Teton Backcountry | Traversing the Grand Teton mountains
Photos, details and tips from this late-summer mountaineering adventure over the Grand Teton mountains in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Grand Traverse, mountaineering, rappelling, hiking, Gilkey Tower, Lupine Meadows, Mount Owen, Ice Cream Cone, tips
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The Grand Traverse: August 17-18, 2014

Sunset from the Upper Saddle on the Grand Traverse

The Grand Traverse: August 17-18, 2014

Mike and I only recently decided that we’d like to complete the Grand Traverse this year, and as soon as we started planning, things started to come together alarmingly quickly for us.  With a cold, moisture laden weather system headed towards Jackson with the potential to make the route significantly more challenging for the remainder of the season, we decided that we were better off going for it soon rather than waiting around for another good weather window to coincide with dry rock.  Most parties seem to do this traverse in 3 days, but we figured we’d do it in 2.  (Not too crazy, considering that the speed record is under 7 hours.  Now that is crazy.)  So, on Saturday, we hiked up about 5000′ to the Lower Saddle to cache camping gear and extra food at our planned bivy site, with the intention of completing the traverse over Monday and Tuesday.  However, that same Saturday night at work, Mike and I saw that the forecast had changed, and our weather window was suddenly looking a lot tighter:  Sunday and (hopefully) Monday.  So, instead of indulging in our planned day of rest, we came home from work, quickly packed, and hit the trail from Lupine Meadows around 2 am.

View of Grand Teton's North Ridge and Mt. Owen as seen from the top of Teewinot

View from the top of Teewinot, from a scouting mission a few days prior to our trip. Most of day 1 after Teewinot is visible here: the ridge in the foreground, Mt. Owen on the right, the North Ridge of the Grand Teton on the left, and our camp at the Lower Saddle (hidden behind the Grand Teton).

Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to come back with too many pictures from the trip, as we were almost always feeling pressure from the clock to continue moving.  I sure as hell wasn’t trying to take pictures during any of the more stressful moments.  That, and there’s the fact that Mike dropped his iPhone out of the Gunsight Notch.  Anyways, on with the story.

We had climbed up the easy (4th class) East Face of Teewinot a few days before to make sure we could nail the routefinding in the dark, and we ended up on the summit in complete darkness.  The only challenging portion was crossing the snowfield in very firm conditions, as we were equipped with light ice axes but no crampons.  Still, decent steps had been kicked in by other climbers (including ourselves) on the days prior, and we were able to slowly work our way up the snow, swinging our mountaineering axes like ice tools for optimal purchase.  Downclimbing from the summit of Teewinot, we made our way towards the ridgeline and our first few rappels off of Peak 11,840 just as the sun began to rise.

Sunrise behind Teewinot Mountain

Sunrise behind Teewinot

3 or 4 rappels led us to some fun ridge crest scrambling, and some surprisingly good rock (4th or easy 5th) on our way up the East Prong.  2 more rappels put us at the Koven Col, and the return to familiar terrain for me.  Here, we encountered more firm, frozen snow, but people climbing the route in warmer conditions had left decent steps and deep shaft holes for us to make secure axe placements in.

Sunrise on the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen.

First light on the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen

As we started up the Koven Route to the top of Mt. Owen, we encountered a waterfall that would be our last water source until our camp at the Lower Saddle.  Naturally, we drank as much as we could and filled up to max capacity.  I had climbed the Koven Route in snow before, but the route was much more melted out this time around, and we cruised up some easy 5th class slabs from the col to the base of the snowfield.  The rocks at the base of the snowfield were melted out and provided very easy travel up until some 5.4 slabs and chimney climbing below the summit.  This all seemed quite a bit easier than the last time I was here.

Descending from Mt. Owen to the Gunsight (a deep notch between Owen and the Grand) has a reputation for tricky routefinding, and many climbers have found themselves off route here.  As a result, there are many rappel slings that continue to entice climbers to commit to crappy descent gullies.  Knowing this, we planned our route carefully for this portion of the traverse, and did a pretty good job of finding an easy way to the Gunsight.  There are multiple ways to enter the notch, and the one we chose involved 3 rappels.  Unfortunately, Mike dropped his ATC down to the glacier about 1000′ below us, so from this point onward we had the first person rappel on a munter so that the second person could work out some of the kinks by rappelling on the ATC.  Once we started getting into the roped climbing, we would belay the leader on a munter and use the ATC in guide mode from above.  It actually all worked out pretty well.

View of Teewinot Mountain close to the Gunsight

Looking back towards Teewinot  (and much of the morning’s climbing) shortly after leaving the Gunsight

Exiting the Gunsight, it was now our turn to get off route (as seems to happen somewhere to most private climbers attempting the traverse).  After climbing upward a bit, our beta indicated to descend on a ledge that wrapped around to the east side, but I think that we descended too far and ended up on a lower ledge than we were supposed to.  One pitch of roped climbing (5.7?) brought us to what I suspect is the proper ledge, but the area where we were supposed to find 2 more pitches of climbing looked very wet.  Who knows if it was even the correct spot.  Instead, we ascended a few hundred vertical feet of heinous, dirty, wet rock slabs (4th class) that provided scary, insecure climbing….probably the most dangerous part of our traverse.  Moving slowly and carefully, we made our way to the top of the Grandstand, a relatively flat platform on the shoulder of the Grand Teton, where most parties camp for their first night.

