Grand Teton National Park
The Teton range is a very young range of mountains... formed by a fault that uplifted the west side of the Jackson hole area and simultaneously lowered the eastern side. The rapid and recent movement along that fault along with the solid nature of the rock has created a spectacular but localized range of mountains that rear out of the Jackson Hole valley.
Teton range from SE
With no foothills to speak of, the vertical relief between the valley floor at the foot of the mountains and the summits is on the order of 6000 feet. The highest peak, the Grand Teton, is almost 14,000 feet high and is only very slightly lower than the highest peak in Wyoming (Gannett peak in the Wind River range).
The Cathedral Group
During the summer of 1998 I was on a road trip out west with Luke Ward and Andree Plouffe
. We were climbing Teewinot on the east face route and were less than 300 feet from the summit when an afternoon thunderstorm bore down on us. Faced with getting zapped on Teewinot's tiny summit, we retreated. But not without a desire to scale it again someday.
Teewinot mountain is one of the peaks of the central, highest group of mountains in Teton range. At 12,325 feet it towers over the Jenny lake area at its base. When viewed from the Jenny Lake campground, Teewinot (meaning "many pinnacles" in a local native language) obliterates the view of other mountains and presents a jagged, foreboding and spectacular presence.
Annotated Climb Graphic
The easiest route up Teewinot (the East Face route) is not considered especially technical by mountaineering standards... but mountaineering it is still. It is a long way up and does involve some scrambling over very steep terrain. To round things off, a couple of short snowfields must be crossed on the way up.
Jenny Lake Campsite
Anyway, back to our trip: I'd like to be as close as possible to the start of the way up Teewinot, so I suggest that we get up early in the morning to secure a site at the tent-only Jenny Lake Campground. This is an amazing little campground, first-come first-serve, that sits at the edge of Jenny Lake and close to the edge of the base of Teewinot. It has one the most spectacular views from any car-campsite I've been to. Unfortunately, most others think this is a great campsite, too, and even on weekdays if you arrive much later than 9am the campsite is full. So Markus and I get up super early and drive from Colter Bay to Jenny Lake to secure some sites, then drive back to the Colter Bay campsite to get everyone else and move them to Jenny Lake.
We spend a good portion of the day touring the Jackson Hole area, taking innumerable pictures from many different vantage points of the mighty Tetons, and getting any foodstuffs and other items that we need.
Markus is still quite concerned about his level of readiness with regards to sleep and food. He is concerned that with his poor sleep habits combined with the early get-up time (we've set a rise time of 2am) that he will be unready for the climb. So after much arguing and cajoling, we feel that it is best to go into town to get (a) some earplugs, (b) some sleeping pills, and (c) some peridiolyte (sp?) (re-hydration aid). Although I must state here that there was much in the way of grumbling and general skepticism about these aids. Markus, please, be more positive!
We also spend much of the day making sure that everything is packed and ready for the next morning : all the right stuff is pre-packed, and we make sure that all of our crampons fit our boots properly. nothing more time-consuming and unsafe than discovering that your crampons don't fit right when you need them!
From our campsite, I point out the route up. From here and from other vantage points in the valley it looks like an impossible climb for our group, but having been up there I feel that the route, although steep, is do-able for us. Still, I can tell the group is both excited but also apprehensive. Furtive over-the-shoulder glances up to the mountain above us are frequent.
After a good meal of high-calorie foods, we are off to bed at around sunset. Markus cannot get the earplugs to stay in his ears so the task of inserting his ear-plugs falls to me. Fortunately Markus' ears were fairly clean and I didn't have to deal with much ear wax. The things I do to keep things running smoothly!!
2 am arrives and we are up. I think everyone's a bit charged by this particular adventure. The mountain is so alluring, yet also is clearly challenging. A quick hot breakfast and we are ready to go. All of our packs are already ready, so we all pile into the van and drive off into the darkness. The drive is only a couple of kilometres to the Lupine Meadows parking lot, where the trail up to the start of the climb is, and we are there in a few minutes.
Ready to go at 3am!
Feet taped up, headlamps on, Cameras ready...and psyched. We set off into the darkness. Teewinot's silhouette is wide and foreshortened now, us being so close to it. There is a total of about 300 metres of flat before the trail starts its unrelenting climb to the summit. Every step is literally uphill from here all the way to the summit.
Morning twilight at 9,500 feet
The first part of the route is a well-trodden path up first through open scrub and then into a wedge-shaped section of forest on the lower slope of the mountain. We make excellent time, averaging over 1000 feet per hour. by the time it is light enough to turn off our headlamps we are almost out of the trees at a point called "the apex" at almost 10,000 feet.
Here, above the trees, we have a more extended break. the wide flat valley of Jackson Hole spreads out below us. The sun rises behind a patchwork deck of clouds. Far above us (but not nearly so far) are the cliffs of the summit area. Directly above us the twin spires of the Worshipper and the Idol mark the start of the scrambling and climbing.
After stopping for our food and rest break, we break out the helmets and the ice axes for the next section. before getting to the rock scrambling, there is a short but reasonably steep section of snow to cross. I give a quick refresh/lesson in proper snow movement, self-belay and self-arrest. I know in the back of my mind that this lesson is not really sufficient for some in the group, but my reasoning is that the section is short and with a bit of care we'll all get through it ok. I do admonish everyone to be slow, deliberate, and careful, and to move the ice ax out of the snow only when in a secure position of balance.
