Following footsteps of legends up the Grand
Teton Range’s highest peak towers over Jackson Hole, luring its inhabitants upward.
By Miller N. Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 27, 2012
My feet felt light as I left Lupine Meadows. It was almost incomprehensible to me that I had never been on this journey before.
The Grand Teton has loomed over me from the day I was born. It stands stoically, changing with light and season, but otherwise solid, immovable and resolute. There is no other landmark in this valley that I am more familiar with from a distance, and yet I had never touched, ascended or stood on top of its rock walls.
One’s personal history is part of every journey, but the history of those who came before and the place in which he lives are also omnipresent.
Lulled into a meditative state by rhythmic footfalls, steady breathing and the warmth of the summer sun, my thoughts flowed between my history, the history of this journey and the history of the Grand.
The aura of those who had come before enveloped us earlier that morning, as my brother Turner and I made our preparations at the Exum Mountain Guide offices south of Jenny Lake.
The office was a Civilian Conservation Corps bathhouse and cafeteria in the 1930s. Hundreds of young men who built the national park’s first trails would finish their day there at the base of the Tetons.
When America’s fortunes shifted in the early 1940s, Paul Petzoldt and Glenn Exum, Teton climbing legends, acquired the buildings as the headquarters of America’s first mountain guiding service.
From these historic buildings, thousands of people departed — just as we had — to explore one of the most impressive geological formations in the world.
As we made our way up the moraine leading to Garnet Canyon, it was clear the ridge we were hiking on had been carved by glaciers pushing earth into the a long mound that stretched from the side of the mountain to the valley floor.
I thought of all of the great mountaineers who had walked this path before me and imagined their admiration for the geologic phenomena that surrounded us.
In the dust of the switchbacks, I saw the footprints of Franklin Spalding, William O. Owen, Frank Petersen and John Shive on their way to the first uncontested ascent of the Grand on Aug. 11, 1898.
I heard the voices of Petzoldt and Exum as they took the Wittenbergers up the Grand in mid-July of 1931, shortly before Exum left the group to pioneer the ridge we were headed to climb.
In my mind, I saw Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and Black Diamond Equipment, and Bill Briggs, the first person to ski the Grand, finding peace through rebellion.
As my legs burned, I channeled Alex Lowe and pushed on.
The Teton Range, and the Grand in particular, have been a pinnacle of climbing activity in the United States for more than 100 years.
There are more than 90 routes on the Grand alone. These include routes on which a novice climber, like me, can develop basic mountaineering skills, and routes that can challenge world-class mountaineers.
Entering the upper regions of Garnet Canyon felt like walking into Chartres. It is no wonder three of these peaks, seen from the northeast, are known as the Cathedral Group. The peaks above Garnet — Nez Perce, Cloudveil, the South Teton, the Middle Teton and the Grand — towered over a meadow still partly covered with snow.
A waterfall fed by snowfields above poured over smooth rock at the top of the meadows formed by a passing glacier.
Large boulders in the canyon’s choke gave way to scree and snowfields leading to the Lower Saddle between the Middle and the Grand.
The mountain’s geologic history became evident in the rocks we scrambled across. I’m no geologist, but what we encountered is called basement rock, which means it was forged deep under the earth by huge pressure and intense heat.
Some pieces were black and glittered with silver sparkles, others were translucent white. In our path there was everything from shards of pebbles to giant boulders. Bronze, gray, red with black swirls; once I started looking, every piece of rock caught my eye like a flake of mica.
Granite is the general term for this rock. My understanding is that the peaks of the Cathedral Group stuck out above massive glaciers during the ice age. The sedimentary rocks — rocks that were built up on the surface over time — were stripped away from the tops of the Tetons by weather and ice long ago. Or maybe not so long ago, since the Tetons are geologic newcomers, relatively speaking. Over the past 2 million years, the Tetons have risen 8,000 feet. This is the result — primarily —of a massive fault line that runs along the base of the range. The east side of the fault, or everything on the Jackson side, slants downward toward the Tetons, which explains why when the Snake River floods, Wilson floods. This, in combination with ice ages that began approximately 140,000 years ago and ended around 20,000 years ago, created this valley.
