Grand Teton


Exum Ridge July 30, 1989

Dorothy's cousin Jeremy and his family have a tradition of taking a family backpacking trip to the Tetons every Summer. At a family reunion, I got to talking to Jeremy about the Tetons and he said that he had always dreamed about climbing the Grand Teton. I had already had two unsuccessful attempts at peaks in the Teton range (Middle Teton and the Grand) and wanted to finally reach the summit of the Grand. As we talked, I decided that it might be fun to take Jeremy up the regular Exum ridge. He had never done any climbing, but I figured I could get him ready for the relatively non-technical route without too much effort.

We spent a couple of days up Rock Canyon in Provo, where I taught Jeremy the basics of rappelling, belaying, and climbing. He was a quick learner, and seemed to have a natural talent. He was getting up 5.6 and 5.7 climbs his first day out (in hiking boots), he had lots of experience living out doors, and so I felt pretty good about his ability to handle the Exum Ridge.

We drove to Jackson at the end of July. Instead of flopping by the side of the road, as on my earlier trips, we stayed in the Climbers' Ranch. The Ranch was a fun place to stay, primarily because of all the really old climbing books and magazines there. I stayed up later than I should have reading climbing stories from years gone by.

We took off for the Lower Saddle the next morning, heading up that butt-whupping approach that has such beautiful scenery that you can (almost) forget how long and steep it is. It was earlier in the season than either of my other trips to the Tetons, so the weather was warmer and we saw more people headed up and down. As we began to get closer and closer views of our objective, we both began to fill with the excitement of our impending adventure. There were quite a few parties already on the Lower Saddle, including several groups of guided climbers. Amazingly, only one other party was headed up the Exum, the rest were all going up the Owen-Spaulding route. I took this as a good sign, and we went to bed happy.

The Grand Teton viewed from the Lower Saddle. (Click on picture for larger version.)
We were up next morning before dawn, scrambling our way up the easy ground heading for the big ledge called Wall Street. We got turned around a little bit at the section they call the "eye of the needle", but soon were back on track without having lost much time at all. We reached Wall Street a little after sun rise, roped up, and began to make our way along Wall Street to the ridge. I placed protection now and then, more for Jeremy's peace of mind than because the ground was difficult. When we got to the end of Wall Street there were one or two moves of technical climbing, with amazing exposure. As you cross from edge of Wall Street onto the ridge, you can look down between your legs and see all the way to the bottom of the Exum Ridge. I climbed it and belayed close by, so that I could coach Jeremy through it if he needed help. He was a little tentative (his only other climbing had been in Rock Canyon), but climbed it in good style. When he pulled himself up to my belay stance, he was whooping with delight. I was whooping too, both for myself, and sharing in his excitement. We were then faced with the same decision I had faced two years ago on my attempt on the Direct Exum. This time, I chose to go left, up the golden staircase (the right way). The climbing was exposed but easy, and Jeremy and I moved quickly up the ridge. We soon were able to simul-climb, and then put away our ropes and began scrambling unroped up the upper ridge.
Jeremy just after making the move onto the ridge from Wall Street. (Click on picture for larger version.)
As we moved up the relatively easy ground of the upper ridge, we began to see dark clouds heading our way. I had been here before, and knew we were close to the top. I was ready to go up, but Jeremy was (wisely) reluctant to head up to the summit in the face of the oncoming storm. I felt that I had to go up, to make up for my earlier unsuccessful attempts, so I left Jeremy in a small alcove, and headed off toward the summit moving as quickly as I could, trying to get to the top ahead of the main body of the storm. I began climbing up toward the summit, but soon the dark clouds overtook me, and I could hear the sound of distant thunder. Then it began to rain, just a few drops at first, but then harder and harder. Soon the narrow ramp I was climbing resembled a waterfall, with torrents of rain water funneling down on me. I waited for a while, hoping vainly that the storm would abate. A bolt of lightning striking near the summit convinced me that reaching the tippy top was not really all that important to me, and I headed back down the wet slippery rocks to the place where I had left Jeremy.

By the time I reached Jeremy, It was raining in sheets, and the electrical storm was going full tilt. He was very relieved to see me, and was clearly quite shaken up. I had been gone longer than he had anticipated, and he had begun to worry that I was not coming back. I began to feel a bit guilty about abandoning him, but we soon were focused solely on the task of getting down. The winds and rain continued to get more and more severe, whipping us as we made our way to the rappel station on the Upper Saddle. More alarming was the lightning, which was striking the mountain above us, the thunder claps booming over our heads. We got to the rappel station, and we quickly pulled out the ropes and began to set up the rappel. While we were doing this, a bolt of lightning struck the mountain in plain sight right above us. Feeling very small and very vulnerable, I quickly helped Jeremy with his rappel set up and told him to start heading down. I backed away from the edge to avoid getting blown off the ledge by the massive wind gusts and began to get my own descender set up. When I glanced over at Jeremy, he was still standing where I left him, staring down wide eyed at the overhanging cliff he was supposed to be descending. I began yelling encouragement to him above the din of the wind and rain, but he was reluctant to take the scary plunge and head down the fee-hanging rappel. I started to walk over to him, when just then, a huge bolt of lightning struck right next to us. The concussion rocked me back and almost knocked Jeremy down. We could feel the electric energy as it dispersed into the mountain and the thunder clap was deafening. Stunned and shaken, we were both panicked for a second or two. Then Jeremy yelled at me, wide eyed, "What do I do?" I waved frantically downward and yelled "GO DOWN! GO DOWN! GO DOWN!" The fear of being burned to a crisp by lightning overcame his apprehension over the free-hanging rappel, and he leapt off the ledge and disappeared from view. I gave him a minute then began to get my own rappel set up. The lightning continued to strike the mountain nearby, and by the time I began my descent, I was utterly terrified. When I finally joined Jeremy under the shelter of the overhanging cliff, we both took a few minutes to gather our shell-shocked wits. We waited about 20 minutes under the cliff until the lightning and thunder abated somewhat before we ventured out from under the relative safety of the giant overhang.

