Peaks: Grand Teton (13,770) via Upper Exum (5.5), Middle Teton (12,804) via SW Gully (class 3) and Teewinot (12,325) via East Face (class 4)
Campsites: Side of Highway 189, Moraine and Meadows of Garnet Canyon, Hampton Inn, some random pullout near the Mormon barns in the Teton Valley and some dirt road south of Eden off 189
Food: Green Chile Pizza, Buffalo Chicken Wrap, Bertolli’s Tortolini with regular tobasco and genoa salami, corn tortillas with genoa salami, 5 cans of various flavored Pringles, can of spicy BBQ Stacks, candy corns, Gatorade energy shots, Country Time lemonade mix, 4 packs of Double Stuffed Oreos (we both separately bought 2 for 3$ packs), Macadamia nuts, Huckleberry jam, Hint of Lime Tostitos
This trip was 5 years in the making. Last time I tried for the Grand, my friend Glen and I headed up with 50% chance of weather, and what we got was 4 straight days of constant rain and thunder storms. There was maybe 1 or 2 solid hours of reprieve for 96 hours straight. To top it off, we had a bear encounter in the national forest around Shadow Mountain. We heard an agitated growl outside the tent in a thunder storm – Glen had his Glock 40 cal locked and loaded, myself a measely bottle of spray. We exited the tent, guns blazing and heard/saw the silhouette of a massive figure run in to the woods, followed by the crunching of trees. We took an uncollapsed tent, tied to roof and drove back to Denver dejected. We never even made it to Lupine Meadows TH.
Fast forward to this summer. Steve and I decided to just go for it, since we both agreed on a date around Labor Day. We designated 6 days to ensure a summit, as well as a chance to explore more of the area. We took Steve’s Versa this go around, which in stark contract to his Rav-4 – aka “The Honey Badger” – this vehicle actually gives a shit. More like a couple shits, as it essentially has 0.5″ of ground clearance. But it gets good gas mileage, and when Steve is behind the wheel – you get places quick. The forecast, according to No Obligation to Anything Accurate, was as promising as it could be.
We took the ever so scenic I-80 across Southern Wyoming, stopping in Laramie for a bite. We stumbled upon “The Library”, which had phenomenal Green Chile pizza and a Buffalo Chicken wrap with a legitimate kick. We also visited Coal Creek TAP – which had a solid lineup. Driving in the dark along this part of Wyoming can actually be preferable to the daylight – there is literally nothing to see. We wanted to make it to Jackson and pitch a tent, but we gave up just north of Pinedale, and pitched a pad and bag next to the cars once we entered the Bridger-Teton NF. It was a cold night with Semi’s keeping us up for the majority – but after all that monotonous driving, neither of us could take it anymore.
We woke up to blue skies, made the quick jaunt to Jackson and were greeted to our first views of the Cathedral Group:
Some updates on costs. It’s 30$ to enter Grand Teton NP, plus another 20$ (for a total of 50$) if you double up with Yellowstone. Climbing “reservations” are “free” but backcountry permits are 25$ per group. I was always under the impression (maybe I interpreted it wrong) that when you buy a backcountry permit to climb the Grand, or camp up in Garnet Canyon, you had to wait a day to pack in. This assumption was wrong – you can pack in the same day. All in all, aside from the additional costs, which we didn’t mind forking over – the permit process was a rather simple and painless process. This was all taken care of at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, a couple miles down the road from Lupine Meadows TH.
With time to kill, we backtracked to town, loaded up on a solid breakfast at “The Bunnery” – a Jackson staple, got some last minute supplies and food, and were off. The trail from Lupine is very popular and easy to follow – it’s just a steep, long grunt. Once you enter Garnet Canyon proper, views of the Nez Perce and Middle Teton tease you, and the trail itself parallels a creek with some crystal blue/green waters. There are 4 sets of backcountry camping spots : The Platforms, The Meadows, The Moraine and The Upper Saddle – and they all have their pros and cons. The Platforms look the coolest, are the farthest away (from the peaks) but the established trail goes all the way to them. Once passed this area, the trail is still good, but slightly less established. The Meadows are probably the best overall spot from a scenic/strategic standpoint. You can access Middle and South Teton quite easily from here and are still within striking distance of an easy-ish day on the Grand, with much better protection from the elements. The Moraine is similar to The Boulderfield on Longs – just a massive alpine rock garden, with primitive sites, but slightly more strategic than Meadows. Most people, by the time they get done that last grunt above the Meadows usually give up and plop down in the Moraine. The Upper Saddle is completely exposed to the elements, but if the North Ridge of Middle or any route on the Grand is your sole objective and you could care less about the comforts – this is the place for you. There also is a fixed rope aided stout class 4 headwall just below the saddle to contend with, which we were not willing to deal with, so on night 1 – we ended up in the Moraine.
