Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Grand Teton

Grand Teton, WY
13,770 feet
Petzoldt Ridge, 5.6
August 25-27, 2002

I. Getting to Jackson, WY

The trip started with a big glitch. Mike and I were scheduled to fly out of Seattle at 4:55pm Friday, and Dave and Andrew were scheduled to fly about an hour later at 6:10pm. In the interest of simplifying things, we planned to drive to the airport together. However, Dave and Andy got stuck in traffic, and so with time getting cut stressfully close, we bummed a ride from Mike's neighbor who he'd met once before.

We arrived at the airport about 4:15, and sailed through ticketing, but then Mike was "randomly selected" to have his bag searched. Mike only brought one bag -- his backpack. Four days worth of travel items, clothing, climbing gear, and food in one backpack. It was amusing watching the security people try to unpack it. It was more amusing watching the pain on Mike's face as they tried to repack it.

They ran the search relatively quickly then we were able to fly through security and we ran to our gate arriving in record time, only to find that our flight was delayed indefinitely. A just turn of events for getting through ticketing and security so quickly. So, we took the train over to Terminal N where Andy & Dave's flight was to leave from and put our name's on the standby list for their flight. There was 1 open seat already, and only 2 people in front of us on the list, so the odds were decent that we'd get on.

At about 5:30 an update for our scheduled flight was supposed to arrive back at our original gate, so we got back on the train and went over there. Our flight was canceled. It was now about 5:45 and the clock was ticking down on Dave & Andy's flight, so we hopped on the train again and went back to N.

Two more seats opened up which meant that I could get on but Mike would have to fly out Saturday morning. We decided to stick to traveling in pairs, so we let the person behind us get on in my place. Shortly after that, another seat opened up, and we kicked ourselves as we realized that if I had just taken that first seat, we would have both got on. Instead we were stuck in Seattle with no other choice but to wait for an early Saturday flight.

So Mike and I, bitter with frustration, got a couple hotel rooms at the Ramada a couple miles from his house, ate dinner at Lenny's, no I mean Denny's, and bought Cinnabons for breakfast, all on Uncle Horizon's tab.

We got a call from Andy & Dave later on. They were in Idaho Falls and they told us they were going to continue to Jackson and pick up our camping permits from the Ranger Station first thing in the morning. That was great because it was a busy weekend and all the campsites probably would have been full if they had waited for us, but it also meant we didn't have a means of getting to Jackson.

We woke early and flew out at 6:20 Saturday morning, and after a couple bus stops in Boise and Pocatello, we arrived in Idaho Falls around 10:30. We had been talking to a NOLS instructor on his way home from Alaska on the plane and he offered to give us a ride to Jackson. When we arrived, his ride was late however, and it would have been a tremendous hassle getting around with no car anyway, so we got a one day one way rental car and planned to meet up with Dave and Andy later.

We cruised to Jackson, and after picking up fuel at a climbing shop in town, we finally arrived at Jenny Lake around 2 and prepared to head up to Baxter Pinnacle.

II. Baxter Pinnacle (elev 8,560+ ft), South Ridge, II 5.9+

Shortly after arriving at the Jenny Lake parking lot, we hiked off toward Baxter Pinnacle. We ran into Andy and Dave on their way back and exchanged pleasantries before continuing on to the boat dock. Mike negotiated a "bad day" discount on roundtrip tickets for the boat ride. Despite this impressive performance, it would be a couple more hours before we realized that there was no way we were going to climb Baxter's and get back to the boat for the return trip before the last run at 6, meaning we would have to hike around the lake.

In any case, we admired the views as we rode across the lake, got the scoop on the local fauna, then hiked up to the base of the pinnacle. We dragged under the thin air and before we started climbing we promised to make sure and keep an eye on each other. This pact was made as a result of Mike failing to put his left leg through the leg loop of his harness on the first effort.

