The Grand Teton as a special place in my heart. Ever since my buddies and I did it back in 2019, I’ve always thought about taking Courtney up it. Sure it’s massive and an excruciatingly long day, but she’s strong I and I knew she could do it. Fast forward to the end of August 2020, when nearly out of the blue, she says to me, “Let’s go climb the Grand in September!”
Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more stoked. We had about e weeks to prepare, get it more specific climbing shape, and get the best beta we could on route conditions. We went on backpacking trips, climbed a bunch of routes at the gym and local crag, hiked the steepest trails nearby, and practiced climbing techniques every night. We planned it for early September, when conditions were suppose Res to be the driest all year. We were doing everything in our power to get ready for what would be the longest day in the mountains for either of us. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decides to throw us a curve ball we really couldn’t have foreseen.
A once in a millennia storm came through the West on the Monday before our summit attempt, bringing with it frigid temps and huge amounts of snow. In Park City, we only got a couple inches of snow, but the summit of the Grand received a foot or more. And because of its elevation and how much of it’a routes states shaded from the sun, that meant the snow wasn’t going anywhere and we would have to navigate through it.
With the news of snow, we still decided to press on and how conditions changed by the weekend. We spent all day Saturday preparing gear and our packs, headed to the trailhead around 7pm with plans to sleep for a few hours before heading off at midnight via headlamps. Before I went to sleep in the truck, climbers started trickling in, one by one, all with the same story. Ice and snow on both the route to the upper saddle and on the entire Owen Spaulding Route. “Sh!t.” I remember thinking to myself. But we had ice axes and crampons, and I had done it once before in the snow. We’d be fine.
When the alarms went off at midnight, we rolled out of the back of the truck and tossed our packs on. Clicked on our headlamps and headed up the trail. The route to climb the Grand Teton starts in Lupine Meadows, heads up Garnett Canyon, passing over boulder fields, steep switchbacks, along the middle Teton Glacier, up and over the head wall to the Lower saddle, then a scramble to the Upper Saddle, where you eventually reach the technical rock climbing to the summit. Round trip, it’s 15 miles with nearly 7,000 vertical feet. 2,000 of which are gained on the climb from the Lower Saddle to the Summit.
After mostly successfully navigating the trail in the darkness, we arrived at the head wall 5hrs after we left the trailhead. Normally we’d take the bootpack, across the glacier,up to the Lower Saddle, but this late in the season, it’s advised to climb using the fixed lines which proved to be quite spicy in the dark. At 6AM, we reached the Lower Saddle, our first objective, just as the sunlight started to crest the horizon. We stoped for a moment to get warm, eat snacks, dawn our harnesses and helmets, and enjoy the success we’d had so far. Then it was onto the technical portion.
We started our way up, toward the upper saddle, when we were immediately greeted by our first instance of ice and snow. Manageable, we thought, but it quickly became so much worse than manageable. As we climbed up the drainage, we took out our ice axes to help with the snowy sections. Normally, snow is not the issue, and we had crampons for any icy sections. But this, fresh, snow was only 6-8in thick, which meant we couldn’t get our ice axes deep into the snow for a stable anchor. And the ice wasn’t thick enough to dig into either. Everything was just some sort of wet and slippery. It was not a good sign of conditions to come, especially since we heard the O.S. Route had worse conditions.
On my previous attempt I went up between the sack of Potatoes and the Crack of Doom via the fixed sling. Unfortunately, that was filled in with ice, snow, and water. Deciding against that, we attempted a section of the Crack of Doom, then tried following the guided party up the Briggs slab. Both were possible, but we felt like it would be a poor decision if we were too exhausted to try and down climb later in the day. With summit expectations dwindling as the hours ticked by, we tried one more time on the middle ledge moving toward the upper. Unfortunately, we did not feel great about this option either. Making our way to the upper ledge, we came to the realization that the snow and conditions were not going to get any better at higher elevations. So we made the tough decision.
We decided to turn back.
In the mountains, and as in life, there are no guarantees. And when it comes to big mountains, summit days are more uncommon that common. We had all the right gear, all the most up to date conditions, beta from this year and when I did it before, in great shape, but in the end we did not feel comfortable in the current conditions, and moving further uphill, would just result in worse conditions. But once the decision was made, it became easy. I know Courtney was absolutely crushed and discouraged, but we both knew it was the right call. And as we headed back down the mountain and we’re back on stable terrain below the Moraines, we had an honest conversation.
From where we stopped, we would’ve had at least 6 more hours to reach the summit and rappel off. Personally, the weight of my pack was taking a bigger toll on my energy than I expected. Court also felt more fatigued than she would’ve liked to admit. And by the time we reached the truck, we were absolutely worked. If we had pushed on to the summit, we really would have emptied our tanks and would probably have been unsafe. So it now becomes the motivation for next year! We both can’t wait to come back, stronger and faster, looking to summit all three Tetons next summer: The Grand, Middle, and South!
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.