Hooping it up
Substitute teacher performs summit shenanigans in the Tetons.
Ryan Mertaugh of Jackson twirls a Hula-Hoop Sunday on the summit of the Middle Teton despite wind on the 12,804-foot peak in Grand Teton National Park. Mertaugh has embarked on a mission to Hula-Hoop on the summit of each of the major peaks in the central Teton Range to bring childlike joy to jaded mountaineers. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Johanna Love, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 13, 2013
Hula-Hoops can break the ice between strangers, inspire people to try new things and return a childlike joy to jaded mountaineers.
Hoops also enhance summit photos and videos atop Teton peaks.
Ryan Mertaugh, a 26-year-old whitewater guide and substitute teacher, is on a quest to Hula-Hoop atop the eight central peaks of the Teton Range. The Teton Hooping Contingency, a film about his project, is in the works.
“Up in the mountains,” Mertaugh said, “it’s really about kind of separating yourself from the extreme situation you’re in and making it a bit more lighthearted.”
A caffeine-fueled early morning departure and seven hours of skiing and climbing up 7,000 vertical feet — as was required for Mertaugh and two companions to reach the Middle Teton’s 12,804-foot high summit on Sunday — can lead to exhausted mountaineers. Maybe even grumpy ones.
“A lot of people are in the mountains for the right reason,” Mertaugh said, “but a few could benefit from lightening up a little bit and getting back to the fun.
“I want to hoop to help show that,” he said. “We’re up there to have a good time.”
As children have been doing since Wham-O first began selling Hula-Hoops in 1958, Mertaugh played with a hoop as a child in Traverse City, Mich. He began twirling one again about five years ago while walking between classes at Central Michigan University, he said, “to add a little spice to my commute.”
For additional challenges, he began hooping while walking a slackline and even while shooting clay pigeons on a friend’s farm.
Last year, while attempting a spring climb of the Middle Teton that ultimately failed, Mertaugh brought his hoop along and was surprised by the reaction from other ski alpinists.
“Everybody was super happy when they saw the hoop,” Mertaugh said. “That’s what inspired me, the joy it brings up high. It’s way out of context in the alpine environment.”
Young filmmaker Madison Pope has signed on to document Mertaugh’s peak hooping. The duo hopes to have a film ready by August to submit for consideration in Banff Mountain Film Festival.
Because Pope is in Logan, Utah, this winter attending Utah State University, Mertaugh is seeking another filmmaker with winter climbing experience. Funding for aerial shots also is on his wish list.
Mountaineering, however, is fraught with peril and tragedy always stalks. Mertaugh’s first hooping attempt in late January ended in a fatality — for the hoop.
Just past the Belly Roll on the Owen-Spalding route on the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, the system rigging Mertaugh’s hot pink zebra-striped hoop failed. The hoop floated like a feather before being sucked into the void by 70 mph gusts.
On March 1, Mertaugh and his crew set out into Grand Teton National Park again, this time aiming at Nez Perce. The hoop made it, and Teton Hooping Contingency had bagged its first winter hooping experience and video footage.
Sunday’s ascent of the Middle Teton was the project’s second successful summit hooping.
One of Mertaugh’s climbing partners, twice his age, is happy to indulge Mertaugh’s summit jollies. Wilson furniture maker Charlie Thomas, 53, sits placidly by in Sunday’s video as the ambassador of fun bounces his hoop up and down to break up the ice inside.
“I think it’s brilliant,” Thomas said Tuesday. “It’s humorous. It’s just silly. It’s good not to take yourself too seriously.”
Summit shenanigans run the gamut from goofy self-portraits to planking to freestyle rapping. It’s all good, says mountaineer and author David Gonzales.
“Mountaintops are to be celebrated on,” Gonzales said. “You can take it seriously on the way up and seriously on the way down, but the summit’s the place you can let your flag fly.”
A whitewater guide with Mad River Boat Trips each summer since college, Mertaugh moved to Jackson Hole after graduating and has been working the balance of the year as a substitute teacher for Teton County School District. Kids in particular get Mertaugh’s motivation, he said, and they help their parents remember the pleasure of a long forgotten childhood toy.
“I hope people will try it,” Mertaugh said, “give it a shot, start hooping, maybe, step back to the simpler things in their life and away from the hectic lifestyle they may have.”
For more information on the Teton Hooping Contingency, visit Mertaugh's website at www.tetonhoopingcontingency.org.