Taking shelter after the long rappel. (Click on picture for larger version.)
Although the lightning danger had lessened, the rain and wind were worse than ever, whipping against us, blowing through the openings in our hoods, beating against our exposed faces. We struggled down the descent route, fighting to keep our footing against the pounding of huge wind gusts. Jeremy was wearing a "K-Mart special" rain suit made out of olive drab vinyl, and he was scrambling over a boulder when he nicked a hole in the thigh of his rain pants. Immediately, the wind blew through the small hole, inflated his pants like a balloon and with a loud popping and tearing sound his rain pants literally exploded off of his legs and blew away, leaving him wearing only his cotton sweat pants. We continued down, and as we finally came into sight of the Lower Saddle, the rain turned into hail and began pelting us with ball-bearing sized pellets. We got back to our camp site and found my new Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight tent crushed and torn, the rainfly ripped off in all but one spot and flapping uselessly in the high winds. Without a fly, the "bath-tub" floor in the tent had created an environment much like a true bathtub, with standing water covering the tent floor, and all of our gear completely soaked. We did our best to repair the tent, using some accessory cord to re-attach our rain-fly to the tent body.

About the time that we completed our makeshift repairs, the storm finally began to spend its strength and the sky slowly cleared up. We ventured out to talk to some of the other people on the Saddle, and while walking around, we discovered something pretty strange. Over one patch of the Lower Saddle, an area approximately 30 yards square, the hail stones were not melting like they were everywhere else. On closer examination, we found that the hail that had fallen in that area wasn't hail at all, but rather some kind of white-ish green-ish gelatin-like globs. They were cold to the touch, but not frozen like hail. They had the consistency of very hard Jello, and if you smashed a couple together they would stick together, although they were not very sticky to other things. Several other parties had also noticed this strange phenomenon, but nobody knew what to make of the weird stuff, which we dubbed "ectoplasm" after the greenish goo in Ghostbusters. A couple of people (not us) ate some of it and said that it didn't taste much like anything at all. One of the guides collected a bagful of the stuff saying that he was going to try to get it analyzed. To this day, I have no idea what this ectoplasm was.

We spent the rest of the evening visiting with other parties and talking with each other about our climb. I was concerned that after our somewhat terrifying experience with the lightning, I had ruined Jeremy forever, and that he would never want to climb again. He certainly seemed quite sober, and it was clear from his conversation that he had been pretty sure that he was going to die up there on the Grand. When the light faded, we went to sleep in our soaked sleeping bags, in our soaked clothes in our soaked tent. That night, the storms returned, and our poor tent was destroyed. Our repair job on the fly failed and rain began to pour through our roof. We tried to repair the fly again, but there were soon more ripped spots than we had accessory cord. We used what we could to try to tie the fly down, but spent much of the night holding flapping corners of the fly down with our hands to keep it covering the tent. About half way through the night, a particularly large wind gust smashed the tent, crushing and bending the poles, so that the tent lost all form and became a shapeless, flapping piece of nylon. Later that night, we lost the fly completely as it was torn to pieces. We spent the rest of the night bailing out the tent and getting pelted with rain. I was glad that we had synthetic sleeping bags, as we were cold and wet, but only to the point of discomfort, not dangerously so.

By morning, the storm had passed for good, and we packed up our drenched belongings and headed back down the mountain. I wore my soaked "rock bottom" pants inside out to keep the wet cotton side away from my skin and the less soaked nylon side on the inside. I got a few stares on the way down, but didn't care much. Our boots and socks were completely wet, and the long hike out wasn't very pleasant as we squish squished our way down the trail, but we finally made it back to the car.

This was my first trip to the Tetons without a forced bivi, and I was glad to finally be able to call my wife and tell her I was safe and on my way home before she became completely frantic with worry about my well-being.

I was certain that Jeremy would never climb again as a result of our scary experience on the Grand. I couldn't have been more wrong in this assumption however, as Jeremy became hooked on climbing, and became pretty close to a full time climber, cruising up hard climbs that I can only dream of. Now when we climb together, I look to Jeremy to lead the hard pitches, while I'm the one bumbling along behind.