July 27, 2010
the Grand Teton
I've been debating as to whether or not I was going to tell this story from last week's trip on the blog or not. Truthfully I'm getting sick of telling it, and it definitely feels a little exploitive (look at that attention grabbing post title), but here we go.
Trevor (aka Treasure) and I set out last week for Jackson, Wyoming to do some riding, mountaineering, and relaxing. Primary to those plans was climbing the Middle Teton, which I had previously summited 7 years back. The plan was to spend two nights camping in the meadows area of Garnet Canyon, which just might be about the most beautiful area I've ever set foot in, and to summit on the one full day we'd spend up there. Last time I went up it was mid August and you just followed paths in the talus fields to the saddle between Middle and South, did some sketchy exposed scrambling, and knocked it out. It was hairier than I had expected given it's pedestrian reputation among locals, but it wasn't that uncomfortable having done the Grand the season prior. E.M.O and I did it car to car in about 9 hours or so. No big deal.
This year when we got our permits the ranger said that it was pretty snowy up there and that we would need ice axes to safely traverse the glaciers and snow fields. I was skeptical that we'd need them based on prior experience but we picked some up just in case.
me on the way up, yes I know I look like a gay German tourist
Treasure in the boulderfield below the meadows near the glacial stream that flows through the canyon
We did the three hour, 4 mile hike up into the meadows and came across a group of college age women (and one sleeping dude) sitting on a rock and staring at the mountain. We exchanged pleasantries and they stated that they were waiting for their friend to descend and join them.
We then went up the hill a ways and setup camp.
camp with Middle Teton behind
view of waterfall from our base camp
A few hours later that group was still sitting there waiting for their friend. We went down to make sure they had everything they needed and they assured us they were fine. We went back to our business, and an hour or so later the gentleman in the group headed up the hill to look for their companion without his pack or any supplies (he didn't plan on being long). We later learned that he had climbed the Grand earlier that day, some of the girls had climbed Middle, and a group of three had tried their luck with Disappointment Peak.
The missing girl was a member of that party of three. They had taken a wrong turn somewhere on route and had gotten into some sketchy terrain. The girl decided that she wanted to turn back and left the other two to carry on. Not sure of this, but I think they all planned to meet back in the meadows and descend to the parking lot together. The other two carried on and eventually got cliffed out and descended. When they made it to the rendezvous their friend was nowhere to be seen.
Middle Teton and saddle between it and South
Around dusk we again asked them if they needed anything, this time everyone in the group looked visibly upset. They told us they were okay. At dark half of them headed down the mountain, a little while later they all were gone. We figured that everything must have worked out okay, and as we were busy with our own needs, assumed that the guy had descended and that we must have just not noticed.
We then proceeded with our good time and joked and drank and acted the fool, we were on vacation after all.
Around 1 a.m. we spotted a headlight headed up the trail towards us. It was a girl and she was crying. She came up to us because we were the only two still awake in the meadows and tearfully asked us if we were good climbers. We replied with "What?" She repeated, "Are you good climbers?" This seemed like a loaded question, so I asked what is it that she needed, "Did you find your friend?" She replied with "Oh, she's dead. Our friend is up on the mountain sitting with the body and doesn't intend to leave until they can get her off the mountain in the morning. He needs this backpack with supplies and clothes."
Trevor and I looked at each other knowing that half in the bag we had no business being on a route at night that neither of us were familiar with. We later realized the reason she prefaced her request with "are you good climbers," as she herself had been up the Middle that day and wanted no part of fucking with that mountain after dark.
It took a minute but we knew we had to go. We had to help. It was a stupid decision, but there wasn't really any decision to be made. We were on it.
We gathered our gear and set off. The plan was to travel up the mountain towards Matt (the guy up there) who had found the body on the saddle between Middle and South. He would meet us in the middle by coming to our headlamps. In hindsight we should have asked her about the route but in our state it never occurred to us. We were going to get this guy his stuff. The one thing we did have going for us was that he had a walkie on and so we were able to talk to him during our attempt up. We learned from the walkie that the girl's name was Jillian.
detail of route, you can see on the left the well trod path up the glacier, then you hook right and continue up to the saddle
On my previous trips up the mountain I had simply followed the paths in the talus fields, this time however the glaciers were thick and that wasn't an option.