It was a miserable night. The spot we chose was rocky as hell and not wide enough to sufficiently stake down the tent. We jerry rigged as best we could, but the constant winds just made it futile to try and sleep much at all. I, personally, got zero hours of shut eye, which was unfortunate, cause the pack in took more out of me than expected. Nonetheless, adrenalin and some Red Bull got us to the Upper Saddle in the morning, where we huddled out of the wind for a while to wait for daylight. We saw some headlamps headed up, so after getting sick of shivering, we pushed on. I’m not going to get too technical with details of the Upper Exum route as its talked about ad nauseam on the internet – but the biggest piece of simple advice I can give anyone trying to locate the entrance to Wall St and the UE is to look for this prominent rock feature rock “fin”…..
When you locate this, head directly for it. We didn’t bother trying to find the “eye of the needle” (we found it on the descent though). This is where you leave the Owen Spalding, climb over that notch, and then Wall St. is right there. I’ll cease with anymore route descriptions, cause once you are on Wall St, its impossible to get off route from here to the summit. I’ll just add my own personal thoughts on each section :
Wall St is a lonely place. 95% of it is an easy ramp you can just jog up. We made the mistake of setting up a belay too early. It would’ve been fine on a calm day, but the crux section where you make the exposed step around was whipping with 30-35 mph sustained winds, rendering communication 100% useless. Even if Steve was closer, we couldn’t hear anything, but it would’ve been better if we could see one another. Do yourself a favor and simulclimb the ledge till you get about 10 yards from the crux step around and belay from there. This ate up a decent amount of time and was probably the longest section of the day due to our momentary lapse in judgement. Luckily, that’s all it was.
I approached the crux ledge with Asolo boots, tried to step around and nearly got blown off from the wind. I backed off, checked my underwear and gave the lower traverse a shot. The lower route had more holds, but I didn’t trust my ledge boot hold to get to safer ground, not to mention the exposure was staring me right in the face. I backed off again, got fed up, swapped my boots for my rock shoes, placed 5 cams right in close succession to ensure I was 5 times less likely to plummet to my death and went back to the upper route, made the step across and just as I was about to complete the step, the rope can taut and I couldn’t move. I screamed at the top of my lung capacity at Steve, many feet away “Slack!!!!!” “Steve – f**king slack!!!”. I made it across, checked my underwear again, set up a belay ledge, then realized Steve couldn’t hear me. After yelling a bunch more, I just started pulling in the rope in hopes Steve would realize I’m through and ready to belay him. Fortunately, he would figure this out and what seemed like 2 hours later (but was really just 10 min), Steve came in to view and I belayed him across.
From Wall St, we rounded the corner and found this not-as-exposed, low 5th class crack to work our way up. The holds were plentiful and we made quick work. While recognized as a prominent section of the Upper Exum Ridge, the Golden Staircase was probably the shortest and easiest section of the entire day. You don’t have to climb up directly from the belay ledge of Wall St – walked around to the right and start looking up. You don’t have many options, so the route will basically funnel you in to the path of least resistance naturally.
The Wind Tunnel was actually a nice surprise along the UE. It’s described as class 3 on most descriptions, but we found it to be enjoyable class 4 scrambling with diversity throughout. This section, more so than all the others, is probably the area where, if you climb the UE numerous times, you’ll never touch the same rock twice here. Fun, solid stuff that was a nice reprieve from the more intense sections of the ridge.
The Friction Pitch was more fun than scary, but it was still a serious section with big consequences if things were to go wrong. We had sustained winds to deal with, which made things slightly more anxious and difficult. But the hand and foot holds are VERY good. The hardest pitch is right from the start (where Steve is in the pic above). We both started up this line and then made a short traverse to the right, where we continued the climb up. Protection is difficult here cause there isn’t really anywhere to place it. I’d recommend the stronger climber lead this and then throw a rope down for anyone not comfortable. We both freed it, but neither of us felt “guilty” about it. If you have any sort of experience rock climbing in general, this pitch should not be an issue.
