As I have stated before, this trip was always planned to have two different, but hopefully mutually supportive purposes; first to achieve long sought after climbing objectives, climbing the Devil’s Tower and climbing the Grand Teton during a total solar eclipse, and secondly to practice creating some memorable photographs. These objectives could not have been achieved without the priceless support, encouragement, and direct assistance of my friends, family and climbing partners, and to them I would like to express my deepest gratitude.
Speaking of climbing partners, it had been a long time since Chris Cosby and I climbed together – probably 25 years or so – and Chris hadn’t done much climbing since those days, so we had a little work to do to get him back up to speed. We had climbed a bit together in the Gunks years ago, but the thing that stood out in my memory was our one day trip up Mt. Whitney (14,505) in California. That was a 13 hour long, 22 mile round trip, car-to-car hike, that we knocked out in some free time that we had on a business trip to Las Vegas years ago. We had gone from the lowest point in the country, Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the highest point in the lower 48 within a 24 hour period. Chris is an avid and accomplished cyclist who wouldn’t think twice about knocking off a 50 mile bike ride. He has a couple transcontinental bike rides under his belt and the week before I arrived in Wyoming, he and his girlfriend had done an 18 mile hike there (among others), so his fitness level was not in question. It had however, been a long time since he tied onto a rope, so an afternoon long refresher at Blacktail Butte was in order.
It took a few tries, but Chris quickly regained a level of comfort with his weight in a harness as he remastered some knots and updated his rappel and belay techniques. Going back to an indoor rock climbing gym to prepare for the trip also helped to get him back into the hang of climbing again too.
Our trip planning had some kinks (wilderness permits), but we planned to take a somewhat more leisurely approach to the climb on the Grand Teton this time around. Instead of 2 nights on the mountain, we planned to be up there for 4 nights. This small detail paid off in spades. The approach to the lower saddle is a 7.6 mile hike, much of it over some pretty rough terrain (snow, boulder fields, scree, and a 40 or 50 foot roped headwall) where you eventually gain 5000 feet of elevation. And if you’re carrying camera gear, climbing gear, camping gear and enough food for 4 days, your pack is going to tip the scales at around 50 pounds. That’ll slow you down a little on a seven and a half mile uphill hike! And it did. By the time we got to the lower saddle (11,700), Chris was feeling the effects of the elevation. He complained about a headache and spent a sleepless night under a loudly flapping tarp tent despite the fact that we set it up behind a big boulder to try to stay out of the wind. More than once that night he had poked his head outside the tent to puke. At some point during the night, I finally got up and took down the tarp. It wasn’t protecting us from anything and was just making a lot of noise. Thankfully the wind calmed down a bit the next day. We stayed in the saddle on the 21st, eclipse day, while our friends, Brian Leffler and Chris Dal Santo (the other Chris) got up early to start their trip to the summit. Given how bad he felt, Chris was worried about how he was going to get down off the mountain, but having this rest day built into our itinerary made all the difference.
He was already starting to feel better as we prepared to photograph the eclipse. The excitement of the other climbers in the saddle was palpable as the eclipse approached.
You can see the summit of the Grand Teton on the right in the background of this picture that Chris took of me shooting the sun as the eclipse began. It’s much bigger than it looks here, which is to say that from where I’m laying to that summit is about 2000 vertical feet.
While shooting the eclipse, the urge to look for Brian and Chris on the Exum Ridge was irresistible. We couldn’t find them, but this guy looks like one of the Exum guides working his way up the route.
I want to give a shout out here to QT Luong, climber, photographer and author of the unsurpassed photo book, Treasured Lands. Were it not for a missed e-mail, we might have climbed the Grand Teton together. Alas, my access to reliable internet was sketchy through out the trip and we passed like two ships in the night. This wasn’t the only connection that was hampered by sketchy internet access. Unfortunately, we aren’t keeping up with South Korea in the area of reliable internet access. That said, don’t miss QT’s blog about his Teton eclipse experience!
As it turns out, Brian and Chris had some route finding issues and changed horses midstream, deciding to switch from the Exum Ridge to the Owen Spalding route. They arrived back at our camp in the lower saddle that evening, pretty well battered from the difficulties they faced and their high output day on the mountain. Chris Cosby and I tended to them pretty well, boiling water for tea, coffee, and cooking up some freeze dried meals for them, then we hunkered down for our own early start the next morning.
Chris and I got an early start; up at 4:00am for a hot breakfast of oatmeal and tea, on the trail by 5:00am, and passing through the black dike by 5:30, just in time for the day’s early light to eliminate the need for our headlamps. Route finding went without a hitch, Chris picking the better of our options whenever there was a route decision to be made. The small, 4-page route description that I jotted down proved indispensable, helping us identify landmarks on the way and keeping us heading in the right direction. We soloed much of the route, roping up for the first bit of difficulties at the top of the Wall St. ramp.
This is a great shot of Chris with the Middle Teton behind him, which we took to calling the “Little Teton.” *grin*
We climbed unroped for long stretches above that, having to place some gear and set up anchors at several points through these ‘free’ sections in order to insure safe passage where a slip would have rather dire consequences.
This may have happened more than it might normally, due to Chris’ long absence from climbing combined with the kind of exposure that one rarely experiences.
Chris grew fond of saying, “I don’t like this” every time we had to scramble through some exposed section, but he managed to get through most of these difficulties by applying a bit of caution and grit. In the end, it turned out that he DID like this!
Despite these short setbacks (or perhaps because of them), we were able to reach the summit of the Grand Teton by about 4:30 or 5:00 PM.
