In September I had the really cool opportunity to link up with a group called Paradox Sports, a non profit organization based in Boulder, Colorado. Paradox Sports provides opportunities for adaptive athletes to excel in all types of different sports including climbing! They offer trips in many locations from the Red River Gorge to Mt. Rainier. This time I would be joining them and also linking up with Exum Mountain Guides to climb the Grand Teton in Jackson, Wyoming.
The Grand Teton sits at 13,776 feet above sea level along the South and Middle Teton and was first climbed in 1872. Including all the route variations there is about 85 routes leading to the summit of the Grand. The most commonly used being the Upper Exum or Owen-Spalding route.
After a hot summer in San Diego, I was really excited to finally get back into the cool mountain air. Looking at flights you will find yourself taking out a second mortgage on your house to buy a plane ticket directly to Jackson Hole. Since I don’t own a house and my small dog isn’t worth much on Ebay, I chose to fly into Denver, Colorado. A difference in cost of about $600! After getting to Denver I took a bus to Boulder for about $14, which is probably your cheapest option for traveling between the two cities. After spending a quick night in Boulder, I met up with Tim Watts who works for Paradox Sports, and we began our 8 hour trek to Jackson Hole!
Jackson is a very striking town. It is a weird blend of old-school-western-cowboy and mountainous adventures. The main area in downtown Jackson has lots of cool, family owned restaurants, gift shops, galleries, and lots of mountain outfitting stores staffed with knowledgeable locals. Unlike a lot of touristy mountain towns, the people of Jackson are super friendly and welcoming to all travelers. Since we were spending a couple days bumbling around the local crags before setting off for the summit, we ended up spending a lot of time in downtown, which I recommend. Although it seems small, there is a lot to explore in the town itself, and I was happy to spend the time I did walking around and meeting cool Wyoming peeps.
Depending on your budget there are a couple options for lodging. There are some moderate hotels/motels in downtown, some more upscale hotels closer to the mountains, and then for the dirt poor climbers there is the American Alpine Club Ranch. Taking one of the only roads out of downtown, you wind through the valley towards the Teton Range before rolling up on the ranch. Situated below the Grand, the ranch boasts a main office cabin with lodging for the staff and their library, five or six lodging houses for guests, bathroom/shower house, laundry house, a small kitchen, and multiple picnic tables under a wooden canopy.
The lodging is hostel style with three bunk beds per room with a shared bathroom to the other side of the cabin. All in all it can be 12 people sharing one bathroom which can be…fun…and smelly. Luckily you can always choose to walk down the trail to the bathroom house if urgent nature calls. For the price we paid for our beds ($16) I expected to roll into a dirty bunk that reeked of old climbing shoes and wet socks that had been forgotten in the corner. I was really shocked to see that the ranch is comprised of really beautifully kept cabins. Probably the best hostel I will ever see. Even if you can afford to stay in one of Jackson’s five star hotels nothing can beat waking up directly below the mountains. I would recommend for everyone to stay here.
Our climbing group was comprised of four people: myself, my driving partner Tim who has climbed throughout the U.S. and Europe, Jason who is a medically retired veteran, and Matt who is an arm amputee. After meeting our Exum guides we split up into two groups. Since Tim and I both had climbing experience we went with our guide Annica so that we would be able to skip some of the more introductory lessons. Matt and Jason went with their guide who would spend the day giving them the run-down on what climbing was all about. Tim, Annica, and I all headed to Jenny Lake. Once you get to the lake you are able to take the ferry across to get to some climbing areas. If you are taking the ferry with guides there is no fee, but unguided climbers and hikers must pay for their ride. You can also hike your way around the lake, but it is about a six mile walk round trip.
After getting off the ferry, you hike up about fifteen minutes to get into the main area. Here you will see lots of guides with lots of clients learning lots of things. It can be a little overwhelming and seem a little commercialized, but the high density of really easy climbs here will lead to that. The three of us decided to get away from the herd and headed over to a much less used area called Baxter’s Pinnacle. To get there you walk about thirty minutes through the forest, and then walk up a pretty steep scree field to get to the base of the climbing. Hiking up scree is by far the worst thing I can imagine. Sometimes you take one step up and that is that or sometimes you take one step up and slide down six steps. Our guide Annica works for the ski patrol avalanche logistics during the winter, and taught us how to recognize the damage caused by avalanches through tree trunk formations and scree patterns. Once you start looking around you notice how many trees have rocks embedded within the trunks, and you begin to imagine how many avalanches have cruised through these forests.
After a getting a feel for the local climbing it was time to start our ascent. Word of the oncoming blizzard conditions had us wondering about our plan to spend a night on the saddle before summiting the next morning but we decided to stick to the original plan. We started out on a beautiful sunny day.The sky was clear and the temperature was perfect. Our hiking started off quick and painless which gave me a false sense of confidence that this was going to be a breeze. The hike up to the saddle is around eleven miles with six thousand feet of vertical elevation gain, half of which is the last mile or so. There’s plenty of water along the trail so there’s no need to carry a massive camelbak, just make sure to bring some sort of filtration. I opted to use a steri-pen which seemed to work fine.
