The climbing plan was a classic: summit the Grand Teton via the Owen Spalding route, a meandering trek to the top of Wyoming’s most famous peak that was first established in 1898. But the forecast for our shoulder season trip was unreliable; heavy with smoke from the fires burning across the West one day, rainy the next. I.e. about as trustworthy as the ropework of one of the Stetson and snip tip boot-wearing tourists at Jackson's Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.
Would it go? Maybe.
First we had to get up to the base of the nearly 14,000-foot peak. Kitted out by Mountain Hardwear, we set off with the Jackson Hole Mountain Guides in mid-September for their last summit attempt of the year before packing up base camp for winter. The initial hike was lovely as far as getting your ass kicked goes: the approach switchbacked through 5,000 feet of elevation gain over six miles of Grand Teton National Park’s early fall foliage.
After filling our bottles from an alpine spring, we made it to the JHMG camp, a craggy playground of multi-pitch routes and stunning views of the Middle Teton glacier and the valley far below. To adjust to the altitude we split up for an afternoon of sunny climbing according to everyone’s comfort: a 5.8 splitter here, a scramble there, a 5.11a line for the more adventurous.
Over dinner, we agreed to a 4 a.m. wake-up call the next morning to maximize our chances of a successful summit. A storm was moving and we would need to hustle.
Setting off in the dark, we navigated the scree with headlamps as we worked toward the lower saddle connecting the Middle and Grand Teton peaks. Dawn came, and we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the valley below—and a reminder of the surrounding exposure—no wrong steps here.
Just after the sun came up, it started to snow. The dusting made the Middle Teton below us look like a National Park postcard, but it also made the rock below our feet quite slick. Boots slipped and doubtful glances ricocheted from face to face, but at least Mountain Hardwear’s soon-to-be-released Dawnlight shell jackets kept us bone dry.
After a few more short-rope scrambles, at around 8 a.m. we made it to the upper saddle and the final pause before taking on the three technical pitches that would take us to the top of the second-highest peak in Wyoming.
But even at this early hour and only a few hundred feet short of the summit, the snow had made it too dangerous to continue. Our guides made the call—the Grand would have to wait. Instead, we would continue on a peak known as the Enclosure for our best chance of a consolation prize. The news stung for a moment, but knowing the 2,000 vertical feet of gain in 1.5 miles that we'd already endured that morning wouldn't be for nothing soothed the pain. So on we went.
After about 100 feet of the slipperiest all-fours scrambling of my life, we made it to the top of the Enclosure. Up at 13,248 feet, it’s natural to look down to soak in the lesser Tetons and the wispy glaciers below. But the real gem of the trip remains right below your mountaineering boot.
"The snow had canceled our original plans, but it also drew us toward something more powerful."
Atop the the Enclosure, the peak features a platform of heavy schist slabs that jut into the air like a crown; experts believe that the Crow people likely built the structure as a fasting bed for a ritual to connect with a guardian spirit.
The snow had canceled our original plans, but it also drew us toward something more powerful. The air at the summit felt charged with electricity. As we soaked in the view and breathed in the thin air, the storm gave way for our minute at the top.
Later, during the cold afternoon's grueling downclimb to base camp and the long and rainy trek back to Lupine Meadows the following day, I thought back to our quiet moments in that grand place. Pushing through bad conditions can be a lot of fun—the type-two stuff that makes you sleep like a rock and remember why you shell out for the good gear. But flexibility in planning and knowing when to adjust expectations might be the most valuable high-country skill of all, and one that leads to unexpected rewards.