Grand Teton, August 18, 2014

My love for the Tetons began when I was a student at Ricks College.  I got my introduction to this mountain range skiing at Grand Targhee, and hiking Table Rock and around Jenny Lake.  I even took a mountaineering class and back-country ski class that took me into these mountains several times, the highlight of which was climbing the Middle Teton.

Here’s a Middle Teton summit shot from that trip with the Grand Teton in the background.  (The route we would use to gain the summit 13 years later follows the main ridge separating the light from the dark sides of the mountain).

middle teton summit

Towards the end of my mountaineering class a couple other classmates and I planned a trip to climb the Grand Teton, but the morning of our hike a snow storm blew in and shut the door on any realistic chance of a successful summit attempt that year.  Ever since, I’ve been intrigued with the idea of giving it another shot.

“Why” you may ask?  Well, I’ll tell you- The Grand Teton is a huge mountain, it’s spectacular, and… scary.  It rises 7,000 feet above the valley floor below with steep granite faces and jagged ridges and spires, without foothills to hide its beauty.  The Grand Teton dominates the other peaks in the range and intimidates with a long approach, tons of elevation gain, and huge exposure- no matter what climbing route you take.  It’s a different type of peak than the walk-ups and scrambles I had done in the past.  It would be more technically challenging, and if successful, would be the highest peak I’d ever climbed.

For the past several years after our annual Johnson reunion in Alpine, Wyoming, I would make Desiree drive up to Jackson Hole with me so I could stare at the Tetons.  Last year, it kind of hit me that the Grand Teton had been on my list too long and I needed to go for it.  I was 35 and feeling my age a little, and I realized it wasn’t going to get any easier to wait.  After all- hesitation is devastation.  I wasn’t even sure who I could recruit to do it with me, but I told Desiree I felt like I needed to give it a try.  Her response was, “I’ll do it with you”,  followed by, “especially if it means we don’t have to come look at it every year”.

Excited, I started sorting through the details.  This mountain had my full attention and respect, but no peak is worth dying for, so I began looking into hiring a professional guide to take us up safely.  I quickly found out hiring a guide, while probably well worth the money, isn’t cheap.  And it was hard for me to justify paying that much just to try something this crazy.  I started to wonder if we could make it safely on our own up one of the “easier” routes.

Grand Teton, August 18, 2014

I found out that one of my cousins, Andy, had climbed the Grand Teton before.  It was last September when I sent him a message that I was going to plan a trip with Desiree for this year and asked him a few questions about what he remembered about the climb.  At the end of his reply he said, “I want to go with y’all!”  Needless to say, Desiree and I took him up on his offer, and as soon as we found out he was willing to go with us, we both felt way more at ease about the idea.  I felt confident that the climbing team we had just assembled would give us a strong chance to pull it off.

I spent the whole year preparing- reading books, studying route photos, blogs and videos, talking to people who had done it, acquiring the gear we would need and practicing using it with Desiree rock climbing at local crags.  We even spent a few FHE’s going over knots and techniques.  Starting in the Spring, I started training to get in better shape for the attempt- running, biking, hiking, and working out at home, and even shed 10 pounds in the process.

After looking at all the options, we decided to do the climb car-to-car in one day.  We realized it was a long haul, but we could pack light and go quick.  We settled on doing a loop- ascending the Upper Exum route which climbs the prominent south ridge, and descend the Owen-Spalding route.  As we got closer, the weather report was looking dicey for the day we had planned our attempt, so we opted to wait a few days for a better window of opportunity.

We dropped off Asher with my mom, who graciously and happily agreed to watch him for us while we were away, and made sure we knew she expected us to be safe (she didn’t want to raise him).  We splurged on a nice hotel room at Teton Village the night before to relax and rest up before the big day.  (And just in case we were to die the next day- at least we had one last day of luxury-right?).  Andy met up with us there to finalize plans.

We went to bed around 8pm, but none of us could sleep.  Then our alarms sounded at 2am- it was time to go.  We packed and drove to the trailhead where we started hiking right at 3am.  We made it to the lower saddle around 7:30am, to the summit at 1:30pm, and back down to the car at 9pm- 18 hours round trip!  Even though it took longer than any of us had anticipated, the conditions were good and I felt confident the whole time we would make it, and even felt remarkably well all the way back to the car despite the time and distance covered.

Desiree had her fingers swell up with Reynaud’s syndrome just above the lower saddle on the way up where it got windy and cold, but recovered quickly with my extra jacket and some hand-warmers.  I felt a little light-headed and exhausted leading up to the lower saddle, but caught my second wind after chugging a couple Advil.  Andy fearlessly lead-climbed almost the entire roped-up section of the ridge.  We were able to simul-climb most of it, with Andy placing anchors for running belays as needed.  We kept Desiree roped up in between us, with me cleaning the route.  Desiree and I had climbed harder-rated rock climbs in preparation, but the airy exposure and elevation of the climb made for a very exhilarating experience.  The quality of rock on the Exum ridge was fantastic!

Because of all the time I had spent studying the route, I was able to quickly recognize features and route-find easily, and my confidence grew as I checked off the various pitches and obstacles along the classic mountaineering route to the top.   I hope I never forget the feeling of  sitting at the summit looking down at the beautiful world below me, letting it all just sink in, really absorbing the realization of where I was at that moment, the elation, and feeling so grateful that Desiree and Andy would do it with me, and that we all had made it safely and successfully to the top.  On the way down, in between down climbing, we rappelled the Sargent’s chimney and used the bolted double-rope rappel to the upper saddle.

I kind of figured, leading up to this trip, and still believe since returning, that I will look back on this trip as the greatest mountaineering adventure of my life.  I don’t plan on doing anything bigger or harder than this one, and right now don’t want to hike up a mountain that’s higher in elevation.  I want this one to remain the “peak” of my mountaineering experiences.

Here’s a video I put together from the footage of our trip to remember the climb:


2 Replies to Grand Teton, August 18, 2014

  1. Ben Johnson says:

    Sounds like an amazing trip. One to talk about for a long time. They say the fun is in three parts – planning, experiencing, and reminiscing. Do you have any travel bucket list items? It’d be fun to do a trip together.

  2. Darla Bushman says:

    Wow! Wow!! Wow!!! That was thrilling!! Amazing! Thanks for sharing the story and pictures and video!
    It was fantastic to “be up there” with you for a few minutes. So glad you got to achieve that goal, Kurt and that Desiree could accompany you! Wow it was beautiful!

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