Partners: Carl Dowdy, Marc Barella
Route: Ascent of Upper Exum, descent of Owen-Spalding
Numbers: 7,100 feet, 15.5 miles, 13 hours
About two months ago Carl pitched me the idea of going for the Grand Teton via the Upper Exum Ridge, a route about as classic as they get. Immediately I was interested; the Grand stood high on my wish list as one of those must-do-in-your-lifetime peaks, as it does for many. For weeks we researched and discussed the plan, ultimately deciding on the last weekend in July as the best window for our trip. Most parties climb the Grand in two or three days: one day for the approach to the Lower Saddle, one day for the ascent of the peak itself, and sometimes one additional day for the deproach back to the TH. Initially we planned on a two day trip until we ran into some red tape that forced our hand. The Jenny Lake Ranger Station requires each party intent on camping within the national park to obtain a permit. Two thirds of the available permits are given away on a first come first serve basis each day throughout the summer, the rest are given away as reservations offered between January and May the year of your climb. Since the Grand didn’t even enter our minds until June, the time for reserving a permit was long gone. The other option of driving eight hours to Jackson and hoping we would get there early enough to nab a permit didn’t sound appealing either, hence a single day ascent became the only realistic plan for our group.
The drive from Golden to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead on July 30th took just over eight hours. When we drove through Jackson around 8pm it was pouring rain and the forecast for the following day had jumped from a 20% to 60% chance of precipitation. This was disappointing as the forecast was sitting pretty at 20% for the entire week prior. Upon pulling into the TH the group sentiment seemed to be that we’d be lucky to pull it off given the weather we were faced with, but we had to give it a shot. Maybe at the very least we’d get some good photos of the peak. Bivy bags went down next to the car, the Grand was still obscured by clouds at this point but by 10pm the weather seemed to be clearing up a bit. The last thing I remember before I fell asleep was looking up and seeing some stars poking through a break in the cloud cover. Maybe, just maybe, we’d get a shot after all…
Alarms went off at 12:45 and we were off twenty minutes later. The trail heads south for roughly two miles before cutting west up a grass slope in a series of big switchbacks. Partly clear skies revealed enough moonlight to guide our progress as we gained elevation above the Jackson Hole Valley. Above the switchbacks, the trail flattens out somewhat and enters lower Garnet Canyon. From here the trail winds through a flat area known as “The Meadows”, then gets steeper as it heads up a large headwall also known as “The Caves”. At the 2.5 hour mark we were nearly to the top of this headwall when the weather decided it wasn’t gonna let us off the hook quite so easily…
This 3:30am squall came up over the Lower Saddle quickly, it caught us off guard and though it was short, it packed some punch. There was absolutely nothing in sight to use for shelter so we sort of just huddled with our backs to the wind and waited. Fortunately for us it only lasted ten minutes or so, it could have been the end of our day if it had lasted much longer. As soon as the brunt of the tantrum was over we resumed hiking and gained the headwall. From there the route heads through a big boulder field between Middle Teton and Disappointment Peak, then it’s one final push of elevation up a snow slope to the the Lower Saddle. We hiked this section quickly, hitting the saddle at quarter to five and capping off a 4,900′, 6.5 mile approach.
We took a food break and refilled our water bottles using Carl’s filter. The Lower Saddle is a wind stripped plot of land about the size of the Loft on Longs. There was some morning activity on the saddle; the Exum Guides tent was stirring as were a few other tents nearby, and the sky was lighting up nicely which lent us our first real views of the Grand. It appeared our timing worked out perfectly; the terrain between the Lower Saddle and Wall Street would be a bear to navigate in the dark. After a long break we left the saddle and grunted a few hundred feet before stopping again to gear up and stash a pack. From here it was a short scramble to Wall Street, less than twenty minutes if I remember correctly.
The scrambling through this section of the route provided a welcomed reprieve from our all night, mindless slog-a-thon. Within 45 minutes of leaving the Lower Saddle we came up on Wall Street, the gateway to the Upper Exum.
Wall Street is basically wide ledge which cuts from the base of the Exum Ridge to its crest, gradually tapering off and ending in a single exposed move. This move has been compared to the boulder step-around move on Broadway, so we figured we might as well rope up here and possibly continue the rope length into the Golden Staircase pitch.
Carl then brought Marc and I around, at this point we were officially on the Exum Ridge.