The hike up to the lower saddle is one of the most beautiful hikes I have done. We made sure to take a long break at the meadows which is the last bit of life you will see before you get into the rocky, grey, alpine environment. From there on out it’s glaciers and gear eating marmots.
The last mile of hike will definitely make you question your life decisions, but as soon as you arrive at the saddle the views will reassure you that they were good decisions. Despite having good weather the whole day, as soon as we got to the saddle, the sky closed in and we were met with intense, frigid winds. Efforts to secure all of our gear took top priority over resting and eating some food. Twenty minutes later the temperature had a sudden drop and we were met with snow and hail. We all tried to layer up but the risk of things blowing away in the process left most of us seeking shelter from the wind inside the Exum hut where we were organizing all of our gear for the morning. Our plan was to wake up around 3 A.M. and do our summit push so it was pretty imperative to have everything ready to go so you weren’t looking for a sock with one eye open trying to guzzle down summit coffee.
All night the wind absolutely battered the hut which made all of us question the structural integrity of our shelter. Around 10PM the thunder and lightning started. Growing up in the mountains I have seen a lot of storms, but never have I heard anything like this thunder. It was absolutely deafening. Realizing I desperately had to go to the bathroom I started to get myself together to head outside without stepping on everyone in the hut…which was a fail. Without being able to find my headlamp but too tired to look for it I headed outside. The second I opened the door the wind flew the door open, and for the life of me I couldn’t get it closed without the help of the guides. Saying a quick prayer I headed out into the storm. There is something to be said for how absolutely beautiful a storm could be. I was standing at almost 12,000’ in a snow/thunder/lightning/hail/wind/hell storm and it was the most striking thing I have ever witnessed. I noticed a fellow camper had also taken the time to admire it.
Upon making eye contact she told me she was unsure where the bathroom area was since everything was now covered in snow. Without wanting to spend more time than necessary outside we walked as far as we could and then found out how fun it is to pee outside in heavy wind. Running back to the hut, I walked into everyone moving more into the middle to avoid having contact with the steel frame since the lightning had become so bad. As I drifted off to sleep I wondered what the morning would be like.
Some hours later I woke up and looked at my watch to notice that it was 7 AM. Way past our desired leave time. As we all started to stir, our guides started asking about our experience using crampons, ice climbing, etc. We decided myself, Tim, and one of our guides would be the only ones leaving for the summit. As we started to get ready, the hut satellite phone received a call that two boys have been missing for two days somewhere on the Grand. They only registered for a day hike, and their parents had told the park service that they left without any kind of bivy gear or clothing that was meant for the weather conditions we experienced the night before. As soon as the word came in all the guides on the lower saddle quickly went into what I would describe as rescue mode. One had binoculars out looking all over the routes, two others had left with climbing gear, and others began a search while one was on the phone with the local SAR. Any hopes I had of reaching the summit that day were gone as there was now a much more important role for our guides to play.
With no sight of the boys and the weather turning worse we knew we had to start heading down or we were going to be spending another night up here. By the time we were ready to leave the weather had worsened, and you could tell the guides were beginning to get anxious. What had been friendly and light-hearted now became pretty serious. There were about seven guides all together at the lower saddle who wanted to continue searching for the boys so every client was to head down with just one. Our descent was as fast as possible and it all kind of felt like a blur. I was freezing, soaking wet, and honestly pretty scared. I’ve always felt at home in nature, but this was the first time I ever felt truly out of any comfort zone I’ve had.
After getting down we went back to the ranch to relax. We found out the boys had been found covered in severe frostbite, and the outcome would have been much different had they been exposed to the elements much longer. Leading up to this trip, I thought of it as a cool experience to learn a lot, and work my body pretty hard. I never thought I would witness it become a life and death situation for two young kids, and it really hit home the risk you take whenever you venture out on a trip. Thousands of people climb this route per year, and for the most part it is just a breeze, but it doesn’t take much to turn into something you aren’t prepared for. Bringing simple bivy gear or hiring a guide could have made a huge difference for those boys. I’ll never know what ended up happening, but simply imagining it is enough to make an impact on me.
I took a long time before writing this trip report, and debated not writing it at all. This trip became really personal to me for a lot of reasons. I really didn’t want to write another blog about having MS and overcoming challenges and blah blah blah, but in reality that is what my life and relationship with climbing is, and that is okay with me. I left a lot of the good parts out, but if nothing else this trip really did test me a great deal. I think that is what is so amazing about climbing. You get to really find out where your limits are in life. I don’t think a lot of people will ever have that opportunity. I hope I am able to continue spending time in the mountains, and experiencing their beauty. How lucky I am to be a climber.
Jillian Bukoski • Member Outreach Coordinator