For the last two years, we’ve worked with Chicks Climbing and Skiing to create a contest and scholarship for women that want to up their climbing game with a group of empowering, supportive like minded females. This year our winner was Chelsea Cordes and submitted the following recap of her time in the Tetons.
Off to the Tetons
Craning my neck up at the peak of Pinocchio’s Pinnacle I waited for the faint syllables of climbing commands but all I heard were gusts of wind accompanied by my quickening heartbeat. I continued to ignore the prickling sensations starting in my leg, an obvious indication of how long I had been sitting there. As it turns out, straddling a horse sized rock jutting out of a cold and crumbling rock formation at 12,000 feet altitude isn’t all that comfortable. Still with no sound from Chick’s Climbing guide, Karen Bockel, I watched the rope slowly slithering up the wall and out of sight as I continued to feed it through my belay device.
You might be wondering how I got there in the first place though. In a desperate attempt to become a pioneer of self-discovery I entered a scholarship contest sponsored by Subaru Adventure Team, Chicks Climbing, and Petzl this past May. And much to my surprise I won. The prize was a guided alpine climbing trip into Grand Teton National Park. Oh, and did I mention the there was a Petzl gear package included?
So with all the proper alpine climbing equipment in tow I hopped on a flight to the beautiful Jackson, WY and from the second my plane started to descend into the Tetons I fell in love. The first stop of my journey was the American Alpine Climbers Ranch, a quaint little retreat at the base of Grand Teton National Park. Here, we spent the first two nights in rustic communal cabins scattered throughout a meadow of wild flowers, each cabin with its own winding pebble pathway. During the day the ranch was quiet but at night it became alive as sweaty, exhausted yet exhilarated climbers filed in for dinner. The historical presence and sense of community there was evident and eating under the jagged peaks of the Tetons while listening to climbing stories and observing the local herd of elk in the distance made the nights surreal.
Day one of our trip consisted of a hike to Hidden Falls to do a little climbing preparation. Starting with an early morning trek into the woods, we were met by a momma black bear with her cub. In awe I admired her only long enough to realize it and turn around. It was an awesome start to the day. Next we took a ferry across Jenny Lake and from there we began to climb practicing all of our alpine skills along the way. The reward for a hard day’s work was the view of a waterfall bigger than any I had ever seen from an epic 150 ft. free space rappel.
Day two was the day of the approach. At 9AM we started on the trail up the mountain with 40 lb. backpacks bursting with gear, clothes, food, and water. Because of the record snowfall this past winter in the Tetons, conditions on The Grand were questionable. We had heard murmurs of verglas and snow melt at the ranch. Not knowing what to expect we packed for any scenario. We had luck on our side though and for the day of the approach there were only clear skies and comfortable temperatures. We started up the switchbacks first, what I learned would be the “flattest” part of our climb. I say “flattest” skeptically because I had burning glutes and sweat beads running down my face mere minutes in. Climbing through a sea of blossoming wild flowers as we watched the valley floor fade into the distance made me quickly forget about the ache beginning in my legs.
As the vegetation began to fade, increasing mounds of snow and rock appeared. I couldn’t see the source but I could hear the soothing noises of a tumbling waterfall ahead. We rounded a corner and suddenly the landscape opened up dramatically to a vast glittering canyon of snow and granite. Stopping to fill our bottles with fresh water from the falls I stared into the distance in disbelief. Karen, our guide, instructed us to put our crampons on and so in between gulps of ice cold water and bites on cliff bars I eagerly strapped mine on.
The next four miles of the approach were grueling. Being from the south, my complete lack of experience in the snow didn’t help matters, but it was an adventure nonetheless. We trekked over a babbling brook and up three huge walls of snow. Some places were steep enough to require roping up and some places I found myself post-holing up to my thigh. We got plenty of practice self-arresting and traveling on ice as well, and at times it seemed like it would never end. The pattern was as follows, travel across the valley, climb a snow wall, assume you’re almost there, and repeat.
Seven miles and 5,000 feet later we found ourselves topping out at our last slope and in the distance I saw the comforting figure of the Exum hut at the top of the lower saddle. We were home at last. I had never been more eager to sprawl out over a mound of boulders in my life. Though it might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the views of the Tetons made it well worth it, and I couldn’t help but admire the clusters of blue forget-me-nots growing everywhere and occasional greeting from a local marmot. For the next two nights we tucked in at the hut for some well-deserved shuteye.
Uncertain and full of doubt after the approach, I found myself feeling nervous on the day of the big climb. The goal was to make it to the Enclosure on The Grand. We started early with our ropes, harness, ice axes, and crampons. The first portion of the climb consisted mostly of hiking and scrambling. About midway up we had a bit more rock climbing to do, and eventually we encountered snow again along with a bit of ice climbing. With my veins full of adrenaline, the nerves quickly vanished. Several pitches later our efforts were rewarded as we reached the top of the Enclosure to find an ancient Indian Vision Quest circle.
As we took a moment to admire the view in silence, I set on a vision quest of my own. I reflected on all the lessons I had learned on our journey and felt overwhelmed by the majesty of the earth. I thought about lessons of patience, risk, and fear, undivided attention, capability, and upper limits. I never wanted to leave, but as Karen quickly pointed out, a dark cloud was approaching in the distance.
Just as quickly as we had summited we began our descent in a race against the storm. A mile away from the Exum hut the clouds began to spit on us. We slipped on our rain gear and carried on making it back just in the nick of time. Shortly after, it began to downpour, we watched comfortably, hot cocoa in hand, in our cozy propane scented tube as it passed. Once the storm subsided, the most vibrant of rainbows formed between the clouds and canyon floor. It was a day I will never forget.
On our fourth and final day of climbing we got a bonus. Not far from the Exum Hut on the lower saddle are two massive pinnacles independent of the Middle Teton, and we climbed one of them. Being that I would consider myself a rock climber far before I would consider myself an alpinist, I was thrilled with this. And this is how I wound up straddling a giant rock on the edge of a cliff. It was a challenge in my mountaineering boots but for my first trad climb ever, I considered it a great victory. Karen later informed us that it is a pinnacle which is rarely climbed which made it even more special to me.
After we were finished we began to head back down the mountain. I had mixed feelings about leaving the Exum Hut. I felt thrilled about what I had accomplished, sad to be leaving the mountains behind, and unexcited for the dreaded hike back, until I learned what glissading was. For anyone who might not be familiar with the term, it’s basically extreme butt sledding which is not only acceptable but deemed tactical for adults in the alpine. For every grueling wall of snow that was climbed, it was an uninhibited and joyous glissade back down. The perfect ending to the perfect trip.
As my plane took off to the East of the Tetons I looked over at them with a brand new perspective. The fangled and jagged edges of the mountain jutting up into the sky felt less intimidating and more like home. Once you experience the earth in a way that challenges you beyond what you think you are capable of, you develop a relationship with it. For that reason, I am so grateful for such an incredible opportunity which Subaru Adventure Team, Chicks, and Petzl granted me. From now on I will forever feel in love with the Tetons and therefore forever obligated to protect them.