We quickly packed up our gear amidst the other climbers sleeping in their vehicles and stole away into the night. It was very still and cooler than expected, and we made a good pace up the trail. Joe was very worried about running into a bear in the dark, and every few minutes he’d call out, just in case. I joined in the fun by making loud “beeeeooowhooop!” calls, hoping this JarJar Binx call would help scare any bears away. This constant lookout for bears made things a little more tense, especially when we thought we saw eyes ahead of us on the trail (turned out to be city lights, duh!).
Soon we reached the dreaded mega-switchbacks that lead up to Surprise and Amphitheater lakes. I’d been up these two times too many (i.e. twice), but luckily I counted the switchbacks on the topo before reaching them, so I could count them down until we reached the Garnet Canyon trail junction. The 5 switchbacks passed by shortly and soon I was in new country, heading up Garnet Canyon.
Suddenly Joe stopped and pointed up the hill. Two glowing eyes peered down at us, and blinked. We were still concerned about bears, but we couldn’t see what it was. It wouldn’t respond to our calls, so we slowly walked by beneath the orbs. At one point I thought I saw tall ears above the eyes, so perhaps it was a deer?
Everything went smoothly until we got ourselves lost on the approach for the first time. This happened when we reached the beginning of 'Boulder Central' along the trail. No trail seemed to appear down by the river, and I thought the trail went higher up the side of the canyon at that point, so we wasted time climbing the hillside to the base of some cliffs. After descending we quickly found the trail again and soon we reached the Meadows Camping area. Some climbers were just starting to stir, so we picked up the pace – we wanted to be the first ones on the mountain!
After passing a log bridge, the trail began heading up and right. For some reason Joe thought that this was the Middle Teton trail and that we had missed the turnoff, so he charged cross country off the trail and up the hill. I was regretting doing the approach in my stiff mountaineering boots at this time, and my blisters weren’t happy with the detour. I finally convinced him that we left the correct trail, so we scrambled up and left to intersect the switchbacks that headed over 1,000 feet up the moraine headwall for the Middle Teton Glacier. Below us the headlamps from other climbers bobbed, but soon they were out of site as we charged up the hill.
Soon the hill relented a bit as we began hiking through the moraine, stumbling across yet more hikers just waking up. From here we could see that climbers at the lower saddle were breaking camp – we’d better hurry. Soon we reached the snowfield, whipped out our ice axes, and charged across the snowy headwall, and then straight up to reach the saddle.
Sadly, the climbers at the lower saddle had beaten us up the mountain, as two groups were already beginning to pass the black dike. Joe and I stowed some water and our ice axes behind a boulder near the Exum guide shelters and continued hiking. By this time, we were both getting pretty tired and our pace was slowing down quickly – some climbers from the Upper Moraine campsite were catching up!
We followed the climber’s trail as it passed the black dike, and soon we were scrambling in class 3 terrain. Our pursuers weren’t very fast scramblers, so we soon pulled ahead and caught one of the two groups ahead of us as their guide was belaying them up a crack beside The Needle.
Joe scrambled across a slab to their right, and after exhausting other options I followed. From here we stayed near the rocky crest as we scrambled through class 3-4 terrain until we could find a break. The other group ahead of us had already reached the end of Wall Street, and we could see their small forms against the skyline of Exum Ridge.
Soon a notch was reached, and after a little down climbing we traversed a chute and scrambled up onto Wall Street and set up our first belay. Joe was concerned about whether or not we should continue on with Exum or change our plans to do the faster and more certain Owen-Spalding route. We were about 40 minutes behind schedule, and he was a little concerned about the strong winds and the clouds to the west. The winds didn’t seem abnormally high considering where we were, and the clouds to the east were little ‘popcorn’ cumulus and none were developing enough height for thunderstorms – not a concern, but something to keep an eye on.
At this point I was feeling a little sleepy as I belayed Joe, so I popped a caffeine pill to prevent 'Belayer Sleepiness (BS) syndrome' :-D Soon I was climbing and I quickly reached the Step Around. It was every bit exposed as I had heard. I began looking at my options for using a hand traverse, but then relented to climbing into the notch and back out, taking a photo midway through this move to capture the view.
