Grand Teton Via Upper Exum

  • Updated: July 13, 2011
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 9th  to 12th, 2011
Grand Teton (13,770')

I came out of a four day Yosemite trip Tuesday night and had three long days of working from home before I could disappear off to the wilderness again. Three days after a long period of being in Boise every week so there was the usual pile of things that needed my attention in addition to trying to remind several friends that I exist as something other than an overactive Flickr account.

Still, it wasn't all unpleasant.

Then it was time for the next adventure: a 4 day trip to climb Grand Teton out of Jackson Hole Wyoming. I had been invited out of the blue by Kathy Rich several months before and as it fell on an open weekend I said yes on a whim. Originally I was one of 6 climbers but after a few injuries we were down to Kathy Rich, Daryn Dodge, and myself with me as the lead climber.

I actually didn’t know a thing about the mountain besides the fact it was in Wyoming and last year a major rescue had occurred when 17 folks were stuck on the upper routes during a thunderstorm resulting in one death.

This is the route we’d be climbing:

The foreground ridge is called the Upper Exum route which is accessed by a rather literally named ramp called Wall Street.

We actually had two options we were prepared for initially. The easier would have been to climb the Owen Spaulding Route and return the same way. The more difficult option involved climbing Wall Street to the Upper Exum Route. The latter had the advantage of a more awesome name so that’s what we decided on.

I actually spent Friday night at home in my own bed. That was a weird feeling. (Usually I’m out at some trailhead sleeping in the car / dirt)

Saturday:  Flying To Jackson Hole

I stumbled into SNA for the 6:45 am flight to Denver feeling rather out of place. I always travel for work wearing business clothes but this time I was in trailhead attire and carrying my climbing pack stuffed full of my heavy but not pointy gear. (Yes Mr TSA agent with the rubber glove, it's called an ice axe and those are crampons.  A weapon?  No.  Well, as long as the participants don't misbehave...)

One delayed Denver connection later and I landed in Jackson Hole and was picked up by Kathy (who had flown in to SLC) and Daryn (who had driven all the way from the bay area).

The Jackson Hole airport is rather compact. No jet bridges and they hustle you along the runway and straight to a very crowded luggage area through an entry arch made out of antlers admonishing you not to stop and take pictures.

Ha!  Fight the power!

The airport was packed but I caught sight of Daryn in the crowd and went over to say hello.

Interestingly enough I was intercepted by someone offering me a free canister of bear spray. There had been a fatal grizzly attack the week before in Yellowstone and everyone seemed to be carrying it. Unfortunately TSA wasn’t allowing it to be checked or brought on as a carryon meaning they had to get rid of it.

I declined but someone else snatched it up instantly.

After retrieving my luggage we piled in to Daryn’s jeep and entered Grand Teton National Park via the moose entrance.

Our first stop was the Jenny Lake Ranger Station where we picked up our permit and chatted with a rather helpful ranger about what conditions to expect on the mountain. They were extremely knowledgeable having done the peak themselves multiple times and even had some recent pictures of the route from about a week before.

They also strongly recommended bear cans as the marmots could be rather invasive and were happy to rent me one for free.

Next we were off to the climbers’ ranch where we were planning to stay before and after the climb.  It was rather nice for what it was.

There was a main building with a library, a number of cabins containing multiple bunks each, group bathrooms with showers, and a communal eating area.

And it was cheap!

Home sweet home.

I had landed about 1 pm so we had most of the afternoon to just hang around the ranch. There was wifi (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday only), plugs, bathrooms, and all the conveniences.

We ate dinner in the common area and chatted with other climbers. A few were bound for Grand Teton while others had somewhat more modest goals. Daryn and I had a good chat with Chris who was recovering from an arm injury that had kept him out of climbing for a few years.  He was looking for someone to do an interesting sounding loop hike up one canyon then out the other but alas I was spoken for.

