The Tetons are among America’s most inspiring mountains and, over the years, they’ve exerted a powerful gravitational pull on my group of friends. One by one, we’ve scaled some of the range’s finest routes – but until recently, there was one line that had always eluded us: The entire Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton.
Widely hailed as a classic, the full Exum Ridge traces a clean, bold line up the south flank of the Grand Teton. It has all the ingredients of a great route: a fairly easy approach, good quality rock, and a world-class view of the area around Jackson, Wyoming.
In other words, it is perfect for an old guy like me – perilously close to 60 – whose climbing career has gradually been eclipsed by a mortgage, a marriage, and a family. “The full catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek memorably put it.
Commonly known as the Direct Exum, the complete Exum Ridge is actually two alpine rock climbs stacked on top of one another. The Lower Exum, which starts near the saddle between the Grand and Middle Teton, is much more challenging than the Upper Exum, which begins where the Lower Exum leaves off and follows a relatively easy line to the summit.
A friend and I climbed the Upper Exum 31 years ago, traversing onto the ridge via the Wall Street ledge. The spookiest bit of climbing came at the end of Wall Street, where the ledge narrowed and we had to shuffle around an awkward bulge with dizzying exposure beneath our feet.
From there, we scampered up the Upper Exum and arrived at the summit of the Grand Teton – 13,770 feet – without much difficulty. It was a pretty easy day as Alpine rock climbing goes, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what lay below Wall Street, on the Lower Exum ridge.
For the next 10 or 12 years, my pals and I made sporadic visits to the Tetons. Along the way, we climbed some of the range’s other classics: the Direct South Buttress of Mount Moran, and later, the North Ridge of the Grand Teton.
Another 15 years went passing by and I began to wonder if I’d ever get back to the Tetons. A friend and I finally returned in 2011, with our sights firmly on the Direct Exum, but the weather was foul and we backed off without truly coming to grips with the route.
Then, earlier this summer, I organized a trip down the Selway River with several childhood friends. Among them was Eric Sawyer, with whom I did a lot of climbing when we were in high school. I hadn’t seen him in 40 years and, sitting around camp one evening, beers in hand, we got to talking about the Tetons.
Eric had worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School for 23 years but, it turned out, he’d never climbed the Grand Teton. He took the bait, and I set the hook.
Though I’m a year older than Eric, he was always a better, bolder climber than me. All those years with NOLS couldn’t have hurt, so I figured we’d make a good team again. As I pictured it, Eric would do most of the lead climbing – which is the nervy, dangerous part – and I would follow him on a rope secured from above.
So we arranged a late August rendezvous in Grand Teton National Park. After meeting up, we sorted through our food and gear, making tough decisions about what to bring and what to leave behind. Finally, there was nothing left to do but shoulder our packs and begin a sweaty trudge into the high country.
The air got thinner and the trail got tougher as we hiked up from the valley floor, at an elevation of 6,668 feet. After five miles and an elevation gain of 2,600 vertical feet (translation: A short, but stout hike for an old guy with a big pack), we finally arrived in an area of Garnet Canyon known as the Meadows.
We dropped our packs, slung up a tent, and stashed our food before plodding another 2,000 vertical feet up the trail. The idea was to climb high that day – to acclimate ourselves to the altitude – and then sleep down at the Meadows, where the air was thicker and more succoring.
In a further attempt to speed acclimation, I was already taking a prescription medication known as Diamox, which re-balances the oxygen-carbon dioxide levels in blood. I’d taken it years before, on an expedition in Nepal, and it seemed to help.
After hiking to an elevation of nearly 11,500 feet, we finally turned around and returned to camp, ate a hearty dinner, and set our alarms for 3:30 a.m.
The night sky was speckled with stars when we arose and began to make breakfast. Though it was the wee hours, there was no shortage of human activity in Garnet Canyon. Another party, camped nearby, was already up and banging around in the food storage bin next to our tent. In the darkness above us, climbers wearing headlamps trudged up the trail like so many glowworms.
Up there, the word “trail” is a loosely-defined term. Though obvious in places, there are long stretches of jumbled, refrigerator-sized rocks and the concept of a trail is, well, little more than a concept. Most of the stones are stable, but some aren’t, so a single misstep could result in a slip, a fall, and a broken bone.
Step, after step, after step, up an increasingly steep “trail.”
The wind – never still – gusted harder as we approached the saddle between the Grand and the Middle Teton. Behind us, a smoky orange dawn began to smear itself across the eastern sky.
At an elevation of 11,600 feet, the saddle is a raw, elemental place where the wind howls like it’s coming from another planet. It’s a pretty inhospitable spot, but Exum Mountain Guides maintains a large hut there. Independent climbers also camp on the saddle, huddling their tents in the lee of large boulders and lashing them to other stones, lest they blow away.
Eric and I followed the saddle north, toward the looming bulk of the Grand Teton, then looked east to pick out the landmarks of the Exum Ridge. Sure enough, there was the Black Dike and the Chockstone Chimney.
We picked our way over to the Black Dike, then ascended a steep, shattered ramp to reach the Chockstone Chimney – where most climbers rope up. We were on the west side of the ridge, but the sun was still on the east side, so our stance was in shade. As if on cue, the wind began to howl like a tortured animal.
After more than a week of blue skies and warm temperatures, the weather was clearly beginning to turn. Clouds were scudding in from the west and the lack of sun, coupled with the wind, made for a diabolically cold summer day.
Eric organized his rack of climbing equipment – slings, carabiners, cams and nuts – then tied into the rope and intoned the same liturgy we used back in the mid-1970s.
“On belay,” I answered.
“Climbing,” he said.
“Climb away,” I responded.
With that, he began worming his way up the chimney, passing outside of one chockstone and inside the other.
We climbed five or six pitches that day, and to be honest, they all ran together in my mind’s eye. There were belay stances on spacious pedestals, and there were stances in cramped, cold alcoves. The wind was a constant companion, while the sun was little more than a tease.
Our focus was on caution, so the pace was slow, as befit a couple of rusty climbers in their late 50s. The technical difficulty was rated at a mere 5.7 but, with stiff joints and a cumbersome daypack, it felt like the hardest 5.7 I’d ever done.
The Lower Exum’s most famous pitch, known as the Black Face – steep and exposed, but laced with good holds – came and went. Shortly afterward, I pulled onto a wide ledge where Eric had fixed a belay stance in relative comfort.
It took a moment, but it dawned on me that I’d been there before. Sure enough, we were at the business end of the Wall Street ledge – a spot I’d last visited in 1986.
I peeked around the corner and, yes, the angle eased off sharply. Just as I remembered it, the Upper Exum looked like a piece of cake.
Eric looked at his watch. The hour was getting late, and the weather was worsening.
The Lower Exum was our primary goal but, like all climbers, we still harbored hopes of reaching the summit. Eric looked at his watch again, then shot a glance down, into the descent gully.
It was time to go, so we began to descend.
Maybe we’ll be back.
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