Now generally the next prominent section of the Upper Exum is the “V-Pitch”. We saw it from the top of the Friction and made, what we thought, was the way towards it. We were on these class 2+ ledges, but after climbing for what seemed longer than it should’ve been, we were standing on the summit ridge – confused. We backtracked down like 20 feet and to the right and noticed we were standing atop the V-Pitch. The good news is we found an easy alternative to the pitch, the bad news is we were kind of looking forward to that section as it looked fun and we intended on briging out the rope to at least get some practice and justify hauling that damn thing all the way up there. Oh well I guess.
Ironically enough, the section above the V-Pitch on this tower proved to be the most difficult section for me at least. Steve is a couple inches shorter and had approach shoes on and squeezed through this slanting crack with relative ease. I swapped my rock shoes for my heavy boots right before this and had lots of trouble. I finally got pissed enough to swap back to my rock shoes and still could barely fit through this section. So Floyd – take note of this if you ever give this a go. Luckily, for the big man – you can rejoin the Owen Spalding here, you just have to drop around a little to avoid this tower.
Once beyond this, its smooth sailing to the summit.
A note on the 2 rappels down the OS route. The first rappel is easy, straightforward and doable with a single, 60m rope. The 2nd rappel is longer, free hanging and a solid 40m rappel, so you either need a single 70m and hope it stretches a little, or do a double rope rap (however you deem fit). I heard you can make it work with a single 60, but the chains for that looked to be located in a precarious spot. I was also told you could “toss left” and make it – but after seeing the 2nd rap in person, I have my apprehensions. We luckily ran in to a nice group who had 2 ropes and let us tag along on their rappels.
From there, you simply find the path of least resistance down the bottom half of the OS route down to the Lower Saddle.
We got back to camp and feasted before descending to The Meadows, where we’d set ourselves up for a climb of Middle and South the next day. This was on the menu….
To reflect a little on the Upper Exum route of the Grand, here are a few thoughts :
- If you are looking to climb the Grand via an aesthetic, classic route – Upper Exum is hands down far superior to Owen Spalding
- I’ve always viewed the Grand in a more challenging light than it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, to stand atop this mountain is a significant victory in anyone’s mountaineering life, but when you break it down in to sections, it becomes much more manageable. From the approach, to where to camp, to when you wake up, to getting on Wall St, meandering through Wind Tunnel, scrambling up Friction and V-Pitches, appreciating life on the summit and then rappelling off the mountain safely – its very doable if you look at it this way rather than get overwhelmed and intimidated by the scale and enormity of the mountain.
- While a lot of parties do in fact free the UE – I’d suggest to bring a light rack just in case. I’m not sure I’d pull that crux on Wall St off without some protection.
- We somehow had UE 100% to ourselves on the particular day we climbed it. I was preparing myself for conga lines up it, given the holiday week, but that was not to be the case. We even had the summit all to ourselves for 10 minutes. We saw 3 other parties all day on the mountain.
- Garnet Canyon is an incredibly lush and beautiful place – don’t forget to enjoy your surroundings, which are made that much sweeter after a safe and successful Grand summit.
Down at the Meadows, we found a nice spot up against a massive boulder with an overhanging tree branch that could be used as a place to hang stuff. It was peaceful (for now) and we were able to filter water, rest and not get blasted by wind for a couple hours. Little did we know…..
We dozed off early, somewhere around 8pm. Around 10pm, we heard that all too familiar sound of the rain fly starting to flap. By 10:30, a solid storm engulfed us and by 10:45 I thought I was gonna have to replace my Big Agnes tent once again. The gusts of wind were, dare I say, stronger than the night before at the Moraine, only advantage we had this go around was the tent was staked down pretty well. Had it not, I would’ve been down a tent. But in the end, the tent performed admirably. It reminded me of that scene from “We Were Soldiers” when those 2 guys single handedly defended that position known as “The Knoll” from a Vietcong assault. That’s what the barrage felt like and I’m a new found believer in the BA line.
We woke in the morning to clear skies. There isn’t much to really say about Middle Teton, other than 1, the “trail” from the Meadows up to the South Fork Basin isn’t as straightforward as one would think (you’ll lose the trail numerous times cause it simply disappears) 2, the SW Gully route on Middle is fun class 3, with minimal loose rock and 3, and the most important, is the view of the Grand from Middle’s summit – which is the #1 reason to add that peak to your Garnet Canyon itinerary.
Also, there is an obvious climber’s trail all the from the saddle to essentially Middle’s summit. As we were descending Middle, I told Steve I had no intention of slogging up South Teton and was more concerned with post-climb festivities. He was still determined to nab it, until he learned of it’s true elevation. When I informed Steve it stood at 12,500 feet, his mindset did a 180 and he agreed to an earlier pack out. Damn elevationists! Glad I didn’t tell him Middle wasn’t a 13er….