Next it was my turn to lead. I threw on Joe’s pro sling, took a look at the Golden Staircase, and headed off to the right through a series of ledges and cracks. Luckily the route didn’t wander too much, so rope drag was never an issue. After about 150 ft I reached a large bouldery ledge and I just took off walking. I almost made it to a nice ledge sheltered from the wind before Joe radioed that I was out of rope. We ran it out to reach the sheltered ledge, and I belayed Joe the rest of the way up.
The rather mediocre pitch known as the Wind Tunnel. Its really just a set of bouldering problems, although the climbing was still fun! From the large ledge above the Golden Staircase, Joe and I free-climbed over to the boulder-filled chute to the right.
From here the terrain was easy, so we each coiled some of the rope and free-soloed up and through a notch were we saw the obvious Wind Tunnel Pitch – a wide chute chock full of large boulders. We scrambled partway up the chute before setting up another belay. The climbing here was fun, more like bouldering moves than sustained climbing. Although there was some ice in the chute, there was never enough to get in the way. Beyond this pitch we free-soloed again, climbing through another notch and down into another large chute. To the right was a large rocky rib, and then a chute filled with snow and ice, a steep slab, and then a rounded golden crest to our left with a lot of parallel cracks snaking up the spine.
At this point Joe thought that we were off route. I disagreed and tried to show him certain features that matched up with some photos printed out from SP. We tried reading the route descriptions, but they were just plain confusing. I opted to lead the next pitch up the cracks to our left, as I was sure that was where the Friction Pitch was. Suddenly we heard the voices of another group climbing up the Wind Tunnel. A group of 3 climbers had already climbed the Lower Exum and were passing us! They took off up the chute to the right as Joe set up a belay and I took off up a fun crack. The terrain started out as a wide broken chimney, with more crack climbing higher up. I ascended left toward the spine, and was treated with awesome exposure looking down the crest and then down the side of the Exum Ridge as I reached a large boulder. I climbed around this and set up a belay beneath what looked to me like the Friction Pitch.
The Friction Pitch seen from Boulder Ledge. It was a little hard to follow the route description along here - but if you see rock like this, you're definitely on route! Climb up the groove to the right (takes a bit of pro), and double back left to two black knobs before launching up the pitch.
Soon Joe was up, and we determined that the small boulder-covered ledge we were on was the Boulder Ledge beneath the Friction Pitch described in the guidebooks. We located the signature black knobs above, and Joe took the next lead. Although I was attached to a single runner slung around a large boulder, I would have preferred more redundancy in an anchor here, and I was quite nervous as Joe took off. Initially he had trouble finding pro placements that wouldn’t rip out, but soon he had in a few pieces (whew!) and was climbing up the crux. I saw an excellent shot of him on the crest against the sky, so I asked him if he could stop for a second for a photo-op.
“No!” He shouted emphatically, and kept climbing up and out of sight. Soon I followed, and I was pleased to find the nuts placed before the crux were very secure (the only time I needed my nut tool on the route). A few fun friction moves on the sharp and flaky (but not loose!) gneiss and I was on the ridge crest. The exposure was intense, but the climbing was easy and soon I was at the next belay.
Once again we had reached easier terrain, so we coiled the roped around ourselves and free-soloed, catching the three climbers who had passed us earlier as they belayed a short step. We scrambled up this and followed them to the final roped pitch of the route – the V-Pitch. This should have been my lead, but I was feeling pretty tired, a little stressed, and I had been battling heart-burn throughout the day that just wasn’t going away, so I accepted Joe’s offer to let him lead the pitch. My mistake – it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable pitches on the climb!
At this point the wind had been increasing, and clouds were blowing by regularly. Luckily, the wind seemed to be blowing so strong that it destroyed any chance of updrafts forming larger cumulus clouds. Still, the increase in wind speed was disconcerting, especially since we had a free rappel on one rope to look forward to on our descent.
At this point Joe suggested we traverse around to the easier slopes on the east side of the summit. Below us was a friction slab and a short snowfield with footprints that led to a notch in the rock step. I looked at the snowfield- it was steep and disappeared over a convexity about 20 feet further down, certainly emptying into the Beckey Couloir. I didn’t like the fall consequences, so I suggested we belay each other across the friction slab and 10ft long snow crossing. Joe secured my rope in his belay device and braced himself behind a boulder as I walked down to the snow.
