Monday, November 9, 2009

Adventures in Cowboy Country - Part 1, The Tetons

The Teton Range. The Grand Teton is the prominant peak in the center of the picture. Photo by Dana Hickenbottom

These long days always seem to begin the same way. I am lying on the ground, tucked in my warm sleeping bag trying desperately to ignore my beeping alarm. My eyes are heavy as I try to open them under the clear, cold night sky, squinting at my watch for a look at the time…4:ooam. The thought crosses my mind, as it always does, ‘Do I leave my small down-filled world of warmth and comfort for the bitter, biting cold or tuck my head back inside and continue my pleasant dream?’ As I hear my partner rustle out of his bag I know that the decision is now out of my hands so I shed my sleeping arrangement and quickly dress before my body losses too much heat.

We don’t have much time to waste so we quietly load our climbing gear into the car and head down the road to the trailhead. As we drive with the heat cranked as high as it can go we munch on bars and snacks, trying to wash the dry food down with as much water as we can handle. We are packing light so the more we can eat and drink now, the better. Within minutes we arrive at the trailhead and after a quick trip to the bathroom we are on our way. I check my watch, 4:30am, right on schedule. Our objective is the summit of the Grand Teton via the Direct Exum Ridge, a true American classic, or at least that’s what everyone keeps telling me. Our goal is to do it in a day and after a summer of being cooped up in an office I am anxious to see how we do.

As we hike along I think about where I was this same time yesterday. I was just waking up next to my fiancĂ© in my Bellingham Washington home. My things were already packed and ready to go when I met my good friend and fellow adventurer Andy at my back door. We threw my things into his trunk and were on our way in no time. Andy has an infectious energy and we are soon reminiscing of past climbs and dreaming of adventures to come. We watch the sun rise above the horizon and stretch it’s warm, glowing arms across the landscape. This is one of those simple things I enjoy so much in life, witnessing the earth wake up from it’s nightly slumber. I’m not a regular early riser so when I get the opportunity to watch this brilliant event I try to savor every moment.

“White Lightning”, Andy’s affectionate name for his hardy Toyota Camry, eats up the miles and the hours pass quickly. We take shifts driving towards our destination, Andy’s home state of Wyoming and that most famous of skylines, the Tetons. After 18 hours of driving we finally arrive at the national park and pull off the road to try and catch a glimpse at these beautiful peaks. We can barely make-out the numerous peaks against the black night sky but our excitement builds none-the-less. Even if we can’t see it clearly we know the Grand Teton is sitting proudly amongst its fellow mountains, beckoning to be climbed, and we hope to answer that call. We sleep in the driveway of one of Andy’s old acquaintances George, who happens to be one of the senior climbing guides for the park and lives inside the park among the rows of cabins inhabited by his fellow rangers.

The rocky trail brings my attention back to the present. We have headlamps on but keep them turned off. The bright moon provides enough light to avoid the majority of the rocks and roots but the trail still demands my attention. Our keep a good pace and are soon watching the sun rise (two days in a row, boy am I lucky!) across the Jackson Hole. This is my first time in the area and this new light soon reveals the incredibly beauty of this place.

Morning light shines on the southern Teton range; (from left) Cloudveil Dome, Spalding Peak, and Gilkey Tower. Photo by Dana Hickenbottom

The trail winds through forest, talus, and mountain streams, the whole time bringing us higher and higher. We pass climbers tents and soon reach the notch that divides the Grand and the Middle Teton. We have a great view of our route from here and stop for a moment to eat and drink while scouting the beginning of our climb. Our excitement pushes on onward and soon we are traversing the horizontal black dike that leads us to the base of the Exum Ridge.

The Exum Ridge follows (roughly) the right skyline. Photo by Dana Hickenbottom

Around 9am, after about 5,000 ft of elevation gain we finally arrive at the base of the Exum. Now the real fun begins. As this is a blog and I am running out of time until my deadline, I will let my photos tell the remainder of the story.

Leading the famous Black Face pitch. The angle steepens but the holds are all there and the climbing is incredible. Easily my favorite pitch of the ridge. Photo by Andy Farley

Andy enjoying all the Black Face has to offer. Photo by Dana Hickenbottom

Andy leading up the following pitch which we dubbed the crystal crack. The rock was unlike anything I had ever climbed on, with large quartz crystals peppering the rock. Photo by Dana Hickenbottom

Ahhh, what a view from the top. Photo by Dana Hickenbottom

Summit success! Now all we have to do is find the way down and get back to the car before our energy wears out. Photo courtesy of The Grand Teton

We made it to the summit of the Grand at about 2pm. After some celebratory photos and much needed nourishment we began our hurried descent. We teamed up with some other parties and combined ropes to make some longer rappels, putting us back at the notch within a couple hours. We've still got a long way to go back to the car so we don't linger too long. We watch the long shadows of the Tetons stretch across the valley as the sun sets and soon we find ourselves hiking in the dark once again. Exhaustion has set in and my legs are now on autopilot. Andy and I dream of the delicious dinner we will make once we return to the car. My headlamp is playing tricks with my surroundings and soon pine cones become giant beetles and roots are enormous snakes hiding in the brush. We are constantly convince ourselves that around every turn our car will be waiting, a dangerous and demoralizing game when all you want to do is sit in a nice comfy seat and fall asleep. Finally we round that last corner and see "White Lightning" waiting for us like a trusty steed. We made it back after 18 hours of constant movement and while we certainly won't be setting any speed records we are very proud of our effort. We drive back to George's cabin and eat ravenously until our stomachs are close to bursting and then settle once again into our sleeping bags once again. We are going to need our rest for tomorrow we head into the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Gorge.

Stay tuned for Part 2, The Cirque, in which I budget my time much more wisely and am able to offer a full written account of this incredible alpine playground.

-Dana Hickenbottom, AAI Program Coordinator and Guide

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