When I told a gal at work that I was going to the Tetons for a week, she said “Well I wish *I* had money for vacations like that” which I thought was pretty comical, because a climbing trip isn’t a vacation anyway, and if you’re planning to sleep in a van and eat PB&J all week it’s not as if you’re breaking the bank, per se.
I also told a regular at work that I’d be in the Tetons for a week, and it went like this: “WHERE?”
“Grand Teton National Park”
“The Teton range. Of mountains? In Wyoming?”
“Okay but where?”
“It’s 14 miles long, man.”
I’d been to the Tetons earlier this year, with the intention of scoping them out. It was a bit of a wash because there was still so much snow I couldn’t even get into Garnett Canyon, and the mountains were mired in storms the whole time like Mt. Doom.
The first thing to know about the Tetons is that they’re only 9 million years old, max. Sure 9 million years seems like a long time, but when you compare that to the Rocky Mountains’ 300 million, it’s clear that the Tetons are an adorable baby range and we can expect a variety of interesting and tumultuous things to happen up in there since that fault is still active. You may already know that I’m in love with the Grand Teton, 13,775, with around 7k prominence. It’s been a dream of mine for a bit to stand on top of that beautiful pile of (mostly) metamorphic rock, along with the fairly major goals of completing the Picnic and the Grand Traverse.
Anyhow, so we went to the Tetons. And the very first morning we woke up to this (above) and it was amazing. We had no idea what we were in for. Even to get to the jumping off point (“the meadows”) you have to hike your equipment miles and 1000’s of feet. There’s some crazy reason that you think once you make it up there, that’s when the climbing starts, but you would be quite wrong. In fact, there are still several miles and many more 1000’s of feet of iffy talus, scrambling, and just generally exhausting steepness before you can even begin any route at all. I thought it was funny that apparently on Tony and Kilian’s first trips to the Grand Tetons, both managed to get lost by going left at the first big glacier and ending up at the saddle between South and Middle wondering where they went wrong. I can tell you, it’s really that easy. If you take the wrong path through any of the various talus fields, you could end up miles away from where you need to be.
Day 2, after having experienced all of the madness and misadventure that awaits in Garnett Canyon, we thought we’d wise up and get permits to haul all our gear up there and sleep in the Meadows. I had a wonderfully useful discussion with a climbing ranger about where to drink wild water (once you’ve already had giardia like he has, you’re immune for life!), and we were off. While dropping our gear, it quickly became apparent that I had forgotten the tent poles (later: “I really appreciate that you didn’t get mad about my forgetting the tent poles, because that really wouldn’t have helped anything.”) Assuming we’d figure something out later, we headed up to climb up things. In retrospect, we should have listened to the book that said “don’t climb anything at all until you see Ice Flow Lake”. Since we didn’t listen, we had a lot of fun that turned terrifying, and a bail off that really was the stuff of dreams (especially when you compare it to future bail offs).
I think it’s safe to say that the take away of this and the next several days is, the Tetons are: epic, terrifying, super fun, an elaborate and very long maze, stupidly beautiful, longer on the descent, and demanding of our utmost respect. A few days later, we were bailing off an arette belonging to Disappointment Peak, and decided to head up in the general direction of the Grand’s lower saddle as the sun was going down. [I would like to point out that this was my first trip using my new camera, and I had not yet figured out how to keep random body parts out of the picture yet]
Climbing the Grand, quite unfortunately, was not in the cards on this trip as there was a lot of very fragile, thin ice (verglass) posing quite the obstacle. On our hike up, I was thinking of Kilian’s FKT on the Grand [I didn’t know this at the time, but a Teton NPS ranger beat Kilian’s time 11 days later by 59 seconds] that’s just under 3hrs (2:55). From the parking lot, to the summit, and all the way back in under 3hrs. It sounds amazing when you hear about it, but when you’re hiking all those miles of talus it just seems so outrageous and extraordinary. But if he can do it, I could do it. Not right in that moment, of course, but if that’s what I wanted to pursue with my life, I could do that. His physical feat proves that it’s possible. So naturally, I started thinking about Nolan’s in 30 hours (or any ridiculous, truly fast time that blows the current FKT’s in the 50hr range out of the water). I actually met Tony for the first time in the coffee shop right before this trip, and we talked about the Nolan’s in 30 hours thing. I’ve talked to a lot of people about the possibility of Nolan’s in 30 hours and the general consensus is that it’s not possible for a variety of reasons. I maintain that if anyone can do it, Tony can. So back to current time, sunset near the saddle of the Grand, this is what I’m thinking: how wonderful that these amazing people can do these things that blow your mind, and that sets the standard for what I believe is possible. Chris and I argued about this for a while, then we argued about FKT’s.