Part of my pre climb dinner thanks to the generosity of others. Life is rough in the mountains…

It was still light outside at 9 pm when we retired to the cabin. We were actually sharing it with one other climber but he was off in his own room and we hardly saw or heard him.

I fell asleep quickly.

Sunday:  Getting In Position

We had a relaxed start Sunday morning as our sole goal for the day was to climb up and make camp in preparation for summiting on Monday. The only challenge was the fact we had two full sized ropes plus a small climbing rack in addition to the snow gear which added quite a bit of weight and bulk to our packs.

We could see our peak from the ranch rising up rather imposingly in the background.  We’d actually be climbing part of the skyline ridge on the left.

After having breakfast and packing up at the cabin we drove a few miles down the road to the Lupin Meadow trailhead.

The Lupine Meadow Trailhead was busy and filled with other groups heading out. In the car next to us was a family of three with an aggressive plan to spend two days on approach and then climb both the OS route and Upper Exum routes over the following two days.

At their invitation I joined them in a good luck swig of warm Jagermeister before getting a quick pre-climb picture with my partners.

And with that we were off.  We didn't have far to go but it was going to be a workout.

We passed several other groups on the way up including a group of four from Miami who had plans to do the Owen-Spaulding route the following day. They were all moving slower and we continued up past them at a decent pace.

The trail climbed through a rather wet bit of forest before starting a series of switchbacks up a slope covered in brilliant yellow flowers.

This soon gave way to a more alpine vegetation zone which was mostly trees and rocks.

There was still a fair amount of snow on the ground in places and we had a few snow filled chutes to cross which took some care.

The first major landmark was the meadow. Later in the season it must be quite pretty but this time of year it was still melting out of the snow and mostly consisted of debris and red tinged snow.  I was glad we weren’t camping down here.

Here we made a slight mistake here by not consulting a map and ended up climbing partway up the left hand chute towards the saddle between South and Middle Teton instead of cutting to the right. We realized our mistake but not before doing a fair chunk of gain. Bonus!

We dropped back down to the meadow and climbed the correct if slightly less friendly chute. We had crampons along but the snow was slushy enough to just boot kick our way up with axes.

We were getting tired by this time but fortunately our plan called for camping at the moraine.

In the background is the Lower Saddle which is the highest place people camp on the mountain and the location of the forest service / guide huts. It tends to be windy and much busier hence staying down at the moraine.

We found a well sheltered campsite and set down our tents. I was tempting fate again by bringing along the ultralight tarp tent that had failed me so spectacularly on Memorial Day (and the camp snuggie) but I was carrying enough weight without dragging up my heavy mountaineering tent.

We had bare dirt to set up on and running water a short distance away. What more did we need?

Once the tents were up I ran us through a quick multi pitch simulation to make sure everyone knew what would be expected the following day. Kathy had done some multi pitch climbing but it was new to Daryn.

The weather looked somewhat threatening and sure enough we got a bit of rain and thunder. We noted the time, around 4 pm, and sincerely hoped we would be off the summit by that time the following day.

That left dinner which for me consisted of the usual Mountain Home feast-in-a-bag. After we ate we saw a guided group filled with teenagers stagger up the moraine and continuing up the slope toward the Lower Saddle.

After that it was off to bed as we were all tired and knew we had an early morning ahead of us. The start of the climb was a bit above us so we'd be waking up at 3 for a 4 am departure planning to be up there by the time it was bright enough to see.

I slept well though when my alarm went off at 3 am it felt much too early.

Monday:  Summit Push

Alpine starts. God how I hate them. Though I must admit that this one was made notably easier due to the fact it was above freezing. Nothing says miserable morning more than reluctantly divesting yourself of layers and pulling on frozen boots several hours before dawn.

We left camp a bit early around 3:50 am and set off along the rocks towards the Lower Saddle. While temperatures had stayed above freezing the snow was firm enough to make a good crampon climb.