Here we had a decision to make. Looking up the route from this position it was clear we’d be doing quite a bit of unroped scrambling, the terrain just didn’t look very difficult. Carl and I watched Marc scramble up the Golden Staircase and decided it looked to be within our comfort zones as well, so up we went. We ended up tackling the rest of the route in this same fashion; Marc would check things out and head up, followed by Carl who would gain confidence after watching Marc climb, followed by myself after I gained confidence by watching Carl climb. At no point did any of us feel the need for a rope, often by the time I would think about it I found I was already above the difficulties of the pitch and back on class 3 terrain. The technical pitches are really very short; only one or two moves of class 5.5 or lower surrounded by class 4 rock.
Now let me pause for a moment to provide a small disclaimer. I am in no way suggesting that people should free solo the Upper Exum unless they are both competent and confident. This was merely the decision our group made on this particular day and, after a good discussion between Carl and I on the hike out, I don’t believe it was necessarily the right one. Speaking for Carl and myself, if we were to climb Upper Exum again, we would rope up for Wall Street leading into the Golden Staircase as well as the Friction Pitch, possibly even for the V Pitch as well. Our reasoning is that although the pitches were well within our climbing abilities, by not roping up we were neglecting to account for the objective hazards which could have been present. No amount of climbing skill can account for a random hold pulling out, or a random rockfall event, etc. Every pitch on this route would have led quickly and we had plenty of time, but at any rate lessons learned, now back to the climb…
Above the Golden Staircase the exposure diminishes. From here a hundred feet of class 3 scrambling leads to the base of “Wind Tunnel”, a 200′ class 3 chute with several large boulders chalked at its base.
We were moving very efficiently and feeling great, this really is a fantastic ridge run. A hundred more feet of class 3 and we came to the base of what appeared to be the Friction Pitch. Once again Marc took the reigns and made it look easy. After a brief chat between Carl and I we decided we were good with soloing it, so up Carl went.
The Friction Pitch contained probably the hardest move on the route, but still remained within our zones of comfort. Again I found that by the time I realized I may have wanted a rope I was already above the moves and back on easier terrain. Above the Friction Pitch features of the upper route fell into place and we realized we were close.
Roughly two hundred feet of class 3/4 scrambling lie between the top of the Friction and the bottom of the V. Upon arriving at the base of the V we had one more group huddle and decided to continue on up in like fashion.
Take note that the above photos make the pitch appear vertical, in reality the pitch lies back at an average angle of fifty degrees or so, hence the photos make it look much more intense than it actually was. From the top of the V Pitch we scrambled left around a large block bisecting the summit ridge where we ran into the upper portion of the Owen Spalding route.
After some more class 3 scrambling on the west side of the peak, we popped around a corner and found ourselves at the top of the Ford Couloir.
At 8:10am we stepped onto the summit, completing the ascent from the parking lot in just over 7 hours.
The views were, well, incredible…
Being the first group to summit for the day, we had the roof of the Tetons to ourselves for over half an hour. At a quarter to nine the first of the guided groups showed up. They left the Lower Saddle around the same time we did and summited only 30 minutes after us via the Owen Spalding route, belaying multiple pitches on the way up. The Exum Guides run a tight ship, they really are a marvel of mountaineering efficiency. Around 9am we decided we’d had enough summit bliss, it was time to head down. After we crossed the Ford a short downclimb to the west had us at the first rap station atop Sargent’s Chimney.
We tried to rappel quickly as there were several groups on their way up Owen-Spalding. A short hike had us above the second rap station, the anchor point for a much longer rap which sets you down on the Upper Saddle.
From here it’s a talus hop down the prominent gully which connects the upper and lower saddles. We made quick work of it, but not before stopping for a moment to peer down the Black Ice Couloir, that thing is impressive…
Down past the snowfield we picked up the pace as burgers and beer became the new focus. On our way down we passed a ton of people on their way up, some setting up for a climb the following day, others simply on a day hike to soak in the beauty of the area. This is a popular place, and for good reason.
We hit the parking lot at 2pm, capping off the round trip in a little over 13 hours. From there we headed in for a much needed shower at the AAC Climber’s Ranch ($4 per person if you can make it there before 4pm). After that it was off for burgers in Jackson, then a caffeine infused, 8 hour mad dash back to Golden. Back at my house as I was unloading gear at 2am I tried to soak in the enormity of this trip, but all I could really muster was a massive blur. I feel like Marc and Carl must have a similar take when they look back on it, perhaps this trip report will help with that.
Cheers and thanks for reading!