After grabbing a late burrito dinner in town at Abuelitos, we finally entered Grand Teton National Park. The plan was to catch a couple hours of sleep next to the truck before heading out. I can remember getting into my sleeping bag with a cool breeze rolling down from the mountainside across my face. I fell asleep immediately. That is, until the moon rose up and lit up the entire sky.
We headed out from the trailhead at a blistering hiking pace (for me at least). Up the trail we walked with only the beam of our headlamps lighting the way. The moon was full and bright, but it was still too dark to see 5 feet off the trail.
We reached the first boulder field. Nothing says adventure like when the trail you’ve been focused on for two hours abruptly ends at the foot of a 8ft boulder. With little confidence that it was the right way, we scrambled up onto the rocks and made our way in the only direction we knew to be right… up.
The ice axes come out for the first of many times. Crossing the first snowfield near Owens falls proved to be easier than expected. With the cold overnight, the snow was rock solid, and seem to have great footing. Our axes barely broke through the crust when we rested on them.
After a long morning in the dark, the light finally appeared over the horizon. We reached the Moraines and eventually climbed up to the bootpack up the headwall. Since it was such a heavy snow year, the snow level was so high that the fixed rope was still buried. This was also the first time the crampons came out of our packs. I hadn’t used them since 2016 in Iceland, so it was a strange feeling to say the least. Luckily, the snow was still rock solid and the bootpack was a steady, slow climb to the lower saddle.
5 hours after starting our hike in the dark, we finally reached the Lower Saddle where we took a quick break before our next objective. The Upper Saddle. The Lower Saddle sits at 11,640, and is located 5.8 miles and 5,321′ above the trailhead. All of which to say, this the longest approach to a rock climb I’ve ever done.
Thinking it was only going to take us an hour to gain the Upper Saddle, we were surely mistaken. Crossing into 12K feet of elevation had us all short on breath, and even shorter on confidence. But we finally reached the Black Dike. One thing they never mention in the Beta, is how big the features are on this scramble. The Needle, the Dike, the rib, everything, is massive. And we still had another 1,000′ of scrambling to do.
The climb had started to get real, really quickly. After deciding to go up the Owen Spalding Couloir and attack the Upper Western Rib, we were starting to regret our decision. It was a slog. Constantly switching from rock to snow to ice and back to rock. All the while, the wind started picking up. We were feeling steady +30mph winds while on the lower saddle, and we could tell that it was only going to get worse. The guys, pictured below, decided to take a steep bootpack, remaining in their crampons, while I headed up the rib for more scrambling where I felt comfortable.
It took us over 2 hours to reach the Upper saddle, and way more energy than I was expecting. We still had the technical pitches of climbing ahead of us and now the winds were steadily blowing at +60mph. Stoke was at an all time low. The guys were not confident that it would be a good idea to push forward and the smart decision was likely to turn back. At least we got to see an incredible view of the National Park from up there.
Luckily, a guided party, with Exum stickers slapped onto their helmets, had just rappelled off the top and we got to talking. They informed us that the wind immediately subsides when you get around the corner on the technical pitches (great news!), and that there was no ice or snow on their route. That meant we didn’t need to bring our ice axes or crampons, and eventually lead to us deciding not to bring our packs, which had our food and water in them, up on the route. It was extra weight and I thought it would be much easier to climb the chimney sections without a pack on our backs.
Another climber, named John, joined our party of 3 to make a total of 4. Once we reached the Belly Roll and decided to rope up, our plan was for me to lead, with Kyle belaying me in the middle on a knot, then meet me on the other side to belay Mike. John would tie into Mike’s harness to act as a tagline as he would follow Mike. This proved to be both easy and difficult to manage. Due to the high winds and sight-line, communication was difficult, so I had to stop after the Belly Roll and bring everyone across. Then I headed out for the Crawl (which I scooted my butt across), where the 2,000′ drop loomed to my left. Anchors and protection were easily built and placed, due to the abundant 0.5-1.5″ cracks on route. There’s even a piton on the right side of the crawl halfway through to protect it.
Over an hour later, after handling all the rope, for all 4 climbers, topped out of the Double Chimney. This was a rad bit of climbing. After a little bit of juggling at the belay, I decided it was best if I went up before everyone came over making it more cramped. The first, pull-up, move on the 1st entrance chimney was no joke. Luckily there was a nut stuck right above the move to protect it. The climb was straight forward and confusing at the same time. I knew I needed to follow the chimney up, but the moves and placements weren’t obvious. But that’s mostly because of how much snow filled in the base and the ice on the walls. So much for not needing our crampons and ice axes. On a 70m rope, with Kyle in the middle belaying me, we had just enough rope to do this pitch with 3 guys on one rope without having the 2nd two guys simul-climb.
After reaching the Owen’s Chimney, which is supposed to be the easiest section on the route, proved to be one of the hardest. I thought we would be able to solo this section to save time; but after watching John head off ahead of us, struggling as he soloed it himself, we deciding against. Kyle took the sharp end and headed up. At this point, the cold was really starting to set in. Mike and I were shivering uncontrollably at the belay, hoping the sun would come around the rock soon, but our hopes would be futile. Climbing on this pitch was miserable. The entire face, left, bottom, and right were all filled in with rime ice. Every foot placement was questionable. I never moved my next foot until I was absolutely sure I could support myself on my arms if the remaining foot slipped. It was sketchy to say the least.
