“Don’t let go of the rope,” David yelled.
That’s the only advice my climbing partner could come up with as I was hanging there, back to the rock, feet flailing for any purchase, and a drop of 20-plus feet staring at me from below. Joker! I could have come up with that advice myself. Needless to say, I followed it, and eventually navigated my way down the small cliff at the bottom of the saddle between Grand Teton and Middle Teton, without doing additional damage to my pride, and, more importantly, my middle-aged bones.
“Just perfect,” I quietly muttered. What a perfect way to cap off a failed ascent of the Grand and, not to mention, a perfect way to illustrate to everyone around (thank the gods of the mountain that the only other person around was my partner) that I truly was a “novice” climber.
My attempt to climb Grand Teton in August 2004 was my first time on a “real” mountain. Prior to that, my only experience in the mountains consisted of training climbs on Mount Si, a 4,167-foot peak in the Washington Cascades favored by beginners like myself. Which begs the question, “How does a novice climber decide that the Grand Teton is a good idea for a first climb?” The answer has plagued men (and some women) for centuries: testosterone! That is how I came to be hanging onto a rope, facing outwards, with my feet in the air, when I should have been home drinking light beer and watching preseason football.
But, let me start at the beginning. It was late fall of 2003, when my boss, David, came into my office with a challenge. “John,” he said, “you’ve been talking about climbing for some time now and I challenge you to climb the Grand Teton with me this next August.”
I should have run, that is what I should have done. Or at least walked speedily down the hall to preserve as much dignity as possible for a fleeing coward. But there it was: a challenge! Now, I am competitive by nature (like most litigation attorneys I suppose), but this was more than just friendly competition: it was a challenge to my hardiness. My testosterone immediately kicked in.
“Oh yes, I accept your challenge,” I retorted. After all, I was younger than David. If he could do it, I could also (or so my testosterone brashly reasoned for me). Never mind the fact that David had been climbing since he was a kid. And I, on the other hand, rarely left the comfort of my recliner, and then only to walk to the local DQ for a blizzard.
But I took up the challenge, and began training immediately. I started on the treadmill at the local health club. Training was “tough” at first — a half mile, in the first few months, was a huge triumph, and that only came with gasps and spasms. Side stitches and leg cramps were my constant companions. Even my shoulders began to give me pain, and all they did was hang on to my flailing arms. After years of neglect, I suppose I deserved this bodily rebellion. But I persevered, slowly working up to five miles a run.
July gradually rolled around, and by then I had logged hundreds of miles on the treadmill. I had read several books on climbing also, including John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Like Krakauer, I would some day climb Everest, I smartly decided. I was a great climber — in my mind, if not on the mountains. I envisioned myself scaling the Grand Teton, standing on top with the great mountaineers of the world, holding a flag and proudly claiming the peak for…well, for me. It was time to hit the hills!
My first foray was to Mount Si, at the foot of the Cascades. I pictured myself in the woods, hiking alone, braving nature and the elements. The “solitary woodsman!” Boy, did I get that wrong. All of Seattle, it seems, climbs Mount Si on July weekends. Every wannabe (including me) chose that particular day to scale Si’s lofty peak. But there I was, and off I went. It is impossible to get lost on Mount Si. Besides the hoards of people to follow, the paths are as wide as a county road and as clearly marked. So I grandly followed the crowd up the mountain.
Like most new climbers, I was as much enthralled with the associated gear as I was with the mountains. By this time I had paid several visits to REI and acquired some delightful things. I was sporting a new pair of Lowa hiking boots, “with Gortex,” the young REI sales associate informed me, “to keep the water off” (this is Seattle after all!); I had donned the latest in waterproof hiking pants, with matching wind breaker; and I was carrying a slightly used, but very sleek, Gregory pack. I looked the part of the experienced mountaineer, or so I told myself.
I followed the crowd up the mountain — or tried to! Mountains are steep! No one told me that or the fact that running on a treadmill, while surely helpful, is not a substitute for actually climbing mountains. Young boys and old ladies alike passed me by. All this wonderful gear, and I still couldn’t get up this mountain. So I did what any intelligent, middle-aged man does, I turned around. The crush of disappointment hit me hard back at the parking lot. I wasn’t a great climber after all, but the Gilligan of climbers.
Testosterone, nevertheless, took over again (or was it fear?). With the Grand Teton trip looming ever closer, I determined to batter my body into shape. The Stairmaster became my mountain. I trained everyday, ascending more stairs than Jacob’s angels. I also ventured back to Mount Si several times, following the masses to the top. Late August eventually came. It was time to test my metal on the grandest peak in Wyoming.
