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The Grand Teton: A successful summit bid takes a little luck



By Tyler Allen, Staff Writer

JACKSON, Wyo. – The most iconic peak in the
Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the Grand Teton
has attracted mountaineers for more than a century.
With at least 115 established routes and variations on
mostly high-quality granite, it has something for every
I headed down from Bozeman to the Tetons in mid-
August this year to attempt one of the peak’s most
popular routes, the Upper Exum Ridge. Approximately
1,100 vertical feet, this route is the upper section of
the complete Exum Ridge. It’s an exciting and moderate
climb with awesome exposure and interesting routefinding
challenges that tops out right on the 13,770-
foot summit of the Grand.
As I drove south through Gallatin Canyon, smoke
blown over from fires in Idaho dulled the blues and
greens of the surrounding hillsides. In Yellowstone,
the usually prominent massif of Mount Holmes was
hardly distinguishable, and I wondered if I would be
able to see anything from the top of the Grand, if we
did indeed make the summit.
I met my climbing partner, Ellie, for burgers at the
Knotty Pine in Victor, Idaho, and then we drove over
the pass to Wyoming and found a quiet spot to crawl
into our sleeping bags for a couple hours. I didn’t sleep
at all.
At 1 a.m., we packed up the car and drove toward
Grand Teton National Park, past bars still watering the
late-night crowd. We left the Lupine Meadows trailhead
just after 2 a.m. and began the seven-mile walk up
Garnet Canyon to the Lower Saddle. As we hiked, the
moon silhouetted the looming rocky giants above us
against the night sky.
At the Lower Saddle, which is at 11,600 feet, we put
on all our clothes and huddled next to a rock, eating
breakfast and hydrating as we waited for the sun’s rays
to reach us. The Grand towered above, looking massive
as the approaching light revealed the details of our intended
ascent. Marmots chirped 10 feet away, begging
for scraps of Ellie’s turkey sandwich.
After about an hour, at 8 a.m., we left the Lower
Saddle and started the 1,200-foot scramble to the base
of the route, at a landmark called Wall Street.
This is a giant face with a long, wide ledge trending
southeast. It’s an easy walk until the ledge narrows at
its end, where you must make a committing and exposed
step around the corner to gain the ridge proper.
Above Wall Street is the Golden Staircase, where easy
climbing on beautiful golden knobs is thrilling, thanks
to the sheer drop on either side of the ridge and nearly
non-existent protection.
After the Golden Staircase we packed the rope away
and scrambled up the Wind Tunnel. This long, vertical
slot in the ridge makes for easy climbing with little
exposure, though there are a few large blocks with
committing moves that you must negotiate.
We tied back in at the top of the Wind Tunnel gulley
and Ellie led off. As I waited at the belay and she
pulled the rope up, I heard a loud thwack. I glanced up
and saw a rock the size and shape of a cinderblock careening
toward me. I took a large, desperate step to my
right and watched it hurtle down the Wind Tunnel,
right where I had been standing.
Above the Wind Tunnel is the Friction Pitch. It’s easy
to get off route here, and I’m still not clear if we actually
did the Friction Pitch proper. I certainly did more
smearing in my approach shoes than I wanted to, so
it may have been our own friction pitch. If you aren’t
a confident leader on unprotected, slabby rock, you
may want climbing shoes for this section, which many
consider the mental crux.
The Friction Pitch leads you into the
V-pitch, a well-protected, left-trending
dihedral. You can bypass this pitch and
scramble up an easy ramp if you need
to save time or if there are other parties
on the V-pitch. We roped up for one
more section above this, where a huge
block must be negotiated in an exposed
The last 200 feet to the summit can be
simul-climbed and scrambled, though I
found it difficult to focus on the climbing
with the full spectrum of view
unfolding beneath me. The lingering
smoke obscured the distant peaks
of the Greater Yellowstone, but the
Tetons were distinct in their grandeur.
High pressure allowed us to enjoy
the summit well into the afternoon,
before some easy down climbing
and two single-rope rappels got us
down to the Upper Saddle to begin
the long scramble and hike back to
Lupine Meadows.
While we do everything possible to
mitigate risk in the mountains, an
element of luck accompanies every
successful objective. On our ascent
of the Grand, we were fortunate the
weather didn’t suddenly change as
it often does in that volatile, alpine
climate. For me, the rockfall above
the Wind Tunnel was another reminder
that even in the best condi –
tions, high summits aren’t obtained
without a little luck on your side.

Vitals: The Upper Exum Ridge, Grand Teton

First Ascent: Glenn Exum, solo, 1931
Grade: II 5.5
Length: 1,000 feet
Park: Lupine Meadows Trailhead
Vertical Gain: 7,000 ft. from the trailhead
to the summit.
Camp: You can sleep at a number
of backcountry campsites between
Garnet Canyon and the Lower Saddle
if you don’t want to take all the punishment
in one day. However, it can
be difficult to secure a backcountry
permit for these sites.

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