Have you ever had an idea or goal that you always wanted to accomplish, but life kinda got in the way? Or maybe the idea was was a little too big and you just wrote it off as a pipe dream? Well that goal for me was climbing Grand Teton. When I moved to Jackson in the winter of 2008 it was my first time living in the mountains. I’d never been hiking, backpacking, mountain climbing, or anything outdoorsy other than car camping, really. That winter living in the mountains set me on a different path though. I knew that’s where I wanted to be, even though I was a fish out of water. When I left Jackson that spring and drove back to Florida, I remember visiting the park one last time for sunrise and thinking how awesome it would be to experience standing on top of that mountain.
During the 11 years that followed I slowly picked up more outdoor skills as I traveled the US: hiking, backpacking, climbing, and caving. Then last winter my buddy Chris got into mountaineering and asked if I’d be interested in joining him on an expedition. "Hell no... but I have always wanted to climb the Grand.” So, over [one too many] beers @cmferrante, @andyustinphoto, and I agreed that we would make a run at it this summer.
The day had finally arrived. The plan had us hiking to the Lower Saddle to camp, summit, and then hike out. The advice we got for the approach was to start early, hike slowly, and enjoy the views. So the night before we packed our bags, divided up my extra weight I couldn’t carry (I HAD A DOCTOR”S NOTE GUYS), and loaded up the POWERWAGON!!! We arrived at the trailhead, moved the coolers into the cab of the truck, and vowed to return a few days later to consume the contents in celebration. We were off.
We slowly made our way through the meadow, up the foothills, stopping often to drink water and eat snacks. A few weeks earlier, when I found out I needed surgery, I called the team and gave them the opportunity to back out. Both said as long as I felt good enough to hike that they were in to carry the extra weight. Since my pack was only supposed to be 25 lbs, that meant Chris and Andy were carrying close to 60-65, even though I was over my limit. So it was definitely slow going.
Eventually we made it into Garnett Canyon where the trees and grasses were replaced with granite walls. The trail also petered out and became more uneven. We made our way through boulders, over moraines, across snowfields, along waterfalls, and up scree, until we reached the crux of the hike known as the “headwall.”
Once we all made it safely up we felt a single drop of rain, so I suggested we duck under a nearby glacial erratic to let the storm pass. Our timing couldn’t have been better. For the next 30 or so minutes it hailed nearly 2”, then rained, then hailed some more. It was a perfect opportunity to grab more snacks and watch and listen to the lightning and thunder roll over our heads. Once the storm passed we were greeted with a spectacular double rainbow.
The last 10 minute push and we arrived at the Lower Saddle. We filtered water, made dinner, drank whiskey, watched the sunset, and studied the route we planned to tackle in the morning.
I went to bed nervous, doubts were flowing through my head. I wasn’t sure if I was healthy enough to climb. It’s the first time in a long time that I thought I may have been in over my head. The next day we woke up to strong winds and rain. Since our permit allowed us more time, we decided to take a layover day and not push for the summit. We checked the weather for the following day and it called for clear skies. So we just hung out in camp for the day and took in the windy views.
Eventually the clouds parted and we were greeted to a spectacular sunset. I took the time to get Chris a new Tinder photo.
The next day my alarm went off at 3:30 am. Coffee and breakfast by headlamps. My nerves were on edge as we watched the guided teams leave one by one ahead of us. We filtered water, loaded up our gear, and I made sure we each had our summit soda for the top. As we picked our way through the route it was slow going. I read the route enough times that everything was memorized, but doing it in the dark was challenging. Black Dyke, check. Chockstone chimney, check. Eye of the Needle, check. Just as we made it to the Central Rib I looked back to check on the guys. The beautiful pink light that hits the mountains first thing in the morning was here, and it wasn’t thousands of feet above us, but below us, enveloping the Middle Teton.
Once we gained the Upper Saddle Chris took over. He had been training for weeks for this moment: his first lead climb. Pitch after pitch, Chris led us through icy chimneys until we arrived at the final slabs.
As we gained the summit ridge I was overwhelmed with emotions I haven’t felt many times in my life: the first time I saw Denali or Halema’uma’u under the Milky Way, flying over Glacier, and watching my wife walk down the aisle. As we took in the cloudless views from the 13,770’ peak, I was covered in goosebumps.
As we cracked our beers and toasted the accomplishment, our celebration turned back to focus: we were only halfway.
We picked our way down, rappelled, and scrambled our way back to camp.
We arrived just in time for the best sunset of the trip.
The following morning we slept in til 8, packed up camp, and hit the trail. I'd like to say our packs felt lighter, but the food weight we carried in was replaced by our crap-filled wag bags. At least the weather was spectacular.
Looking back, I still can’t believed it all happened. Teamwork definitely makes the dream work! Here's to the next adventure!