There is a boot track from the last party to have ascended Teewinot and we follow that across the snow without incident. From here on it is scrambling time. We wind our way up relatively easy ledges and bits of alpine meadow. In order to travel lighter, we all started with only 2L of water each, which we are rapidly going through to stay properly hydrated. We've done this deliberately with the expectation of refilling our water supply part way up from snowmelt. We are starting to get a bit doubtful about this but soon enough we reach a small snowbank that has a clear small stream of meltwater coming out of it. We take another extended rest break and refill our bottles with cold, clean mountain water.
Precious water replenishing
We continue our climb upwards, although much more slowly now. Having a larger group with varying skill levels is part of the reason for this. In any case, we are roughly following the main gully that runs down the east face. The gully narrows near its top, and at this point the climbing gets a bit more tough - what some would call class 4 scrambing (scrambling but with steeper more exposed areas). Luc, strong climber that he is, scouts ahead for the best possible routes.
We reach one section that is a bit dicey, and while Luc, Peter G, Markus and I managed to scramble it freehand, Caroline and Ewart prefer a bit more security, and so I set up a quick belay, and soon they are up. This is essentially the crux of the climb. From here we have another small finger of steep snow, and then a final scramble to the summit. Ewart is uncomfortable on the snow and opts for a scramble alongside the snow (to the right). The going is slower with the increased fatigue and thinner air, but at this point (around 11am) it certainly looks like we'll make the summit - and this time no nasty thunderclouds are threatening!
hiking through upper meadows
Definitely a little steeper
Luc on an upper snowfield.
Belaying some steep stuff
Luc ascending final snowfield
Looking towards the summit
Climbing the final snowfield
Markus on sub-summit Crags
We are finally all past the final bit of snow (Markus having a couple of slips and successful stops) and a relatively straightforward scramble leads up and to the right towards the summit area.
We all arrive together at about noon on the summit. And what a summit! The actually high point is really a point... literally a tiny point of rock just a few feet across and not flat. It takes guts to stand up there, since there are multi-thousand foot drops all around.
The view is simply unparalleled. Across the gulf just hundreds of metres away is the Grand Teton itself. From this aspect it presents the sheer wall of its north face, with the Teton glacier nestled at its base, its crevassed icy body partially exposed. To the right is the rugged Mount Owen, the second highest mountain in the range. Back to the east, Jackson hole is very very far down. We can, in one glance, see Jenny Lake and our campground, as well as the parking area and the van itself, right at the start of the trail.
Teewinot Ascent Picture Locator
These cookies have definitely 'dared'
View down east from summit
Jagged, Rugged, Forbidding
Soon it is time to head back down. Unlike a hike in the Adirondacks, say, there is still much to be overcome on the way down. We must climb down a couple of thousand feet of semi-technical terrain before we get to the relative safety of the trees and the trail.
We start down around 12:30. Slowly but surely we make our way down the topmost scramble, down the top finger of snow and to the narrowing of the gully where the rope was needed on the way up. When I was up here last 5 years ago, there was a handy rappel station with a couple of slings in this area, but I can't find it this time - perhaps the park service has taken the slings away, and the location is not immediately obvious to me.
Rather than have everyone downclimb this part, Luc offers to set up a rappel and then dismantle it and downclimb the section himself afterwards. Given that he is a pretty good rock climber, this seems to be the safest and fastest course of action, and soon we all are safely down past this section.
183. Descending the route
Descending the Upper Snowfield
185. Caroline starts her rappel
From here it is a bit more relatively easy down-scrambling, then across the final snowfield to the section immediately below the Worshipper/Idol where the trail starts.
I reach the final snowfield ahead of the others and start to make my way more-or-less straight down it. The snow is softish but starting to firm up (at this point this snowfield is in the shade). Several other climbers are at this point overtaking us on the downward climb.
191. Descending lower snowfield
As I near the end of the lower snowfield, I turn to watch the others' progress. And notice that Caroline has slipped and is sliding downhill .... but without her ax, which remains anchored in the snow where she last stepped. Fortunately, Caroline is more or less in the self-arrest position. She allllmost manages to stop, but then the snow gets a little steeper and she picks up speed again, stopping when her legs hit the ground at the end of the snow with a crunch. Total distance slid is maybe 30 feet, by my recollection. We all anxiously ask how she's doing, but she's already up and checking herself out. She says that apart from a banged shin she seems ok to continue, albeit perhaps a bit shaken by the affair.
Much more is about to happen, however: up at the top of the lower snowfield, Ewart has started his descent. I've turned to continue my descent of the final bit of snow to the rocks below, when I hear a shout from above. When I turn, my heart skips a beat: Ewart has slipped now, except that in this case, he is not in the self-arrest position, and rapidly gains speed, twisting and tumbling straight down the snow slope. Time enters that strange danger/trouble slow-motion mode where everything seems to slow down. Our brains are sampling at a higher frame rate now.
Peter G jumps out of the way to avoid getting creamed by Ewart. Ewart continues to slide, faster and out-of-control. He still has his ice ax but seems unable to get into the self-arrest position to use it effectively. I'm thinking... this is bad. He isn't going to stop until something makes him stop. I remember saying aloud to myself "this is bad... this is really bad....", as I watched Ewart slide by. There is a large boulder sticking out of the snow, above the point at which the snow ends in a field of large talus. Ewart, travelling at his now-terminal velocity, impacts that boulder quite violently, and is launched into the air, twisting helplessy like a rag doll.... then comes down heavily back onto the snow and continues with even less control down to the rocks below. In my mind I am positive that at the very least something is broken.
I can't recall precisely the various body positions Ewart went through at that point, but there were many, and I recall his helmet bouncing and scratching off of rocks as he reached the end of the snowfield. Then Ewart reaches the rocks proper and with a wrenching twist he impacts some larger boulders comes to rest in a semi-sitting position.... he then slowly flops over and is... motionless.
The accident (zoomed, annotated)