Admittedly, I often feel jaded or even bitter when I hear people talk about the ‘magic’ of the mountains. I cringe and shudder as the same cliché phrases are passed around in endless circles of banter amongst groups of skiers and mountaineers. I squirm and wriggle, shift my eyes, and turn my body as if to protect myself from an unwelcomed assault. I am not sure what it is that makes me feel uncomfortable, but in the end, I am and forever will be as guilty as everyone else.
What follows is a love story, 6-9 million years in the making. So if you are like me, and dry heave every time you hear someone spraying about how important ‘Mountains’ are in their life, hang up now and forever dis-own me as your friend. My Grand addiction is sickly, obsessive, and all encompassing.
In the Fall of 2008, my freshman year at Montana State University, I purchased Thomas Turiano’s masterpiece coffee table book: the Peaks of Greater Yellowstone. Although my mind was blown with each beautiful black and white photo depicting the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, I couldn’t help but gawk at the Grand. Each aspect, each rock feature, each discontinuous ribbon of snow instantly drew me closer. I couldn’t help but wonder “how-the-fuck is that chunk of rock skiable?”
Of course I was attending MSU because of it’s close proximity to Bridger Bowl, and like every other MSU freshman, I wanted to test my skills as a skier. At the time, I would say, I wrote the Grand off as a peak well beyond my feasible level of attainment. In the end, I didn’t believe that I had the strength or know-how to plan a trip to such an exotic mountain range and not kill myself.
But as time progressed, it seemed that that Grand was a mountain that was continuously re-entering my life. In a twisted and wild chain of events involving a girl, a broken heart, and the need for emotional redemption, I was able to actually experience the Tetons in May of 2010. After a week of bad weather and mediocre skiing, my partner and I were able to ski the Middle Teton’s SW couloir in rare all-time conditions. Standing on the summit of the Middle, was at the time, the most profound experience in my life. Skiing off the summit was pure ecstasy. From then on out, I was hooked, infatuated, and helplessly addicted to chasing ski descents in the Tetons.
Aaron showed me how to be a ski mountaineer in the Tetons, and further nurtured my psych for experiencing the far-fetched and extraordinary. Aaron not only knew the complete history of ski descents in the Tetons, but additionally had an incredible bead on snow and avalanche conditions. It became difficult not to mindlessly follow Aaron into any terrain he brought me to. Eventually, after many, many trips into Garnet Canyon, I realized I had been staring too long at the Ford Couloir. I decided it was time to paint my own hop turns down the SE face of the Grand, without my Jedi master at my side.
The following spring, on the verge of another big expedition to Alaska, I took another stab at “courting the lady.” Our tactics changed and we felt supremely optimistic about our chances for success. Waking up from a state of sleepless anxiety, my partner and I made our way up the teepee glacier with fresh legs and a bootpack already in place. Our progress was confident, our climbing felt strong, and our heads were clear. Near the top of the Chevy couloir, weather moved in, and the spindrift quickly became unbearable.
With the same partner as my first attempt, at the same place on the mountain, we tucked our tails between our legs and rappelled our way out of the storm. After feeling so confident in our chances of success, I drove back to Bozeman feeling like I had almost drowned in a class V rapid. I realized how bad I had wanted the Grand on my resume, and I realized that to move on with my life, I needed to ski that frightful son of a bitch.
When I returned to Bozeman in early May of 2014, I only had one thing on my mind. I contacted all of my ski partners, tried to recruit everyone I knew to come try the Ford/Stettner with me again. But everyone had plans or was uninterested in belaying me up WI3 in my duckbill telemark boots. But really, before I even tried to get anyone to come back to the Tetons with me, I knew that I was going to probably end up driving south partnerless.
Before I realized what was really happening, I found myself sitting cross-legged on the tailgate of my Honda element watching the last of the evening light disappear behind the cathedral peaks of the Tetons. I watched as the clouds danced in and out of the summits, and how the shadows played with their dark and beautiful features. What I remembered most vividly about my first trip to the Tetons was this exact activity; as my ski partner napped in dirt of the shadow mountain campground, I quietly sat next to him with the same straight-back posture and subtle smirk across my face, contemplating my motivations.
Although I knew that I was going to try to ski the Grand one more time regardless of the presence of a partner, actually attempting it solo truly scared me. Although I felt like I had the route dialed, I knew the ins and outs of each pitch, and was able to visualize every piece of sun-faded webbing precariously fixed above the common rappel stations, I was still curious if I could actually commit to something that serious. regardless, I felt that I was ready enough, and if I wasn’t, I would simply turn around.
And so it came to be, that I once again I shook the sleepless state of anxiety from my head and drove to the Taggart lake trailhead at 11:45pm. Although I felt confident in my skills as a ski mountaineer, what I wasn’t feeling confident about was the big orange sign as the trailhead asking me if I was “bear aware”. I guess I had overlooked the prospect of grizzlies and traveled solo to the Tetons sans bearspray.
Being incredibly scared of bears, and wild animals in general, I spent the first three hours of my climb up to Garnet canyon yelling and hollering my vocal chords hoarse. I was dead set on letting my presence be known to every living thing within a ten-mile radius. When I emerged in the meadows below the Middle Teton, I felt that I had probably made myself more tired from yelling than I did from skinning. Regardless, I continued up towards the Teepee glacier and transitioned to crampons.
I stashed some gear at the Teepee col, traversed past the death slope, and dropped into the dark hallway of the Stettner couloir. My personal crux was not the skiing, but the climbing. Being the half-assed alpinist that I am, climbing Water Ice grade 3, ropeless, in telemark boots, with skis on my back, was by for the most intimidating proposition of my third Grand attempt. In previous outings, I was able to climb the Chevy couloir on belay with the help of my partners. But now, the weight of my endeavor was manifesting itself in poor ice climbing technique and it was causing me to grip my ice tools too tightly.
At the crux move, it didn’t take me very long to panic and place an awkwardly high ice screw to calm my anxious head space. I immeadiatly girth-hitched my belay loop with a nylon runner and clipped the other end to the screw's metal hanger. I proceeded through the difficult ice with a new sense of confidence, and then back-cleaned my protection from a stance on top of the crux. Regardless of my poor technique, I continued through the Chevy couloir, and stashed my ropes at the bottom of the Ford Couloir.
In a whirlwind of breathless singing, I high-daggered my way to the summit of the Grand Teton. I staggered and wobbled, stumbled and fumbled my way to the USGS summit marker, and clumsily sat down on top of the summit. My head was spinning and my heart was pounding. This is real, I thought to myself. “This is real.”
This past winter, I put in another unsuccessful attempt on the Grand leaving my record 1 for 4. I think though, no matter how many times I fail or succeed on that mountain, I will always feel the need to visit the dark and twisted lady of the Tetons.