On July 18 of this year I climbed the Upper Exum route of the Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park. It was, by a fair margin, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I grew up about 12 miles outside Rexburg Idaho in a large house built by the hands of my parents, my elder siblings, and occasionally by community members and friends. From all of the east facing windows of our house, the Teton range was clearly visible most days. This wasn’t an accident. The Tetons are part of my family.
In the early years of my parent’s marriage, they spent several summers working fire lookout towers in Grand Teton National Park. My oldest sister, Anna, met her husband because of their mutual interest in climbing. If my older brother Owen wasn’t named after Mount Owen, then I don’t know who his namesake was.
All seven of my older siblings climbed the Grand Teton in their teen years. When I was 12 and my brother Will was 14, my dad and Anna’s husband, Fred, took Will and two of my older sisters, Amelia and Sylvia for the climb. I remember I wasn’t terribly anxious to participate, because I figured that there was always time. Fred tells stories of that climb occasionally. He talks about how Amelia lost Sylvia’s helmet on the hike up near the Caves Campground.
The next summer my dad and some others of my family along with a family friend, Paul, decided to go for a hike in the Tetons. Quite a few hours later the majority of the hikers returned home without my dad and Paul. Apparently someone wasn’t feeling well and decided to come home. Dad and Paul had decided that they were going to go ahead and hike over to the Jackson side.
Not terribly long after that the bishop came over. He talked to my mom for a bit. I remember she gathered me, my brother Will, and my youngest sister Antonia into the living room. Her face looked a little frozen. Very calmly she said, “Your father was climbing today in the Tetons when he fell and was killed.”
I learned some things that day. I learned that tears can be completely unexpected. I learned that the worst news isn’t delivered with any drama – drama comes later when children burst into racking sobs for a father they will never see again. I learned that some pain never really heals. I’m not trying to be dramatic. I’ve thought a lot about this. Some things, when they are removed from your life, they leave a hole in your heart. Every time you think about them, it is like your thoughts are a laser that burns the tissue around that hole again. If you ignore the loss, over time forgetfulness lays down like layers of wax, filling in the hole. But if you think about it again, the laser cuts into the wax like butter and the hole is fresh.
The possibility of my making the climb just didn’t seem to come up through my teen years.
I grew up. More precisely, I got bigger as time passed – I’m not sure I really grew up until this last year. About this time last year I realized that I had wanted a rite of passage, a symbol to tell me that I was a man. Since getting married was out of the question, I decided that I was going to climb the Grand Teton. At our family reunion, I asked Fred if he would be willing to take me up. I asked him because even though all of my older brothers have made the climb, Fred is an experienced and accomplished mountaineer. I was thrilled when he said yes.
Fast forward. July 16, at 5:00 am My nephew Owen, Fred’s eldest son and I woke up to the sound of his alarm clock. I turned my alarm clock off before it rang. Briskly we three broke our camp at the Jenny Lake. Fred wanted to be well up the Garnet Canyon trail before the heat of the day really hit. His plan was for a gentlemen’s excursion sort of climb. Two days hiking in, one day climbing, one day hiking out. There were a couple of reasons for this. First of all, this was my first real climb. Second, although Owen had climbed this route several times, this time he would be leading.
I was of two minds about this. First off, I’d been hearing all of my life about people making this climb in two days or even one day. Second, the longer the trip took, the more likely it was that I was going to have to use the unique “facilities” available in the back country. On the flip side, I knew that this was a serious hike just getting to the base of the climb. So I knew that taking our time on the trip was the best choice.
Okay, so here’s something you may not know about me. In the late fall of 1982 I developed OCD. Through my teen years I washed my hands a lot. I also showered a lot. To that teen self, camping was a bit of an anathema. I’ve made huge progress with this, of course, or I wouldn’t even have considered this trip. None-the-less, pooping in a plastic bag and packing it out was pretty much the last thing I wanted to think about. So I tried to pull a fast one on my body. I did three days of the “lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper” fast before the trip along with salt water flushes. I figured it would delay the inevitable for a couple of days without seriously depleting my energy stores. By the way, I was wrong.
Starting up the trail, I was a little concerned. I knew we had a long hike ahead and that pack was heavy! We did a little adjusting of the straps and it got a lot better… for awhile. We kept a slow and easy pace with several stops on our way to our first camp at the Caves campsite. The hike was honestly glorious! Yes I often felt like I was going to fall over exhausted, but the sun was often covered by clouds, so it was cool and lovely.
At that first camp it rained on and off all afternoon and as the sun set the rain settled in as if it was going to keep going all night. In the night I woke at one point and noticed that the rain had stopped. I remember feeling a little relieved.
The second day’s hike was shorter and harder. It was harder because it was significantly more steep and the majority of it was up a moraine. Again, it was a beautiful day for it. Partly cloudy so there was often relief from the sun but no rain. The previous evening’s rain had settled the dust of the trail which was a blessing. Climbing the fixed rope location up onto the Lower Saddle (our intended campground for the second night) was a bit of an adventure with a 40ish pound pack. I certainly was happy to take off my pack that day!