With all the bugs worked out, we began climbing. I led pitch 1, a short class 4, maybe low class 5 scramble to a ledge. Mike led pitch 2, a thin, runout 5.8 face route with a couple fixed pins and very cool moves. I led pitch 3, with a fun, stemming 5.6 chimney. Then Mike led pitch 4, a long scramble up to the base of the summit tower. Finally, I led pitch 5 up the summit tower, with steep, committing 5.9+ face moves right off the deck, then a 5.7 cramped almost-lieback up a crack to the top. The last pitch was short and had 4 fixed pins, so it was more like a sport route than a gear route. Very fun, quality climb, with an easy approach, making it a good first route in the Tetons, especially if you only have a few hours to climb.

But what we didn't realize, but what we would find out over the next couple days, was that the ease of routefinding on Baxter Pinnacle is absolutely not representative of other climbing routes in the Tetons.

III. Grand Teton (the climb)

"Home sweet home" Dave's weary but relieved voice crackled through the radio.

"Great. Have a good night, boys." Mike replied from our tent a couple hundred feet higher up the moraine.

"Bueños noches, amigos."

"Bueños noches. Hasta mañana."

It was about 10:00 Monday night and the c. 15 hour epic was over at last. 15 hours of horrendous routefinding difficulties and confused debating over rock features. 15 hours of climbing, hiking, scrambling this way and that trying to assess our location and the location of the route we wanted. 15 hours of 180° swings in the weather and battles with the thin air above 10,000 feet.

We arrived at the Lupine Meadows trailhead (elev 6,700 ft) and set out for The Grand Sunday morning around 9:30. We humped our heavy packs up the Garnet Canyon Trail to The Meadows camp sites (elev 9,300 ft), arriving around 11:30. Well, some of us humped heavy packs, in retrospect, we appeared to be reenacting the "Heavies vs. Lightnicks (aka Moochers)" experiment in Backpacker magazine. We set up camp underneath a large boulder with two tent platforms, a nearby stream, anti-marmot rope, and the faint scent of human territorial pissings. All-in-all, a very pleasant camp site as long as the wind blew in the desired direction. Unfortunately for Dave, years of negative reinforcement prompted him to pitch his Bibler some 30 feet away to protect us from his nocturnal, bearish mating call. We pleaded that the pleasant sound of the glacier fed stream rushing over rocks 20 feet away would drown out the bear's growl, but he insisted that it was "better safe than sorry."

Having established our domain, Dave and Andy set out to climb Irine's Arête (III 5.8 or 10a) near the Moraine another thousand feet or so above our camp. Mike and I intended to hike up to the Lower Saddle (elev 11,650 ft) between Middle Teton and the south ridge of Grant Teton, then continue up to reconnoiter the starts to the Lower Exum Ridge and the Petzoldt Ridge routes, and time permitting, climb Petzoldt Ridge. We planned to do this to gain a little extra acclimatization and to get a little extra climbing into the trip.

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams," Eleanor Roosevelt said. And climbing Petzoldt Ridge and getting to camp in a matter of 5 or 6 hours was such a beautiful and absurd dream.

We hiked up the trail toward the Lower Saddle, stopping to talk to other parties along the way. I stopped to indulge my altitude-induced urge to finger paint. Noting a steep rocky bulge splitting the slope up to the Lower Saddle, we solicited beta from one party as to which side of the bulge to pass on. They pointed us to the scree gulley to the right. We could see a wide, difficult looking rock band on the left, so we reasoned the beta was accurate. The beta was NOT accurate. The scree gulley, was a loose, chossy, bowling alley with us as the pins and rocks occasionally falling at random from above as the balls. We gained the ridge a couple hundred feet above the saddle, at which point our memory of reading about the existence of a fixed line to ascend the rock band on the left inconveniently triggered.

