Wyoming 13ers Quest, The Sequel
Day 9: The Grand Teton and Francs (2 peaks)
So far, it hadn’t really felt like I was setting a speed record. Sure, I was spending more time climbing day after day than I ever had before, but if I were an hour slower on the trail or spent extra time on a summit it just meant I had less time to sleep. But now, all that changed. One way or another, this would be my last day on the 13er quest. The faster I climbed, the sooner I would finish, and the better chance I would have at beating the record. I had lost a lot of time by driving back and forth across Wyoming to outrun the storm in the Bighorns, and coupled with the extra day I spent in the northern Winds, I knew it was going to be close–within a couple hours, if things went well.
For the first time, it finally felt like a race. The only trouble was, I wasn’t in racing condition anymore. I set out from the Lupine Meadows Trailhead at 3 a.m. and tried to push myself as much as possible, but I kept having coughing fits, and my legs felt like wood. I was excited though, and the struggle motivated me: “The Eye of the Tiger” started playing in my mind, synchronized to my steps as I jumped through the boulder fields and passed countless groups of other climbers in the night. I managed to average about 1,800 vertical ft. per hour, and even gained 2,000 ft. in my best hour from the moraine to the Eye of the Needle. It must have been a strange experience for the other climbers–here comes this young solo kid, going twice as fast as everyone else but doubled over coughing every few hundred yards.
One of my biggest concerns this day was the temperature. The forecasts promised clear skies, but the cold front that had arrived over the past couple days brought frigid air and sent nighttime temperatures plummeting into the low 20s at summit elevations. I was barely able to stay warm in the frigid wind with long johns, multiple layers, and a down jacket, even as I scrambled steeply uphill. I was most worried about the technical climbing though–the rocks were well below freezing, which could be dangerous if my hands started to get numb, and ice would form if there were any water. These are the thoughts that plagued my mind the whole time I was climbing. But one of my theme songs for this project had also started playing in my mind, and I knew I would give it my all.
I’d climbed the Grand twice before, and it always left an impression. It was my first technical alpine peak in 2017, when I climbed it roped with a similarly inexperienced friend. We had a grand time, full of misadventures trying to get to the Upper Saddle in the dark and fumbling around with rope drag, but it was my biggest mountaineering accomplishment at the time. Then in 2020 I soloed it as part of my original 13ers quest, a thrilling experience and again one of my bigger accomplishments at the time.
Now, after all the loose 5th class and ice sketchiness in the Wind Rivers, climbing a solid trade route on a popular peak seemed straightforward in comparison. It felt a bit like old hat this time–a dangerous feeling, because it’s important not to get complacent on a peak like this. Ironically, the peak’s popularity is one of the biggest problems on the Owen Spalding Route–so many people have climbed it that the rock is getting polished, and I’m not sure how much longer it will feel safe to solo this route. Luckily, my hands weren’t getting as cold as I had feared, and I kept my focus and tried my best to be vigilant. The entrance to the Double Chimney always gets my attention, as does the middle of the Owen Chimney, and I breathed a sigh of relief after making it past those sections.
It was a glorious morning on top, and I was glad to warm up in the sun after shivering on the north side of the mountain during the climb up. I was the first person to summit today, a few minutes before 8 a.m. (just under 5 hours from the trailhead).
These two pictures were taken only a few seconds apart–the one on the left shows my parents’ view from the parking lot (with the Grand poking up over the left shoulder of Teewinot) and the one on the right is my shadow selfie on the summit.
I made it back to the overcrowded Lupine Meadows Trailhead at 11:50 a.m. for a round-trip time of just under 9 hours. Not fast by the standards of the Grand Teton FKT (just under 3 hours round-trip), but not bad for a personal record. These are the days we will remember…
I ate a fancy sandwich my parents had picked up as we drove north toward Yellowstone, then slept for a bit as we wound through the park and awoke somewhere around Yellowstone Lake. It was all a blur, yet somehow perfect, the flowing adrenaline and sleep deprivation and so close yet so far, almost done, still not sure if I’d make it, but I was here, now, going for it, almost there…and I was asleep again, trusting my dad as he drove carefully, quickly toward the last peak on the list. And it was sunny, and beautiful, and the trees flickered above the highway, and the mountains rose above the trees, and I was happy, because I knew in my heart I was going to make it.
Be here now. ~ Ram Das
At the beginning of my 13ers FKT attempt, I set my phone lock screen to a photo of Francs Peak. Throughout the whole project, I kept telling myself, “I just need to get to Francs Peak.” It pretty much became my mantra. I had finished my first lap of the Wyoming 13ers on Francs Peak in 2020, and all along I planned to finish my second FKT on the same peak. All I had to do was make it through 8 days of difficult climbing and relentless hiking to get here–and now I was here. It was day 9, and everything came down to this one moment. At the outset of the project, I promised my dad I wouldn’t climb Francs Peak in the dark “unless it was necessary to get the FKT.” Now, there was no question. By the time we got to the trailhead, there was only 7 hours left on the clock, which meant that I needed to climb one of the most grizzly-covered peaks in the whole Yellowstone ecosystem in the dark to achieve one of my biggest life goals. Yay, that should be…fun? Crazy? Idk. Exciting, at least.
Some armchair mountaineers have made fun of the idea of carrying a gun on a hike. But those who spend much time in the Yellowstone-Absaroka region know better. The grizzlies here are man-eaters, with reports of bears killing and eating people coming in almost every year in local newspapers, not to mention countless non-fatal attacks. A hiker was actually attacked this summer on Francs Peak, resulting in him being airlifted to a hospital. As in 2020, I carried a fully loaded AK-47 on my ascent (plus bear spray and a high-power hand-held flashlight to scan the slopes). I’d seriously regret harming wildlife, but if it comes down to it, the bear dies before I do.
