Our northbound flight from Salt Lake City had run into a nightmarish blizzard just south of Jackson. The wheels were nearing the runway when a shearing gust from our left caused the plane’s right wing to dip within inches of the snow covered runway. I was halfway through my life’s montage when the pilot fully throttled the jet and lifted us back into the storm. A second and less harrowing pass would prove successful. We landed with an acute appreciation for life’s fragility. An appreciation which only the raging endorphins of a “near miss” can beget.
The door opened, a gasp of frigid air and world famous powder burst into the fuselage. We cheered for our pilot and he gave us one final warning to “proceed with caution through the deep snow and -25ᵒ temperatures” on our way into the airport.
Nearly a decade later and with a mind full of epic memories tied to this place, I have realized that white-knuckled flight was the perfect welcome to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
After getting a taste of the unfathomably dry snow, awe inspiring terrain, and cowboy culture of Jackson, I knew I would make a habit of visiting Wyoming. The precipitous rise of the Tetons struck a chord in my soul that has resonated since the first time I stood in awe of their majesty.
The Grand stands tall like a beckoning beacon above the surrounding peaks; a lighthouse of sorts which illuminates an adventurous spirit deep within. When I first saw the mountain, its summit seemed about as reachable as the surface of the moon. A place I could perpetually stare up at in wonder, but would never have the pleasure of enjoying the view in reverse. Truth be told, at the time of my first visit I had never worn a climbing harness or grasped even the smallest rock with the intent of topping out. We came to Jackson not to climb mountains but to ride 4,000 vertical feet of powder during the day, dine on wild game at night, then saddle up for a wild night on the town.
After every trip, memories and meditations left me visualizing myself at the base of the Tetons; euphorically gawking upward at their striking prominence. Roosevelt’s sentiment was spot-on, “that is what mountains are supposed to look like!”
Over the years, and somewhat unbeknownst to myself, The Grand Teton had become my Olympus—a mythical mountain to my psyche. Quite frankly, I never imagined some future version of myself would ever have the audacity or fortitude to reach the summit, and I was alright with that. On every visit I would pay homage from the valley below, not knowing that inside, a seed of summit desire was being cultivated.
As time rolled by, and as fate would have it, I ended up dipping my toes into the frozen waters of mountaineering through Big City Mountaineers Summit for Someone program. The program raises funds through mountaineering events on iconic mountains to provide urban youth with wilderness mentoring trips all across the country. Many of my life’s most rewarding and memorable experiences have stemmed from a continued involvement in the Summit for Someone program.
One such experience was summiting Mt. Shasta in the Cascade Range with a group of well-known mountaineers like Sam Elias, Cedar Wright, and Dennis Lewon. We had just come down from the summit and bathed in the emerald waters of Lake Siskiyou. And on the cloud nine drive away from Shasta, in a moment of pure post-expedition ecstasy, I uttered the words aloud for the first time; “I want to climb The Grand.”
Had I just spoken this ridiculousness aloud? Had I forgotten the times I stared up from the depths of Jackson’s Hole and reassured myself that I would never be one of “those guys” clinging to the sides of a mountain for dear life? Well, the answer was yes—I desperately wanted to be one of “those guys!”
So I had the desire to climb The Grand but no idea when or how to make it happen. As luck would have it, another seed of fortune was planted on the slopes of Mt. Shasta. A great friend and then leader of the Summit for Someone program, Darin Fearday, invited me to the summer Outdoor Retailer (OR) show to represent Big City Mountaineers as an ambassador. Without hesitation, I accepted the offer. Just before leaving for the OR show it dawned on me that Jackson was just a few hours north of Salt Lake City… IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN!
Yet, halfway through the OR show I still had no idea how the logistics were going to work themselves out. I had casually spoken with Darin about my dream of climbing The Grand after the show, but nothing more. It turns out he was quite appreciative of the volunteer help and had devised the perfect way to say thank you. We were strolling back to the hotel room one afternoon when he changed my world by offering up a spot on an upcoming Summit for Someone climb of The Grand Teton! Darin had pre-approved the idea with Jeff Weidman, Big City Mountaineer’s then president, and I could not be more grateful for their generosity.
