My friends and I played that Modest Mouse song nonstop before our ascent of The Grand Teton. Driving through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the shadow of the mountain, we listened as Isaac Brock sang, “Blame it on the Tetons / Yeah I need a scapegoat now.” It’s a big mountain, The Grand, so big that it must have some malevolent significance. You look at it and know that it’s more than a pile of rock.
The night before our ascent, we camped in the valley just east of The Tetons. Before we went to sleep, we looked at the mountain, which was silhouetted by moonlight, ensuring it a place in our dreams.
One of my friends on the trip was from Idaho Falls, Idaho, and growing up around that part of the country, when you think of mountains, you think of The Grand. It loomed large in the local imagination – nothing else compared. (I grew up in the Seattle area, and for me, platonic ideal of a mountain will always be Rainier.) The name Teton is everywhere – on businesses, like Teton Optical, schools and brands of beer. For him, climbing The Grand was a consummation of one of his childhood dreams.
It was also a big deal for the French fur traders who named the mountain in the 19th Century. We learned about the history of the mountain the next day at The Teton National Park Visitor Center while we applied for our back country permits. These fur traders would meet up for what they called ‘rendezvous,’ where they would trade stuff and do God knows what else 19th century fur traders did. The Tetons were an easy landmark for them to meet up at – it’s hard to lose track of a string of 10,000 foot peaks – and these uncouth fur traders crudely named the three biggest peaks in the range “Les Tetons”, French for “the breasts”. And the Grand Teton – The Big Tit, which my friends affectionately called the mountain for the rest of the trip.
“Seeing it All”
The plan for our assault of The Tit: two days, one day to hike up to the lower saddle at 11,000 feet, then wake up early the next and make our assault on the summit. We had some climbing experience, but this was by far the biggest and most significant mountain of our brief mountaineering careers. Our first night, at 11,000 feet, would be the highest elevation I had ever reached, and we still had over 2,500 feet to climb the next day.
We drove to the trailhead parking lot. With our armory of climbing gear splayed on the gravel, we received the usual questions: Are you guys going to climb The Grand? Do you use ropes? Do your mothers know what you’re doing? The concerns of these strangers stroked our egos. Why yes, we are badasses. And yes, people die all the time doing what we’re doing.
One man drove by with his 101 year old mother in the passenger seat. They were on a cross country road trip – “she ain’t seen it all yet, so we’re trying to show her,” he said. When they heard we were about to climb The Grand, the ancient lady whispered into her son’s ear. He nodded his head and said, “Would you do me a favor? My mom wants to shake the hand of some mountain climbers.” Each of us in turn took her hand, which despite her age still had a solid grip. This whole scene made me think: at 101 years old, this could have been her last day on earth, but she chose to come see The Grand Teton. Large mountains have a pull that can be stronger than gravity.
The First Night
That afternoon, we hiked to the lower saddle, and the combination of fatigue and high elevation made me sick. The thought of food disgusted me, and even though I wore several warm layers, I felt teeth-chatteringly cold. I shivered into my sleeping bag and answer my friends’ concerns with a comatose drone.
Although the night sky was clear, no rain or clouds, the wind tore at our tent, knocking it down several times. With the wind, altitude sickness and biting cold, no sleep graced me that night.
A sleepless night is the worst things I can think of. Sartre was wrong: hell is being alone with yourself. It was too cold to get out of my sleeping bag to read or write or do anything to distract me. No wonder people in solitary confinement go crazy. The dangers of the climb were magnified by the lack of sleep: In my imagination, my friends and I died a thousand deaths, climbing shoes losing purchase, our gear failing, our rope snapping. More than that, I faced pessimistic thoughts about my life, my ambitions, my fears, my desires, Existence with a capital “E” – each of which formed a link in a vast chain of anxiety.
The Exum Ridge
The sun rose and we got up to prepare for the climb. Miraculously, I felt great. My altitude sickness had dissipated, I felt rested despite my lack of sleep and any anxiety about the climb somehow had receded with the night. I looked at the illuminated peak and felt confident that I would be standing on its summit later that day.
We followed the Upper Exum Route, one of the easier lines up the mountain. You scramble up a gulley until you reach a giant rock ramp, called Wall Street, which you follow to the Exum Ridge, on which the technical climbing starts. Once there, we put on our harnesses and began the climb. It was almost unsettling how good I felt. Climbing normally scares the shit out of me: I’m paralyzed with caution at the slightest brush with exposure or danger. But not this time. Every piece of protection I placed, every hand hold I reached for was accomplished without hesitation. I even joked around, laughed and sang with my climbing companions.
“I Need a Scapegoat”
For whatever reason, we strayed from the established route. The climbing for this variation looked easy and was far less steep for, so we stuck with it. And it was easier – at first. Eventually, we reached a tricky section: the wall’s sandpapery granite, which gave good friction for our rubber climbing shoes, yielded to stretches of smooth quartz, as slippery as glass. I climbed slower, so as not to lose my purchase. To make matters worse, the crack system that we followed, in which we placed our gear to protect us from a bad fall, closed up like a sutured wound. We would have to climb tricky section without protection for about 50 feet, meaning that if the lead climber fell, he would fall 100 feet, unless an intermediate ledge was there to break his legs.
I lead the pitch without fear. I placed my last piece of protection and boldly continued, hand hold over hand hold. About three quarters of the way up, I looked at that last piece, so far down that I had to squint. It was only then that the danger of the task returned to me. I rested on a small ledge and took a second to consider this silly sport. If I slipped on the slick quartz, I would probably die. Why would anyone choose to subject themselves to this danger? I thought of Brock, and wondered what he blamed the mountain for. The mountain no longer meant anything: it was just there, very real and very dangerous.
I only gave myself a few moments for this, because too much of that type of thinking will freeze you up. No other problem existed for me than to negotiate this section of the climb successfully. When climbing, going down is normally impossible: the only way is up.
I spotted the next holds, left my ledge and continued the climb.