It’s getting dark, and I suddenly realized that I want to see Tony do Nolan’s in 30 hours so badly because I want to believe that it’s possible. But I don’t need him to show me, just like I don’t need Kilian [or Andy Anderson, the actual record holder at the time] to show me that it’s possible to ascend the Grand Teton (or the Matterhorn, for that matter) in less than 3 hours. Anything is possible. For a long time I’ve thought of myself as someone that doesn’t believe in limits; limits are self-imposed by your imagination. But all this time, I’ve actually been using other people to adjust my perception of limits. The reality is, if I want Nolan’s done in 30 hours I better fucking do it myself. I had told Chris on the drive to Wyoming that I’ve been sort of teetering on the edge lately, that sometimes I think I should have a normal life, and sometimes I think I should really jump off the deep end. I had also been teetering with climbing in general: getting so frustrated that I never climb again, or falling madly in love with climbing. It was so suddenly obvious what my purpose in life is. Just as the sky transitioned to true dark, I pressed my face against the rock and cried.
Another thing I hadn’t thought about much was how I really feel about FKT’s. I’ve battled this in my head for a while, and there’s certainly a lot of controversy and mixed feelings about this in the mountain community. Until I defended them, I didn’t know this was how I felt. Sure, some people put down FKT’s because they’re competitive and they want the speed record. That’s not everyone, though. I’ve been working on Nolan’s for a very long time now, and I finally understand that as I destroy myself on that course, and I suffer, and I fall apart, and I keep going despite all of this, those mountains fill me up again, and that process is how you get to find your home. Nolan’s is my home, and it belongs to me as I belong to it. When it’s time, I’ll run that course as fast as I can. Not for a record or for recognition from the very small community of people that care about Nolan’s, but because I am in love with that line, and it is my responsibility to run it as fast and light as I can. That’s what grace is, to honor something with your presence.
As we suffered and struggled in the Tetons, and sometimes fell apart a little bit, I realized that the Nolan’s course aren’t the only mountains that will be home to me. Every time I go back to the Tetons, I’ll break off bits of my soul for them and they’ll fill me up just like the Rockies have been doing for years. And eventually, I will belong to them too, and this process will continue to happen every time I fall in love with new mountains and new fantastic, aesthetic lines through them. Then, it will be my duty to run and climb those lines as fast as I can. That is the most perfect thing in the world.
Because Mama Teton watched us struggle with hard climbs, long exhausting days up before dawn and to bed at 11, and kind of scary weather, she rewarded us with a perfect day on the Middle Teton right before we had to leave Wyoming. The route along the sw ridge crossed over briefly and dropped below the North side of the ridge, and suddenly the Grand Teton appeared. Awe is a very powerful emotion, current research tells us that it strengthens our immune system and improves our general health to feel it regularly. In this case, I could hardly breathe, and it filled up my chest so much it hurt. I told the Grand Teton that I would come back as soon as I could. Because, like many mountains before her, the Grand Teton will become a part of my soul that lives outside me.
Lastly, Oliver the Fox definitely deserves mention here. He’s my best friend. [unsure why I capitalized fox, guys, but I’ve decided it stays]