The climb was slated to begin one week after the show. To kill time, I played in the Cottonwood Canyons for a few days, then headed north for a moonlit, marathon-hike in the Wind River Range's Cirque of the Towers, and then finally toward the Tetons, toward my dream.
Just before Jackson, I caught a glimpse at the objective and realized the view was different this time. Instead of admiring in pure joy, my eyes frantically searched the slopes for a route up this seemingly insurmountable mountain. What did I sign up for, and how on Earth were we going to climb this beast? I pondered that question for days to come in the valley below. Over the next four days I must have spent 40 hours just staring upward. I swam in the lakes, practiced yoga in the fields, camped at Antelope Flats, and perpetually stared in bewilderment at the daunting summit.
The dawn of our start date cast a ghostly glow on the east face of The Tetons. One last brew of coffee was enjoyed in the comforting arms of the flat valley before heading to Lupine Meadows, the jump-off for our uphill journey. Our three man team consisted of Graeme Esarey, our guide Joey Thompson, and myself.
Graeme is one of the most self-actualized individuals walking the planet. He has climbed and sailed at iconic locations around the world and has a beautiful, loving family which came to support his climb. He is also the president of Industrial Revolutions, an innovative outdoor company and huge contributor to BCM’s cause. Our guide, Joey Thompson, had just received the AMGA outstanding guide of the year award, and the man oozes machismo, with a chiseled jaw line and an eerily piercing fire in his eyes which makes you feel invincible on the mountain.
Our journey began and within 100 feet of the trailhead we were already struggling for breath. Not from exhaustion, not from the altitude, but from inhaling arrant bear spray dispelled by a hysterically inept tourist. An ominous start to such an epic adventure, yet a stark reminder to keep our heads on a swivel throughout the journey.
Our apt assault team bonded on the beautiful and steadily uphill approach to Jackson Hole Mountain Guide’s (JHMG) Corbett High Camp. On our way we enjoyed a savory lunch and refreshed ourselves in the cooling waters above Petzoldt caves. We reached camp early on the first day and enjoyed the fruits of our labor by relaxing and fraternizing with the incredibly entertaining group of guides employed by JHMG.
By opting for a three day climb we allowed ourselves the luxury of relaxing at the picturesque Corbett High Camp on day 2. We also gained the benefit of a training day with our world renowned guide on the rock faces surrounding camp. After revamping our skills and testing our grit we returned to camp. Graeme and I kicked back beside the main tent, soaked in the view and hydrated religiously. A tattered copy of A River Runs Through It helped me pass the time. I knew the next day's climb would be hard as hell, but this was heaven on earth!
After dinner our stomachs were full, our legs were rested and we prepared for an early morning summit bid. Sleep that night was brief and regularly interrupted by the rigors of camping above 10,000ft. After wrestling around in a semi dream-like state for hours, we awoke to a serious situation at high camp.
Mike was a burly, sixty year old southern gentlemen from Knoxville, Tennessee. He was climbing to honor his friend, a travel companion and fellow Jackson enthusiast who had recently passed away. The tenacity of his spirit and the passion of his cause helped lead him to the top and back safely to camp. But at 2am, in a tent adjacent to ours, Mike had succumbed to the symptoms of altitude exposure and utter exhaustion. In a late night scramble the guides ushered him down to the main tent and began monitoring his vitals as we began prepping for our summit bid.
We packed quickly and set off towards the main tent under a sky illuminated by stars. Upon arrival we found three guides and Mike—his condition had stabilized under their careful watch. They were monitoring his vitals and sharing humor only acquired from years of mountain guiding to boost his spirits. Not only were they expertly handling his situation, they had freshly brewed coffee and breakfast waiting for us.
Cue the promo plug, but seriously, the crew at JHMG are some of the finest examples of modern day mountain men with whom I have been fortunate enough to cross paths. True “stewards of the stoke” who give us mere mortals the chance to safely quench our thirst for mountaineering!
