“How are you doing?” asks Tom Egan, our head guide.
“Not good,” gasps Evan Mattenson. “My legs are cramping and I’m sick to my stomach.”
It’s 4:00 a.m. and our climb up Wyoming’s Grand Teton is just two hours old. Battling 40-mile-per-hour headwinds and subfreezing temperatures, it will take us at least another eight hours to reach the Grand’s 13,770-foot summit.
“You probably won’t make it,” Tom tells Evan. Quitting now, the guide explains, means Evan can descend safely to high camp, provided he waits until sunrise. Quitting later means he’s stuck on the mountain face until the rest of us return for him. He hesitates, then says he’s bailing out. We leave him in a moraine with a bagel, a couple of apricots, and an uncommon amount of self-doubt.
“I had no idea,” says Evan as we flick on our head lamps and turn toward the mountain’s Lower Saddle, “what I was getting into.”
I’ve come to the Tetons to take Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ train-and-climb program for beginning mountaineers. The three-day course, one of the most popular in the country, includes a day of basic instruction on rock and ice that leads to a bid for Grand Teton’s peak. At each end of the trip is a half-day to full-day approach-and-return hike. Summit day itself lasts anywhere from 16 to 24 hours.
None of the guides is surprised to find that we’ve got two securities traders on our five-person team: the pool of neophyte mountaineers is thickly stocked with businesspeople. Skip Horner, an independent guide who has led clients up the highest peaks on the planet, explains the attraction this way: “When you’re high on a ledge with nothing but air below, you have to perform. That’s part of the rush. The business guys I take out aren’t like doctors or lawyers, who are more apt to look for ways to minimize risk. Big risk is what has netted them their biggest paydays.”
We’re a curious mix, with curious reasons for being here. I’m a writer who has reported on mountaineering for the past decade and has developed a degree of familiarity with the sport that has no basis in reality. This becomes apparent on day one when I put the climbing harness on backwards, then inside out, then backwards again. Knots are also a problem.
Jen and Mark Mjellinek, a honeymooning geologist couple en route to volcanology fellowships in Australia, have a bit more real-world experience. They’re from Idaho and they’re rock-climbing enthusiasts, though only Mark has an alpine background. A few weeks earlier, he and a friend climbed Mount Rainier, the toughest ascent in the lower 48.
Si Matthies oversees 17 traders who buy and sell corporate bonds for Norwest Investment Services Inc. in Minneapolis. His wife gave him the course for his 40th birthday this past spring a reward for a statement he once made about climbing Mount McKinley before he hits 50. He has a bullish, go-for-it personality and a broad, exfootball player’s physique. Si says he is known at the office as someone who would take on a big-bang trip like this. “It’s not exactly out of character,” he allows.
Evan Mattenson is a different story. A 28-year-old currency manager for Prudential Global Advisers, he’s lean, but not so athletic appearing. He admits that people in his New York office were pretty surprised to hear he’d signed up for a major climb. He says he’s come here to learn technical-climbing skills — though he’s never set foot on a mountain. When we pull up to the trailhead at Lupine Meadows and get our first glimpse of the Grand’s sheer north face, Evan’s jaw drops. Literally.
Day One: What you think you’ve prepared for isn’t what you’ve prepared for.
Rising from the pan-flat Jackson Valley, Grand Teton is forbidding, a shark-toothed blade shielded by glaciers. I’ve heard about the big exposure on the Grand and the lunge move at a precipitous pitch dubbed Wall Street. I’ve psyched myself for the climb, but I quickly learn that the number-one necessity on any big mountain isn’t type A chutzpah but grade A fitness.
The seven-mile hike to high camp gains 5,000 feet in altitude. Packs weigh 30 to 35 pounds. In the dry heat we’ve stripped to the minimum: shorts, boots, sun visors. Coming from sea level is a curse. I have an unquenchable thirst, overwhelming fatigue, and at day’s end a hangoverlike headache.
Nearly everyone is cranky. Jen labors hard and snipes at Mark, who hikes twice as fast and seems hardly to labor at all. Si gets a painful blister, a physical and mental annoyance since he’s worn his size-12 One Sports to work for the past month. Every morning for the past three months he’s been up at 4:30, biking 20 miles and lifting weights at the YMCA. “It didn’t do a thing,” he complains.
Evan is starting to wonder how much worse the next two days will get. He was inspired to take the course after reading Seven Summits (Warner Books, 1986) by Dick Bass and Frank Wells, two businessmen who knocked off the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. It made climbing sound all too easy. “Actually,” says Evan, “the book is really starting to piss me off.”
Day Two: Acquired skills curb fear and spur confidence at least your teammate at the end of the rope hopes so.
We spend the night at high camp (11,200 feet), a huddle of tents tucked deep in Garnet Canyon. The next morning we practice the mechanics of climbing. Tom and 22-year-old Ryan Hokanson show us how to tie an unshakable figure-eight knot, to fix the rope into our climbing harnesses, to belay (or brake) a partner, and to rappel down. Tom ingrains in us the intrapartner rock commands, such as the seven-word green-light sequence: “On belay? Belay on. Climbing? Climb on.”