Worse yet, from this vantage point almost directly underneath the ridges, we could not distinguish one feature from the next. We could see a band of black rock which we thought might be the black dike, which is the physical feature that marks the point where you break off the Owen-Spalding ("OS") route and head toward the south ridge routes. But if this was the black dike, it was vastly less defined than the black dike on the Middle Teton. So we hiked up to search for more obvious clues. And up. And up. Eventually we ran into a nice family of three that was descending and struck up an enlightening conversation. We asked where the black dike was and they said "way below you." "Huh," we replied, "so then where is the eye of the needle?" A famous feature of the OS route several hundred feet above where we wanted to be, the kind man pointed to the eye of the needle about 20 feet below us. Fortunately, we were only a short way below a notch in the ridge where you pass through to get to the Upper Exum Ridge. We took advantage of our error and scrambled up to the notch and from there could see the Lower Exum Ridge and Wall Street -- two potentially important features of our summit attempt the next day.

Most interesting of all, however, was the thin air. A moderate pace was fine, but making a few quick scramble moves or a sudden step out to catch a slip left us gasping for air and with a pounding heart.

On the way back down we found a magnificent cache in which to store our climbing gear so we would not have to hump it back up the next day. An SUV sized boulder just off the climber's trail that leads to the starts of the south ridge climbs had a 5 foot deep alcove between it and the adjacent rocks where we put our harnesses, rope, helmets, and pro inside a garbage bag and a backpack rain sack. This was a major score and made the entire hike up worth it. However, climbing Petzoldt Ridge was clearly out of the question by this time, so we resorted to just scouting out the starts to the climbs. Dave and Andy had marginally better success than we did that day, having climbed 3 pitches up Irine's before backing off.

Having scouted out the Lower Exum (grade III 5.7 (sandbag)) and even scored beta from an acquaintance from Seattle who is a Teton guide in the summer, we decided that the Lower Exum was a bit too lofty of a goal. So we geared up mentally to try and summit via the Petzoldt Ridge, grade III 5.6.

Back at camp, we cooked dinner and discussed the impact of the new change of accounting guidelines issued in Revenue Procedure 2002-18 by the IRS earlier this year, then solved the crisis in the Middle East before sauntering off to bed and a wonderful night of intermittent sleep and psychotic dreams.

Dave and Andy headed out around 6:45 Monday morning. Mike and I took advantage of our slightly quicker hiking pace and waited until 7:30 to leave. We had to pack up our camping gear and move camp to the Moraine (elev between 10,500 and 11,000 ft), about an hour further up the trail.

The hump up to the Moraine was agonizing. I couldn't get a second wind, my quads felt completely drained, and I feared I had exhausted my energy stores aclimatizing the day before. I decided I was going to take time off from climbing when this was over. But after setting up our new camp and swapping my big pack with my now trusty new summit pack, I felt 10 times better.

We expected to see Andy and Dave somewhere along the moraine, but couldn't find a sign of them. We made contact with them over the radio, but their description of where they were didn't jive with what we were seeing, so we agreed to meet below the fixed line below the Lower Saddle. About half an hour later we contacted them again, having still made no visual contact with them.

"Where are you guys?" Mike called.

"We're below the fixed line." Andy replied.

"So are we. Where the hell are you guys?!"

"We're heading up to the guide hut. Do you have snow to your left?"

"Yes, do you?"

"No. Crap."

Dave and Andy had inadvertantly headed up toward the wrong saddle -- they were taking the approach for the east ridge instead of the south ridge. I made a deal with Andy that I wouldn't be too harsh on him for this, especially because he did make up for it quite a bit later, but I find the temptation quite strong. Let me fill you in on a little background info. Andy climbed The Grand a year or two ago via the Upper Exum route. He had been to the Lower Saddle on that trip. The Lower Saddle is a rather massive feature of the mountain, visible from miles away. Yet he still managed to miss this obvious and large feature by 90 degrees and about a mile! Ay, dios mio! It's hard to discern what we're dealing with here -- the effects of altitude or something more intellectual. Either way, it was quite amusing in restrospect, and turned out not to be a major blunder. There was in fact a hut up where they were going, and they got beta on a short cut from a ranger.

