With more internet information available on this route than any man or woman could ever need, this story will instead focus on my emotional and spiritual experience during my first Grand Teton summit. In 2018, I had absolutely no climbing experience and relatively little alpine experience. As such, the “easiest” GT route that is considered “tame” and “standard” by many accounts was a little more provocative for me. My hope with this article is to provide context for aspiring, less experienced climbers on a route that is often dubbed as routine amongst the climbing community. Three years down the line, as a climber and seasoned ski mountaineer, the “OS” feels quite benign – but for the newly indoctrinated or entirely virgin Teton traveler the Owen-Spalding can feel quite heady, wild and extreme – it certainly did for me. If you are a first time Grand Teton candidate, perhaps this article can better prepare your realistic expectations – and for those of you non-climbers, I hope you can enjoy the story as well!
When I originally plotted to climb the Grand Teton, I had absolutely no intention of doing it alone. My good friend and primary partner at the time, John Walker, suggested we “solo” it together – “solo” meaning to climb without ropes or any form of protection. 2018 was more or less my first serious season of exploring the Teton alpine. I had barely cut my teeth on entry level ski mountaineering descents across the range. I was nothing of a climber. In the summer I was exclusively a trail runner, relatively fit but certainly no Killian Jornet or Ueli Steck. Basically I had ambitions high as the sky, enough fitness to stir up trouble but far too little experience to guarantee anything remotely close to safety, let alone navigate one of North America’s most iconic mountaineering adventures unattended. That said, I knew of plenty “non-climbers” that had scaled the beast – and watching the silhouette of the Grand grace the sunrise each morning was plenty influential alone. Nearly a century ago, English mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he was interested in climbing Mount Everest: “Because it is there.” I believe the same logic holds true for the Grand. Try sipping a cup of coffee and watching the 13,775 foot tower of jagged granite materialize from darkness, then try not to imagine sitting on the top.
The Owen-Spalding is the most common route to the summit of the Teton’s tallest peak, and is widely considered the easiest. With a 5.4 rating, the OS sees many rope-less ascents. For those of you non-climbers, 5.4 (in the alpine) roughly translates to easy “entry level” technical rock climbing with severe and potentially fatal consequences for error. Two short “pitches” of highly exposed but relatively modest climbing stud what is otherwise a straightforward fourth class (exposed but non-technical) scramble to the summit of one of North America’s most iconic peaks. However, the two “pitches” should not be taken for granted. Though highly intuitive for even the non-climber, two thousand feet of free falling air and a bone shattering explosion below threaten even the slightest misstep. Imagine playing on the McDonald’s jungle gym, or fooling around on your giant backyard oak tree – but would you still swing from branch to branch, monkey bar to monkey bar, if you were thousands of feet off the deck? I like this analogy for the Owen-Spalding, because if it weren’t for the exposure, anyone moderately athletic would be able to scale the thing – but the mind melting free-fall haunting the hanging west face provides a thorough mental scrambling for the unprepared. Could you step across a gap in a sidewalk if it were a mile in the sky?
Take One – The Prequel
My first attempt at the “OS” was with John, a few weeks before I would go at the beast alone. We packed light and traveled fast, a modest jog on all but the steepest sections. We were racing a storm, really never a good idea in the Tetons, where localized weather regularly defies even the finest forecasting. To cut a long story short, approaching the Owen-Spalding requires a grueling 7,000 feet of hiking and eventually scrambling over loose talus. Getting to the lower saddle separating the Grand and Middle Tetons is intuitive, but reaching the upper saddle between the Enclosure (13,285 feet) and the Grand’s west face is less so. John and I picked our way through the maze of boulders, scree and talus, slowly winding high into a darkening sky. By the time we reached the upper saddle, winds were starting to pick up. In a hurry we jetted out onto the first pitch of the OS, an ultra-exposed ledge traverse into hanging space. As a several time summitter of the Grand, John led us safely and efficiently through the famous Belly Roll and Crawl sections, and up the short slab guarding the Double Chimney. By this point, my blood pressure was well out the roof. I had already broken the cardinal rule of climbing without a rope: don’t climb up what you can’t climb down. Without telling him, I had placed my whole life in John’s hands. His encouraging words for the past few weeks made me believe I had what it took, but staring into the vast abyss below, imagining slipping a foothold and plummeting to an ultimate fate of human mashed potatoes rattled my core. At the same time, I was calm. I had gotten myself out of worse, and with John I felt safe, even if there was no tangible reason why. By this point, the clouds had darkened substantially and a significant breeze picked up. Perched deep in the Double Chimney at 13,300 feet on the tallest peak of the Teton Range, I watched as a demonic energy engulfed the peaks around. We shouldn’t be here. The mountain doesn’t want us here. It’s time to go home.