The Lower Saddle campground is like nowhere I’ve been before. The vegetation is unique. Millions of tiny flowers – extremely small versions of flowers found elsewhere – grow in shallow soil wedged between rocks ranging from pebbles to boulders. There is a glacier slowly melting on the saddle, providing the drinking water (although you still want to use an ultraviolet purifier on it). The bear box is situated about half way to the crest of the Saddle and just over the crest to the Idaho side are possibly the most scenic toilets on the planet. (Really they are just frameworks for attaching your plastic bag to receive solid waste.) You can gaze out at the Snake River plain of southeastern Idaho while you do your business. While everyone is supposed to carry out their waste, it is evident that mistakes have been made. The smell is astonishing. The wind often comes up and over the Saddle from the Idaho side. The result is sometimes unfortunate.
The evening of the second day I had heartburn. When I was younger I had heartburn quite a lot. I changed my eating habits – always eating carbs and proteins separated from each other by several hours, avoiding cooked fruits, eating lots of fresh fruits and veggies – and I spent years without even the slightest hint of heartburn. To me it made sense that my insides were a little upset with me. The past two days I had been eating trail appropriate foods – everything dried which for fruit essentially means cooked, and the reconstituted meals had proteins and carbohydrates combined together. As far as I was concerned it was all a price I was happy to pay to finally be doing this trip.
My attempt to delay having to use the saddle’s facilities was proved to be fruitless that evening when I reached the conclusion that there was no way I could do the climb the next morning unless I followed nature’s call.
Here’s the weird thing, I didn’t die.
(This is a picture of the distant Sawtooth range, taken off the west side of the saddle.)
There was a photo op with a marmot in the late evening sun and then we settled in to go to sleep basically as soon as it started to get dark. Our plan was to get up by 2:30 am so that we could start the climb in the dark with the goal of reaching the summit by noon in order to minimize the likelihood of getting hit by an afternoon thunderstorm.
It was very cold when the alarm went off. We quickly dressed in warm layers, harnessed up, and put on helmets and headlamps. Fred and Owen ate a hurried breakfast. I ate a handful of freeze dried blueberries and chased them with a pint of water. My heartburn was bad and I felt a bit nauseated, so I didn’t eat anything else, but I packed trail food so that I could eat more later in the morning.
The walk up to the base of the climb seemed to take forever and no time at all. I was so excited to finally be there. Nearly a year of preparation all focused on that day.
Then we climbed.
I really can’t do the day justice. It was incredibly beautiful. It was, quite literally, one of the best days of my life while being incredibly and equally hard. We were passed by several other parties of climbers. I spent quite a bit of time sitting perched on the mountainside with a little bit of rope protecting me from a mistake that would have been my last. We took our time on the climb and for me I was grateful of it.
I discovered something on that climb. There was a pitch we needed to climb, one of the last. Owen had already gone up, and now it was my turn. I found my foothold, my handholds, and discovered that the overhang hitting my daypack and the angle of the rock and everything just felt impossible. But I wasn’t willing to fail. More than that, I knew that I was strong enough and smart enough, and in that moment I also knew that if I committed, the mountain would help me too. And I was right.
We reached the summit at 4:45 pm. I hadn’t been able to eat anything since my breakfast of blueberries and water. I had drunk about a liter and a half of water. I’d have drunk twice that, but I’d only brought two liters since we were expecting to be back down by about 4:00 pm. We each had a small can of peaches in our daypacks which we cracked open at the summit. About half way through my peaches I realized that I wasn’t going to keep them down.
“Where do I go if I need to throw up?” I asked Fred while looking around desperately. They told me something, I don’t remember what, and I leaned over a boulder. There was a lot of water, some peaches, and pieces of blueberries. I remember thinking, over 14 hours and I haven’t taken any energy into my system. I finished my peaches and drank some water.
A very nice climbing guide who happened to have been on the summit at the same time asked if I was okay. I said that I would be. He offered me some gummy electrolyte candy saying, “I don’t want to have to carry it down anyway.” I gratefully accepted it. Had I had greater presence of mind at the time, I would have asked his name. Whoever he was I am grateful. At the time I would probably have offered him my firstborn.
The descent was much more quick. We rappelled a good part of it. We got back down to the saddle after dark and it was nice to be there, even with the occasional whiffs of latrine brought in on the wind. I purified two liters of water and drank most of one. Owen asked me if I wanted any dinner, and I let him know that I didn’t think I could eat. I was going into the tent to lie down when he asked again if I was hungry. I remember very clearly that for just a moment I considered eating – almost instantly I moved over to the rock wall surrounding our tent and forcefully vomited. In the dark it looked like a cone of water in the shape of my mouth as I completely emptied myself of every drop that I had drunk. I drank about half a liter more water and laid myself down on top of my sleeping bag. I remember Fred commenting that he wanted to get out of camp early because we weren’t supposed to have camped on the Saddle that third night. I told him he should tell anyone who asked that we hadn’t reached the Saddle until after dark because he was getting a sick man off the mountain.
I don’t know what time we got up that last morning. It wasn’t terribly early, but it wasn’t late either. We packed up and hiked out with no drama, although I admit that I was slow. The thought of eating anything that day was also impossible, but I did my best to remain hydrated.
I discovered something huge that day. You know the phrase, “I’m at the end of my rope?” I discovered that there is no end to our rope until we decide there is. I hiked 5 miles out with an approximate 40 lb. pack, having not successfully eaten anything since two nights before. There were a lot of times when it occurred to me that I was well past any reserves of spirit that I might have previously believed that I had. But I was absolutely committed to making it out. There was no other choice. I remember thinking over and over, “I can do this, just keep walking.”
And I did.
Passing through Teton Valley on the way to my mother’s house, Owen and I stopped at the grocery store and I bought a watermelon. Finally, something sounded good to eat.