Teton County Highpoint Trip Report

Grand Teton (13,770 feet)

Dates: July 21-22, 2008
Author: Adam Helman

Owen-Spalding Route and Wyoming state completion

participants include Dennis Poulin and Adam Helman

All photographs are courtesy of Dennis Poulin.
Mouse-click any photograph for enlargement.


Even the average guy on the street ought to at least have heard of "Grand Teton". As the chief attraction (and raison d'être?) of the eponymous national park, Grand Teton, and indeed the entire Teton range is strikingly situated as the western edge of Jackson Hole. No compact mountain range in all of North America is more photographed - this, the "Alps of America".

Lower Saddle
Middle Teton from the Owen-Spalding Route
just above the Lower Saddle.

The superlatives continue - again, beyond the objective truths that Grand Teton is the Teton County, Wyoming highpoint; that it is an ultra prominence summit; and that it has the second largest spire measure in the lower forty-eight states.

Yes, to scale Grand Teton by even the easiest route, and even with an experienced guide, requires skills, physical ability, and some daring beyond a run-of-the-mill peak ascent.

The Owen-Spalding Route was the path taken on August 11, 1898 during the first ascent by William Owen, Franklin Spalding, Frank Peterson, and John Shive. Routes of ever-increasing difficulty have been explored; but none remain so popular as the Owen-Spalding. It is our chosen route.


I had planned on this magnificent peak four consecutive summers - each time my would-be ascent foiled by other people's disinterest. In 2005 I had paid for going with a lead climber who, although highly experienced on Grand Teton, was not sanctioned by the National Park Service to guide there. He was thus able to markedly undercut the rates charged by Exum Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. As the climb grew near he canceled the ascent and refunded my money, citing family obligations.

Although I was upset by this impasse, in 2006 I was set yet again for climbing with him. A few weeks before the fixed climbing date he was arrested on Grand Teton for guiding without a license.

Then, in 2007 I hung my hopes on going with a friend of a friend. However he was more interested in finishing the Colorado fourteener peak list during the limited climbing season.

So finally I have given up trying to go privately, and pay major bucks for climbing with Exum Guides.

My partners include Dean Molen and Dennis Poulin. We meet late on July 18, and choose to camp at Gros Ventre in two adjacent spaces. Dean is quite a character, constantly joking and making good, clean fun. I have previously hiked or climbed with both men; and I am confident in our experience and skills. However Exum Guides requires more solid demonstration.

Dean and Adam
Dean (orange hat) and Adam

Exum Guides requires a two day pair of courses to qualify for climbing Grand Teton under their supervision. I am not worried about failing to meet their requirements. However I am apprehensive about potential personality conflicts with the guide(s) during the training and climbing. Here, I am wary of authority and simply don't appreciate being bossed around.

This issue was never a problem when I used to work full-time, and that even though compared with my manager (with a single possible exception) I could muster superior ideas and ways of realizing them. That's OK: these people will never get to climb Grand Teton unless they have a mid-life crisis and decide that enjoying life trumps one's salary - and as I have.

This effort is part of a larger journey collecting Montana and Idaho county highpoints in July 2008.

Finally, I am certain that both Dean and Dennis have their own stories about how Grand Teton became large in their sights - indeed, massive enough to challenge the peak on its terms.

Saturday, July 19 - Grand Teton training day I (beginning rock)

The day proceeds well - and is cloudless. We participate in basic belaying and rappel technique. I rent rock shoes for improved "stickiness". However I use my own helmet and harness. Nothing is really new today insofar as skills.

There's a "garlic incident" at lunch with pasta salad, parmesan and turkey bacon. The other clients don't appreciate the odor. Tomorrow I promise to have a peanut butter stuffed bagel, and I come through on this.

We retreat to same camping spots (mine is number 290), and I am relieved that personal issues (with the guides) won't be problematic.

Dennis Dean
Dennis uses friction to climb
this rock slab.
Dean rappels a 30 foot cliff.