After nabbing our gear from our cache, Mike and I arrived at the base of Petzoldt Ridge about 11:00. We spent about half an hour trying to figure out where the route begins, finally settling on a starting point that seemed to fit the rather vague description in our photocopied pages of the guidebook. We began climbing and shortly thereafter, Dave and Andy showed up over the col between Underhill Ridge and Glencoe Spire to our right. After helping us figure out the route from below, Dave topped off a blue bag and soon they followed us up.

The climbing difficulty was moderate, and we moved fairly quickly even at ~12,000 feet. I won't bother with route/pitch descriptions because unfortunately the routefinding was damn near impossible, and I'm not sure how much of what we climbed was on route. We had to make two traversing pitches in addition to the normal pitches just to stay within the realm of on-route. After a few hours the clouds darkened, the wind picked up, and it began to snail (Dave's term for the soft snow-like hail that was falling on us -- after consulting Freedom of the Hills, it appears it was likely graupel that was falling, but "snail" is much easier to say) and I found myself below a large roof near the end of one of my pitches. I called down on the radio "I found a roof, unfortunately I think it's the roof at the end of pitch 2."

This was a rather daunting prospect and it seemed completely impossible that after 4 or 5 hours, we had only made it to the end of the intended route's second pitch. However, Mike found a small feature on the route diagram that indicated a second roof at the end of the 4th pitch, and after comparing it with our position relative to Underhill Ridge, it fit our visual very closely. According to the book, there should have been a large belay ledge to the left of the roof, and sure enough, when I arrived at the roof, there was a beautiful, large ledge. The snail stopped. The wind died down. And the sun came out and made it nice and toasty. I stripped off my parka and balaclava and basked in the sun for a minute before belaying Mike up.

From here, Mike was able to run his pitch out to the summit of the ridge. Once at the top, we rappeled down to the col between Petzoldt Ridge and the Upper Exum Ridge. The clouds darkened. The wind picked up. It began to snail again, only harder and wetter this time. We climbed the pitch-and-a-half class 4/low class 5 coulior up to Exum Ridge as fast as we could, arriving about 5:30, heads dizzy and hearts ready to leap from our chests. The snail stopped. The wind died down. The sun came out.

It was clear at this point that there was no way we were going to go for the summit. We were about 1300 feet below it, at least 3 hours away, with about that much daylight left. So we began scouting around trying to find Wall Street, which would mark our exit route. Mike found a ledge below us. I found a ledge above us. Both of them could have feasibly been Wall Street, which is a broad ledge traversing a gulley up to the Upper Exum. We had seen it from the other side of the gulley the day before, but now we could not see enough of either ledge above or below to positively identify one of them as Wall Street.

We spent the hour or so waiting for Dave and Andy to arrive lounging and scouting. When they arrived around 6:30, we were getting to the point of urgency. Andy agreed with me that Wall Street must be above us. But I had scouted Mike's theory and was now torn 50/50 on which was correct. I identified a couple horns which could have been used to rappel down to Wall Street if Mike was correct, but it was a good 45-50 meter rappel and if it wasn't correct, getting back up would have been a nightmare.

It was now about 7:00 and we were approaching the point of panic because we had an hour and a half to two hours of daylight at best. We were at about 12,500 feet and were not looking forward to bivying up there, although from some of the meager rock shelters we found, it appeared we would not have been the first to have done so. We could see a couple dozen climbers far below at the Lower Saddle standing around their camps. We imagined they were watching us as well, and the thought only enhanced the feeling of urgency to get down.