Finally, we were in the sun. For nearly the first time in 12hrs we were in direct sunlight, warming us down to our cores. A feeling much needed. Once we belayed Mike up to the top of the Owen’s Chimeny, realizing how long we had been moving for, how much we still had to go, and the fact that we’d only be halfway there; I had to ask the question. “Guys, do we want to head down from here and forgo the summit?”
The top of Owen’s Chimney is only a dozen yards away from the main rappel station, and the quickest way to head down. I felt confident in everyones ability and energy, but I had no idea how they were feeling. Luckily, everyone felt strong enough to push to the summit. The weather was great, no wind, the sun was shining, and we were so damn close. Unfortunately, we still didn’t have any water or food.
Deciding to push on, I topped out at the rappel rings on the Sargents Chimney. This route, though had less ice, still had way more than I would normally feel comfortable leading on. There were two chimney moves that required you to commit to pressing your back up against an icy wall and stemming your feet off the opposite wall. Moving up the obvious drainage, face climbing it, was impossible due to the amount of ice and snow. Watching the guys navigate this section was awesome and impressive to say the least. I ended up belaying from an anchor I built off the rap-rings to save time.
Constantly checking the guidebook I had saved onto my phone, we slowly moved up towards the summit. We decided to tie Kiwi coils around myself and Kyle to short-rope our way up passed the Three Stooges and onto the Slabby Wall. Because of how much snow, it made more sense to stick to the rock, rather than scramble in the snow around the Slabby Wall.
Slowly, we post-holed and bootpacked our way up getting fooled by the Horse pretending to be the summit. With each step, I felt like I was gaining more and more energy, even as we were loosing more and more oxygen.
Nearly 12.5 hours after we left the truck in the darkness of night, we reached the summit of The Grand Teton. The tallest point in Wyoming at 13,775 feet of elevation. The first ascent of The Grand was on August 11, 1898 by William Owen, Franklin Spalding, Frank Peterson, and John Shive via the now-called Owen-Spalding route. We didn’t stick around for long before heading back down the way we came, completely elated and stoked.
We moved back down the way we approached, passed the 3 Stooges, rappelling down through Sargents Chimney, and headed left towards the Main Rap station. There we met a Jackson Hole Mountain Guide who asked to use our rope to rappel. We obviously said yes, and then he had us second guessing. He proceeded to tell us the rap rings are stamped for 40m. That mean a 70m rope, folded in half, would only reach 35m. I was in absolute disbelief. We had done so much research on this, and was the specific reason we brought a heavy 70m rope with us. Luckily, he realized his mistake and we were good to go rappel over the 100+ ft, free hanging rappel.
Deciding against using the, now soft snow, Upper Western Rib descent; we headed down the Upper Crossover and planned to use the Lower Crossover. This had far less snow and ice, making it a much safer way down towards the Lower Saddle. It’s not to say it wasn’t difficult. With every step, the weight of our packs slammed onto our shoulders and our feet took the brunt of the force. The rocks were jagged and had plenty of exposure below us, meaning we still weren’t out of the woods just yet.
The Lower Saddle was finally under our feet. Time for our “lunch” and a quick break for the first time in hours. It took us nearly 4 hours to get down from the summit. Almost twice as fast as it took us to get up there. And at this point, the wind had subsided and felt much more calm up there.
Just when we thought we had left the danger above us on the saddles, the most dangerous part was yet to come. We strapped on our crampons again as we descended the headwall. The snow was beyond sun affected, resulting in sinking up to our knees on every step outside the established bootpack. In attempts to be funny, and save a bit of time and energy, we tried to slide down on our butts using the ice axes to self-arrest the slide. At first attempts, it was working pretty well for Mike and I. Then, I looked up to see the most terrifying thing on the entire route. Kyle sliding down, feet first towards me, crampons in the air, unable to self-arrest, at speeds of nearly 20mph.
Quickly trying to assess my options, I pulled my ice blade out of the snow in hopes that I could meet his speed when we collided, reducing the impact. As predicted, he slammed into me. The two of us were sent flying down the slope into a massive exposed rock which we bounced off, sent tumbling over a cliff in the snow, and down the glacier which ran out over a 1/4 mile and dropped 500+ feet. I luckily never lost grip of my ice axe and was able to self arrest.
Kyle, on the other-hand, lost control of his ice axe in the fall and had it trapped underneath him. After sliding hundreds of feet, with snow spraying everywhere, he was eventually able to grab his axe and self arrest. Turns out, his crampon broke at the top of the snow field, sending him the uncontrollable fall.
Already well passed our expected finish time, at least we got to see this incredible shadow of the Tetons casted onto the meadows.
DONE. The Grand Teton, via the Owen-Spalding route, with 3 climbers, car-to-car, finished in a whopping time of 20 hours. As if we didn’t already have enough excitement, we ran into a massive brown black bear just a 1/4 mile from the parking lot. Who doesn’t love a little scare when we’re already beyond delirious, thinking we were seeing bears around every turn, with bear spray ready. But it didn’t matter, we were done. And after b-lining it to Jackson for pizza and beers, it couldn’t have been a better end to a most epic day.
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My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.