It was now 2:30, and we were getting into the real meat of the climb:  the North Ridge of the Grand.  Normally done in 8-10 pitches, we kept it to 7 by simul-climbing or soloing some of the easier sections, motivated to hurry by the late hour.  Entering the crux pitches in the Italian Cracks (5.7 – 5.8), I tried to find easier terrain on climber’s left, but wandered over too far and found myself in the American Cracks, where I was greeted by a couple long pitches of 5.9.  Not exactly what I wanted given the time crunch.  Damn.  After making it through a somewhat techy dihedral and over several small bulges, we popped out at the Second Ledge, where we unroped, climbed to the other side of the ridge crest (big exposure!), and got Mike leading the last couple pitches of chimney climbing.  The combination of the sunshine, knowing that we were back on route, and not having to lead for a bit made me feel a whole lot better.  Bivying on the North Ridge of the Grand was no longer a worry of ours, as the climbing eased and I knew that I could find my way down to the Lower Saddle in the dark.  We summited the Grand around 8 pm, and turned on our headlamps shortly after the rappels down to the Upper Saddle.

Sunset from the Upper Saddle on the Grand Traverse

My camera doing a terrible job of capturing a rather excellent sunset from the Upper Saddle

Stumbling into camp, we retrieved our gear cache, refilled water, and cooked up some dinner before logging a few hours of sleep.  Our earlier-than-planned departure meant that we didn’t end up having time to get a permit for our trip, so we decided to sleep under the stars instead of setting up the tent and attracting attention from the park rangers in the morning.  (For those that don’t know, the Lower Saddle is an extremely popular camping spot for climbers trying to summit the Grand Teton via the easier routes.)

Waking up at sunrise for a not-so-alpine start (but after some much needed rest), we boiled water for breakfast, packed up the bivy gear, and headed up the North Ridge of the Middle Teton.  Most of this route is fun, moderately exposed scrambling, but we got the rope out for a couple short pitches:  one to go from “the room” to the other side of the ridge crest, and one to climb out of the Black Dike where it meets the ridge.  We knew that there was a small chance of rain this day, and made a point of moving as quickly as possible while remaining safe.

Loose rock in the Black Dike on the Middle Teton

Loose rock in the Black Dike…but otherwise good rock up the Middle Teton

View of the Dike on the Dike Pinnacle

Looking out at the continuation of the Dike on the Dike Pinnacle

Feeling a second wind and motivated by the clouds building in the distance, we hustled from the top of the Middle to the top of the South Teton in a little under an hour.  Taking another look at the weather, we decided to continue along the ridge crest for what we dubbed the “Southern Traverse”:  the South Teton, Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, Spalding Peak, and Cloudveil Dome.  This part of the traverse was actually a ton of fun, as there was only one pitch of roped climbing to get up the Ice Cream Cone, and no rappels.  The majority of the climbing was 4th or easy 5th, with some tricky routefinding to top out on Gilkey without needing to rope up.  At every potential bail-out point, we would reevaluate the weather, decide we could at least make it to the next bail-out, and continue climbing.  We could see it raining first to the south of us, and then to the north…but it generally looked like we would be dealing more with rain than lightning if we were to get caught up in it.  Fast, yet careful climbing over big exposure was the name of the game.  I think it took us about 3.5 hours to make it from the South Teton to Cloudveil.

Climbing the one roped pitch up Ice Cream Cone on the Grand Traverse

Mike on the one roped pitch up Ice Cream Cone

View of the South Teton and Ice Cream Cone from the top of Gilkey Tower.

Near the top of Gilkey Tower, looking back at the South Teton and Ice Cream Cone

Gilkey Tower on the Grand Traverse

Gilkey Tower

Looking east at the Grand Traverse from atop Gilkey Tower

At the top of Gilkey, looking east at the rest of the traverse

Descending Cloudveil Dome got a little bit tricky with route-finding, but feasible routes existed most places that avoided the obvious, massive cliff.  Supposedly a 4th class route exists, but I’d say we downclimbed several short sections of easy 5th.  Reaching the bottom, we had only one more peak left on our hit list:  Nez Perce.  Traversing over annoying, loose rock to intercept the Northwest Couloirs route, we guzzled some water, dropped our packs, and headed up to quickly tag the summit with little more than harnesses, Houdinis, and a butterfly coil of rope.  We had used this route before as a descent after climbing Nez Perce’s South Ridge, and we moved quickly over the familiar terrain, unburdened by our backpacks.  Last summit.  Stoked!

As anybody who’s ever climbed Nez Perce knows, all of the loose rock on the way down SUCKS.  It isn’t difficult, but it sure is annoying.  While our legs had felt strong up until this point, we both started to feel pretty wasted now that all we had to do was hike out.  While getting my poles out for the walk, my frazzled brain accidentally unclipped my climbing shoes and left them behind.  Grrrrrr.  A lot of unstable talus and a couple short glissades brought us down to the Meadows, at which point we felt the first few drops of rain.  We were back down at treeline, and not a moment too soon!  Happy to be back on trail after the Meadows, we didn’t care in the slightest about the intermittent rain as we hiked back down to the Lupine Meadows trailhead.

Lupine Meadows

Ahhhh, the Meadows

This climb was without a doubt the most challenging and satisfying route either Mike or I have undertaken, and and our relationship with the Tetons feels even more intimate having now completed it.  Without our willingness to pull the trigger on it early due to the weather, it may not have come together for us this season.  For me, the gear I was happiest to have along with me on the climb would be my Salewa Wildfire Approach Shoes (since there wasn’t much snow on the route), Camp Corsa Nanotech Ice Axe, and 60 m Sterling Fusion Nano 9.2 mm Single Rope.  Good approach shoes especially were crucial for the endless 4th and easy 5th class sections that need to be soloed in order to keep the pace up.  As always, it always seems worth it to me to invest in good gear when embarking on big days in the mountains!  Now, it’s back to the drawing board for the next big adventure…

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