I shuddered, looking back at the Grand Teton from the lower saddle now engulfed by driving rain and snow. So much for a 30% chance of thunderstorms… and snow in August? We escaped the route quickly before the rock could get too wet, joining two other “soloists” returning from a successful jaunt up the equally famous and slightly more difficult “Upper Exum” route, which commonly uses the Owen-Spalding to descend. As a group of four we spotted each other down the crux slab below the Double Chimney, shared a round of high fives and dissipated as quickly as we’d met. I never heard any thunder. Slicked to the bone with little more than flimsy rain jackets we slipped over the boulders with care, eventually gaining dirt trail and later, the car. Not quite the crowning jewel I was hoping for, but certainly a valuable learning experience and perception shifter. Even if I didn’t make it up this year, I had an idea of what I was up against.
Over the weeks to come I pestered John about a second attempt, and although he encouraged me to go at it alone, I couldn’t bring myself to try. I had 98% of the route in the bag, but the Catwalk and Sargent’s Chimney remained a mystery. A few weeks later we settled on a second date. September is about as late as you can push summer alpine agendas in the Tetons, and there was only one sunny day left before the first winter storm rolled through town. Once adorned in white, the Grand would be off limits until next June. I wasn’t enthralled with racing more snowflakes to the top of the Grand, but at some point you play with the cards you’re dealt – or you fold, and I wasn’t interested in that.
Take Two – Alone On The Wall
I slept poorly the night before, awaking to a text from John at 3:00AM. He wasn’t able to fall asleep and didn’t feel fit to roll out of bed in a few hours, especially to tackle another mentally demanding weather racing adventure on the Grand Teton. Once again, he encouraged me to go at it alone. “You’ve got what it takes.” I shrugged it off, turned off my 4:30 alarm and shut my eyes. Next season, I thought.
I awoke naturally shortly after six, not even thinking about the Grand. I made my oatmeal and coffee, sitting down for the typical lazy Sunday routine. As the sun rose and the first views of the mountains came into sight from my backyard in Teton Valley, the pinpoint summit, standing tall above all around, called down to me – the west face lurking as the highest feature in the sky, obscured by the shadows of dawn. I sat there for a few moments. I imagined the Belly Roll, the Crawl, the Double Chimney slab and the exposure. I felt the air beneath my feet and the cold hard truth that in a matter of hours, the Grand Teton would enter hibernation. I played the tape through, imagining another windy escape if luck turned foul. The age old “you never know until go” rang through my head, and if I’d already done it once, I was sure I could do it again. My bag was already packed, all I needed was a second cup of coffee.
