The Grand Traverse
Alpine climbing opportunities are a bit limited in New York City, so I decided to head west to try something a bit larger than anything you can find around here. I wanted a hard challenge, so I gave Jeff Witt, a Lead Guide at Exum who I met through the AAC, a call to see what he had in mind. We decided to go for the longest and most committing technical route the Tetons have to offer, The Grand Traverse, which covers the entire Cathedral Group from north to south, has seven major summits, technical climbing up to 5.7, and 12,000 vertical feet of elevation gain over 14 miles.
The route spends most of the time over 11,000 feet, which is a big jump from my apartment located at a whopping 45 feet above sea level. To help acclimatize it made sense to spend almost a week hiking and climbing around Jackson, which itself is at 6k and nearby short hikes go above 10k. I also hadn't spent much time climbing with Jeff prior to this trip, so we climbed Irene's Arete as a warmup and to get our systems dialed. The route is 7 pitches long, and worthy of its own trip report. We left Lupine Meadows at 5am, took the harder variations including a 5.9 overhanging finger crack and a burly 5.10 undercling pitch, and were back at the car around two.
After Irene's, I took a few days to hike and wait for the weather to clear out on the route. I got to see bears, moose, geysers, and some wild looking storms that I was glad I was off the mountain for.
We started the Traverse on July 29, when the forecast called for several days in a row of splitter weather. Our plan for day 1 was to climb Teewinot (12,325') and Mount Owen (12,928') and camp on the Grandstand below the north face of the Grand Teton. We started at 2am, heading up the East Face of Teewinot. The route started with a long hike in before any technical terrain, and afterwards a few thousand feet of third and fourth class got us to the summit, twenty minutes before sunrise. We ate breakfast and watched the alpenglow on the Grand.
The next mountain to climb was Mount Owen (12,927'). The climbing between the summits wasn't too technical, but covered lots of terrain and required several raps. We also found and sampled someones stashed tequila halfway between the two, which was my earliest tequila drink in a few years!
The next stretch, between Owen and the Grandstand, included the trickiest routefinding of the Traverse. Luckily Jeff had these skills dialed (the difference when you go with an Exum guide!), and we were on the Grandstand by around 2pm.
We arrived at the Grandstand well ahead of schedule, and even considered moving up the Grand while it was still in the sun, but decided to stick to our original plan and camp there. Our bivy site was a huge ledge, complete with several clean springs and a cleared tent platform. We took a relaxing evening, cooked dinner, and got to sleep early. I realized that this was my altitude sleeping record, just over 12k. But it turned out this was less than half of Jeff's record! Looks like I have a ways to go!
Day 2 began with breakfast while we watched the sun rise. I felt better than I thought I would, considering the previous day was my single-day elevation gain record, and I was working on only about 65% of the oxygen that I was used to. We packed up, and scrambled up to the top of the Grandstand to start up the North Ridge of the Grand Teton.
We wanted to give the original route on the North Ridge a shot, which a couple of badasses first climbed in 1931, but got a pitch up and the chimneys looked pretty wet and icy, so we decided to take the Italian Cracks variation instead. This ended up being a great choice; high quality climbing in the sun, which made a big difference when the rock was ice cold! The route was about 6 pitches long, and rejoined the OS at the chimney, where we short pitched up to the summit. We passed several other groups at this point; the first people we had seen since before we set out climbing the day before.
We moved on from the summit of the Grand to the Lower Saddle, using the descent route for the Owen Spalding. We took a detour to climb the Enclosure, a nearby sub summit of the Grand.
After a few hours, we were a few thousand feet lower and having lunch at the saddle huts. This is roughly the halfway point of the Grand Traverse, and is the completion of the shorter (but still really impressive) Cathedral Traverse. After a break, we moved on to our next objective, the Middle Teton (12,805'). We took a variation on the North Ridge route on the Middle, climbing on some seemingly unexplored but really high quality and exposed 5.7 terrain.