We made the saddle just as it was getting light (the picture below is from the return)

There were two permanent huts with storage boxes that seemed to be used by the guide services along with a wooden two person toilet tucked behind a rock with a stern warning that it was only be use along with wag bags.

We took a short break here, stuck the crampons back in our bags, and headed up towards a dark rock that was our initial landmark.

From here we had to go left and climb up some loose rocks looking for something called the Eye of the Needle which we would use to cross over and hit the bottom of Wall Street.

We ran into an Exum guide walking two somewhat traumatized looking high school age girls down (we saw several groups of high schoolers being run up the mountain by the Exum guides. Seemed to be a local custom.). He gave us a few pointers and warned us that the Eye of the Needle we were looking for was actually filled in with snow.

We continued on and though we had two climbers ahead of us they proved to be rather unfriendly and soon dissapeared headed for a different route. That left us completely to our own devices.

We did find the Needle and the eye was indeed filled with snow. We ended up circumventing it by doing an unpleasant little move that required taking the packs off and jamming under an overhang. Soon after that we got our first good look at Wall Street.

We had a rather large chute to cross first however and this was filled with hard snow and had a rather fatal looking drop at the bottom. While we had crampons with us we made use of an existing boot trail and a lot of care to get across (it was a lot sketchier than it looks in the pictures)

Looking back from the base of Wall Street

Now we were in business. After a short scramble we were strolling up Wall Street. The initial part of the ledge is an easy walkup but at the top there is a rather exposed move to get across.

A description of the first guy who crossed it back in the day:
“Glenn Exum—alone, unroped, and wearing football cleats—made the first ascent of the now legendary Exum Ridge. The feat required Exum to leap a five-foot-wide split in the  rock, risking a stiff penalty if he missed: a 1,500-foot free fall. Exum backed off the climb seven times before going for it, and making it, in good style.”

We made it across with a bit more care. I dropped my pack and made the rather airy move unroped so I could set a belay from the far side for Kathy and Daryn.

It’s a short move but the transition point was a bit nerve wracking.

Now we were committed. Once on the Exum route the best escape involves getting up and over the peak to descend the Owen-Spaulding route. For obvious reasons I kept a close eye on the clouds in the distance.

Now it was show time. We all put on our harnesses and started scouting the area. This was the start of the Golden Staircase, an easy rope up section.

The Golden Staircase was an easy pitch and we were able to put away the rope and continued up to the Wind Tunnel. It was cold, windy, and out of the sun but with a few only slightly awkward moves we managed to make it through without resorting to the rope.

Next we had our biggest route finding discussion as we tried to identify the start of the Friction Pitch. We found boot prints but they seemed to lead off into another chute away from the ridge. We spent a bit of time scouting and reading from Kathy’s copious collection of printouts.

After a brief discussion we decided it was time to rope up and head up the ridge.

The Friction Pitch was actually my favorite spot. Two pitches, easy enough climbing though the exposure on either side really made you pay attention.  Epic views!

After two pitches we stowed the ropes and I switched back into my boots. Now we just had a scramble to the V Pitch, an exposed dihedral right on the edge of the ridge and supposedly the last big challenge.  We could actually see it above us.

We continued up, periodically followed footsteps in the snow and soon found ourselves on one long section of snow that was absolute crap. Every footstep either resulted in a posthole or just plain blew out.  It felt like it went on forever.

Back on the rocks we continued up to a point where the only obvious route led to a very awkward lieback. I tried it with my pack and had to back off and try again without before I was able to get past it and scout.

As it turned out we'd missed the V Pitch completely and the lieback was something mentioned on the route guide right before the summit.

We ended up roping up to get past the lieback and hauling packs up on the rope.

Now we could put away the rope for good and started up what we expected to be an easy scramble to the summit. Except nothing on this mountain was easy. Awkward rocks.  Icy snow on the west side.  Slushy posthole snow on the east side. Bleh.

