and humility in what he does.

In many ways, this balance of confidence and humility was demanded of both of us during all of our climbing, but especially over the preceding few days.  It takes a certain amount of audacity to attempt to climb large mountains.  Often it is only the notion that one is confident and capable of the task that allows success.  The desire and drive for the climb counts for much.  This confidence and motivation stem from an intimate self-knowledge.  Repeatedly pushing one’s limits allows one to know precisely of what they are capable.

Contrarily, the mountain punishes hubris.  The confident, self-knowledgeable climber can achieve success, but those who over-estimate their ability soon find themselves in a world of trouble in payment for their ego.  A climber must be humble enough to know when the mountains decide retreat is the more prudent option.  I feel that Ron and I could have successfully completed the Cathedral Traverse in the conditions we encountered, but we lacked the fitness to move quickly enough to avoid potential avalanche conditions if we were to do the route in a day.  Instead, we would need to return with a plan to bivy so that we could climb potentially dangerous snow slopes at the appropriate times of day.  In our current state, we could simply not attempt the full climb safely.

During the flights to Jackson Hole, I had been reading Snyder’s The Hall of the Mountain King about the 1967 Wilcox expedition to Denali that left 7 of 12 men dead.  The tale was well written, resonating, and haunting.  More than anything, for me it questioned why some live and some die in the mountains.  With every foray into the mountains, I endeavored to return alive and well due to sound decision making and skill, not luck.  Ultimately, it was a series of poor decisions and inadequate preparation that doomed the men of the Wilcox expedition.  The similarity I recognized between the Wilcox expedition and our close call with avalanches on Teewinot was sobering.

The USGS summit marker on the Grand Teton.
That being said, one advantage Ron and I had over the Wilcox expedition lay in our partnership.  With whom one elects to share a rope in the mountains can be as important as any other factor controlling success.  I will go to the crag for a day of climbing with nearly anyone, but in the mountains, my partners are much more carefully considered and of a short list.  Lucky or not, I took solace in the fact that both Ron and I were doggedly dedicated to the notion that we would never despair and never quit, either for ourselves or each other.  No matter what happened in the mountains, we would always keep striving.

I continued tromping down the trail, ruminating, abusing my knees, pushing just a few more miles.  A few hours later we treated ourselves to a room at Motel 6, struggling to stay awake long enough to finish our customary victory beer.

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