From the summit we headed south to the saddle between the Middle and the South Teton. Having not been on snow in months, I looked pretty funny trying to move across the snow fields, but we made it in one piece! We bivied on the saddle, which gave amazing views of over a hundred miles both east and west.
The saddle had a surprising amount of flowers and birds, including humming birds the size of sparrows. There was also plenty of water, flowing from the snowfield on the south side of the Middle Teton.
I woke up pretty sore the third day, but only three mountains to go until beer! We cooked up a quick breakfast, and headed up the South Teton (12,513'). We were on the summit about 45 minutes after leaving the saddle. We moved pretty quickly across a handful of minor summits; Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, and Spalding Peak. The climbing ranged from third to easy fifth where we moved roped together, along with a few pitches of dirty and loose 5.6 on the Ice Cream Cone.
Two to go! The next mountain was Cloudveil Dome (12,028'), which also was a nontechnical summit. A sharp ridge separated Spalding from Cloudveil, with a several thousand foot dropoff to the south.
The final mountain to climb was Nez Perce (11,900'). The route turned out to be a complex series of steps separated by fourth and easy fifth class climbing. Routefinding was challenging, especially given the many incorrectly placed cairns! But we kept moving upwards, and after a lot of short pitching, we were on the summit!
Getting back down to the trail seemed to take forever, covering several thousand vertical feet of very loose scree, something that I was not used to being an east coast climber. Once on level ground, we took a short break to refill on some water, and then jogged the last few miles to the trailhead. We were having pizza and beers at Dornan's at 6:00!
Without a doubt, this was the hardest and most committing route I have ever done. It was an incredible learning experience in terms of how to move quickly and safely through the mountains. A huge thanks to Jeff for agreeing to take me on this trip! Now its time to take a break, and then get in shape for the next objective!
The Grand Traverse:
- Summits: Teewinot, Mt. Owen, The Grand Teton, The Enclosure, Middle Teton, South Teton, Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, Spalding Peak, Cloudveil Dome, Nez Perce
- Time: 3 days
- Total Horizontal Distance: 14.6 mi
- Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 12,686'
- Starting Elevation: 6,736'
- Highest Elevation: 13,770'
- Average elevation between 1st, last summit: 12,125'
Grand Traverse Gear List:
- 45 meter rope
- 45 meter tagline (only required for one rap from Mount Owen)
- 6 cams: BD .3, .4, .5, .75, 1, 2 (would have been fine leaving the largest and smallest at home)
- ~12 nuts
- 6 alpine draws, and a few double lengths
- 4 lockers
- Belay devices
- Black Diamond Firstlight Tent
- Jetboil, fuel
- First aid kit
- Spot beacon
- One ice axe (used for cutting steps in several areas)
My Personal Gear:
- Cilogear 30:30 Backpack
- La Sportiva Ganda approach shoes (entire route done in these)
- Wool socks, plus a spare set (we all read Annapurna, bring spare socks!)
- Arc'teryx Gamma AR Softshell pants
- Long underwear
- Thin longsleeve synthetic shirt (complete with AAC logo!)
- Brooks midlayer
- Patagonia Nanopuff
- Rab Neutrino hardshell
- BD softshell gloves
- Wool hat
- BD Helmet
- 20 degree Enlightened Equipment Revelation sleeping bag
- Neoair sleeping pad
- 1.5 liter camelback
- 1 liter water bottle
- 4 Mountainhouse meals (breakfasts and dinners)
- Snacks (Pro Bars, shotblocks, pouches of tuna, snickers, and tons of espresso clifshots)
- Camera, phone (cell service at every summit!)
- Glacier Glasses
- Hiking Pole (was really glad I brought it, especially for descents)
What we didn't bring, but you might want depending on conditions:
- Mountaineering boots
- Ice axes for each person
- Heavier down layer
- Water purification
- Climbing shoes (wouldn't recommend)
- Chalkbag (wouldn't recommend)
- Climbing tape/gloves (most hand cracks were too icy anyway!)