Nevertheless we soon made the summit. While it was hard won the summit itself was a bit anticlimactic. A few small bumps along a flat section with a benchmark beaten into the rock and no register that we could find.

Wyoming side

Idaho side

We basked in our victory all the while watching the clouds and starting to eye a descent route. There were some steps leading down the west side that we followed but the snow was horrible. Even with axes we had to watch every step or risk flying down to an unpleasant end.

Down a bit we ran into two climbers coming up the OS route. We traded information and they told us they'd already set up their rope on the first rappel and that we were welcome to use it.  That saved us a bit of time!

The first rap wasn't anything major. Once down we followed some ducks and soon found the second rappel.

This one looked cool!

We had information a single 60m rope would work as long as you threw off to the left. Looking down the big drop we weren’t so sure (and there was a label on the bolts specifying two ropes) so we pulled them both out and threw them down.

This rap was awesome. It resulted in quite possibly the greatest picture of me ever taken.

There was a big overhang to finish it off. My arms were already tired from pulling the rope so many times so I wasn't unhappy to land on the ground. The other two climbers had summited and caught up with us and we let them jump on our rope. They were nice enough to point out the top part of the OS route for us making for a quicker descent.

From here it was a combination of snow and rock. While the clouds looked somewhat oppressive we never got more than a light rain/hail combo.

This time we passed through the Eye of the Needle. As it turned out we were able to just barely fit through between the rock and snow as long as we took off our packs.

We returned to the Lower Saddle tired and glad to be off the rocks. Down at the huts we met a pair of rangers one of whom had issues our permit a few days ago at the ranger station. They were planning on doing the Complete Exum (much harder than what we did) the following day.

Camped nearby was the family of three that had shared a good luck Jagermeister shot with me.  I wished them luck with the weather as we headed down.

We arrived back in camp grateful to drop our packs.

We were concerned about the group camped next to us for a time as we knew they had left a few hours after us planning to do the OS route and we’d never seen them on the mountain.

I was exhausted and was more than happy to crawl in to my tent as soon as we finished eating. I heard our neighbors arrive back a bit after we’d turned in but never found out if they’d made the summit.

Sometime around dark we were hit by one hell of a storm. Rain and hail battered my tent which was periodically lit by huge bolts of lightning and for a bit I was somewhat curious to see if my tent would hold up or if I would have a repeat of Memorial Day on my hands minus a convenient bush to sleep in.

But I was really tired so I fell asleep before the storm was even over.

Tuesday:  Get The Hell Out of Jackson Hole

We were feeling pretty good about ourselves at this point and just had to make it down the mountain in time to shower at the climbers’ ranch and get me to the airport for a 5 pm flight.

Our neighbors apparently didn’t bother with bear cans because I watched 3 or 4 different marmots assault their tents while I ate breakfast only to be driven away with shouts and thrown rocks.

For our part we were ready to get down as the weather looked less promising than it had the previous mornings.

After several hours descent we made the trailhead and piled back into Daryn’s jeep for the short drive back to the climbers ranch for a quick shower (well, not so quick as I ended up in a bit of a line.)  Just as we arrived all hell broke loose weather-wise.

Somewhat cleaner we retired to the nearby Dornan’s just outside the park entrance for a post trip dinner and beer.

I was dropped off at the airport at 4:30 pm with plenty of time to talk my way past the ticket agent despite having a somewhat overly heavy suitcase before boarding the flight to Denver.

Unfortunately the adventure wasn't quite over.  We pulled back from the gate only to be held on the runway for over an hour due to storms shutting down the Denver airport. Of course I missed my connecting flight but fortunately with my elite airline status they actually boot widows and orphans off the plane in order to get me a standby seat.  Wheeee.

In the end I made it back to the Orange County airport about 10 minutes before it shut down for the night.

Next weekend it’s off to the Western Sierra to climb Alta and Silliman for a WTC experience trip.

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