A couple weeks ago I did a race called the Speedgoat. It’s a highly specialized kind of race for mountain runners, and represents, at least to me, the big show. Leading up to it, I thought I had something to prove, at least to myself. I wanted to know that I’m a great mountain runner, I wanted to be recognized, I wanted to see it in print in the results. When you work so hard at anything, it’s natural for anyone to want to be successful at it, right?
Well, I failed. I came in 20th. It was the first time I’ve ever tried to actually race a race, to give it my all. No matter how bad I felt I would think, “Am I going as hard as I can right now?” and the answer was always, “Yes.” I went as hard as I could, and I still failed. It was heartbreaking. I had thought being a mountain runner was my identity, and now here I was, not even good at it.
I’ve been dreaming about the Grand Teton for years, long before I ever saw it in person 3 years ago. About 3 million people go to Grand Teton National Park every year to stand on the sidewalk at one of the overlooks and take their picture in front of that big elegant beast. I’m sleeping at the park boundary, and I drove past it today, and saw dozens of the people posing with arms outstretched, no doubt for Instagram. I dreamed of the Picnic, of the Grand Traverse, of putting a fast time on the Owen Spalding route, just of standing up there.
My second trip to the Tetons was to climb, but we got rained on pretty much every day and it was later in the season so the Grand was covered in verglass, we had just missed the window to climb it. On the last day of our trip, we had a rare beautiful day and summited the Middle Teton. The route up the Middle starts from the south side, so when you gain the ridge you get a breath taking view of the Grand. It made my heart rage in my ribs like a jungle cat, it brought tears to my eyes. I said, probably out loud, because I’m weird like that, “I’ll come back for you.”
It was on that trip that I understood what it is to fall in love with a line, a mountain, and thus to have a responsibility to it. I don’t know if people that don’t climb can understand climbing objectively, from the outside. It takes years to develop the strength and skills and confidence to even have any business going up there in the first place, let alone attempting it, let alone actually being successful and summiting. I know people don’t get it because they’re always asking “why?” Because you have to.
I sped into the Lupine Meadows parking lot at 1:10am, I was late because I hadn’t ever measured how long it takes me to get there and I had underestimated it (nobody’s surprised). I met my partner for the first time, the night before we had set up this climb last minute through Mountain Project. His name is AJ, he works for the forest service. We’re packed up in a matter of minutes and blazing on the trail with headlamps. I say blazing because the guy is like eight feet tall and hikes extraordinarily fast, so fast I’m often running to catch up with him. It wouldn’t have been a challenge, except that just a few hours before, I had run the Middle Teton,
And then gotten no sleep, not even for a minute, so I was a little tired. When we reached the meadows, we could see the headlamps of a handful of other climbers both above and below us, getting ready for what promised to be an extraordinary day, however it turned out. Just above the first rock climb, we couldn’t find the trail and so did what turned out to be a totally unnecessary snow climb, but at least we used our axes since it turned out they were unnecessary for the mountain, the remainder of snow on the upper mountain had just finally melted off.
Twilight came, and then sunrise. As we got higher, the views of the middle and the rest of the southern part of the range got more and more incredible. I read once that when you’re in nature all the time, when you make it your home, it ceases to be beautiful and it just becomes normal. I don’t think the guy that said it meant it in a bad way, but I hate that. It’s never happened to me, and I was fortunate to have an equally incredulous partner, both of us continually astounded by how beautiful everything was. After a lot of difficult and high consequence scrambling, we roped up for 2700 feet of exposed and difficult rock climbing.
Throughout and after the climb we couldn’t stop saying how awesome and amazing it all was, and I’m not sure what else to say about it. There was tons of exposure, there was tons of beautiful climbing, there was some shitty climbing. Some parts were easier and we simul climbed (still roped up, but climbing at the same time instead of one belaying to protect the one climbing), some parts were harder. I hand jammed with gloves on and pulled off a heel hook on wet, snowy granite. AJ climbed beautifully and confidently but I don’t think we made any of the same moves on any pitch, we climbed so differently, which was very cool. The V Pitch was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever climbed.
The confidence that I lack in climbing was really on display, at least three times I yelled to AJ checking that he had used gear to anchor himself to wherever he was in case I was about to fall on my next move. I never did fall, but I suppose it’s apparent why I don’t like to lead trad (confidence? what confidence?) Every time I do something hard and scary, I think, “Now I am fearless!” But then, something harder and scarier happens.
