#28 The Grand Teton: The North Ridge 5.7
We arrived in the Tetons on Tuesday, September 5th. I (Isabel) had been there before a few years previous, so when we turned the corner on the highway just past Jackson Hole I knew that huge granite spires were looming off to our left, however the smoke was so thick from nearby fires that we might as well have been in the middle of Nebraska. I told Ian what he was missing, and we both made a silent prayer that the smoke wouldn’t linger. That night we made our way to the Bridger-Teton national forest, where we were going to set up camp for the foreseeable future.
For the next couple of days Ian and I had the task of orienting ourselves. There are 4 Classic Climbs in this range, 3 on the Grand Teton (the North Ridge, North Face, and the Direct Exum), and one up Mt. Moran (the Direct South Buttress). We had no idea what we would be able to accomplish before bad weather came in, so we decided to check out both the South and North approaches to the Grand. The hikes in are long and beautiful, about 8 miles each we went up Lupine Meadows to Garnet Canyon one day, then up Cascade Canyon to the North the next day. On both of these we were hiking for speed, trying to figure out how long we would have to designate to our approaches/descents, so when we actually attempted our climbs we would be able to estimate time more precisely. Plus, we wanted to actually get a view of this mountain and gain some semblance of bearings.
A good friend of ours, Boris, was coincidentally coming to the Tetons the same week we were there, he and a friend of his named Robby were anticipating doing the Cathedral Traverse and climbing around for a while. Boris has worked in the Tetons for a few years, which was wildly helpful for us because he was a crucial source of beta for these mountains. Conveniently, the Cathedral Traverse spits you out at the base of the Grand, and you end up climbing the North Ridge (one of the classics). Because the opportunity was just too good to pass up, the 4 of us decided that Ian and I should climb the North Ridge the same day the other 2 decide to climb the Cathedral, that way we could meet up and be one big party heading up the big mountain.
That day ended up being September 11, Boris and Robby left our camp around 2am, Ian and I were a few hours behind. The goal was for all 4 of us to meet up at the Gunsight (a notch in the granite between Mt. Owen and the Grand, which was also where the North Ridge officially starts) at 10am. Ian and I parked at String Lake, then were off and up the Cascade Canyon Trail by 4am. We were making good time, walking briskly and quietly in the cold and dark until Ian turned a corner only to come across two huge, yellow eyes mere feet from us. Ian stopped dead and calmly directed me to back up slowly. Ian immediately got out a flashlight to shine upon the unknown beast along with our headlamps, and I grabbed the knife out of the hip pocket of my backpack, feigning confidence that this tiny weapon would do anything against a bear. We stood back to back making a ton of noise and shining our lights every which way for about 20 minutes until we felt like the animal had probably left, and we tentatively continued on our way, wearily. Acknowledging the lost time we tried to hurry and eventually, after the painful bushwhack up Valhalla canyon, made it to the start of our scramble. We had about 1000’ of scrambling to do up scree fields and fourth class granite, and we were actually doing this on Mt. Owen, we wouldn’t touch the Grand until we got to the Gunsight. Somewhere amid our hurried scrambling we yelled Boris’ name, and holy shit we heard him calling back to us! Hidden in the sea of granite we somehow, amazingly, found our friends. The 4 of us did a short rappel into the Gunsight, and 2 hours later than anticipated we were all roped up and ready to start our climb.
Boris and Robby went first, so Boris could take over the route finding, with Ian and I following right on their heels. Ian and I swapped leads the whole way, and in total we ended up swapping 18 times (even though really there are only about 12 pitches). The climbing was solid, some of the best trad I’ve ever done. The two money pitches were actually a variation we did called Italian Cracks, each of which were long, exposed, splitter cracks heading up the side of this giant. The view as we continued to gain elevation (shockingly) kept getting better and better. The smoke had been clearing for the last few days, but the day of our climb was the first time the visibility was actually good. This allowed us to judge our progress as we ascended above the nearby peaks.
Unfortunately, Ian and I had to watch the sunset from our second to last pitch, which meant by the time we made the final moves and gained the summit it was dark out (around 8:30pm). For a lot of reasons this made us sad, for me climbing started as a way to reach beautiful places, and internally I knew that I would have had my breath taken from me when I reached that high point of just over 13,700’, missing that moment after a day of work was pretty tragic. On the other hand, it’s hard to be sad when we accomplish a goal. Whether we got to take a pretty picture on top or not didn’t matter so much, we had done it. The work was over… or so we thought.
It turns out, in that moment the work was really only starting, because we still had our descent, which was long, excruciating, tedious, scary, and a plethora of other adjectives, all negative. We essentially down-climbed the Owen-Spalding route, skipping the two highly exposed parts with a single 30 meter rappel (during which my knife came in handy for a second time as I gave Ian an impromptu haircut after he got his ponytail stuck in his belay device). We trudged for hours. Down, down, down. Moving fast enough to expedite the process, but slow enough to make sure we didn’t fall victim to the fairly dire consequences of a slip-up. We were all exhausted, and we knew there was a car a couple thousand feet below and at least 10 miles away. Mentally, it was hard to preserver through countless switchbacks, the climb was over, the boxes were checked, and now we just wanted to be at the car. Finally, FINALLY at 2:30am we took our last steps before breaking out of the Lupine Meadows trailhead and reaching the parking lot. Boris and Robby were kind enough to drive us to the van, where we immediately fell asleep for the imminent future.
Having been my first climb in the Alpine, and my first real mountain the Grand was amazing. Ian and I were climbing well, we were in good spirits for the whole 23 hours it took us from start to finish, and the landscape was beautiful to boot. All in all I’d give the climb a solid 9/10 (it misses a point for that heinous down-climb), would recommend to a friend.