When I reached the snow I saw that the footprints were fairly old – this certainly wasn’t where the three climbers ahead of us went. I carefully stepped onto one of the footprints, only to have it disintegrate into a hissing stream of wet snow pouring down and over the edge below. The snow was superheated. Underneath was a very hard layer of ice, which was expected since I was at the interface of snow and rock. Still, things didn’t seem right, but I decided to try walking in the footprints anyways, stepping on the top of the ice where it terminated into rock. As I carefully stepped forward, each footprint disintegrated into a larger slide. Suddenly my feet flew out from underneath me and I was rocketing down a solid sheet of ice toward the Beckey Couloir and a several thousand-foot plummet.
“Take! Take! Take!” I shouted frantically. It felt like I slid for eternity, but I actually stopped about 10 feet below where I fell. Still my heart was pounding, and my bare hands were dug into the snow. The ice sheet was so steep and slick that I was seriously weighting the rope, and I couldn’t stand up. I tried to tension traverse to some rock on my left, but the sheet was too slick. I coiled the rope hand over hand to climb back up, but progress was agonizingly slow. I then tried traversing on my shins and bare forearms in slush that kept sliding away beneath me, while Joe held the tension. After a few minutes of this I was back on rock, panting in fear and surprise, and moaning and groaning from the intense pain in my bare hands from the prolonged contact with ice and snow.
After I finished warming my hands we decided to look for the rappel. By this point I was completely sketched out and I didn’t feel like looking much more for a way up the summit block. We traversed down and to the west to the large ledge with the rappel. I was expecting to see a large boulder with colored slings wrapped around it at the rappel, but no such luck. It was nowhere in sight! Joe and I spent the next 20 minutes or so looking around for it to no avail. Finally, I thought I saw some white slings blowing against the cliff-side of a large boulder to the north. As we headed around to get a better look, we crossed beneath Sergeants Chimney and saw two ropes hanging down – the three climbers were descending from the summit!
This made me feel better, as our plan for rapping seemed less palatable now that the winds were really howling. Joe and I had brought one 60m rope and a 220 ft long retrieval cord, and we knew what to do with it, but we had never had a chance to practice with it. The idea of rapping on one rope, with the rope and retrieval cord possibly being blowing into a stuck position didn’t seem too appealing. We waited for the climbers to come down and then we told them where the rapp station was as we all carefully walked down the loose talus.
“Don’t worry about getting out your rope, guys. You might as well use ours,” one of the climbers said as Joe and I were preparing to stow the rope coiled around our bodies. Great! We could mooch a two-rope rappel line without the embarrassment of asking :-D
As we came around to the rap station we saw that it was composed of some thick cordalettes attached to bolts on the backside of a large stone – extra secure but nearly impossible to find from higher up! We all perched in line on a narrow ledge as the rap was set up. The wind kept getting stronger, and we all had to hold on. The first climber went down. He seemed to stumble as a gust hit him when he stepped below the first lip, and then he was out of sight. The line moved up and those closest to the rap anchor clipped into it for security.
After a while the first climber radioed that he was down. It took a while to establish this as the wind was blowing so hard that we had trouble hearing the radios! The next climber went down, almost at a run and then stumbling and nearly falling over on his side as the wind buffeted him, and then he was gone. A few minutes later a radio call came in and the third climber descended. Then it was Joe’s turn. The intense exposure and high winds had me very nervous and anxious to get down while also dreading the impending rappel – I imagined the wind spinning me around on the free rappel like a marionette, slamming me into the rock.
Soon Joe was off. Later on he told me that he had had a miserable rappel. He was blown around a lot, and as he was free-hanging in front of a slab, the wind dragged him over and into a wet chimney.
Finally it was my turn. I had never considered the tension the rope would be under when so much of it was free-hanging. I had to struggle for several minutes to get the ropes through my belay device. I had to struggle several minutes more to pull enough rope through to get a locking ‘biner in. I really wanted extra friction, given the conditions, so I spent several more minutes lugging on the rope to get a second locker through the rope and ATC. The extra friction was a nice comfort to have, as the wind got worse while I rappelled. At a major ledge the wind knocked me over and pinned me down for a short while. As I continued on I saw the rope disappear into a chimney – odd. Rather than work against the rop onto the face, I followed it into a chimney. The walls were slick and dripping with water, and gusts slammed me back and forth into the walls.
