Friday, July 29, 2011

Grand Teton National Park - Middle Teton (Part 1)

It all started when I looked out the window of the Delta narrowbody jet during landing and saw the Grand Teton staring me in the face.  Whoa!  I was eye-level with an unbelievable chunk of rock.   It made me think twice about trying to scale the beast.  Nevertheless, it was an awakening to the incredible beauty and grandeur of these mountains.  There are bigger and more technical climbs, but the combination of both make these mountains some of the most beautiful and fun in the world.  The beauty of it is that these mountains are still relatively lightly traveled compared to other national parks, so it makes for a nice, peaceful place to visit.

I tried to use my new iPad to chronicle some of these adventures in real time, but the inability to upload photos held me back a bit.  Having just returned, I am busily sorting through photos and video and trying to get all of this documented in a comprehensible fashion.  Here is the first installment of the Tetons, Yellowstone, and Yosemite extravaganza with a little bit of Napa Valley and Muir Woods blended in for good measure.  Hope you enjoy the stories as much as I enjoyed experiencing them!

Tetons - Part 1

After a nice breakfast in town, Goat and I stopped by the Teton Mountaineer to pick up some last minute gear. I bought a pair of Superfeet shoe insoles for my leather mountaineering boots and Goat picked up a pair of strap-on crampons.  Then, after checking out of the hotel, we stopped at Albertson's to provision our party with food.  Afterward, we headed back to the Teton Mountaineer as Goat talked me into a smaller pack. My pack was probably fine, but I did save some weight with the new Osprey Hornet 24 pack and I will be able to move better on the rock with it.  Before I spent more money, we jumped in the rented Ford Escape and escaped to the National Park. The views driving up to the park were just amazing. The Tetons are very much like the Alps in that they are jagged, rocky, snow covered peaks, but they start at a lower elevation. The vertical gain on these climbs is impressive at about 6,000 feet, but the base of the climbs is well below 7,000 feet.  With record snow falls this past winter, it makes the climbing more challenging in many respects.  We needed to carry an ice axe, helmet, crampons, gaitors, gloves, etc. as well as 3 liters of water, food, sunscreen, camera, hat, puffy jacket, shell jacket, and more.  Suddenly, my new 1,400 cubic inch pack was looking very small.

We stopped at the visitor center to purchase a national park pass.  I purchased the annual pass since Char and I will be at Yosemite next week. We watched the tourist video, and then made our way to the American Alpine Club Climber's Ranch.  The ranch is a great deal at $22 per night for non-members and $15 per night for AAC members. The place is great. If you don't mind dorm style living on wooden bunks, pack your air mattress and sleeping bag and chill out with some really cool and diverse people.

There are hot showers here, gas grill, washer/dryer, library, wifi, and unbelievable views.  I have tried to get some decent shots, but my camera can't seem to handle the contrast in lighting very well.

Our CT Climbers friend, Pam, drove up from Boulder, CO to spend a few days with us, and arrived at the ranch shortly after we settled in.  It was good to catch up with her.

We attempted to cook some burritos for dinner, but they left a bit to be desired. We agreed to go out for dinner the next night.  After dinner, it was prep time for our ascent of Middle Teton.  Middle Teton tops out at about 12,800 feet. The Climbers Ranch is located at 6,600 ft. elevation, so it's about 6,000 vertical to do it in a day.  We knew we were biting off a bit, but figured it would familiarize us with the high peaks, so we could plan other climbs such as the Grand Teton.

We attempted to pack light, so we could make good time, but included all the items I mentioned above. We did not pack climbing gear as the Southwest Couloir route was rated a Class 3 rock scramble.  We left the ranch at 6AM with a plan to reach the summit by noon.  Things started well when a kind fellow offered us a ride to the trailhead saving us about a half mile walk.  As it turns out he was an ultra runner from Illlinois who just placed 3rd in a local 50 miler. Of course, we told him to come out to run Traprock.

