I’ll never forget when Alex turned to me with tears in her eyes after getting off the phone with Brenton of Exum Guides. We were actually going to climb The Grand Teton. Mixed with her excitement to climb one of the world’s most iconic peaks was the happiness that comes from a stranger recognizing and validating the beauty of her work. When we first hit the road at the end of June, we were prepared for certain peaks to be just out of our reach. We had our sights set on the Grant Teton, but were willing to be flexible. We knew we needed a guide to be able to safely climb the few multi-pitch sections on the 13,775 foot peak, so we started to reach out.
While we were in Washington, the marketing manager for Exum Mountain Guides noticed our project and saw something special. Brenton hopped on a call with Alex, telling her how the video she created from our climb of Mt. Shasta (watch here) gave him a glimpse of the authenticity of our pursuits and project. We set up a collaboration with Exum, and nailed down our dates for the dead middle of August. We had so much to look forward to, which led our unsuccessful climb in Montana to roll off our backs. We wanted to be healthy for The Grand Teton.
We spent one (admittedly stressful) day in Yellowstone National Park trying to see all that we could on our journey between southern Montana and Jackson Hole. Exploring the kookiest and most diverse landscape either of us had ever seen, we traveled from bubbling rainbow hot springs to geysers shooting out of the earth like a fire hydrant explosion. The park was packed, and as we tried to visit every site we quickly grew exhausted and decided to head out in the early afternoon. Driving out of Yellowstone’s southern entrance, the crowds instantly thinned and the Teton Range began to fill our vision. Though both of us had seen countless photos of videos of the iconic range, nothing could have prepared us for the stunning beauty of this young mountain range. We drove through the park for the first time, heading straight towards Exum’s office. We acquainted ourselves with the company we would be spending the next week with, and headed straight to a campsite to rest for our first day of training the very next morning.
We met back at the Exum office bright and early to meet Jessica Baker, Exum Lead Guide and our teacher for the next few days. There were a few difficulties on our first day of training (mostly faced by me). It was my first time climbing outdoors, and I think Jessica may have overestimated my ability. Though I got stuck on a couple of moves, I was eventually able to make it up and over each one, though I know Alex and Jessica were waiting for me at the top wondering what the hell was going on. It was a bit of a rocky start, but we still had one more day.
On our second day, we had planned to practice a couple of rappels and then climb a fairly easy multi-pitch section to get the hang of the type of climbing we would see on the Grand. The climbing went very smoothly, and the three of us quickly made it up each pitch and worked to shorten our transition times for our one-day summit attempt. Confident as a team, after our multi-pitch practice we went to a boulder field to finish out with a couple problems. Alex and I watched Jessica get to the top of one high-ball boulder, and she told us we could try it as well. However, once up past a certain point, it would be too dangerous to climb down, so if you made it up the first few moves you had to send. This helped us practice our confidence and performing in a high-stress environment, and both of us eventually made it to the top of both problems. With plenty of time to eat, rest, and prepare for our climb the next day, we parted ways with plans to be at the trailhead way before dawn.
With maybe five hours of sleep between the two of us, we quietly packed our tent and drove to the Jenny Lake trailhead. Energized by caffeine and Lizzo, we hit the trail with Jessica sometime around 3 am. Those first few hours in the dark melted away, as they always do, with conversations ranging from athletic histories to how we discovered our unique strengths. For some reason, those pre-dawn hours lend themselves to vulnerability under the starry sky, as the mountains gather our stories on our ascent. On our first few water stops, we took an opportunity to film a few responses to the types of questions we ponder as we make our way up these massive peaks.
As the sky began to lighten and the jagged, ominous rock formations we were approaching made themselves visible, our conversations trailed off as focus set in. A new day in the mountains was beginning, and the sunrise signaled the start of our one-day attempt of one of North America’s most iconic peaks. Seven miles and 5,000 feet from the trailhead, we reached The Saddle and Exum’s overnight alpine hut.