So Andy and I decided to scramble up and check out the ledge above us under the logic that at least we could downclimb if it wasn't correct. We had only gone about 30 or 40 feet when the guardian angels arrived across the gulley, descending OS. Mike yelled to them and got across that we needed to know where Wall Street was. Despite a difficult shouting conversation above wind and with pour visual contact between Mike and them, the end result was that they believed Wall Street was below us. Mike called up to Andy and I and told us to come down.

We headed over to the rappel stations I found earlier, set up a rap anchor, tied our two ropes together, and we started the rap down around 7:30. I gladly sacrificed my $6 worth of webbing and biner for the sake of making it back to our tents that night.

"We're going home!"

The ledge below was Wall Street, and it was relatively smooth sailing after that. We descended Wall Street, crossed the gulley and scrambled up to the notch on the OS route. Then we descended OS as the sun went down. We hit the Lower Saddle at about 9:00, just as the last, desperate glows of the sun attempted to dimly color the sky a deep, dark blue from below the horizon. We donned the headlamps, except for Andy who was forced to use a key light having lost his headlamp earlier in the day, leaving booty for the next fortunate party up Petzoldt Ridge.

After descending the fixed rope and negotiating the boulder fields, exhausted from the long day and the altitude, we arrived at Mike's and my tent about 9:30. We gave Andy a headlamp to borrow and asked them to let us know when they got to their tent. Half an hour later those comforting words came over the radio: "Home sweet home."

We dumped our gear out on the ground, ate quickly and went to bed, only to be awakened a few hours later at 4 a.m. by rainfall. We reluctantly got up and went outside in our bare feet in the cold rain and covered up our gear and went back to bed. A couple hours later at 6, the annoying alarm on one of our radios went off from our packs outside the tent. Tired and groggy from a sleepless night on bumpy ground, we chose to endure it's 10 second pattern of rings for a minute and wait to see if it would stop on it's own. It did. We pathetically attempted to sleep some more.

We got up for good at 7:30 and broke down camp and began the long hike down to the parking lot. We stopped to talk to a ranger on our way, and at one point he commented that "the features in the Tetons are very discontinuous and it can take years to learn the routes well." Agreed.

IV. Getting Back to Seattle, WA

Dave is a quiet man. But he is not a quiet man by nature. He is an "intermittent, location-specific extrovert" as Mike Meyers says. After stopping for a meal in Jackson, we continued out to the airport in Idaho Falls. Idaho Falls was home to Dave for 4 1/2 months a few years ago, and he treated us to drinks at his old favorite watering hole. We met a few of his old friends and had a couple beers. Little did we know, the tactful, soft-spoken Dave we had come to know and appreciate, turns into a shit-talking, sarcastic, big mouth after a couple drinks! It was fantastic! And such an unexpected treat. He would make these dry quips, and we would sit there dumbfounded, jaws in our laps, stunned at what we were witnessing, with no clue how to interpret it and much less how to respond to it. The tragedy of the situation is that our inability to process quickly enough made him uncomfortable and after too short of a time, he sealed it up again. But it was reminiscent of the unfamous quote by Barney from The Simpsons, "You should never use alcohol to drown your sorrows, only to enhance your social skills."

At the airport, we were a day early for our flight, so the ticketing agent tried to charge us $75 each to fly standby. That's when Andy came to the rescue and whipped out his Alaska Airlines MVP Club Gold card. That little piece of plastic performed wonders and like a Jedi mind trick (sorry for the nerdy Star Wars reference), the feeble-minded ticketing agent was powerless against it. We had the fee waived and were issued boarding passes on the spot, even though we were 2 1/2 hours early for a standby flight.

Mike had his bag searched again. Then he was searched at security.

We arrived home late Tuesday evening and attempted the impossible task of switching back to the real world. It is difficult sitting at a desk all day when you were sleeping at 11,000 feet on a mountain 24 hours earlier. But, I've just about got this exciting Revenue Procedure interpretation read, at which point I believe I will have rid myself of all the annoying clarity I received during the climb and I can resume life at the desk.