Francs Peaks actually happens to be near an epicenter of grizzly activity in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, with tons of bears congregating on this area to feast on the high-calorie army cutworm moths that live in the talus. Much of the underlying research was done by a Masters student from Montana State, which gives an interesting overview of the situation. Of course, the Forest Service blames hikers for disturbing bears, but apparently has no problem with shooting tranquilizers into 10 grizzlies from a helicopter in a single day, because that was for the bears’ own good or something. Who’s going to protect the bears from the researchers? But I digress.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Except bears. Bears will kill you. ~ Folk saying
Well, that was that. I made it. Summit number 36. All of the Wyoming 13ers in a single push. What a place, what a time. Were there bears off in the darkness? Probably. Luckily I couldn’t see them, or I’d have been even more anxious than I was already. Somehow it seemed a bit anticlimactic–like here I was, in the midst of accomplishing possibly the biggest goal I ever had, and who really cared? Not the wind or the talus or the bears, certainly. I hardly even cared about being on the summit myself, since what I really wanted was to make it back to the car without any grizzly problems. It’s not over ’till it’s over, you know? And the clock stops when you reach the final trailhead, not the last summit! Still, it was one of the most sublime moments of my life. I made it.
So, I got back to the road at 10:21 p.m. and set a new overall FKT for the Wyoming 13ers at 8 days, 20 hours, and 20 minutes. I don’t really remember everything that happened next. I do remember that my dad was singing “for he’s a jolly good fellow” as I arrived back at the road. I guess I disarmed the rifle, ate some celebratory cheesecake slices, and went to bed in the back of the Blazer. When I first sat down, I felt like I could barely move, but I’m not sure if that was more the result of having climbed another 11,000 ft. today or just the emotional exhaustion of finally letting go. I didn’t care though, because all that mattered was that I made it, and I didn’t have to keep going for another day. Whether my true opponent was the mountains, or the clock, or something else entirely, I won this round. For a moment at least, I tasted my own idea of greatness.
Daily Stats: 20.7 miles, +11,100 ft., 13 hours climbing time, 36/36 thirteeners
Everyone should be able to tell a story about the happiest day of their lives. The happiest day of my life so far was September 11, 2022. I woke up with the sunrise. But I didn’t have to go hiking anymore. I woke up and watched the sunrise through the foggy window of the Chevy Blazer. It was orange and gold and red and spread across the slopes of Francs Peak, which I had climbed the night before. I had just set a new FKT for the Wyoming 13ers, and since hardly anyone else knew about it yet, it felt like I was privy to a precious secret. Moreover, I had reestablished my place as the first person to climb all of the ranked Wyoming 13ers in a single year, including Miriam this time. If transcendence means anything, it’s similar to that morning.
I don’t even know how to talk about this stuff, really. I think even most other FKT holders won’t fully understand. This project was something that became so intertwined with my identity that my very sense of self became synonymous with re-establishing my claim to be the “first person to climb all of the ranked Wyoming 13ers in one year.” Now that I did it, I didn’t know whether to feel happy, or numb, or joyous, or stupid, or…? I did know that I was happy, and tired, and happy, in that order. And grapefruit Izzees are good. So is family, and mountaineering, and the crazy pursuit of pointless records. Gambling one’s life to gain it. Serious stuff, but all in good fun if you have the right perspective.
It’s either victory, or don’t bother. I mean, the only thing worth doing is the impossible, everything else is fucking gray. You’re born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel, to lift a phrase, but there’s no fucking use for it. Here? Where’s the use for it? What, you’re set up to be a philosopher or a king or fucking Shakespeare, and this is all they give you, this? Twenty-odd years of school which is all instruction in how to be ordinary…or they’ll fucking kill you, they fucking will, and then it’s a career, which is not the same thing as existence. I want unlimited things. I want everything. I want a real fucking love, a real fucking house, a real fucking thing to do every day, and I just—I’d just rather die if I don’t get it. Did I just say that out loud? ~ Jim, The Gambler
A few concluding thoughts are in order. First, thank you to my parents for tirelessly supporting this project (and everything else). Without their efforts, I never could have pulled it off, and the morale of sharing in this project as a family kept me going. Thanks also to all of the other family members and friends who followed along and encouraged me remotely! And thanks to the many people who inspired my involvement with these mountains. From Sarah’s trip reports that initially caught my eye, to the Bonneys and Joe Kelsey and Finis Mitchell and Thomas Turiano who all wrote good guides to the Wyoming mountains, to the other FKT holders who published beta and set a high bar, I appreciate the collaborative efforts that laid the groundwork for my project.
With regard to the future of the Wyoming 13ers FKT, I’m sure future climbers find creative ways to improve the speed and style of the record. Personally, I cared most about being first to do them all in a year, and the addition of Miriam was one of my main reasons for undertaking this project. I’m not sure if I’d recommend climbing all these peaks so late in the summer, because the exposed glacial ice and prevalence of rock fall becomes a serious consideration. Still, combining all these peaks in one mega-outing is undeniably aesthetic. I’d prefer to see something like a club of people who’ve done the 13ers all in one year emerge instead of a strict speed competition that leads to climbing in dangerous conditions. This would encourage creative linkups and enable climbing earlier in the summer, when the routes are generally much safer, with a bit of extra time built in for weather.
At the end of the day, mountaineering is supposed to be fun. I suppose this project was fun in its own way. Transcendent, certainly, but not something I want to do every day. I’m taking a break from extreme mountaineering for a bit, and focusing on “type 1 fun,” or in-the-moment fun experiences in the mountains. Like the highwayman, I’m sure that “I’ll be back again, and again, and again, and again.” But for now, I rest.