Sunday, July 20 - Grand Teton training day II (intermediate rock)

I spot a yellow rescue helicopter in the morning before our training begins - and later learn that a highly experienced Exum guide died the previous day while off climbing solo on the Lower Exum Ridge (rated Class 5.7). This makes the local headlines; and the Exum staff is considerably perturbed.

Dean Molen is not feeling well, and elects to opt out of training. I shall not elaborate. Unfortunately that means Dean will not be allowed to climb Grand Teton with Dennis and myself. It is a truly sad note, especially as in general the money (over $500) is nonrefundable.

waterfall near the training area

By an interesting twist, the death causes a re-shuffling of how clients and guides are paired. Hence Dean's absence does not prevent Exum from filling his "slot" ... and Dean is charged only $100 rather than the full climbing fee.

There is some more interesting material today - including a Class 5.6 route (a dihedral or "open book"); and a 120 foot overhanging rappel. Halfway down, on my second rappel, I stop mid-air to enjoy the view of South Jenny Lake. It is a most unusual vantage point!

open book
Dihedral ("open book") on
Day II training.
Note the rope and
protection (click to view).

One forty-something client cannot handle the open book, and has to be lowered with sweat pouring over his face. He won't be allowed to climb. A teenage girl fares much better, seemingly fearless.

A thunderstorm with hail pounds us after training as we head for the boat dock. I get soaked - yet my clothing dries quickly after the sun returns.

I accidentally leave my helmet somewhere, and search avidly to find it. Dennis calls on the cell phone from camp saying he's got it for me!

We retreat to same camping spot at Gros Ventre - the nearby South Jenny Lake campground still being "full".

Monday, July 21 - Grand Teton climb: approach hike to Lower Saddle

The weather looks fair enough for our hike to the Lower Saddle. I enjoy a Snickers bar given by Dean - with a huckleberry and white chocolate hot beverage. We drive one mile to the trailhead (Lupine Meadows) and hike at 10:37 a.m.

There are several trail switchbacks in the forest. We find snow at 9,000 feet, and have a long lunch break at 9,200 feet prior to a steeper ascent, still on-trail, up a moraine. Easy snowfields - yet I borrow a trekking pole from Dennis. The Lower Moraine has tents. Above lies the fixed rope, nearly two inches wide. We reach the Lower Saddle at 4:20 p.m. after 5 hours 43 minutes. Rain and high wind is immediate - what luck!!

rest break
10,000 foot rest break

The Exum quonset hut is close quarters indeed. With the cross-section of a jet airliner, perhaps 25 feet long and 12 feet in width; 6 1/2 feet tall at center.

The guides prepare hot, nearly boiling water available for cooking packaged dinners. I enjoy beef stroganoff enhanced with cheddar cheese, garlic salt (not whole garlic!), and dried red chili with jalapeño peppers. Excellent as it is both tasty and filling - yet cost $7 at Dornan's, the grocery store near Moose Junction.

Interesting and often ecletic conversation ensues while everybody sits tight, inside the hut, as the rain and wind create miserable outdoor conditions for two hours.

quonset hut
Inside the Exum quonset hut -
cramped yet safe from the storm.

A young lady who makes up her mind (based on a nightmare!) that she's not going to make a summit attempt. I try to talk sense into her - yet unsuccessfully.

The floor is re-arranged from eating mode to sleeping (with bags aligned parallel to long-axis); and we try to sleep at 8 p.m. I eat butterscotch fudge (bought at Missoula's Southgate Mall) with a granola bar for dessert.

A guide wants me to sleep atop my boots to save floor space. I refuse, stating that it is an abhorrent thought - but that I'd do it with a plastic bag covering. The solution is simply tying the boots to a metal railing at chest-level located on either side of the hut.

My gear is positioned for the 3 a.m. wakeup on said railing.

The weather looks poor for tomorrow - which upsets me greatly given that there's no refund for such an event.