By 9:00AM I was jogging determinedly through the lowlands of Grand Teton National Park, en’ route to Garnet Canyon and the meadows. A faint breeze whistled through the trees, whispering faint warnings of summer’s departure. The air was chilly, colder than I was expecting for September. In my running vest I had a medical kit, a bag of brown rice mixed with raisins and coconut oil, some home-made glazed cashews, gloves and a light rain jacket. Otherwise, I traveled in running shorts and a t-shirt, with a puny twelve ounce collapsible water bottle to refill at the many springs, seeps and streams. I made great time to the flanks of the Grand, clocking under an hour to the “meadows.” The wind was picking up, but this time felt different. The clouds above seemed thin, warning clouds instead of thunderboomers and snow-bringers. I wound past the lower saddle to the upper, standing face to face with the Belly Roll in well-under two hours. I was proud of myself, light, fit and moving quickly. Just as I sat down to get some fuel, a man and his daughter emerged from the Owen-Spalding fully laden in climbing equipment. It was clear they hadn’t summitted. “It’s fucking windy up there, we didn’t want to get blown off the top” he said, looking at me with a questioning eye, as if saying “where’s your rope, partner and climbing shoes?” An air of disapproval stretched across his face. “We wanted to enjoy the climb, not fight for our lives. You’re not going to make it.” I smiled. As much as I respected his opinion, I also suspected his bursting 60L pack, extra “beer weight” and loaded harness dripping in steel climbing protection could have been affecting his perception of the wind. “I’m just going to check it out” I said, “you guys take care.”
He was right and he was wrong. The wind was a doozie, but with little more than two pounds of gear I was light and aerodynamic, feeling unburdened on the rock. I moved over the Belly Roll with care, then the Crawl where the most secure move is to squeeze your entire body headfirst beneath a small two foot overhang, with your left arm and leg dangling off into space. The move looks and feels outrageous, but in reality your body is pretty securely locked into the mountain. I moved into the Double Chimney and pulled over the top with some pretty exposed but very secure stemming moves, bypassing John and I’s high-point. To this moment I hadn’t noticed John’s absence, but as I forged higher I became acutely aware that I was the only person on the Grand Teton that cold September morning. The OS is typically the most crowded route in the park. During peak season, you could see as many as 50-100 climbers on the line, sharing belay and rappel stations, taking hours to ascend. Alone on the wall, I had a dooming feeling that I was late to the party, but an equally empowering and wild feeling knowing there was nobody above or below to save me. I was the master of my destiny. Alone on the Grand Teton, I was free.
The climbing on the OS ebbs and flows through varying degrees of technicality, but generally the immediate exposure lessens the higher you climb. I skipped across the Catwalk, a tilted sidewalk in the sky, and moved into Sargent’s Chimney, the final technical portion. The chimney forks in two, but as I clambered around the beginnings of both I came to a stand-still. I was confident that I could ascend the fifth class terrain. The movement looked intuitive, mostly pulling on large blocks and jugs with many good steps for footholds – a bit of stemming sprinkled in. My fear was reversing the moves without a spotter. Not that a spotter could necessarily prevent you from plummetting, but they can point out hand and foot holds you might be missing, and just provide general encouragement – artificial comfort is still comfort to some degree. “Don’t climb up what you can’t climb down” rang through my virgin head with a damning echo. I slowly rehearsed the moves. I reached higher into the sky, further off solid mountain below, stretching into the realms of “fall and die” terrain. I imagined doing each move feet-first, hands-second, moving downward. I felt the tips of my toes leave the earth and touched them back down again. I explored the solid handholds. Even though my ass poked out into a mile of thin mountain air with nothing but sloping, slick and unforgiving granite panels ready to rag-doll my falling body into the next life, I felt sharp and bulletproof, confident and strong. Eventually I pulled over the lip of Sargent’s Chimney onto the summit crest of the Grand Teton.
The views were tremendous. Mount Moran loomed far to the north, Jackson, Jenny, Bradley and Taggart lakes far below, sleepy Teton Valley to the west and Jackson Hole to the east, 360 degree views as far as the clouds would allow. The entire majestic Teton Range sprawled beneath me like marbles scattered on the floor. I could have sat up there for hours if it weren’t for the sinister clouds swarming like hornets, inching closer with every second. As I took pictures the air temperature dropped. Mount Moran faded into a sea of gray. A snowflake landed on my arm, and before I knew it, blackness descended upon the Tetons like an early sunset. If I didn’t want to spend the winter of 2019 at 13,775 feet, I’d best be on my way.