This is where things got interesting.
As my friend, Mike, is fond of saying when we’re on the top of something big together, “This is just the 50 yard line.” And so it was! After a short visit on the summit, where we managed to scarf down some energy bars and gels, drink some water, and take a few photographs and videos, it was time to find our way down. We angled down toward The Enclosure, like the guidebook said, and managed to find and set up the proper rappels.
After the 2nd rappel, we continued down a well worn path but missed a turn that would have kept us to the right (west) of the main rib between the Wall St. and Owen Spalding gullies.
The trail we were on slowly dissipated into a steep boulder and scree filled gully. We picked our way down carefully as dusk descended upon us. It wasn’t until it began getting dark that we knew for sure we were in the wrong gully and by then it made sense to try to get down to a point where we could escape around the giant rib of rock, into the correct gully.
Things got pretty sketchy. Big rocks would slide out from under us as we descended the steep gully and we resorted to trying to bypass as much as we could by rappelling any time we were able to find suitable anchors. To that end, we left a couple slings and ‘biners behind when we couldn’t find a suitable horn or boulder to rappel from. In this manner, we pushed on well into the night. At points we would resort to down leading in order to protect ourselves against the possibility (likelyhood!) of a rock slide. In that scenario, the 2nd (Chris) was the person facing the prospect of a longer fall should the slope below him give way. To increase our chances of a safer descent, Chris tied into the middle of the rope and I tied into both ends. This gave us 35 meters of rope to work with between us, and 2 strands since we had a 70 meter rope. That way, if one strand got chopped by a sliding block, you might still be caught by the 2nd strand. This is how we worked our way down by headlamp, placing as much gear as possible between us to minimize the chance of a long fall/slide. At the end of each short pitch or rappel, we’d look for a safe, well protected place to bivouac. And at the end of each one, we decided to push on further. This went on until about a half past midnight. At that point, we had descended to what appeared to be a path across the gully. I suspected that this was the path we had crossed earlier when we descended from the eye of the needle to access the Wall St. ledge, but it was too dark to tell for sure.
We decided then that it would be too dangerous to try to continue pushing on through the darkness without a more solid understanding of exactly where we were on the mountain, so we found a spot in the boulders where we could hunker down out of the wind and settled in as best as possible for an uncomfortable bivouac. We bundled up in all the clothing we brought up with us and inventoried our supplies, eating what food we had that wouldn’t make us even thirstier as we tried to ration what little water we had left. The jerky stayed in the pack. We split a blueberry bagel and sucked down an energy gel. I had a cheap $2 emergency poncho that got busted out, providing us with a bit of levity if not any real protection. We sat on our packs to insulate us from the cold rocks and joked about what we had gotten ourselves into.
We must have been pretty delirious because everything seemed pretty funny and we were pretty sure that our friends down in the saddle never heard so much laughter coming from a forced bivouac. We sent texts to our friends in the saddle (and to Chris’ girlfriend) to let them know we were okay, but much to our surprise, those texts wouldn’t be received until the next morning. We saw people down in the saddle flashing lights up at us, but we didn’t respond because we didn’t want anyone trying to make their way up to us in the dark. Our efforts to this point had kept us from getting too cold, but as the night wore on, a good chill worked us both over pretty good. We shifted around, changing positions pretty often. None of them were very comfortable. We sat with our feet facing in, under the boulder, and our backs out. We sat with our feet out and our upper backs against the boulder behind us. We sat back to back. Our teeth chattered. Nothing was comfortable. Thankfully it hadn’t gotten very cold, maybe low to mid 40’s, and we only had to hold out until about 5:30 AM for it to become light enough to figure out where we were.
At about 4:00 AM, we saw headlamps down in the saddle. This would likely be the Exum guides rousting their clients for an early start.
By 5:00 AM there were headlamps high and to the right of us. This would be climbers descending into the gully from the needle, to access the Wall St. ramp. It was still too dark and we were too cold and tired to be stirred by this activity. We waited for more light before slowly getting everything together, greeting a couple groups of surprised climbers as they passed below us on their way over to Wall St. We tied back in to the ends of the rope and stacked it so it would feed nicely, then began the descent to the trail and the climb back up to the needle where we drank the last few mouthfuls of our water. We only stayed roped up for one rope length, for safety until we were able to get our legs under us again. Then we coiled the rope and scrambled up and around the needle. There we bumped into Doug, a climbing guide from back east with a couple clients. He told us our friends were looking for us in the saddle and asked us if we needed any help getting down, noting that we didn’t look any worse for wear and tear having spent the night out. We assured him we were okay and continued to work our way down. We did rappel in a couple spots in order to avoid having to scramble down some tricky sections and another climber was very helpful when our rope got caught up while trying to pull it down. As we got lower, we ran into Chris and Brian who had hiked up to meet us. Thankfully they had brought water up, which we promptly chugged to try to re-hydrate. They seemed as happy to see us as we were to see them. They unburdened us from some of our gear so we could hike down more easily. Once back at our camp in the saddle, Chris and I bundled up in our sleeping bags for a good rest and spent the remainder of the day sleeping or eating and drinking. We were so knackered that I couldn’t even be bothered to get up to see this marmot who had camped out on the rock above me, sunning himself.
Brian and (the other) Chris wanted to head down the mountain and offered to take some of our gear in exchange for leaving their tent for us to sleep in that night. That worked out really well as a short sleet/rain storm came through late that afternoon. We stayed warm and dry and rested up as much as possible for the trip down the mountain the next day.
To be continued…