Tuesday, July 22 - Grand Teton climb: summit day

Wake up. Saving grace is the hot coffee with a peanut butter granola bar. Then, some cinnamon apple oatmeal is enjoyed.

We depart at 4:06 a.m. - all groups on the Owen-Spalding Route since marginal weather makes the Exum Ridge Route risky without a quick means of "escape".

orange subpeak
Dawn orange on a nearby subpeak
as Adam points it out.

It is not really cold. That's good. The first belayed pitch is in complete darkness above the black dike. Fortunately Dennis belays me since I have literally one-half his weight.

The guide hurries us, and Dennis gets out of breath - it is a somewhat brisk pace for 13,000 feet! I understand and appreciate the motivation that we are rushing to beat potentially summit-cancelling weather.

Dennis at the summit. Congratulations!

We climb a series of (I believe) three belayed pitches, including the famous "Belly Roll" and other named sections.

We walk closely, rope in coils, and then climb yet another set of pitches that I estimate three in number. One is a dihedral; one entails a friction move on smooth rock (Class 5); and collectively it must be written that the training on Day II is NOT overkill for this route.

The final fifty or so vertical feet is easy; and we summit at 7:12 a.m. amidst clearing weather!

Wyoming state completion

... garnished with handshakes and photographs. I eat my bagel with camembert and thinly-sliced gourmet Italian sausages. Finally, one of several cinnamon "gummy bears" from Dean Molen - as I promised it would be enjoyed at the very summit.

Adam with summit sandwich

The weather will hold; and, had the tougher component, the descent, not been imminent, I would be giddy with happiness.

The guide rushes you with justification - apart from potential weather, another rope team is likely just behind you ... and requires the very ground you are standing on! Still, I really resent being told to shun my granola bar and do something else.

We descend perhaps after one-half hour; and avoid some of the most difficult downclimbing with the anticipated overhanging rappel - one that is belayed for additional safety.

Grand Teton benchmark -
"proof" we were there.

Back at the hut by 9:50 a.m. the round-trip consumes 5 3/4 hours - the same duration, coincidentally, as the hike from valley floor to the Lower Saddle.

I remove heavy wool pants outdoors since, as the innermost layer, I am temporarily naked - and there are members of both sexes within the hut.

We rest comfortably, eat, and are ready to descend just before 11 a.m.

This early hour contrasts extremely well with the times encountered on private ascents. The guides know the route so well that one summits by early morning. In contrast, a private group generally summits mid-day and then must descend during the afternoon thunderstorm threat.

Adam on the overhanging rappel

Descent is rapid; and is highlighted when Dean Molen greets Dennis and myself just below the 9,200 foot lunch spot - so defining the far point of his day hike.

Shortly thereafter several (immature?) teenage clients dive into a cold stream alongside the trail. I merely soak my shirt.

We return around 4:20 p.m. to the trailhead. I drive to the Exum Guides office, return sticky rock shoes and receive a certificate. I tip the guide ten dollars.

I enjoy a long-awaited pint of ice cream at Dornan's, eaten in the truck right there. The flavor is Dreyer's "Malt Ball Crunch". I could easily have eaten another pint of a different flavor (such as "Brownie Mint") - heck, I could have had a half gallon without difficulty.

I sleep, yet again, at spot 290 in Gros Ventre Campground.

The next morning I buy a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle featuring the Teton Range from a gas station / grocery store enroute to the south Yellowstone Park entrance. I'd like to assemble it with my young nephews on seeing them in October.

I fly home from Billings on the 23rd. Our jet aircraft passes 3 horizontal miles east of the summit; and, with a right-side window seat, I have a perfect view diagonally downwards to the mountain. Sipping South African amarula liqueur for the ocassion, I must admit to nearly being overtaken with emotion.

Grand Teton is one of my twenty (or even ten) most memorable ascents. Climb it and decide for yourself.

Grand Teton
The next morning ...and for billions beyond -
Grand Teton's magnificence is nearly eternal.