By Shelli Johnson
"We cannot lower the mountain, therefore we must elevate ourselves." –Todd Skinner, my late friend and climbing legend.
It’s the cheerful voice of one of our guides, Julia. It is 3 am, and this is our Grand Teton summit day wake-up call.
We didn’t sleep last night due to our nerves and the anticipation surrounding our bid to stand on the Grand Teton’s summit. We slept in the clothes we are wearing for today’s adventure so we’re up and at ‘em when we hear Julia’s voice.
I can’t get to the kitchen hut fast enough for some coffee. Thankfully it’s only a few minutes, and I’m on a seat in the hut quaffing coffee. A few moments later and I’m fueling up on a spinach and mushroom omelette. (By the way, JHMG's food, and especially the coffee, really hit the spot.) Life is good.
Our backpacks are ready to go, having been prepared yesterday. We don our helmets with headlamps beaming. Our eyes are sort of open, and we head down the trail, our little light beams showing us the way.
We descend over a boulder field, the Tepee Glacial moraine field, then through the Middle Teton glacial moraine field. Despite being sleep-deprived, I’m feeling charged up. We are on our way. Yeehaw! Today is what we came for.
The Cliffs of Insanity
After some time passes, we arrive at the “gym rope” – or, the “cliffs of insanity.” (Our guide, Nate, says people will know what this refers to). It’s a cliff band where a big old gym rope is in place and allows us to cut up some steep terrain more easily and directly. I lead the way and soon we’re all over the cliff band and hiking again. By the feel of it, we’re going up, up, up. We’re gaining altitude at a pretty significant clip. This much is obvious.
Right now, I’m thinking it’s a good thing it is dark and we have headlamps on. As a result, we are able to see only the step in front of us. We are unable to see the unrelenting incline up which we are marching. In this way, I think hiking in the dark might be a brilliant strategy. It is forcing us to, as the saying goes, focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other.
We are making our way to the Lower Saddle. It’s loose rubble (gravelly “scree”) and very steep going. Gale force winds try their best to blow us off our feet. I’m cold for the first time. But the uphill hiking prevents me from getting too chilled. We continue our march. No one is saying much, just focusing on the task at hand.
We are operating in what Julia calls “present time consciousness” – what our group has come to refer to as PTC. For the record, I’m not good at operating in PTC. I’m a planner and anticipator. (Impatience is my biggest pitfall and I read self-help books on how to focus on the moment and live in the present.) But, I’m pretty good at hiking, and at the moment I feel great.
The Black Dike on the Middle Teton
Nate says our next landmark will be the Black Dike, and that we’ll be taking a brief break there. I think this provides a little shot of cheer in our group. We are getting up there in altitude, and it’s been all uphill, all the time and we’ve got a lot more of it to come.
We stop at the Black Dike, remove our backpacks and have some water and snacks. Some of us strip a layer as it begins to warm up. We are almost out of the dark.
A little while into our upward march, the sun rises and we turn off our headlamps. Nate has been promising us that the sight of the sun rising against the Middle Teton turns it pink, only briefly, so we’re turning around to check on that often. Finally we see it, and Nate is right, it is a magnificent sight.
Although it’s still earlier than most people get out of bed, the day is generously handing out spectacular sights in all directions. It's been a full day already and the sun just came up! As I take in views of the rock piles, huge vehicle- and small building-sized boulders, and towering granite peaks it occurs to me that God must be a rock climber.
We continue upward over a mess of rocks of all sizes toward the Upper Saddle. We are approaching 13,000 feet in elevation.
Soon we arrive at the most technical section of today’s effort: The Pownall-Gilkey route. All I know about the route is that “It’s definitely not the easiest route,” which is what Julia and Nate said when we asked them yesterday if we’d be going up the easiest route.
First climbed by Dick Pownall and Art Gilkey in 1948, the route is rated 5.8+. The crux -- the hardest part -- of the climb is roughly two body lengths long.
Here, Julia and Nate lead the pitches and before we know it, Jamie's up and beginning the pitch. At the moment, I’m feeling pretty good. Only three rock climbing pitches and we'll have the prize.
We all get over the first pitch with no problems.
Next up is the second pitch. As Kathy, Jeff and I wait for our turns, we watch Jamie on the Etrier (rhymes with hate 'er but without the 'h'), which is a "hanging ladder" contraption made of sewn webbing with "stirrups." He’s having a hell of a time, and not in a good way. But he gets past it. Next it’s Kathy. I know Kathy well enough to surmise that her hands are cold. She struggles and then is smart and rests for a moment before continuing up and past the pitch. It’s not easy for her, but she gets past it.
