A Lesson from the Tetons

A Lesson from the Tetons

The Tetons were the venue to a very special chapter of my life. It was a chapter that filled 7 winters and 5 summers. I moved there when I was 19 full of ambition to pursue my passion for adventure and big mountain skiing.  I heard Jackson Hole was the best, so I drove myself and everything I owned in my old Subaru over Teton Pass in the dead of a wintery night - during one of the biggest snow storms of the year. I crept over the unplowed Teton pass in a raging blizzard. When I saw the twinkling lights of Wilson Wyoming like beacons in the night, I knew I had found what I was seeking; a mountain winter wonderland.
I had countless adventures in these mountains. I could write about endless inspirations of deep powder days and epic long ski tours or stories about scary moments, close calls and glorious snowy summits. But the story that I am going to tell you is when these mountains humbled me in a way that I was not used to, and taught me the a thing or two about hubris and humility.

After three winters obsessively exploring the jagged ridges and folds of the Teton mountain range I decided to spend my first summer in Jackson. Through pouring over maps and executing ski routes with partners who were born and raised there, I came to believe I knew the peaks and valleys that make up this impressive range of mountains. I had come to know them during the winter, covered in feet upon feet of snow. I had never actually been in to Teton National Park during the summer months, so my first summer there I had a longing to continue my exploration.  Trying to find a weather window that coincided with a full time landscaping job and climbing partner proved difficult, so when the weather finally did cooperate, I thought I would take advantage of it myself and solo the Grand Teton. How hard could it be right? I had dreams of skiing it someday so a summer ascent seemed quite attainable.  I felt confident in my route finding as well as my skills moving over rock without gear or a rope. 

I took off pre dawn and made quick work of the lower approach. I had that buzz of excitement I always get when heading out on a big adventure alone.  As the sun came up I realized the peaks were shrouded in clouds, as they commonly are first thing in the morning. I also remember feeling the profound difference between these mountains during the winter, which I had come to feel at home in, compared with the summer, which felt surprisingly foreign. As I pushed up into the alpine, the clouds began to lift but held the actual peaks from visibility. I did not stop for a few hours and felt I must be approaching the lower saddle but I could not shake how different it looked with boulder fields instead of smooth snow slopes. I passed three young boys who were stopped looking at a map. I pushed on and kept looking for the Owen Spaulding route that should be right there on the south side of the Grand Teton, which was still not quite visible. It must be right there but I felt hesitation creeping in. I was questioning my surroundings, in a place I thought I knew so well. I checked my map and yes, it was right there, all I had to do was keep heading up. It looked different than the photos I had seen. As I sat questioning my surroundings, the three boys marched past. I was so thankful that I had not seen any other people yet. This was my big adventure and the less I had to share it with other humans the better.  I was proud and stubborn and wanted to do this on my own. But it couldn't hurt to double check, right? I sat my ego down next to me and trotted over to them. I casually asked if they too were climbing the Owen Spaulding route just there in the clouds. They stopped, and quietly starred at me. They asked if I was alone. I said yep and announced I was just going to zip up the Owen Spaulding. The leader of the scouts puffed up his chest and announced "That is not the Grand Teton. That is the Middle Teton and you are in the wrong valley and about to climb the wrong peak." He the treated me as though I did not belong here alone, and suggested I join them on their walk-up accent of the Middle Teton. It’s a good thing I left my ego back there on that rock because that information was enough to shatter it. How could I have mistaken the Middle Teton for the GRAND Teton!? I spent hundreds of hours in these mountains and hundreds more just starring at them! I have way more mountains skills that this! I double checked the map and found that in my haste I had sped past a simple and incredibly well marked trail junction that led up to the basin of the Middle and not the Grand. The embarrassment and disappointment of my mistake that welled up inside of me was monumental. I picked up my damaged ego and thought I should make something of the day and follow boys up the Middle in defeat. The summit was lovely but there, directly to the north, the Grand stood towering in front of me - so grand and unmistakable. I ran down alone, I saw the South Teton not far away and still burning from my mistake I went up to the South summit. I returned to my car by dark, tired but not yet satisfied. I barley slept that night, though my muscles were weary from the long day. I needed to finish what I set out to do. I got up at 4 a.m with determination, grabbed my backpack and returned to the trailhead in the inky dawn. I made my way back up the lowers through the silent, crystal clear morning and diligently made the correct turn at the intersection. The trail lead me up to the lower saddle, then the upper saddle and then to the Owen Spaulding route. I pushed on, barely stopping but eyes wide open. I focused through the exposed crux and made my way to the summit. It was Grand indeed! I sat on the top and realized it wasn't about reaching the top as much as it was about spending time finding my way through nature's rugged puzzle. I descended the 7,000ft back to my car. The next morning, exhausted but still inspired to continue learning, I woke up at 4 a.m. and returned. I had not been up Teewinot, one of the next peaks to the north. My curiosity and humility gave me energy to grind upwards and see what that journey had to offer.

The Tetons taught me to never stop being a student of the mountains and to never stop paying attention because you might miss the most obvious of signs. Something shifted in me then. It became clear that this life adventure I am on is not about climbing to summits or skiing lines, its about moving through the world, being humble and open and absolutely enjoying what you find along the way. 

 

 


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