During the peak of July’s sweltering heat, I abandoned my day job to live in a dirty Jeep with three wild boys, including my beau Niko. We spent two few weeks traversing the American Midwest, in search of good climbing and even better food. Armed with two cameras, high spirits and an arsenal of disinfecting wipes, I eagerly headed off on my first extended climbing trip.
The tales I collected during my travels could fill a novel. There were the bed bugs I picked up in an abandoned fraternity house in Tulsa, the stunning community gardens and colossal burritos in Denver, and the time we lost all our gear during a wind storm in Kansas, and that’s just to name a few.
Sifting through the stories, there is one adventure that outweighs all the rest: the time the boys tried to summit the Grand Teton in Wyoming. It was the climax of the trip, the epic event that was to define our entire journey – and I wanted nothing to do with it.
As we made our way across the Wyoming state line, we received a call from our companion who worked at the Grand Teton National Park. He told us that sixteen climbers attempting the summit had gone missing on the mountain after being struck by lightning; one person had already been found dead. I cried as we drove past the looming mountain peaks before crashing for the night at an employee housing unit within the park.
When the sun rose, I drove the boys to the trailhead where they would begin the rugged eight-hour approach towards the base of the treacherous climb. Enormous snow patches sat as obstacles between the trail and the Grand’s peak, and they were ill-prepared for winter conditions. Supervised by their supposed guide, our old friend Dan, the boys hastily duct-taped their shoes to ‘waterproof’ them, and Niko donned a windbreaker that he’d stolen from the fraternity house in Tulsa.
The boys loaded up their makeshift packs with heavy ropes, canned beans and an ice pick that had mysteriously appeared during the night. I snapped a few photos of the crew, bid my boyfriend a tearful farewell, and watched them walk until the path twisted out of view.
That evening, I retreated to a cozy hotel in Jackson Hole – thanks for treating me to that, Mom. I tossed and turned the entire night, anxious to hear from the boys.
The next day, as I was relaxing in a steamy sauna at my quaint hotel, the boys were engaged in an epic battle against the outdoors. After scrambling up areas of loose boulders and wading through waist-deep snowfields, they set up camp on the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton.
While the boys were descending the mountain with dwindling water supplies and no true concept of where they were going, I was enjoying a leisurely day of climbing at Jackson Hole’s indoor rock gym, The Enclosure.
I received a phone call from the two boys who decided to attempt the summit, who told me that Niko and our friend McGoo had chosen to retreat down the mountain after falling ill with cases of vertigo and heightened superstitions during the night.
My instincts immediately told me to head back towards the trailhead. As I pulled into the dirt parking lot where the trail began, Niko emerged from the dense trees, panting and red in the face. McGoo turned up a few minutes later, begging for water and exclaiming that he had never been so relieved to see my face.
The first order of business was to drive back towards Jackson Hole, where McGoo demanded that we find him a Shirley Temple. As I fed the boys french fries and fountain sodas, our thoughts turned to our remaining road-trip comrade, Jeff, who was still climbing somewhere on the Grand Teton. The day faded into night, and as we checked into a seedy motel, we grew worried for Jeff.
When we finally made contact with Jeff late the next day, it became clear that Niko and McGoo’s instinctual decision to retreat was a wise one. The remaining crew had muscled through a climb that had been called “a classic 5.7” – an easy climb for anyone – but it turned out that “classic” meant it had been rated decades ago, and now deserved a much higher grade of difficulty.
During the ascent, the boys ran out of gear and had to wait for an hour on a tiny cliff ledge until the rest of the crew made it up the route, which they never did. After a 40-foot fall, an injured hand and vomiting on a few rocks, the boys were forced to retreat with only a few pitches of climbing left before the summit.
Some may qualify this misadventure as an utter failure, but that’s simply a matter of perspective. The attempted summit of the Grand Teton taught us valuable lessons about trusting your gut, being prepared and how not to duct tape your shoes.
You know what they say about adventuring – it’s not a true adventure until something, or everything, goes wrong.