Climbing Grand Teton National Park

Daniel Kay
Aug 22, 2019 · 6 min read
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The Grand Teton. There is perhaps no mountain more aesthetic in North America. It dominates the landscape, sharply rising more than 7,000 feet above Jackson, Wyoming.

The Grand is a worthy prize for any American mountaineer.

With two weeks to play with, my climbing partner Jose and I headed for the Tetons, with the ultimate goal of climbing the Exum Ridge.

But first, we had some training to do.

We were lucky enough to have a pair of tremendous hosts, Teton locals who housed us for two weeks and were more than happy to help us get up to speed on the approaches, rock quality, and general character of the range by showing us some of the better climbs in the Park that weren’t on the Grand Teton. (It’s a good idea to do your homework in the mountains).

Without further adieu, here’s a two-week itinerary for climbing in the Teton Range:

Guide’s Wall

Guide’s Wall is a “short approach, by Teton standards.” That means a two-hour hike, instead of a four-hour one. The wall lies up Cascade Canyon — where the views certainly aren’t bad.

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Jose belays our leader. Cascade Canyon in the background, with Mount Owen just out-of-frame to the left.
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Guide’s Wall is generally easy climbing, but it does offer this 5.9 fingers-to-hands crack towards the final pitches. “That pitch is about as splitter as it gets in the Tetons,” our friend said, a huge smile on her face. “Can’t beat it.”
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Climbing as a party of three isn’t usually as efficient — but it can be a lot of fun!

Irene’s Arete

Irene’s Arete is a sharp, steep rock rib located about halfway up the approach to the Grand Teton. Our friend took us out the day after a big rain. A long-time local, he had climbed Irene’s half a dozen times, and he had the thing dialed.

“Don’t bring any water,” he said. “We’ll fill up at two natural springs. No need to hike with more weight than necessary.”

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We grabbed an “alpine start”, which meant leaving our homebase in Victor, Idaho around 4 am. A thick fog clung to the base of the mountain, as the moisture from the previous night’s rain hung in the air.
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Our guide, long-practiced in these mountains, put up a blistering hiking pace. It was a bit challenging for Jose and I, still feeling the (many) beers of the night before.
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Although he hiked fast, our friend made sure to keep an eye on us. He kept us comfortable and offered a watchful spot in areas where it was needed. “Why didn’t you decide to become a mountain guide?” we asked him. He explained: “You know, I have a lot of friends who are guides, and that kind of took some of the mystery out. I prefer just to take the homies out like this, you know?”
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Irene’s Arete offers wonderful climbing in a truly awesome alpine setting. We climbed with our packs so we could descend off the other side of the mountain, and hike back via a new route through Amphitheater Lake. The scenery in the Tetons is just indescribable.

Rock Springs

After two “guided” trips, Jose and I wanted to get some time in climbing as our own team, and we headed to Rock Springs Buttress, a big cliff off the Jackson Hole ski area.

Rock Springs is accessible via the Jackson Hole tram, but being cheapskates, we opted to hike up. After the long hikes in to Guide’s Wall and Irene’s, the 3,000-foot vertical climb to Rock Springs seemed almost easy.

We were acclimating.

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Rock Springs is big, with ample opportunity for alpine multi-pitch.
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Climbers simul-rap down the Exum Arete, with the Snake River and the Jackson Valley visible in the background

The Grand Teton

After hitting these prep climbs, we headed up the Grand. We encountered a surprising number of parties that didn’t seem prepared for the challenges of the mountain — the Grand is a goal for many people, and most can’t take two weeks to do a bunch of preparatory climbing.

Still, it’s a big mountain, and it demands respect.

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Garnett Canyon (the approach to the Grand Teton). The Middle Teton is the peak on the left with the distinctive black dike running down the face. The Grand Teton is hidden away to the right.

We hiked in for eight hours, lugging food for three days, sleeping bags, climbing gear and a rope all the way to the final campsite at the Lower Saddle. It was a testy day under the hot Wyoming sun. Tempers flared under the weight.

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The Grand Teton seen from the Lower Saddle. The Grand is the peak on the right. Exum Ridge is the sunny ridge leading all the way to the summit. Climbers on the “standard route” (the Owen-Spalding) will head straight up the gullies in the center of the photo, then traverse around to the backside of the peak.

Jose and I didn’t climb the Exum Ridge.

It proved too dramatic an objective, and our teamwork too weak.

This happens in the mountains sometimes. There are lessons to be learned there, but none that matter to you, dear reader.

We did summit, via the considerably easier Owen-Spalding route. And I have to say, the views weren’t bad:

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Looking down at the Upper Saddle (left side), and out into Idaho (right side).

The route even yielded a bit of booty — I pulled a stuck .75 Camalot off the ledge just before the infamous “Belly Roll Traverse.” You just can’t beat scoring a free $65 cam! (, )

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Stoked. A previous party left this gear. I spent twenty minutes or so to “booty” it — worked it free from the rock and took it home with me. Booty is one of the best parts of traditional climbing, in my book.
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Weather was threatening, so we grabbed a quick summit picture and headed down.

We returned to the Lower Saddle, packed our sleeping bags, ate what food we could to lighten our loads, and headed for the trailhead, our goal accomplished.

Burgers were on the brain.

We caught up with our friends, snuggled up with Moab the dog, and hit the road. The Tetons gave us a trip we will remember for a lifetime — and I’m sure any climber who follows this itinerary would say the same.

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It’s not always the moments on the mountain that make the trip, either.

Grand Teton Tips

  • Teton rock grades are old-school and kind of sandbagged. Be prepared.
  • A backcountry camping permit for Garnett Canyon costs $35 as of summer 2019. The fee is the same no matter how many people are in your party or how long you plan to camp. There are no fees for a car-to-car ascent.
  • The guidebook for the area is Teton Rock Climbs by Aaron Gams (again, affiliate link).
  • Make sure your hiking legs are in shape. The climbing on the Grand is easy, but the overall experience can be quite taxing if you’re not prepared.
  • Start early (EARLY!) to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
  • If you have no climbing experience but would still like to try the Grand, both Exum Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides run daily guided trips up the mountain in summer.
  • The guides aren’t super friendly to independent climbers.
  • Experienced climbers should consider a car-to-car, free solo attempt. This is not overly dangerous and saves considerable logistical hassle. Of course, individual confidence and ability needs to be accurately assessed, as the consequence for error is extreme. Wyoming Whiskey has good beta.
  • If you’re visiting the Idaho side of Teton Pass, do not pass up getting a Huckleberry milkshake at the Victor Emporium. We had four. Each.

I hope you get a chance to visit this magical range some day! It certainly belongs on every mountaineer’s bucket list.

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