GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The Tetons are the kind of archetypal mountains that etch themselves on your memory. Even if you don’t like climbing, they are unforgettable. Reminiscent of the Alps’ craggy outline, these granite peaks form a stunning, jagged skyline that rises abruptly off the sagebrush flats of the Snake River Plain.
The Grand Teton reigns as the range’s crown jewel, towering over the other peaks at an elevation of 13,770 feet. A climb up the Grand Teton is not only a great adventure but also a trip through the history of US alpinism.
I wanted to experience it.
Less than a mile from our departure point at the Lupine Meadow’s trailhead, my climbing partner, Andy, and I set our packs down. It wasn’t that we were already tired — we still had 6 miles and 4,500 vertical feet of elevation gain until camp at the Lower Saddle. It was that a black bear and two cubs were in a pine tree right beside the trail. Watching the sow giving a tree-climbing lesson, I recalled hearing a wildlife biologist say that Grand Teton’s combination of accessibility, quality climbing, and wildlife is unparalleled. Andy and I hid behind a snowberry bush, watching for nearly an hour.
But we had a mountain to climb, so eventually we picked up our loads and began winding across a series of gentle switchbacks that led up a hillside of native wildflowers — arrow leaf balsam root, bluebells, and monkshood. Bradley and Taggart lakes sparkled emerald green on the valley floor far below us. Before long we rounded a bend into Garnet Canyon and the giant granite monolith of the Middle Teton, the Grand Teton’s southern sister, greeted us front and center — intimidating and inspiring all at once.
Two hours later after working our way through an idyllic alpine meadow, then the lunar landscape of the Middle Teton Glacier’s moraine, we set up our tent at the Lower Saddle, the classic camping spot for Grand aspirants. The peak glowed orange in the setting sun. This time, the view was simply intimidating.
It is not unusual to hear people refer to the Grand Teton as a “hike.” While there are routes that are reasonable for a fit, less experienced mountaineer, the Grand Teton is not a hike. All routes to the summit require ropes and most years park rangers recover the body of someone who couldn’t make the distinction between climbing and hiking. But there are options for adventurous, fit non-climbers. The summit of the Enclosure, a spur jutting off the Grand’s western flank, is attainable with a few serious scrambling moves.
At 3 a.m. a guided group wakes us heading up the Owen Spalding, their early start a technique for avoiding adverse weather. The Owen Spalding may be the Grand Teton’s easiest means of ascent, but that distinction doesn’t do justice to the thousands of feet of butterfly-inducing exposure on sections of the route such as “The Belly Roll” and “The Crawl,” or the ice-choked rock and cold temperatures that can be encountered any month of the year on this northwestern face.
The debate over who was the first to climb the Grand Teton is considered by some to be one of US mountaineering’s greatest controversies. William Owen ascended the peak via his namesake route in 1898 with three partners, but the mystery remains as to whether or not Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson had beaten them in 1872. Climbing historians hypothesize that Langford and Stevenson may have been aided by a mass migration of grasshoppers that froze to the peak’s steep slopes. (Due to solar radiation, their dark bodies created divots in the snow as they melted that the pair used as footholds in their ascent. But the validity of their ascent remains debated to this day due to a summit description that subsequent teams deemed confusing and questionable.
We rolled back over for another few hours of sleep, the clank of carabineers and the crunch of footsteps serving as a lullaby. In just a few hours we would begin climbing up the Petzold Ridge, a prominent stepped ridge on the Grand Teton’s southern face.
“On belay, Molly,” called Andy, signaling that I could begin up the section of rock he had just ascended. “Climbing,” I shouted in response. I was about to launch onto what a friend had described as the “wear your adult diaper” move of the route: a careful step onto a wafer ledge hanging in thin air. I took a deep breath, delicately transitioned my weight onto my extended foot, and pulled up through the move.
Like the Owen Spalding, the Petzoldt Ridge is also steeped in history. Legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, who established the route in 1924, not only introduced guiding to the Tetons in the early 1920s (after climbing the Owen Spalding at 16 in a pair of cowboy boots), but also helped found renowned institutions like Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School that are still in operation today.
As I climbed up through such unique features as large garnet chunks and a delicate granite arch, I considered what outdoor and experiential education would be like in this country without Petzoldt’s significant contributions.
After eight pitches, we finished the Petzold Ridge proper, but were still a ways from the summit. We traversed to the west, then linked in with the Exum Ridge just above the spot where in 1932, Petzold’s protégé Glenn Exum took his famous leap of faith through thin air onto a boulder while clad in football cleats. That daring move allowed him to access the Exum Ridge, now the peak’s most popular intermediate route. Exum went on to establish Exum Mountain Guides, which is still in operation and boasts a roster of some of the country’s most accomplished mountaineers.
Twelve hundred feet later, after a mix of scrambling and roped climbing up pitches of golden knobs, knife-edged prows, and cracks split through rock with laser precision, we arrived at the summit.
The rumpled topography revealed a sea of eight other mountain ranges encircling us and the Grand’s subsidiary peaks rose up to greet us. I peered over the edge of the blocky summit studying what I could see of the famed North Face, the North Ridge, and the East Ridge — all significant climbs. I was already planning my next ascent.