Grand Teton: Upper Exum Ridge

With some free time on my hands, I came back to Jackson after the Grand Canyon on something of a spontaneous whim, with one plan in mind – to climb Grand Teton.  It would’ve happened last summer, if not for my busted shoulder, but that injury kept me from climbing (and living) regularly until this spring.

The Grand is a mountaineering icon – though the summit at 13,770′ isn’t particularly high in the world of tall mountains, the peak’s complex, convoluted structure and huge variety of routes make it quite an adventure.  Oh, and it’s kind of visible from the valley.  As with many big mountains, the stories and personalities of the those who pioneered the routes to and from the top are equally compelling – Glenn Exum leaping across the abyss at the top of Wall Street (in football cleats) to the ridge that now bears his name, Bill Briggs’ 1971 ski descent that marked an important moment in the birth of ski mountaineering outside of Europe…

My limited window for the climb meant that we’d have to do it in a single day – about 14-15 miles round trip, and over 7,000 vertical feet, straight up, from the valley floor to the summit.  A good friend, former co-worker, Exum guide, and crazy man Zahan Billimoria agreed to take me up if he had a spare day when he wasn’t guiding, so when he called me on Sunday night, telling me to get my gear together, I was pretty excited (understatement).  We left the Lupine Meadows trail head (6,740 ft.) at about 4:30 am, climbing the trail in the dark until sunrise in Garnet Canyon (9,100 ft.) lit the high peaks with incredible, fiery morning light.  Garnet Meadows is stunning spot, with Garnet Creek raging down the canyon through massive boulder fields, Middle Teton forebodingly looming overhead, 3,700 feet above, and the summit of the Grand another thousand feet above that – towering so much higher that your perspective blocks the summit from view behind the lower ridges and pinnacles.  We reached the Lower Saddle (11,600 ft.) between the Middle and Grand around 8 am, refueling and gearing up for the climb.  After that, it was straight up a climber’s trail towards the Upper Saddle, every step gaining ground on the summit.  We made a right turn and scrambled up Wall Street, the end of which is home to the famous, aformentioned move over several thousand feet of exposure, where the only rule is that you must look down, to gain the boulder ledge at the beginning of the Upper Exum Ridge.  In-cre-di-ble.  From there, the climbing was fun and grippy with unbelievable views, up pitches known as the Golden Stair, Wind Tunnel, Friction Pitch, and V pitch.  Z put me through a harder little bouldering move near the summit that I thought was going to be the end of me, but I made it though just fine and it was an easy scramble up a knife-edged arete to the summit at 13,770 ft. from there.  We left the summit around noon, downclimbed a bit to the rappel station, made the 120 ft. free-hanging rappel to the Upper Saddle, and on down, down, down back to the Lower Saddle by about 2:15 pm.

We rested and lounged in the sun at the Lower Saddle for a bit, and then made the long descent back to Lupine Meadows.  At 5:30 pm, thirteen hours, many miles and thousands of feet after we started, I was in the car driving back home.  I couldn’t help but look back up at where we’d been, with a deep sense of satisfaction and something of a new perspective.  The day was an epic of epics, an adventure of a lifetime, a milestone surpassed, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Here are some shots (all from my Canon G9 point and shoot), and below, a quote from Everest luminary George Mallory about his own adventures in the mountains:

‘The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever… We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.’

George Leigh Mallory, 1922

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  1. […] is a shot of mine of Teewinot and the Grand from a few years back.  I had the good fortune to climb the Grand this summer for the first time and this is one of my favorite shots from my years in the Tetons – finally […]