After a brief break at the hut to layer up, refuel, and step into our harnesses we were off to attempt something neither of us dreamed we would get to do in our lifetimes. After a bit of quick, challenging, and high elevation scrambling, it was time to put those two days of training to the test. We roped up for the multi-pitch section, shivering in the freezing temperatures. As a team, the three of us moved up and around class 5.4-5.6 climbing on the Owen-Spalding Route, while dodging a few icy sections as well. Even though Alex struggled with nausea from the cold and I relied on audible grunts to get up one of the pitches, we seamlessly moved up The Grand Teton together. In the last final moments of climbing, Jessica led the two of us up and over the final boulder. We were cold, exhausted, hungry, and nervous for the climb down – but that summit was special.
Attempting to climb the Grand in one day is an ambitious endeavor, one which requires physical strength and the mental ability to push through a long ass day without many breaks. When we reached the summit, Jessica told us to enjoy about 20 minutes on the top before beginning the descent. One hour later, we finally strapped our harnesses back on and started the down climb. It wasn’t that we were intentionally disobeying our trusted guide, but the three of us were soaking in the fact that we had the summit all to ourselves on that early August afternoon. We ate, laughed, called our loved ones, and danced together before we were ready to leave that moment. We took the time to ask Jessica how she is able to explain returning to the same spectacular place dozens of times every summer.
“Maybe nature doesn’t change that much, but instead it’s us. Maybe we open our eyes to new things, and are better able to see all that’s around us.”Jessica Baker, Exum Lead Guide
We didn’t care one bit that we were beginning our descent well into the afternoon – every extra second on that summit was worth it. After one rappel and a bit of tricky down climbing, we reached The Saddle again and were met with a group of climbers waiting to summit the next day. We spent a bit of time chatting, stashing our gear for the next climbers, with one section to go. Though it was already late in the day and we had real food and endless hours of sleep on our minds, we took the time to sit down for one last interview in Lupine Meadows. The entire day, we were discussing and musing over exactly how gender dictates our experiences in the outdoor community. Gathering and recording Jessica’s thoughts on this subject was worth every minute of daylight we lost on our last bit of descent.
“If you believe in something and feel strongly about it, don’t let go of it just because someone else told you that you can’t. We are usually more capable that we think, and people will try to knock you down all the time. You have to just listen to your inner voice.”Jessica Baker
After a few more miles of speed hiking in an attempt to get to our cars before we had to turn on our headlamps, we collapsed at the trail head. We had done it in one day, a climb neither one of us thought we would pull off. We had both started and ended the trail in the dark, making those hours of light feel as if they only existed in the magical and elusive world of the Teton Range. Brenton later told us that we had experienced the “one day Grand Teton vortex,” which explains the time-warping power of this climb.
“The one day Grand Teton vortex… Well first, you don’t get a lot of sleep. You start when it’s dark, and you’re fairly high up when first light comes. It’s gorgeous, and you’re just in a bit of a different mental state, as if you’re floating through the whole day. It takes a lot to make it happen, and a lot to get yourself back down. But, I think it helps rewire you to be a little bit better when you get back.”Brenton Reagan
Forever changed, the two of us pitched our tent and slept for 12 hours straight as scenes from the day floated through our minds. Over the next few days in Jackson and Grand Teton National Park, we had the fortune of reminiscing and processing our experience. We interviewed many of the females who work at Exum Mountain Guides, in our project to capture what it means to be a woman of the Tetons. Having the opportunity to not only climb the Grand Teton but also share stories and lessons learned from the mountains with these inspiring women made for arguably the highlight of our summer. Take it from Cindy, co-owner of Exum Mountain Guides, to share how special of a place Jackson Hole is.
“We’re so lucky to be right here. There really isn’t a better place in the country, as far as we’re concerned.”Cindy Harvis
The two of us might just have to agree with that statement.
Alex and I are currently working to piece together all the stories, memories, and interviews we gathered while we were in Wyoming! In the coming weeks, expect to see absolutely everything you wanted to know about climbing the Grand Teton, being a strong female presence in the mountains of Wyoming, and living under one of North America’s most iconic peaks.
** special thanks to Arc’teryx for gearing us up for our climb of The Grand! Their warm, lightweight layers were an absolute must as the temperatures dropped and winds picked up in the harsh alpine environment.