I’m up now. The Etrier was easy for me in practice. It’s my enemy today for some reason. I’m fighting with it. And it’s winning. This is supposed to be helpful? An aid to me? I believe it could be, but I’m breaking all the rules of climbing. I’m trying to power my way up with only my arms. I know this but I keep doing it. My hands are getting cold and my forearms are pumped. I’m not helping myself that’s for sure.
Jeff, below me, is yelling out moves he thinks I should make. But I'm too busy trying to play a game that could be called "hang from your arms and try to hook your feet in dangling loops" to listen to reason. This goes on for what seems like an eternity. I don't know why, but I'm beating the crap out of myself, willingly. Not only physically. I'm bitching pretty good at myself too. But no matter. I continue the hard way. Given my terrible technique on the Etrier, climbing the rock would be easier. It's not pretty, but eventually I get up. (I give myself an F here.) Good riddance! Jeff is right behind me, having no problems.
Thankfully, the third pitch is pretty easy and goes rather quickly.
Now that I’ve completed the final pitch of the PG route, the anticipation is killing me. I can taste and feel the summit. It’s about 9:20 am, and we’re closing in on our prized destination. If I could run, I would. But it isn’t practical, let alone prudent. (LOL)
When I step onto the summit, I’m at first at a loss for words. The sights are astounding – truly awesome. I choke up, briefly, fighting back some happy tears, and I have goose bumps.
The views are beyond words. No photos or videos I capture can possibly do justice in conveying what I’m experiencing right this moment. I want for the feeling to last.
And aside from the awe-inspiring sights and resulting goose bumps, I want to explode and frolic and yell at the top of my lungs in response to our accomplishment. But I choose not to, instead respecting others on the summit who are no doubt being emotionally moved in a similar way.
I feel grateful and indebted to our guides. Julia and Nate instructed us to trust them, and we did, and it paid off. The importance of our guides cannot be underestimated. I know our group would not be standing here on the summit if not for Julia and Nate, and their expertise. I want to hug them each, hard, but they’re enjoying a much-deserved siesta on a comfortable ledge just below the summit’s high point, and I’m going to let them be.
What I’m looking at is an extraordinary sight, and what I’m feeling is unbelievable. I am at this moment completely fulfilled. The only thing that would make it better is if Jerry and my sons were here with me. I am going to return to this spot one day with Jerry and the boys.
I look at Kathy and Jamie and Jeff, celebrating and taking in the summit in their own ways, and I want to cry I’m so proud of them. They did it! We all did it. Amazing.
After 60 minutes of pure enjoyment and calling our loved ones to announce our accomplishment on the sun-soaked Grand Teton summit, I recall something friend Phil Powers, one of the owners of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and the only Wyoming man to climb K2 without oxygen, once told me in an interview: “The summit is only the halfway point.”
Except for a 150-foot rappel, we will now be down-climbing everything we climbed up to get to this point. So Phil’s words seem especially relevant. As happy as we are, we will not be skipping down. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.
Our guides start rounding us up and we prepare for our descent.
It's all downhill on our return trip... except for the last 30 minutes or so, which find us ascending the boulder fields we descended at dark thirty this morning. But with each step we know we're getting closer to our home away from home, the Corbet High Camp.
Corbet High Camp
We get back to camp at 3 pm and finally can frolic and celebrate. After unpacking and giving our feet some air to breathe, we start our “after party.” Jeff, Jamie and Kathy are getting the drinks and chocolate together while I sing, to myself, On Top of the World. (the Carpenters'-version.)
We aren't down to civilization yet, but I realize this has truly been a trip of a lifetime for me. I will be inspired by the sights I've seen for days and months and years to come. I have learned a lot about myself and about living in the moment and confronting doubts. I've learned to (try) not to let my mind be an obstacle. I've developed mentally, and I didn't expect that.
By the way, I've seen the Grand Teton from the road more than 200 times in my life. I will look at it more intimately now that I've climbed it and been to its top and gotten to know the mountain on a more personal level. Physically, this has been a haul, but I feel proud of the condition I was in for it and feel like I passed that part of the test, which is one more reason I'm fulfilled right now. So like the name of this big mountain I'm on, my life right now feels quite grand.
People will ask "Was it fun?" Kathy says fun doesn't describe it, but success does. I agree that fun doesn't describe our Grand Teton expedition. Fun is going down a slippery slide, or having ice cream with your family in the park, or having a picnic or playing Pictionary. I would say our Grand Teton expedition was nothing short of epic. It has been an exceptionally, larger-than-life GREAT experience.
It's time to celebrate
Due to a non-disclosure agreement I signed with my group, I’m unable to report much of the details about the celebration we enjoyed upon our return to Corbet High Camp. But suffice it to say we drank either a pony keg that the Johnson farm boys packed in on Day 1, or a pint of Frontier Whiskey. Based on the information I’ve provided you with so far in my posts about this trip, I’m trusting you can figure it out which.