The trail started off easy enough meandering through meadows.  It took a minute to pick up the trail as it entered the woods, but then we started climbing. The path was easy to follow, but the Mosquitos were the worst I have ever experienced.

We had no bug spray, so suffered mightily.  An Exum Mountaineering guide blew by us on the trail.  I imagine he was probably trying to stay ahead of the bugs.  Once the sun came out in force , the bugs faded away, and we settled down and started to enjoy the views.   This little Marmot seemed to be enjoying the view as well.

Garnett Canyon is amazing!

Before too long, we hit snow (around 9,000 feet elevation), and decided to don the axe and crampons. The crampons were a bit of overkill, and we switched back and forth a couple times which caused us to lose some time.   At the Meadows, the trail splits with the Middle Teton trail going left and the Grand Teton trail going right.

We went left and headed up a steep snowfield. This is the first place you really could use the crampons.  At the top of the pitch, Pam decided to rest and abort the summit attempt. Her heavy plastic mountaineering boots were uncomfortable and slowed her down considerably.  She seemed in good spirits, and urged us to push on ahead as she would take her time and meet us at Icefloe lake.  Kevin and I pressed on for another hour or so, but then the weather got nasty.  It was raining and hailing, and the skies looked really bad.  We were concerned about Pam, and decided to turn back at 11AM and 11,000 ft.  Kevin was moving well at that point, but the altitude and fatigue were getting to me. We estimated at least another 1.5 hours to the summit at that point and there was no way we could leave Pam alone in a storm for that long.  We retreated quickly, and luckily saw Pam taking shelter in a spot just above where we had parted ways.  She didn't recognize me at first, but was happy to see us as we got closer.  Note: After reading this entry again, I realized we were probably at least 3 hours from the summit given our pace. It was a wise move to turn back given the technical nature of the rock leading to the summit.

We regrouped, the sun came out, and we descended the snowfield back down to the Meadow. Due to the warm temps, snow was balling up on my crampons, giving me great difficulty.  Luckily, the slope was not too steep, but I made a mental note to get some anti-balling plates when we went back into town.

Once we arrived back at the Meadow, we removed crampons and started heading for home. We chatted with folks doing the Grand as they retreated as well.  Some made the summit by leaving from the Exum guide hut at 11,000 feet at 4AM.  The guides have provisioned everything for their clients.  They don't even need to carry a sleeping bag or climbing gear.  For me, i can't see that as a true adventure.  It's great for some people, but just not for me.  We have our bivy gear, so bivying at a higher camp is an option, but I prefer moving fast and light and banging it out in a day if at all possible.

On the descent, we made a wrong turn which probably added 1-2 miles to our trek.  We were worn out when we got back to the ranch, and decided to soak our legs in the frigid river near camp before heading into town for some dinner.

We found a nice organic food restaurant in Jackson, and I enjoyed fish tacos while we licked our wounds.  We discussed options for the coming days, and all agreed we needed an easy day to recover and further acclimatize before making another summit attempt.

All in all it was a good day.  I knew the likelihood of reaching the summit on day 1 was a longshot.  The climb allowed us to get familiar with the area, acclimatize, understand our timing/pace, and work out our gear systems.  It was a chance for Goat and Pam to learn some mountaineering skills as well.  For me, I realized my fitness was still not 100%, but I thought it would be sufficient to get me through the week.  I decided to give up on the heavy leather mountaineering boots, and use my new goretex Salomen trail running shoes for the next attempt.  Goat had a similar set-up, and the crampons worked fine with them.  This would enable me to move faster and save energy.  I also needed to get a water bladder as stopping to pull out water bottles was too time consuming, and I was not drinking enough as a result.

We were tired after day 1, but it allowed me to quickly get my mind and body adjusted to vacation mode.  I did not have a cell signal to check email, and was pleased to fall asleep listening to the sound of the guitar player strumming away at the cabin next door.  Life is good.

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