I broke several of my toenails in the Speedgoat race, and all the steep and technical running I’ve done since being in the Tetons hasn’t helped, so 10 hours in climbing shoes was more painful than I can describe. There’s a last little bit of easy but high consequence simul-climbing to the summit, and the pain was so extraordinary that I thought I couldn’t bear another step. Getting those shoes off was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I’ll never again make fun of people that complain about their climbing shoes. Also, there were summit gummy bears!
Upon the summit, we found several other teams, some we had been in proximity with throughout the day. Climbers are such cool folks. I’ve complained a lot about the people I come across in the mountains of Colorado, but you don’t find those sorts of folks in the Tetons. There’s no jealousy or competition. The Tetons are so brutal, I wonder if it’s that the sort of folks that are badass enough to climb them are much too cool to be competitive, and the people that can’t climb them are so humbled they feel inspired instead of jealous? Anyway, the folks on the summit were so badass and cool, and I feel very fortunate that these are the people I’m surrounded by now.
We hadn’t taken pictures yet, but teams started leaving and we hoped to tag along so we didn’t have to find the rappel stations ourselves, so we rushed to put away the rope and a very cool dude from Bozeman took a couple quick pictures (above) for us before we hastened out. At that point, we had no idea that the downclimb would easily be the crux of the route. The rap stations weren’t hard to find, and the raps themselves were extraordinary. The following downclimbing was just awful. Miserable, way too difficult, butt puckering, sometimes exposed, and everything made worse by our bodies hurting and a day’s worth of adrenaline ebb and flow. And, probably, a hard climb yesterday and a night of no sleep to speak of. I said many times, “I’m never doing this again.” And as usual, when things are scary and high consequence and also really, really scary (it bears repeating), I thought, “I’m done with mountains.” Only once, I warned AJ that he might be about to see me cry, on a 20 foot chimney with a roof that you have to downclimb, but I somehow kept it together, despite my nervous system being well over capacity and my fear and adrenaline being far outside what I considered to be my acceptable limits.
I texted several important people “It was everything.” Afterwards. and I couldn’t mean it more. It was beautiful, painful, terrifying, surreal, brutal, fierce, extraordinary, powerful, life-affirming, joyous, crippling, heinous. At one point we even called the route disgusting. It’s hard to pick and describe any particular moment, but I often felt the most scared and the happiest I’ve ever been at the same time. An alpine climb like this, you get the entire range of the human experience all in the same day, and sometimes all in the same moment. Every cliched quote imaginable is applicable here, I kept thinking “you’re stronger than you seem and braver than you believe” afterwards, but in the moment all you can think of is, “I don’t have a choice I have to do this no matter how hard it is or terrified I am.”
Our bodies had been so broken by such an accomplishment, 7100 feet gained, 14200 total change (my knees and toenails will never be the same), 2700 feet of rock climbing, 2 long rappels, approximately (here I’m guessing) 2700 feet of downclimbing, we struggled to put one foot in front of the other for the last few miles back to our cars. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we just did that.” And in one day. We divied up our gear, hugged, and went our separate ways. The moment I started driving, I wept. Not for one particular reason, but for all of them. I had just realized an enormous dream, years in the making, and it was harder and more beautiful than I ever could have conceived. I’ve done lots of things now that I never believed I could, I’ve had lots of wonderful successes in the mountains, I’ve stood up to and overcame fear many times before. Each time it’s like it’s on a bigger scale.
There’s a part in Again to Carthage where he talks about ascent, unfortunately I’m in Jackson at the library and not a home where I can look it up (and I just checked, this library doesn’t have it). The quote also isn’t on the internet, so I have to paraphrase. He’s talking about how different regular adult life is from running full time, and how when you’re running full time, you’re always on an ascent. You’re always bettering yourself, and the results are measurable. Day to day, year to year, you’re getting stronger, faster, etc. But in regular life, it’s sort of like you have wins and losses, things happen, and it all goes along pretty steadily. And he misses so much that feeling of always being the ascent. I’m pretty sure I’m very lucky to have a life like that. Looking back on the race, now, after something so much bigger and more important, like the Grand, I can’t even believe I bothered to do that race, let alone be hurt by the results. There is no race that makes you extraordinary, it wasn’t even a particularly interesting experience. Every moment that you choose to overcome, to be stronger or better, to be scared out of your mind and do it anyway, that is what makes you extraordinary.