I felt comfortable in the talus, Trevor wanted to be on the snow. I was half fucked and scared shitless of the ice fields. I was always taught "stay off the glaciers after dark" there is a nasty freeze thaw cycle (90 degrees all day, 40 at night) and there are unseen dangers that you just don't need to deal with.
After getting into some dangerous stuff in the rocks, I relented to Trevor's wishes and we headed to the snow fields. There was a pretty heavy pattern of traffic and it was clear that this was the route up. I was having trouble since I had no gloves on (really poor planning, since I didn't need them last time up this way I hadn't brought any) and the steepness of the snowpack required one hand on the axe and the other touching the face of the glacier. My footwear was also an issue as I didn't have boots but instead hiking shoes, great for everything but this. The lack of proper footwear was compounded by the night temps, during the day you can easily kick steps in the soft snow, but now the snow pack was much harder and nastier.
After some sketchy glacier travel and some heated words that I am embarrassed to say were exchanged between Trevor and I (it was a gnarly high pressure situation, sorry mate), Matt eventually reached us. He was traversing the glacier like it was nothing, he was a man on a mission. He had Jedi'd (no light) the upper snowfields and was now on us. We made painful awkward small talk, and then he says "I've got to go, I've got to go sit with the body." Easily the most hardcore thing I hope I ever hear anyone say. The last words I said to him were "be safe, good luck." After my awkward good luck he paused and looked at me as if to say something but words never came, I'll never forget that moment as long as I live. I felt very silly for wishing him that.
He was then off and trucking across the snow in full composure and in seemingly full command of the situation and himself. It was very very impressive. How do you deal with sitting by your friends body all night on a mountain? He told us it was bad, but that the next few weeks would be much worse.
We made our way back down to our tent and proceeded to continue drinking, neither of us really able to process what had just happened. We had just gotten out of one of the most dangerous situations either of us had ever been in. We were okay. We helped. We didn't know what else to do.
A few hours later the Rangers came through our camp on their way up to Matt, we expected a lecture but they were genuinely happy that we had gotten him food, water, a headlamp, and a jacket. We also realized at this time that him keeping moving likely saved him from becoming a victim too, as it had gotten awfully chilly up there and he had few clothes and was exhausted.
In the morning the choppers flew in and carried out her body at the end of a long line.
Around 11am we ran into a fellow I knew from having lived in Jackson 8 summers back. He told us that a nasty storm was coming in and we had better either hunker down or get the hell off the mountain. He had been up to higher elevations and could see into Idaho and there was a black cloud of nasty heading our way. The forecast called for thunderstorms in Jackson all day.
Trevor and I, not knowing what to do with ourselves but not wanting to leave the mountain decided to stay put.
in the tent cooking during a break in the storms
the mountain covered in cloud
We slept and farted and cooked food in our tent, but something weird was going on. During breaks in the storm choppers were running up and down the mountain and valley. We had seen Jilian's body flown out that morning, so what the hell were they doing?
The storm broke in the early evening and Trevor and I decided that while it felt very weird to turn away (we felt we owed that mountain something) we had had enough and that leaving with our safety was pretty good all in all.
one of the rescue helicopters running during downtimes in the storm
clouds in the meadow
at Petzoldt caves during a lull
on the way down
mountains casting a shadow on the valley
The next day we found out that four parties were on the upper areas of the Grand when the storm hit and that all of the groups had gotten struck by lightning during the storm. One group got hit five times. Choppers pulled 16 of them off with various concussions, bruises, and burns. A 17th man was still missing.
The search was called off at dark and the next day they found the missing man 1000 feet down the cliff from the "belly roll" feature of the Owen Spaulding route.
The rescue's the next day got major national attention, Jillian's death wasn't even mentioned.
I can't begin to even moralize the events that took place, so I'll just leave you with the knowledge that when I finally made it home to B.Ridget there was something extra behind our embrace, on my side of it anyway.
I also want to say thank you to my partner on this trip Treasure Crayton
I learned much from spending this time with you. I am inspired to chill the fuck out and not be such a spaz, to eat better, and to complain less.
A better travel companion I could not hope for.