The storm unleashed quickly as I hustled my way back to Sargent’s. Hail whistled from the sky and a few snowflakes gathered in the cracks of the rocks. They say pressure makes diamonds, and I believe it – because when I turned around to down-climb the gnarliest section of rock I’d ever scaled, rope-less and unprotected, alone on the Grand Teton in a mounting snow storm, I hardly thought twice. I was back on the greasy Catwalk before I knew it, walking on all fours to protect a slip. The Double Chimney went easier than Sargent’s. I squeezed down towards the traverse like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. All was going well until I saw the slab. I huddled in the chimney to compose myself as piercingly cold rain began to drizzle from the sky. I was not happy, but knew better than to wait along and pout. I was either going down or – going down. I grasped firmly on secure handholds and gradually draped my feet over the edge, connecting the toes of my shoes with the decent textured footholds. With meticulous precision I worked my hands to the right and smeared my feet lower, eventually reaching my 6’4” frame as low as I could to the one foot ledge below. Touchdown. Only the Crawl and Belly Roll remained, and just as the storm began to really gain momentum, I latching my freezing hands to the back of that ginormous Easter egg Belly Roll and flung my legs around, connecting with terra-firma on the upper saddle and shrinking into an overhanging cave to escape the rain.
Beneath blue skies I jogged down the dry Garnet Canyon trail – not raindrop in sight – pretty typical fare in the Tetons, where storms often halo at 12,000 feet and above, only over the highest peaks. Unfortunately I didn’t quite escape unscathed, as a pretty bad ankle sprain just minutes from the car slammed my face into the cold hard dirt and my fist into a bag of Advil. But I could walk, at least enough to pick up some Thai Food and slip into my bed. All things said, soloing the Owen-Spalding provided just about everything I desire in a great mountain adventure. Personally I love routes that challenge, routes that aren’t necessarily “in the bag” – not to be confused with dangerous. While an element of danger is always inherent when pushing your limits in the alpine, this is not what I necessarily seek. Instead, the Owen-Spalding provided a controlled form of outlandish adventure, where the climbing was well below my limit and the challenge existed almost entirely in my head. To top off the sundae, there is something so outrageously energizing about being connected to this world by only your two hands and the tips of your toes, as the wind whistles all around and thousands of feet of air splay out far beneath the soles of your shoes. People often talk about meditation, but the degree to which a human mind is centered when their entire life hangs in the balance of their next muscle movement is something I doubt even the Buddha could fathom. But before anyone shouts the obvious, the words above only stand for moments of full control. To be scared or unsure of yourself, rope-less on an unforgiving mountain face, is something I would never wish on myself or my worst enemy, hence my meticulous emphasis on calculating and analyzing every single last step. To be clear, I do not encourage free-soloing. No matter the modality, any adventure on the Grand Teton is a sacred and special experience, roped, rope-less or otherwise. Since this post, I have experienced and equally enjoyed all of the above.
Sources and Valuable Resources:
- WYOMING WHISKEY – America’s Favorite Guide to Free-Soloing the Grand Teton’s Upper Exum & Owen-Spalding Routes (http://wyomingwhiskey.blogspot.com/p/the-grand-tetons-owen-spalding-route.html)
- Jenny Lake Climber’s Ranger Blog (http://tetonclimbing.blogspot.com/)
- Teton Rock Climbs (book), Aaron Gams, 2012 (https://www.rockandsnow.com/61614/Teton-Rock-Climbs/?gclid=CjwKCAjwlYCHBhAQEiwA4K21m3-YJRQntVrrmw8XNwoECr93eXDlnvyXu-JHnhjTwT1ARyW6M_tSRRoCSsUQAvD_BwE)
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This article is written about free-soloing, the art of climbing without a rope. I do NOT encourage this activity. However, free-soloing is an inevitable part of mountaineering and a common way of travel on the Owen-Spalding in particular. For these reasons, I share my experience to help provide prospective to the next “OS” soloist. Any information presented in this article is for informational purposes only. If you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk.