Grand Teton in a Day
Dennis, Ryan, and Cody
Drive from NJ to Wyoming, summit the Grand Teton in a day, and return to the East coast for work in a single three-day weekend.
Friday 8/31/18 to Tuesday 9/4/18
Ryan and I were planning on a big-ish trip for the three-day weekend (labor day), originally intending to go climbing down in the New River Gorge in West Virginia, but rainy weather forced us to look elsewhere.
Over a trip to Wawa, while installing the passenger swivel seat in the van, I proposed several options, including Horseshoe Canyon, Red Rock, and the Grand. We decided that a big road trip would be fun, and got to work trying to recruit Cody for another big road trip objective; this time to summit the Grand in a single one-day push.
Cody was convinced and committed within half an hour of our asking. We were informed shortly thereafter that he and Casey were at a bar, and that both Casey and the bartender were pushing him to say yes and make the trip with us. Now that's what I call teamwork!
Now, an important note: all of this happened on Wednesday night, less than 48 hours before our planned departure. It should also be noted that Julia and I had just returned a week and a half earlier from a two-week climbing trip in Tensleep, Wyoming. So this would be my third and fourth time driving across the country in under a month.
On Friday, I left my office at around 2 pm, picking Ryan up and officially hitting the road by about 3:30 pm. The plan was to meet Cody in Harrisburg, PA, where he would leave his truck and join us in the van. Ideally, we would have been able to meet up at around 5:30 pm, but heavy traffic and torrential rain slowed progress on our end, and serious flooding along Cody's route, delaying the meet until around 6:30 pm. Once we had Cody though, we were ready to point the van West and put the pedal to the metal.
Our planned route out to Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) was taking interstate 80 out through Chicago and Nebraska, and then shooting North on 287 from Rawlins through Lander, WY. Julia and I, on a previous trip to GTNP, had found a great place to camp on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land just outside of the park. This would be about 20 minutes from the trailhead where we would leave from in the morning, and provided a pretty good place to stop and sleep before the big day.
We made pretty good time on the drive, only nearly running out of gas once (under Cody's lead foot and optimistic view of the fuel needle). We wound up arriving at our BLM destination at about 10:30 pm on Saturday, 8/31; totaling just about 32 hours of travel time from NJ and hitting our estimate right on target. This is huge, considering we had only allocated ourselves eight minutes at each rest stop, which would only occur every 4 hours when it was about time to fill the tank. In those eight minutes, we would need to refuel the van, get coffee, use the bathroom, stretch out a bit, clean the windshield, and rotate roles. We were pretty proud that we were able to stick to this.
Anyway, we went to be almost immediately upon arrival at the BLM site, with plans to wake up at 3:15 am to drive to the trailhead and start our approach by 4 am.
We were generally on time waking up in the morning. This was despite a savage move by Ryan, who actually snoozed the alarm when it went off! We continue to give him grief for this, and the alarms are no longer placed within reasonable reach of where he sleeps... Regardless, we were able to pound down some breakfast and get on the Amphitheater Lake trail by about 4:15 am.
Starting off hiking under the moonlight and supplementing with red light from our headlamps to maintain a little night vision was incredible. The sky was clear and the stars were out in full force. We made excellent time up the initial approach and into Garnett Canyon. We made it to the South Fork of Garnett Canyon in about 2 hours and 40 minutes, where we broke out the water filter and topped our water reserves off for the rest of the long climb. We each carried between 2 and 2.5 liters, but thought it unnecessary to haul all of that up from the van with ample spots to filter in the canyon. By this time, the sun was up and we were getting stoked.
We knew it would be some serious elevation gain to get from the trailhead to the Lower Saddle, at which point you're just about to the technical climbing portion of the day. We had planned to get there in good time, but actually exceeded our expectations; hiking the 6 miles and 5,500 feet of elevation gain in about 4 hours and 30 minutes. We felt like we were on top of the world (and also a little winded from the altitude, sitting at about 11,600 feet). After taking a 20 minute rest, soaking in the views and grabbing a bite to eat, we set out to find the beginning of the Upper Exum route, Wall Street.
From the Lower Saddle, our progress was slow. With the higher and higher altitudes, our sea-level lungs were working harder and harder. The rocky terrain intermittent snow were also no help in route-finding along the way. We ended up missing the exit out of the initial gully, and climbed nearly to the top of the Upper Saddle and the start of the Owen Spalding Route. This route, rated at 5.2, is still technical climbing, but was NOT what we had just driven across the country for. After evaluating the time, weather, and our physical condition, we decided the downclimb the gully and look for Wall Street. This put a serious delay in the schedule for the day, costing us about 2 and a half hours when all was said and done.
After realizing where we had gone wrong and finally finding our start, we switched from hiking mode to climbing mode, donning our harnesses and a light gear rack (singles of 0.5" to 2" cams with a full BD stopper set). It was about 1 pm at this point, and we were all well aware of the general rules of thumb to be heading off of the summit by this time, but clear skies as far as the eye can see meant we made the call to keep going. We had the Grand to ourselves and were well beyond stoked at this point.
Simul-climbing Wall Street and the Golden Staircase (the first two pitches) with me leading, we were off to a good start. From the top of the second pitch, the route ducks in and out of sections of fourth class scrambling and 5.0 climbing. We ditched the rope for these, and elected to move cautiously and continuously, with the next planned roped pitch set to be the Friction Pitch.
Well, as in the gully, we got a bit off route, staying climbers left and heading up some chimney's instead of taking on the relatively unprotected slab to the right. It worked out fine, we just climbed ourselves into a nook where we roped up and I lead what felt like a 5.4-5.5 short pitch to get us back on route just under the Friction Pitch. Back on track. Not going to lie, the Friction Pitch was what worried me the most going into this day. You can ask anyone I've ever climbed with, I don't have the head for slab climbing... especially when you start talking exposure too. This, though. This day was an outlier and that Friction Pitch just felt glorious.
We flew through the Friction Pitch, staying roped up until passing the Peltzboldt Boulder Problem. The highlight of the day fell between these points though, at the V-Pitch. Such crazy exposure and incredible views, this was an awesome lead and was where we all hit a second wind (or maybe it was a 6th or 7th) as we were approaching the summit.
Long story short, we were feeling good, and moving along at a halfway decent pace; certainly a little slower than normal though with the snow, ice, and altitude hitting us a bit. We reached the summit at 13,776 feet at just around 5:30 pm.
This was WAY later than we had planned, and we knew we had to soak in the feeling of temporary success and then get our butts down and off the technical portions of the route before the sun went down. Spending only 10-15 minutes at the summit, we were quick to head out in search of the rappel stations to head down the Owen Spalding. While we had trouble at first, we did eventually find an intermediate rap station to get us to the first of two long raps to the Upper Saddle. An important note here, the second rap can be made on a single 70 meter rope with rope stretch. It's close, but it'll work.
Progress was almost as slow on the way down from the Upper Saddle as it was on the way up. Cody had some previous snow and ice experience, but this was relatively new for Ryan and I, so we were a little more cautious in our movements. Plus, it's hard to keep your eyes on the trail when you've got a sunset as incredible as this one slapping you in the face.
We made it to the Lower Saddle just as the last light was fading away. We were definitely starting to feel the fatigue of the day at this point, without the psyche of a summit ahead of us to stave it off any longer. There's one final technical portion of the descent found just after leaving the Lower Saddle, where fixed ropes protect a steep portion of loose rock before the trail opens back into the talus field. Making it through here, we were now faced with the repercussions of our decision to push on so late in the day: routefinding in the dark through scree, talus, and boulders.
We tried to use the GPS on our Garmin watches to retrace a rough path back the way we came, but wound up generally zig-zagging back and forth due to the poor GPS signal in Garnett Canyon. We were all spent at this point, truly just trudging along on auto-pilot, waiting for the talus to fade and the trail to turn back to packed dirt. We would walk for about 10 minutes at a time, and then regroup, with certain members of the team falling asleep during the quick breather.
The night continued much the same as we descended through the Canyon. Our perception of time was a bit bent, and we elected to not refill our water along the way, which would prove to be a dumb decision. Step after step, we made our way down the canyon, and eventually found ourselves back on the dirt trail.
At this point, we were totally exhausted, literally to the point of hallucinating. Our tired minds would turn sticks and bushed into moose and bears, and I saw every medium-sized rock along the trail as a chicken (100% serious about this). We all agreed afterwards that this was the most tired any of us have ever been. In truth, this never should have happened. We certainly pushed ourselves further, and spent more time up at elevation without acclimating than we'd planned for, and we were paying for that in full on the descent. While the exhaustion may have been reaching frightening levels though, there was definitely a sense of accomplishment in having been able to meet our goal, albeit with a few hiccups.
We ran into a few parties getting their alpine starts while on our way down, the earliest of which were on the trail before 2 am. In hindsight, a 4 am start was far too late for our objective, given that we knew we'd be moving slower once we reached altitude. All in all though, we made it back to the van just before 4 am on Monday morning, logging a total of 23 hours and 35 minutes on the trail/climb from van to van. We'd accomplished our goal of summitting the Grand in a single day (technically).
We had originally planned to grab a couple of hours rest after our summit, and then hit the road late Sunday night to make the 32 hour trek back home for work on Tuesday morning. Obviously though, finishing the day at 4 am on Monday morning, it would be impossible for us to return in time. With that in mind, we crashed HARD, sleeping for about 7 hours and waking up as if from a coma. Notifying our offices that we would be taking personal days for Tuesday, we decided to take our time in getting out of Wyoming, and instead enjoy the scenic drive back.
We elected to take the Northern route home, this time traveling up through Yellowstone National Park where Ryan and Cody had never been, then driving through the Wind River Range and Tensleep, eventually jumping on to Interstate 90 and headed through South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota on our way to Chicago. From there, it was back the way we came, taking 80 and 76 back to Harrisburg where we reunited Cody with his truck.
Check out some more photos from the trip in the gallery below. There really were way too many great shots to include everything above. This trip was really just incredible, and has left a lasting impression on the three of us; not only in terms of adventure, but also in terms of planning, safety, and preparation. It's great to aspire to bigger and bigger objectives in the mountains and backcountry, but the real joy is in getting to continue to pursue these goals. Preparation is everything and knowing when you can push the boundaries, and when you should turn around are invaluable skills in these environments.
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