David and I had signed up with Exum Guides, a well-respected guide service based at the foot of the Teton mountains. Before we could attempt the Grand, Exum required us to take a two-day climbing class.
The first day was a beginning rock climbing course. We had a wonderful young guide, Dan. He was fairly new to guiding — in his first or second year, I believe — and very enthusiastic. Dan patiently taught us basic knot tying, belay skills, and how to patch a seriously damaged eye…
We were on a steep pitch, and I was climbing in the rain with another novice belaying me. When I fell, there was too much slack in the line, and I went down hard, on my eye. Which begs the question of why I didn’t use my arms to stop myself — but apparently I was too busy using my eye to do that. Oh yes, and there was blood, lots of blood. So there I was at the bottom of the pitch…bleeding. Yet I couldn’t back down (too much testosterone again). So I resumed climbing, and continued bleeding. The rain mixed with the blood to present a really nice gore factor. When I crested the top of the climb, Dan turned ghostly white, which contrasted nicely with his bulging eyes. This was his first injury in his short guiding career, and he was nerrrr-vous. He tried to clean up the blood with cotton balls, and sputtered about canceling the rest of the course.
“Do you know how long I have trained for this climb?” I retorted. “And the months of suffering I have gone through? Nuts to canceling the rest of the day!” So I grabbed my shirttail, wiped away the rest of the blood, and directed Dan to put a simple band-aid on the cut. We all finished the day with a flourish, and Dan ended it by asking me to sign a liability release freeing him from responsibility.
The second day of climbing school was not fun! The actual climbing was a thrill-seeker’s delight, especially since it was my first time rappelling. Hanging out in the open, with nothing but air around and under me, was exhilarating. The guide, however, was a screamer — “Watch your rope!” “Move back against the wall!” “Don’t grab there!” — were all bellowed with military zeal.
On the third day, we began our ascent of the majestic Grand. David and I showed up around 10 a.m. to begin the climb to the saddle, where we would stay the night before an early morning assault on the summit (Exum has a hut at the saddle and provides sleeping arrangements). However, we showed up to find that it had been snowing all night on the summit, and we now faced several feet of snow on the ground. We would not be climbing in T-shirts and approach shoes, as we had been told earlier, but in parkas and mountaineering boots. Good grief, I had just learned to climb yesterday in 80-degree weather, and now I was going to assault the Grand in a snowstorm! I was becoming convinced that the gods definitely did not want me on their mountain.
We were also assigned another young guide (whose name has been changed to Bob in this article — after all, he shouldn’t be held accountable years later). Bob was in a bad mood when we met, apparently due to some trouble with his girlfriend. He barely acknowledged our existence on the hike up and through Garnet Canyon, and walked many yards ahead. Well, at least he isn’t a screamer, I thought to myself.
As we stopped in lower Garnet Canyon for a short break, Bob said to fill up on water if we needed. A more experienced guide, who fortuitously happened to be passing by with his own clients on their way to the saddle, told us to wait for an hour or so. “The water here is not clean,” he reported. I’m glad he happened along at the right time, or we would have been left with some epic bowel activity.
We made it to the saddle without further adventure, or should I say misadventure. Immediately below the saddle is a small cliff with an old rope (large enough in diameter that I could not reach around it with one hand) hanging down from the top. A climber scales the cliff, using the rope. We made it up the rope with no problems, and once at the saddle, Bob continued to ignore us until the next morning.
That first night at the Exum hut was wonderfully exciting for a middle-aged novice like me. I was finally in the mountains, and I was not disappointed. I could see all the way into Idaho, high mountain lakes peaked out at me, and clouds brushed my face. It was simply… Grand. I finally understood why the gods dwell in such places.
The next morning we arose before light to begin the assault. (I just love these military descriptions. Testosterone again!) I was surprised at the large amount of snow on the ground and I asked Bob if we were going to put on crampons. “You will put them on only if I tell you to put them on, and not unless I tell you,” he snapped. What a delightful fellow.
Off we went, with Bob walking so far ahead in the dark I couldn’t see him. I was left to ascend the Grand by trying to follow his footprints in the snow, which was less than fun. We finally made it to a point in the climb called the belly crawl, which is a ledge a climber hangs on to with his hands; then, placing his feet against the vertical wall below the ledge, butt out, the climber works his way across the ledge hand over hand. The exposure is thousands of feet, or so it seems. Because of the unexpected snow, there was a back up of climbers at the belly crawl, with three or four guides and their clients all milling about. Bob had us “sit down, with your backs to the wall, and don’t move!” as he and another guide went to chip ice off the rock.
