It’s sunny and the skies are clear, except for the haze coming from the fires in Montana. I’m kickstepping, kickstepping, climbing class 3 rock that is wet from snow melt, an axe in one hand and the other absently brushing again the wall of snow next to me for balance. I’m in a couloir maybe 100 feet below the summit, I’m so alone up here that I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the canyon, and I think, “I would do anything, for you, to be here right now.”
Going to the Tetons this year was something I had meant to plan and be ready for all summer, and as time slipped away and the season disappeared under the weight and tragedy of my unhealable psoas injury, this trip ended up being a last ditch effort to do something meaningful with my summer. I was worried I wasn’t in shape, I was going without a partner, and I had something like 4 days of climbing if the weather cooperated. Weather in the Tetons is notoriously uncooperative.
I arrived in the Garnet Canyon parking lot at night after driving most of the day, and climbed in the back of the truck to sleep. In the morning I headed up Teewinot. You gain 5,550ft in 2.5 miles, so it felt a little brutal. The routefinding is somewhat hard, the steep, super exposed kickstepping is a new and exciting scary thing, and the climbing is terrifying. There was a lot of chameleon-ing, where you make a move, then reverse the move, over and over again until the future where you have to downclimb that move isn’t nauseating. My mom was watching this hysteria on the internet via my SPOT tracker and she said something later like, “you were really moving until a certain point, then it’s like you weren’t moving at all, what happened?” Well, shit got hard. And scary af, to be honest.
I read later that people like to take a rope up Teewinot to rap the downclimbs of nightmares, and that, though it’s technically classified as 4, it’s the hardest and most sustained “4” in the Tetons. Anyway, I learned things about being brave that day. That I can downclimb anything I can climb up, and that I am the master of my own nervous system. I also learned, BRING A FUCKING AXE NO MATTER WHAT. Because you don’t realize how much you want an axe until you need it, when you’re turned around downclimbing your vertical kicksteps like a ladder and trying not to cry.
On the second day, I headed up to Garnet Canyon to check out the South Teton. Because This involves a long trail approach and a lot of elevation gain, some climbers camp in the canyon to shorten their approaches on climbing days. I ran this approach three days in a row (that’s exactly how pent-up I was after spending most of my summer injured). It was a perfect sunny day, and the high snow cover made some of the weird part of the route slightly less mankey (between Garnet Canyon and the Boulderfield, alongside and above that southern glacier if you really want to know). What I hadn’t counted on was, the boulderfield was still snow filled, and there were two shitty snow climbs. I had an axe (lesson learned) and started kickstepping on the lower climb, and it felt okay, but I remembered the Teewinot snowfield down climb and something felt weird. I felt uneasy, I was thinking about the upper snowclimb and the fact that it could be worse, that I was in Dynafit trailrunners with no additional traction to speak of, and I just knew I didn’t want to do the downclimb. I turned around.
Back to Garnet Canyon, then on up to the saddle of the Grand. Running down from the saddle, I came across a nice guy who turned out to be an off duty Exum guide waiting for his friends to catch up, and we chatted a bit. I told him I turned around at the lower snowclimb en route to the saddle between South and Middle, choosing to come back the following day with crampons because I knew I’d feel 100% comfortable and I would just go for Middle and South in the same day. I knew it sounded silly, but I was honest, it felt too spicy. He told me a girl had slipped in that snowfield yesterday and died on the rocks below, they just finished recovering her body.
On the way down, I chatted with some folks about a secret lake and they told me how to get to the social trail. I can’t remember what it was called, but I found it. It was incredible.
On the third day, I headed up to the South again, with crampons and boots. It was overkill, but I felt totally secure. The weather was perfect again, and there was just no one else around on either route. And it was here, on the South, that I remembered how I felt last year. That I would do anything to be here. That it was my responsibility to honor these routes, these mountains, with my intention, bravery, body, heart. That I would sacrifice anything, everything to feel like I might evaporate between earth and sky; where everything is possible, where risk and pain are currency, where freedom and joy are boundless. Grating bits of my heart and body off on rocks and snow so the prana of the Tetons could fill me back up again and I could be a part of their bigness for just a moment.
I read this great article about Cory Richards and his PTSD from an avalanche he survived [https://www.outsideonline.com/2234616/life-after-near-death-cory-richards]. The author has a lot of opinions about the way the alpinist community handles this. I’ve been thinking about darkness; how and why it compels us, a lot lately, and I think it boils down to 2 things: alpinists are people that are so intense they would sacrifice everything to stand on top of the mountains, to live in the sky. We can choose [I’m pretty sure it’s a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way] to risk and suffer because our demons compel us to do hard shit and risk and ride the edge of our abilities, or because we want to use their demons to make ourselves stronger, meet fear and rise above it, and find freedom. Both are scary as fuck; nobody likes to talk about either.
Like anyone, I’m inclined towards both, after years of trying I like to think I’m more of the later, but it’s a constant struggle to understand my motivation and intention, to be intimate with fear, and to understand why I risk everything. It’s sort of like walking on two tight ropes that are just beside each other, and you could hop from one to the other as it suits you. Why is it so important to stand on top of a mountain?
After a beautifully successful third day, I headed up high again on day 4, this time to Disappointment Peak. The first couple moves to get into this low angle crack started on an overhanging roof (I would love someone to explain to me how climbing a roof could possibly be class 4). The rest of the climb was pretty easy, except the end where you’re climbing this obscenely exposed catwalk with sporadic class 4 moves. After the previous four days though, the exposure and climbing both felt good (even if the wind made it feel like you could easily be blown off and away into infinity). The summit block, being accessed by this narrow catwalk, is like a 340 degree Teton panorama. Breathtaking. I actually stood up on it at one point and got vertigo. Every time I get a close up of the Grand, my heart grows three sizes, and seeing the whole range at once like this, the big, scary beautiful mountains that had asked so much, the sacrifices already made, and whose bigness had filled me up when I stood on their summits; the whole Traverse just laid out in one perfect, aesthetic line…I see why I devote my life to this, and why I’ll never stop.