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Sunlit Summit

 A Grand Day in the Land of Oz

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Dorothy)

The Grand over the Chapel of the Transfiguration

When my climbing partner and I decided to attempt the Grand Teton in a day (as we didn’t plan far enough in advance to secure a backcountry reservation), it seemed like a reasonable plan, because after all, 16 or so miles is not a very long hike. The thing about the Grand, though, is that it also requires a solid 7,000 vertical feet of elevation gain, most of that in only a couple miles.

We managed to get an RV site on the shore of Jackson Lake for the 31st, which provided a scenic place to relax and swim.

Jackson Lake

We started from the Lupine Meadows Trailhead just after 11:30 p.m.; a trail-side porcupine sighting was our reward for being the first party on the trail since evening.


The trail seemed to fly by in the darkness, the miles and vertical ticking by slowly but steadily. A route-finding error around 10,800 feet caused us to ascend a guide’s trail to their camp above the trail, probably causing a half-hour delay and an unnecessary 200 vertical feet of gain and descent. For other people hiking the approach in the dark, don’t climb too steeply to the right above Spalding Falls–stay left and aim for the bottom of the valley until the trail climbs to avoid the Middle Teton Glacier. Anyway, we arrived at the fixed rope on the headwall below the Lower Saddle around 4 a.m.

Fixed rope at the headwall

Our second (minor) route-finding error caused us to miss the actual saddle and meet the route again just below the black dike. This is where things got tricky in the dark. Although headlamps of climbers ahead confirmed that we were ascending to the Upper Saddle in roughly the right place, the fact that we had never seen this area in person in daylight made the micro-route-finding harder than it needed to be. We ended up pulling some low-5th-class moves because we were too far climber’s left in the area around the eye-of-the-needle. Regardless, we arrived at the Upper Saddle before 6 a.m. where we were greeted with a nice sunrise on the Enclosure. The Grand Teton cast a wonderfully pointy shadow out into Idaho.

The Enclosure

“The finest hour I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away.” (Kate Wolf, Across the Great Divide)

A little exposure

The group ahead of us turned out to be a sizable guided Exum group which was also attempting the Owen Spalding. They offered to let us pass, but we declined because we needed time to get ready and following someone our first time on the mountain seemed like a good idea. The route starts with some very easy but exposed traversing terrain.

Exum clients starting the route

Although we started by belaying a pitch, we quickly switched to simul-climbing about 20 meters apart for faster movement and better communication on the easy but exposed terrain. I built a belay at the top of the Double Chimney to get some gear back before the Owen Chimney, which had by far the highest quality climbing on the route. The preponderance of large, sturdy blocks made for very easy and fast anchors on this route. Although none of the moves felt at all difficult (maybe 5.4 for a couple moves, but mainly 4th to 5.0 by Flatiron standards), I was glad for the rope in a few places due to several thousands of feet of exposure down to Cascade Canyon. Also, neither my partner nor I own approach shoes, and bringing climbing shoes for a couple moves of 5.4 seemed like overkill, so we both climbed in our heavy hiking boots with thick treads. With climbing or approach shoes, the route would have likely seemed more secure and probably solo-able.

Owen Chimney

We coiled the rope at the top of the Owen Chimney and soloed the rest of the way to the summit. A few moves on the left exit midway up Sargent’s Chimney felt like low 5th-class, but they were relatively unexposed and the rest was 3rd or 4th class.

Below Sargent’s Chimney

My climbing partner can be seen here in the shadows on the last “hard” section above Sargent’s. The route was rather cold and dark the whole way from the Upper Saddle to the summit, which is probably this route’s biggest drawback.

A final scramble

We reached the summit at about 8:20 a.m., a good hour ahead of my estimate, not even counting the detour in the moraine or the half-hour wait for the very polite Exum group.


The Snake River Valley and Jackson Hole looked incredibly low and far away, the true distance amplified by the smoky sky.


“Men occupy a very small place upon the Earth.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

View north

After hanging out on the warm, calm summit for about an hour, we carefully scrambled back down Sargent’s Chimney (a little tricky in hiking boots). We were prepared to rap with our single 70, but the nice Exum guides let us use their ropes (which were already set up on the anchor), which was great because we avoided recoiling our rope. See if you can make out the two Exum clients rappelling in the circle.


We did much better on the descent to the Lower Saddle by staying far east and going through the eye-of-the-needle.

Middle Teton

A Grand view was revealed from the Lower Saddle.

The Grand from the Lower Saddle

The rest of the descent was obvious, hot, and tedious.

The moraine and headwall


The Middle Teton above Spalding Falls


Garnet Canyon

We arrived back to the car around 3:30, making for a round-trip of just under 16 hours including an hour on the summit. It certainly felt like a long 16 miles, but with an early (or would it be late?) enough start, I think that the Grand in a day is a reasonable undertaking for most who are fit enough to climb it anyway. The advantages include being able to choose the best weather window without being locked down by a backcountry reservation, hiking the approach without carrying camping gear, and seeing porcupines at 1 a.m.

A quick stop to jump in Jackson Lake and at the Cowboy Cafe in Dubois for dinner and pie, and we were ready for some sleep at the ranch on Torrey Lake.

“Going to the mountains is going home.” (John Muir)

“There’s no place like home.” (Dorothy)