Waiting there in the snow, with my not-so-waterproof hiking boots (never take advice from teenage sales associates), I realized the gods had prevailed. I was not going to summit the Grand today. There was no way any rational, middle-aged person in my position would continue. I turned to David — without getting up, of course, which would have violated Bob’s latest dictate — and told him I was done.
“I am not having fun, I am freezing, the guide is a jerk, and they are chipping ice off the rock. Chipping ice of the rock, for god’s sake!” I was not going any further. Bob seemed particularly delighted when I told him. He immediately suggested we summit the Enclosure, a shorter peak adjacent to the Grand, and then head down early. In all fairness to him, it was a wonderful suggestion. The summit of the Enclosure was spectacular — I had finally gotten to glimpse the long-awaited view from a mountain peak.
On the way down, Bob left. And I really mean left. Shortly after coming off the summit he took off with a comment that we would be all right getting out. “If you want help, just hook up with another guide when they come off the Grand in a few hours,” he declared. And away he went. Bob was gone and I was again left to my own novice devices.
So there I was, hanging on for dear life. “Don’t let go of the rope,” David shouted, with a grin at my ridiculous predicament. “Thanks buddy, but I wasn’t planning on it,” I nervously snickered back. “In fact, I might just wait here until Bob returns.”
I eventually managed to get my feet on a ledge, after a little contortionist act (or was it just yoga?), and turn into the rock face again. The rest of the descent was easy, despite the thumping in my chest and the shaking in my hands. David and I then navigated our way out of Garnet Canyon (actually David navigated and I obediently followed, thanking the gods the entire time that he was there, or I would have wound up in Kansas) and back to the Exum headquarters. We didn’t say anything about Bob, because we were still pretty stoked from summiting the Enclosure and in a very generous mood.
Despite my ill-fated beginning, that day on the summit of the Enclosure began my true love for the mountains. Having earned my first summit through great adversity, the gods began to let me visit them more often. Over the next couple years, I scaled several peaks in the Olympic and Cascade mountains, without too much misadventure. (I don’t really count skinned knees, bruised shins, or pulled muscles, all of which are badges of honor for middle-aged novice climbers.)
Two years later I returned to the Tetons, and to Exum, with a little more wisdom. “No more young guides for me,” I told them. “An experienced guide, over fifty, willing to teach, patient, and definitely not a screamer,” I requested. And that is exactly what I got.
Tom has been guiding for decades. He guided me on one-day ascents of both Middle Teton and Teewinot that year, instructing me from his broad experience the entire time. And we talked philosophy. Philosophy! On Teewinot! Life was simply perfect for those few short hours.
But the Grand remained unscaled, and David’s challenge remained unfilled. I had to return!
The following year, 2007, I convinced an old law school buddy, Nate, to climb Grand Teton with me, in one day. “A one day ascent of the Grand is a real achievement,” Tom had told me the previous year. So Nate and I began training for a July climb. (It wouldn’t snow on the Grand in July, I told myself.)
Tom was not available, but a co-worker recommended another Exum guide, Cara. I instantly balked, because Cara definitely wasn’t over fifty. “Another young guide,” I bleakly thought. But we chatted on the phone and Cara seemed nice. Which she truly is, in addition to being experienced and knowledgeable. She freely shared her skills and knowledge with us. She took us to the top of the Grand and back without incident, all in one day. We saw shooting stars streaking through the inky night sky in lower Garnet Canyon; in upper Garnet Canyon we saw the sun rise, thrusting red and yellow fingers into the horizon; we glimpsed geysers in Yellowstone National Park from our perch on the 13,770-foot summit; and, most importantly, two middle-aged friends and their young guide finally conquered the Grand.
So, it only took me four years to summit Grand Teton, but I finally fulfilled David’s challenge. And what did this novice, middle-aged, climber learn along the way? Always accept a challenge, because it could change your life in new and wonderful ways. Always persevere, because the gods may just be testing your resolve. Whether young or old, always demand a patient and kind guide. And lastly, whatever you do, “Don’t let go of the rope.”
John H. Ridge lives in Redmond Washington. He is an attorney with Stoel Rives LLP and a former philosophy professor at Northwest University.