If I had known it was going to take us 20 hours to complete, I’m not sure if I would have left the trailhead. But after taking those final steps onto the summit, it would make the entire effort worth it. Everything from the 1:30AM start, the trek in the dark, the struggle with the altitude, the ice all over the climb, the broken crampon and subsequent fall, and even the encounter with a huge black bear. It was all worth it. We climbed the Grand Teton.
We reached the Lower Saddle just as the sun was coming over the East. Legs were fresh, and energy was still high after climbing the snow-covered headwall. The plan was to take the traditional OS route, which meant all that stood between the technical climbing and us was the benign looking scramble to the upper saddle. What we soon realized was that this scramble would be just as exhaustive, if not more, than the roped section.
We decided to take the obvious drainage, named Owen Spaulding Couloir, just beyond the black dyke, to the left of the needle. Here we quickly began to run into one obstacle after the next. We were faced with technical bouldering moves that were filled in with hard rime ice. Then came the constant juggling between climbing the exposed, low-angle rock or strapping the crampons on to head up the soft snow in the gully. I chose to stick to as much rock as possible, as it is a place I felt much more comfortable. Kyle and Mike stuck to the snow more often than not.
Once we gained the upper saddle and decided to press on, despite the 60mph wind gusts, the mistakes started to compound. First, we gathered the wrong beta from a party who just came down from the Exum route, which had totally different conditions than the OS. Based on the wrong info, we decided to go fast and light, thinking we could Summit in an hour or two. By that I mean, we decided to rope up without food, water, packs, crampons, nor ice axes. This proved, rather quickly, to be a dumb decision.
Note: this Beta is for attempts made early season when route is mixed conditions of rock, snow, and ice. Also, this was done with a part of 3 on a single 70m rope with the middle climber tied into a bite on the middle of the rope. The 4th climber (who joined our party that day) was piggy-backing with his rope. We did not climb in two separate parties because of the lack of lead climbing/belaying experience.
Pitch 1: The Belly Roll
Though not very technical, with the wind gusts and random bits of ice laden throughout the route, we roped up for this section. I built an anchor on the ground of the waiting room with a couple nuts and a cam. The move to pull the belly roll would be not even noticeable compared to what has been required to get to this point. The only difference is that you now have 2,000ft of air below you.
After the technical portion, you reach a wide ledge before the Crawl. Here is where I decided to build an anchor to bring everyone else across. This is directly beyond the Belly Roll move. The reason for this was because we had a party of 4, and the wind was making it impossible to communicate effectively with the rest of the group. I figured this would be the safest option.
Pitch 2: The Crawl
As you step out onto the crawl, or shimmy your way out as I did, you come around a small corner. There you will find a piton perfect to clip @ the halfway point. Once again, a non technical traverse, just a lot of air below. I didn’t want to risk slipping on an unnoticed piece of black ice, so I took it slow and on rope.
Once I reached the far side, I built an anchor at the entrance to the double chimney. There were plenty of options for crack sizes to build an effective anchor using up to a #2 Camelot.
Pitch 3: Double Chimney
I chose to take the obvious path straight up the first chimney. Don’t be fooled by the grade, the first move to get off the deck into the chimney is a full on V2 move. Luckily, just above your head is a jammed nut to clip into. Once in the chimney, expect to find a mix of snow and ice. Though it’s low angle, a fall would still send you right out the entrance.
I placed a couple cams for protection before the final section which requires a chimney move to exit through the roof. With all the ice, the section feels runout. It’s not until you climb out of the chimney can you place gear again.
I’d recommend building an anchor at the wall near the start of Owen’s Chimney so that you don’t have to rebuild an anchor. I made that mistake of building an anchor right at the chimney exit, so that I could belay with a better view of the team. Either option has plenty of cracks for nuts and smaller cams to build an anchor.
Pitch 4: Owens Chimney
Without ice, this is easily solo-able. When filled in with ice, crampons are mandatory, and I’d definitely recommend roping up. This is where we realized our grave mistake not bringing crampons. The entire chimney looked like a steep ice luge. Cracks that would be obvious placement locations were filled in with rock solid ice.
Though it’s only 100ft or so, this section took some time to pass through safely as our boots barely held onto the slick, ice covered rock.
At the top of this pitch, there is an obvious stopping point before the catwalk where an anchor can be built. Sufficient cracks to place nearly anything below a #4. This is also where the sun hit us for the first time on the climb.
Pitch 5: Sargents Chimney
Another pitch similar to Owen’s Chimney, after making an anchor near the base of the route, I headed up a mixture of rock, snow, and ice. Technical chimney moves were required here. I was able to place two cams on my way up with one right before the last move to the anchor. Here was the riskiest move on the route to do without crampons. Overall, the chimney is low angle scrambling, but no margin for error.
I used the rap station as an anchor to bring up the rest of the party. Clipping into the ropes that were there in addition to a cam and nut I placed right next to the rap station.
Pitch 6: Summit Push
Once beyond the Sargents Chimney, the technical climbing is technically over. For us, we were already behind schedule and now the sun was all baked in the afternoon’s sun and became quite variable. Without the ability to rely on crampons and ice axes, we remained roped up, moving one by one through each section. We placed individual pieces as a single point anchor or made sure the rope passed around rock features to arrest a slow fall.
We made our way under the 3 Stooges, then onto the Slabby Wall. We chose this route because it was completely dry and exposed. Our boots and hands were much safer on this section than trudging through the knee deep snow on the switchback.
From there it was a short post-hole trek beyond the Horse and up to the summit!
Like I mentioned before, we brought up a single 70m rope. This decision was mainly based on the fact we knew the main rappel was 35m. In hindsight, I would have climbed this with two 35m alpine ropes. The main rappel has two options, the main rappel and the alternate which requires a bit of down climbing to reach. This is a good option if it’s busy or if you brought a short rope.
The rappel is cruiser, and a fun completely suspended descent back to the upper saddle (where we had stashed our bags).
Conclusion and Lessons Learned
Overall, we packed the correct things for the climb. Unfortunately, we just didn’t bring them up the technical sections where we needed them. The inconvenience of carrying a pack through the chimney would have been offset by the ability to have water and food. We went without those necessity for something like 6hrs. At a minimum, it would have been worth bringing the crampons and ice axes.
Like I mentioned above, go with two 35m ropes instead of a single 70m. If not for weight savings, your arms will thank you. Wrapping a 70m rope after each pitch will get exhausting on its own.
Do you need a full rack? No. You can get by with a few small cams and a couple of nuts. I placed my #3 on every pitch or at each anchor, so a double or triple #3 would be perfect. A single point anchor would realistically be fine since a whipper would be very unlikely on this route. But this all depends on your climbing ability. I basically climbed this 5.4 route like it was a 5.11 in Big Cottonwood Canyon with how much gear I placed.
Now I can’t wait to do it again this summer, late in the season, to see how fast I can go without worrying about the ice and snow!
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.