The deeper you get into the Tetons, the more nuanced they become. Climbing the Grand is like opening a book and finding it has infinite chapters.
From Jackson, it is almost impossible to see the detail in the southeastern face of the Grand. Up close, one realizes three major ridges define the south face — the Exum, Petzoldt and Underhill — each named for its pioneer climber.
As I ascended the final snowfield before reaching our first night’s camp on the Lower Saddle, I remembered Christian Beckwith, the former editor of Alpinist magazine, once pointed out to me that none of the streets in town are named after the valley’s mountaineers.
As I crested the final incline before camp, I realized that in their own way many of the mountain pioneers of this valley have their names immortalized on loftier streets, famous routes in the Tetons.
That night, my brother and I ate instant noodles as we watched the sun set on the street we would climb in the morning.
We started hiking just before 5 the next morning. In the Tetons, and generally in mountaineering, you leave early to ensure that a storm doesn’t strand you high on the mountain. Two years ago, an afternoon lightning storm stranded several teams of climbers on the Grand. One man died, and several others were injured.
There are reasons why I have never climbed the Grand. It is hard to admit, but I’m afraid of falling thousands of feet onto boulders, and I don’t trust myself or the ropes I’m relying on.
Climbing with Exum Mountain Guides alleviated some of my worries.
I like to call it a healthy respect for the mountains, but when I’m standing on a ledge a thousand feet above the ground, my palms sweat.
I was most surprised on our approach to the Upper Exum Ridge by the labyrinth of scree fields and spires we had to navigate. Our first obstacle — the Briggs Slab — was shallow, but the potential 20- foot fall intimidated me. I was glad to have a rope.
Glenn Exum pioneered the Upper Exum route in 1931. On July 15 of that year, Exum was climbing with fellow mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, who was leadinga group of clients up the Grand, when Petzoldt said to Exum, “Ex, why don’t you go over there, take a look at that ledge, and if you think it’ll go, why go, and we’ll meet you on top. If you don’t think it will go, call me and we’ll wait for you.”
Exum agreed, and traversed over to the ledge, now known as Wall Street, and made his way to the end of it.
Having stood on that ledge, I now understand how it narrows to nothing at the end. To reach the next stance, one must pass a void a thousand feet deep.
Exum balked before finally leaping across this gap. Once across, Exum was “mortified. Almost paralyzed,” he wrote. “But I just decided that from then on I was going to change my whole attitude about it, because there was only one way to go, and that was up.”
I can’t say I handled it like Exum. I made a point of not looking down while clinging to the rock for dear life. But I made it, and when I did there was only one way to go, and that was up.
The Upper Exum is one of the most popular routes on the Grand because it is spectacular and involves a lot of manageable climbing. It also catches the early morning sun.
Good holds appear out of the granite, and you can climb almost as if on a ladder.
At first my fear eclipsed my joy, but with time I found my feet and started to love the feel of the cold rock on my hands.
Reaching the top was a wonderful feeling. From the summit you can see the highest mountains in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It also offers a final look at the valley’s incredible geology, and, if you use your imagination, you can see all the climbers who preceded you on this marvelous adventure.
Descending took the rest of the day and was not without its excitement, but when we strolled into the parking lot at Lupine Meadows, I felt I had finally cleared an important right of passage.
Special thanks to Exum guides Patrick Ormond and Zahan Billimoria, and all the wonderful people at the Exum Mountain Guides office. Much of the information in this article was drawn from “A Climbers Guide to the Teton Range,” by Leigh N. Ortenburger and Reynold G. Jackson, as well as “Glenn Exum: Never a Bad Word or a Twisted Rope,” by Glenn Exum and Charlie Craighead.