Alas, it was go-time, and we exited the main tent while serenading Mike with an early morning rendition of The Grateful Dead’s Tennessee Jed, a parting gesture fit for a volunteer. As we left camp, the quartzite boulders glimmered under our LED powered illumination, the stars were glowing, and I was rabid with anticipation. Our three-man team raced up the formidable façade in the dark. We reached the upper saddle, just below The Enclosure, as dawn began gathering its light on the Eastern Horizon. Below us, a seemingly endless string of headlamps slowly ambled their way up the lower flanks of The Grand.
Our early departure and fervent pace allowed us to reach the upper saddle ahead of all other climbers and provided the day’s first crack at the Pownall-Gilkey Route. Three pitches—a traverse, a crux, and one final heavenly pitch—comprise this 5.8 route. The first pitch traverses a narrowing section of gnarled boulders which somehow cling to the sides of the mountain. Although not technically difficult, the first pitch’s traverse is akin to “walking the plank” towards exposure. By the time we reached the start of the second pitch the breezy and downwardly sloping walkway had ebbed away to almost nothing, offering an airy view of the Tepee Glacier, thousands of feet below.
Waiting for Joey’s lead, I looked out over the flat expanse of Jackson Hole before starting the second pitch. The tableau view ignited a Zen moment of self-reflection; I was finally here, the place I had pondered upon endlessly in the valley, and inwardly for years.
Days before, while reading Reinhold Messner in the bosom of the valley, I had promised myself that I would climb “pure and free” through this crux. Two moves into the crux, my Zen fell off the cliff when I was offered another, yet far more eerie moment of self-reflection through an unexpected patch of reflective verglas ice lining the rock face. At this mirrored and icy juncture, my “pure and free” ambitions were thrown to the wayside as I clung to the fixed etrier aid like an umbilical cord sent out from mother earth.
With the help of this pleasantly placed nylon ladder, we were able to make it through the crux and then started the third pitch of the P&G Route. It was here that our early morning efforts, extreme exposure and the omnipotent beauty of our surroundings sent my mind and body into a blissful “Flow State.” As if my being had been taken over by the soul of a solid climber, I climbed the third pitch with ease. For once, I relieved gravity of its grip on my mind and moved freely, almost spiritually with the rock. I instinctively reached for hand and foot holds with an ease unbeknownst to my usually timid psyche. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, I cleaned the last piece of gear and without realizing the gravity of the situation, I reached high, pulled on one last flake, and topped out!
It was a high unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. We were now no more than a series of scrambles away from the summit. Our western approach had left us in the dark all morning as The Tetons cast their iconic shadow far over the Eastern expanse of Idaho. My fingers were frozen. I was more than ready for the warming rays of the sun to join our adventure. As we neared the summit, the sun finally crested over our high altitude horizon. Its warmth engulfed us. I followed “the white light” a few more feet to the summit proper as I openly cried, hysterically laughed, and then bellowed for joy. There I was, on top of The Grand, I had climbed to “the surface of the moon” and the view in reverse was spectacular.
We don’t climb mountains just to get to the top. Expeditions, good or bad, inherently bring growth to our person and our psyche. That’s why we embark on them. On the summit of The Grand Teton, my time for growth came in the form of a special thank you to the man who, as he likes to put it, “made it happen captain.”
The day before our climb began I received heartbreaking news. Darin’s best friend, a magnanimous mutt named Huck, had been tragically and fatally struck by a vehicle. Unfortunately, Darin had witnessed the brutal event first hand and was devastated by the loss. How could a man who had just brought such greatness into my life be dealt such a crippling blow?
As it goes, I didn’t find the answer to that question. What I did find was an incredible opportunity to honor Huck’s memory and thank Darin at the same time. In the hours leading up to our summit bid I had inscribed a memento, “iHike 4 Huck,” onto a small piece of paper. A serendipitous summit photo would let me share that memento with the world and hopefully shed a little light on such darkness.
The following morning—from the friendly confines of Jackson’s Cowboy Café—I was able to share the picture through social media with the words, “A great friend lost his best friend…one of man’s best friends…show him some love.” Many friends responded and as the love poured in it became clear that the wheels of fate had spun me onto the summit of my dreams not merely for my own edification. A decade long obsession had led me to the top, at that particular moment in time, to bring a shred of solace to a friend in need and to answer his “Grand gesture” with one of my own!
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