On the pack out, we were finally able to enjoy the scenery a little more. Here are some highlights….
We had a post climb at Snake River – I highly, HIGHLY recommend the Pulled Pork sandwich. Usually I add a healthy amount of BBQ sauce on, but this was so good “as is” – it didn’t need it. Later, Steve’s mom was kind enough to let us use some of her travel points to book a room (on Labor Day weekend no less) at one of the nicer Hampton Inns I’ve ever stayed at.
We woke up to pouring rain, ate 2 rounds of complimentary breakfast and decided to spend the day up in Yellowstone. I knew this was a conscious decision to head straight in to the Lion’s Den of Gaperdom, the Land of California Dingleberries, but the rain was not letting up in the Teton Valley and the radar showed some sun further north, plus I had never been there before. Here are some highlights of the day :
We basically did a massive loop of the entire central area, which ended up taking every bit of 8 hours and didn’t even cover 50% of the park. I will say, despite the park being viciously gaped out, it exceeded my expectations. Such a diverse landscape. I’ve never paid much attention to the area cause it seems there aren’t really any alpine goals, but the surreal nature is worth the trip alone, not to mention Yellowstone Lake is MASSIVE. The last leg of the day ended with Steve nerd raging behind the wheel as he unsuccessfully tried to pass a couple of assholes stopped in the middle of the road to get shots of some elk with no racks, nearly running over an elk after passing some dumb asshole from California who doesn’t understand the concept of pulling over (I extended my arm 100% fully out the window so they would not miss my middle finger) and we rolled back in to Jackson in the pitch black and took 2 solid hours to find a place to pitch a tent for the night, as we forgot to stake something out earlier that morning. All in all a successful day and I’m surprised it took either of us that long to finally lose it. Another thing of note. The Old Faithful gift shop were selling “selfie sticks” to these jackasses. If Asians needed another distraction – unreal. I was amazed nobody tripped and fell in to a geothermal pool. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were too stupid to realize they were in 200 degree water and would probably just continue filming themselves.
We agreed on a fun scramble to round out the trip and after the couple on the summit of the Grand suggesting Teewinot’s East Face, we decided to give it a go. Arguably the best decision of the trip. The route begins right from the west end of the Lupine Meadows TH and goes straight up – literally. For anyone looking for a fun, legit class 4 scramble with some fun climbing, enough exposure to get the heart racing, an exhilarating summit and an even more exhilarating view – check out Teewinot. To give you some perspective, its 5 miles roundtrip and 5500 vertical feet, and it takes longer than you’d think due to its complex nature. I was actually thinking to myself that this is essentially the Mount Morrison or Bear Peak of Jackson – on crack. The Summitpost description of the East Face is spot on, so I won’t bore with the details, but here are some highlights…..
For a little perspective, since Teewinot certainly isn’t a trivial climb, we did not bring a rope (as some TR’s elude to). The crux sections up high were complex, exposed and not easy to downclimb, but if you took your time and are used to that kind of stuff, its perfectly manageable. We saw 4 parties that day and none rap’d these sections. And the summitpost description isn’t joking when it mentions the sustained 4th class climbing. Once you pass those 2 prominent gendarmes – “Idol” and “Worshipper” – it’s basically class 4 for the remaining 2500 feet, riddled with complex ledges, some route finding and some stout scrambling throughout. Anyone who has ever done peaks in Glacier NP – Teewinot would fit in well up there. Steep, exposed and unrelenting. The rock is really good though, just make sure your soles are grippy and dry (there is a lot of wet mud up there from the melted snowfield which makes for some slippery feet). If nothing else, the summit and the view of the Grand and Owen are worth the trip alone.
The last feast was done at a local hangout known as “The Bird”. The 9 ounce burgers there (on an english muffin) are arguably the single greatest post-climb food item in the Lower 48. It’s about 3 miles south of town, no gapers, no bullshit and an incredible view from the deck of the Jackson Hole ski resort. I think even Jules would approve of it….
Last, but certainly not least, I can’t end this TR without a shout out to a classic 50’s breakfast diner we hit on the way home in Rawlins called “Penny’s Diner”. The breakfast platter includes 2 meats, eggs, hash browns, toast and 2 buttermilk pancakes in a Heartland of America type atmosphere and friendly service. Despite eating all this food, I still think our caloric intake was in the negative, maybe even from the pack in to the Grand alone. I think I lost around 15 pounds from all the vert we put up on this trip – on only 3 mountains. Amazing area!
Thanks for reading.