One might think that the most memorable part of climbing the iconic Grand Teton is the summit. But on the famous 13,770-foot spire that juts up from the Snake River basin a few miles outside of Jackson, Wyoming, it’s actually the evening before your summit bid that ends up occupying the most real estate in your brain for years to come.
In a notch between the Grand Teton and its little brother, Middle Teton, sits the Exum Hut, a lonely wood-and-rubberized-canvas base camp surrounded by alpine tundra and glacially deposited boulders. It was here that I could finally drop my pack after an epic seven-mile, 5,000-foot approach hike. I threw on warm down layers to cut the chill and then watched the sun set over Teton National Park. I made small talk with a dozen or so other climbers and guides from all over the country who, like me, were buzzing with anticipation and nervousness for the impending 1:00 a.m. wake-up and summit bid.
Having been on a subway in New York City less than 36 hours before, I was drunk on altitude, adrenaline and the prospect of adventure.
Exum Mountain Guides, who manage the hut, are the most storied guide service in American climbing history. The Grand Teton — or simply “the Grand”, as most climbers call it — was first summited in the late 1800s. But it was in 1931, when an 18-year-old Glenn Exum climbed a new route on what is now known as the Exum Ridge, that the peak was forever linked with the guide service he had founded. Today, climbing the Grand with Exum Mountain Guides is akin to taking a lap around Monte Carlo in a Ferrari with Michael Schumacher. The climb belongs on the bucket list of anyone who has the motivation and basic fitness to put in long days at altitude, as Exum covers all the rope work and rock climbing skills you need during a two-day clinic beforehand. The climb itself takes another two full days. “We have about 1,600 people climb the Grand with us every summer”, says long-time Exum guide and president, Nat Patridge. “Half of them have never climbed before.”
“You don’t need to be in good ‘rock climbing shape.’ The Exum Ridge route is not that demanding on your upper body. You need to be in really good hiking shape, able to walk uphill with about 40 pounds on your back for a long time. Train by putting water bottles in your pack and hiking (or stairmastering) at least three times a week. If you train for two moths you will have a great time. Fitter people have more fun because the suffering diminishes.” – Nat Patridge, Exum Mountain Guides
As I slogged my way up, switchback after switchback, to get above tree line, I kept waiting for my first glimpse of the mountain itself. The approach hike to the saddle is a very big day in itself and I was a breathless most of the way up, having come from sea level the day before. But the reveal makes it all worth it.
“The Grand has that quintessential shape”, Patridge says, explaining its appeal to first-time climbers. “When people think of a mountain, they think of that shape. When someone decides it’s time in their life to climb a mountain, this is the mountain they think of.”
Day one is no more technical than a stiff hike, with one spicy steep section that requires a rope handrail. It was less a test of nerves than a test of how diligent my training had been (not very). So, by the time we reached the saddle, I was cooked. Luckily, the more exhausted you are for that first night, the better: you’re about to have the worst night’s sleep of your life. It’s headlamps off by 8:00 p.m., followed by what can only be described as a restless three-hour nap, burrowed deep in a sleeping bag on the hut floor. Those who snore get some much-needed rest; those who don’t listen to snoring all night.
Everyone should experience a true alpine start at least once in their life. The cold, dark disorientation combined with the butterflies of a climb is exhilarating. We all stepped into our harnesses by headlamp and peeled off onto our respective routes by about 2:00 a.m. Patridge and I were headed up the famed Exum Ridge, which begins with what is probably the single most frightening move on the entire route. At the end of a rock ramp known as Wall Street is a drop of over a thousand feet to the glacier below. One terrifying move called the “step-over” delivers you to easier ground on the other side — the first of many dozen leaps of faith I’d take, all the way to the summit.
And that’s the beauty of climbing one of these trade routes on the Grand Teton with a guide: it’s a thousand feet of focused hands-on climbing, sheer drops and physically demanding pulls, shimmies and reaches. Yet the only consequence of a misstep is the embarrassment of dangling awkwardly from a securely anchored rope as you try and regain your footing.
Almost all the technical climbing equipment you need to climb the Grand Teton is provided by Exum. But it pays to invest in a pair of nimble-but-tough approach shoes. These hybrid boots have the durability and stability of a hiking boot, as well as the low profile and grip of a climbing shoe. Comfort is key: they are not meant to be as snug as climbing shoes and should feel great right out of the box. Two great models are the La Sportiva Ganda Guide and the Five Ten Guide Tennie Mid. For the rest of your packing needs, take a look at this video produced by Exum.
The sunrise revealed a vividly clear morning. The anxious feeling of climbing by headlamp gave way to the pure joy of just working hard in the mountains. The altitude slowed me down a little around 12,000 feet but Patridge and I had locked into a rhythm that had us within a few hundred feet of the summit by 7:00 a.m. Yet the Grand gives nothing away. I was pulling, hand over hand, with a view of nothing other than the rock in front of my face until the very last hundred feet. It’s not a march to the summit; you practically step up onto it. There was room to walk around and fill my SIM card with hero shots, but I was still constantly looking behind me to make sure I wasn’t stepping back into the void.
Normally, I’d be marveling in how far I could see — clear into Yellowstone National Park to the north, Idaho in the west — but instead I was focused on something much closer: the Middle Teton and South Teton. When climbed with the Grand, the trio makes up what climbers call the Teton Traverse. What I saw was next summer’s objective.
“A lot of our climbers are return customers. They come back for the Teton Traverse”, Patridge explained as I stared out across the spine of peaks. “And, a few years down the road, maybe even the Grand Traverse — nine summits over three days! People get hooked.”