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.
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.
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.
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