“You’ll never forget your first tie-in,” Tom promises as I delegate my welfare to the rope and Evan, my teammate on the other end. We simulate a belay: a technique for anchoring the rope in case your partner falls. First, I belay Evan. Standing above him with the rope wrapped around my body, I’m instructed to keep the rope taut as Evan climbs. “Don’t let go with your brake hand,” says Tom, patiently showing me for the umpteenth time how to hold the rope with my right hand as I retrieve slack with my left hand.
A few hours later, on a 250-foot knife-edge ridge called All Along the Watchtower, the lessons on the ground escape me. “Okay, okay, I got it,” I yell to Ryan as I ready the belay. A storm is moving in and my partner Mark is cold and anxious to climb. I am more hopeful than sure. “No, no, no, you don’t got it!” Ryan yells back. New lesson: Be sure.
Evening, Day Two: Confidence is high; prepare to be dumped on.
Though there may be little cause for it, I am optimistic. I didn’t freak out or hurt anybody on training day. I didn’t even fall back on the knot-tying crib sheet I’d stuffed in my climbing pack. As a group, we have a sense we now know what to expect.
Then the storm hits. In the high country, especially in August, electrical storms will suddenly barrel across an iridescent blue sky. You might get a taste of fickle mountain weather or the wind storm of the decade. We get the latter. Bruised clouds sweep over the Grand’s Lower Saddle. “The thermal from hell,” someone says. Then comes a wall of rain, driven by accelerating winds. Thunder boomers suffuse the canyon with an acrid odor.
The five of us pass the night in the cook tent. Heavyweight gusts slam into the two-ton tent, threatening to wing us into Garnet Canyon’s chasm. Gallows humor prevails. “Belay on?” Si inquires.
Day Three: The hell with teamwork on summit day, you’re on your own.
The trip changes on summit day. Up to now, it’s been an inclusive experience. Today we’re soloists, relying exclusively on our heads and our hearts. Those who show they can make it to the Grand’s crown have every opportunity to do so. Those who don’t are left behind, pretty much without apology.
An hour after Evan bows out, Jen and Mark call it quits. Jen is near-hypothermic from the knockdown headwinds. Mark would have been a cinch to bag the peak if he’d carried on alone. As Mark hustles up to us with food and rope, Tom congratulates him on his decision, “You’re on your way to being a good husband.”
Mark shrugs, “We came here to climb it together.”
A short distance up the Lower Saddle, the wind drops abruptly. Dawn is breaking, and Grand Teton’s shadow fans out over eastern Idaho. Tom is starting to goose the pace; the higher gear takes Si and me by surprise.
From this point on Tom coaxes Si from one rock shelf to the next, promising food and sweet rest. Each time Si nears a resting spot, Tom is off again. The time-saving ploy is effective, if infuriating. Tom and Si get to the west face above the Upper Saddle, the crux of the climb, shortly after Ryan and I do around 9:00 a.m.
The last I see of Si and Tom is at the second pitch, about an hour into our sheer-vertical ascent. I continue with Ryan along the planned route, neither of us suffering too badly from the cold. Si and Tom aren’t doing as well. Si is slowing, and Tom is freezing up. He decides to detour from the easier-grade climb to the classic Exum Ridge, a warmer route because it faces east and gets the full morning sun. On the downside, it also features a 120-foot-long snow-crested ridge with 2,000-foot drop-offs. The only way to prevent a fall is to self-arrest: you stab the ice ax into the snowpack and pray it holds.
Si doesn’t like what he sees. He outweighs Tom by 75 pounds. He has fallen once already, though Tom’s belay saved him from nothing worse than a five-foot tumble and a scraped knee. Tom promises Si they’ll be okay. Roped together, the pair baby step Friction Pitch without mishap. Then they tackle three more pitches. At 12:30 p.m., there’s nothing left to climb: they’ve cleared the Grand’s summit. Si’s taken the “full tour,” as Tom puts it. I miss them by moments. Fearing an ominous cloud bank approaching from the west, I’m already heading down with Ryan.
One month later, Si still hasn’t recovered from the climb. He hopes he never does. “I’ve never been as exhausted or as scared as I was on that mountain,” he says. “Nothing I do in regular life will ever push me as hard. I don’t think I’m invulnerable, but I feel that if I can handle this, I can pretty much handle anything.” This summer, Si is planning to make a bid for Gannett Peak (13,804 feet) in Wyoming’s remote Wind River Mountains.
If you think civilians such as Si are crazy for risking their necks just to get a good view, you might hold your opinion until you get to Grand Teton’s pinnacle. All of Wyoming and Idaho’s snowy subranges seem to radiate before you. At the top, with the wind hushed and your body pressed safely between a cluster of warm, sunny rocks, it’s nothing like the moments to come at the office, when you tell your expedition story and shake your head as if you’re not sure whether the climb was stupid or profound or ever to be repeated. At the top, you think you know.
Todd Balf (email@example.com) , a frequent contributor to “Outside” and to “Men’s Journal,” calls his ascent of Grand Teton his toughest outdoor challenge — so far.