Once I was down Joe and I organized our gear while the others pulled down their rope. Sadly, when the knot was about 50 ft above them, the end of the rope got stuck. With the rope jammed and the winds getting worse, the climbers gave up their two ropes for lost and headed down.
Joe and I followed. The exposed move to get onto the upper saddle was a little spooky with the gusts, especially after I looked down into the Black Ice Couloir beneath my feet as I climbed over. Next we had to descend another 1,000 ft over rugged class 3-4 terrain. It was slow going, but the wind seemed to die down a bit. Finally we scrambled through the 'eye' of The Needle, down some sketchy class 4 terrain, and we were home free on the climbers trail heading down the scree slopes – or so I thought.
This wind was driving me crazy. I was very tired and looking forward to an easier descent, but the wind made the descent harder than the ascent! For no rational reason I cursed the wind, flipped off the general direction it came from, and then it would reverse direction and spin me around. My wind shirt vibrated so hard that it made a loud humming noise as it turned into a blur of blue. At one point a gust blew both legs out from underneath me. On one moderate gust I let my limbs hang limp – the arm blew up about 85 degrees and my leg blew up about 35 degrees! The wind seemed to alternate between a 20-30 second gust and a 10 second break. It seemed to come from everywhere – even when I got behind large boulders it didn’t make a difference.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally caught up to Joe at our cache on the Lower Saddle. We could barely hear each other over the wind as we packed out gear. Meanwhile, Exum guides were frantically trying to secure the shelters, which hummed like a roaring river. We prayed that the wind would die down once we got off the saddle before reaching the steep snow traverse.
As we descended the wind lessened slightly, but it still had plenty of punch. This made the snow traverse rather tiring and sketchy – about all I could do was squat down on my axe as the gusts came down the slope. I was completely exhausted physically and mentally at this point, and all the twisting of my legs had really done a number on my knees. I moved slowly as Joe rushed on.
I met up with Joe at the Lower Moraine Camp. The winds were still blowing hard enough to knock me down, and occasionally we’d get sprayed from the waterfalls pouring off of the Teepee Pillar and Disappointment Peak, several thousand feet above us. It was quite surreal to actually see the waterfalls stream UP the cliffs as the wind picked up!
I continued to limp down the trail, but the wind continued its pursuit. Even at the meadows we’d occasionally get knocked around and sprayed with grit. As we neared the Meadow Camp I though I saw a lot of people standing around some of the boulders. It seemed rather odd, and then I noticed that they weren’t moving – I was beginning to hallucinate.
Joe and I pressed on down the hill. He had taken the wind better than I, and would race ahead and then wait around until I caught up, and then he’d be off again. I prodded along in a stoic daze, knees sore, feet aching, vertigo gnawing. The hallucinations continued. Usually when I get exhausted enough on a climb I experience this – I’ll see patterns of color or texture that look like a person, tent, robot, etc. Rather than seeing a pattern that looks like an object, my mind seems to interpret it as the object first, and only after closer inspection would I realize that I wasn’t seeing what I thought I was. It did make the hike down more entertaining, though, as I tried to guess what was a hallucination and what wasn’t – and if it was a hallucination, what was I really looking at?
As the sun set this only got worse as the clarity of my vision became more muddled. The sun set just as we finished our last switchback, but rather than stop to get out the headlamps, I continued on with car fever. Joe and I hiked along in the darkness without speaking, focused on the one goal of reaching the car, following a trail that was only faintly illuminated by the moon. As we neared the car I thought about our hike up in the dark earlier in the day and how worried Joe was about bears. For some reason he didn’t seem as worried now, even though we weren’t even hiking with headlamps turned on!
“Joe, why aren’t you worried about the bears coming down like you were this morning?” I queried.
“I’m just too tired to care,” he mumbled. It had been a long day and we both were ready for it to end. Finally, around 10:30 pm we reached the car. We had been on the move for over 21 hours, and I had been awake since 6:30 am Friday morning – some 40 hours.
We were exhausted, dehydrated, bloody, burned, covered in grit, and yet I felt like it was a great trip. Strangely, we finished the Upper Exum route and yet failed to summit. But we did finish the route, my first major alpine climb where I made an equal contribution to the climb, and we had made it back safely. Now it was time to rest and make plans for our next trip to the Tetons . . .