In January, I signed up to climb the Grand Teton. The Grand is the largest in the Teton Range that sits within Grand Teton National Park just south of Yellowstone National Park. The mountaintop sits at 13,775ft. I didn’t do much research on the climb, but I acquired knowledge from one of my best friends who had done the mountain a couple of years ago. Knowing that I would have to climb 7000ft, I started hiking and biking in March. Perfect timing with Covid-19 shutting the world down.
My training days slowly went from short day hikes that eventually turned into a peak-a-week theme for my friends, Kara and Suzi, and me. Kara designated the mountains; Suzi and I followed. The peak-a-week theme started in May and continued until a few weeks before my summit bid on August 9th. It was an excellent summer of getting high into the local mountain ranges. I had not climbed most of them before, now adding them to my ever-growing list of achieved peaks.
In the weeks leading up to the climb, I became anxious and nervous to the point of making me question proceeding. I was an emotional wreck and couldn’t seem to function well in daily life. In fact, dealing with everyday life this last year has been a sort of struggle. Most people know me to be outgoing, gregarious, and happy go lucky. As I move through the current change of life, I find myself dealing with ups and downs I have never experienced before.
The emotional train wreck started when my Dad asked me why I was doing this. I didn’t have an answer for him. I’m not sure if any mountaineer has an explanation for why they climb mountains and put themselves at death’s door. Could it be the pain, the challenge, the empowerment of making it to a summit? To become one with the mountain? Honestly, I will never be able to answer that question. I cannot explain the call of the mountains.
The Grand is a big mountain to climb but not many people die on it. It’s as safe as driving your car to work if everything is done correctly. It’s just another day in the mountains. I spent months preparing and felt like I would succeed. The anxiety came from the unknown. Weather, human error, injury, rockfall or slide–any one of these things could end the trip or my life. The chances were very slim but, nonetheless, I couldn’t help but worry about the negative consequences.
After Kara, Suzi and I climbed Divide Peak on July 22nd, I crashed mentally and physically. I knew that if I kept pushing I would suffer from adrenal fatigue again, a condition with which I had struggled last year. I backed off my training and gave my body a break. After a week or so of downtime, I felt strong again and Kara and I knocked off Elephant Head peak. I felt amazing and healthy and felt like I wanted to climb the Grand the next day! It was similar to waiting for Christmas to arrive. The anticipation was killing me and I couldn’t focus on anything else. It blew my mind to think I was going to climb a mountain I had first laid eyes on 25 years before when I first moved out west.
This climb would be the most significant technical climb that I had ever done. I have gone higher in elevation and scaled Mt. Whitney in a day, which is the highest in the continental US and 22 miles round trip. But I wasn’t sure how this would match up or how well my body would hold up.
As I drove down Highway 20 towards Jackson Hole, I had my first chance to view the Grand Teton from a distance. I thought I might throw up. “Gawd, that mountain is huge!” Insecurity, doubt and crazy talk started taking over my brain. Then hysterical laughter started while my head shook in disbelief. This is nuts! But I knew in my heart that I could do it. I kept telling myself that I had trained all year for this, that I was strong, and that it was going to be just another day in the mountains.
My dream of climbing this magical mountain was finally coming true. When 2020 rang in my statement of “wanting to” changed to “I’m climbing the Grand.” After settling in at my friend’s house in Jackson, I set off for a little wander up Snow King ski area to grab views of the mountain. After laying eyes on the east side of the Tetons, I settled and became excited. A smile came across my face and I was ready to conquer. Many moments leading up to this time brought tears to my eyes. The realization of the dream was soon to become a reality.
On Friday, August 7th I met my guide Smith Maddrey. He was a tall, handsome guy with heaps of climbing knowledge. I knew we’d get along when he told me he had worked for an adaptive program and helped guide Eric Weinheimer up a mountain in Russia. We breezed through the prep day and talked about what I needed to bring for the two-day excursion. We also discussed going to the top in one day and then camping at the saddle, instead of hiking to the saddle then climbing up for sunrise the next morning. As he gave me paperwork to sign my thoughts were, “Am I about to sign my life away?” I questioned my choice many times over. Was I signing up to die?! I shook off the notion as my gut instinct was telling me otherwise.
On Saturday evening the night before the climb, Smith checked in with me and went over last minute details and our plan. We confirmed climbing to the top in one day and camping at the saddle as the weather was in our favor. We were due to meet at the Lupin Meadows trailhead in the park at 5:30 am the next day. That night, even though I had found some inner peace and calm, I couldn’t sleep. The 4:00 am wake up alarm came, although I didn’t need it.
I grabbed my backpack, put on my shoes, and drove into the Grand Teton National Park. It was “GO” time. On the way the stars were shining bright, and I saw a shooting star fly through the sky. Then shortly after, I saw another. I took that as a good luck sign and turned into the parking lot with a smile and giddiness. It was still dark. I found Smith and we took off, not needing our headlamps as the sunrise brought enough light.
The first couple of hours were a bit of a grind with not much conversation. It was still early–nice and cool for hiking straight uphill. We were climbing at a rate of almost 1000ft per mile. The sky opened up to a crystal clear blue, and the granite peaks were starting to show their faces. The hike to the saddle was 7 miles and 5000ft of elevation gain. We meandered through a couple of boulder fields, passed along Spalding creek, had to navigate a 4th class climb, and then I finally waddled to the lower saddle camp. One of the Exum guides led me to my tent, and I kindly laid down for a half-hour. It turns out that a small enclosed space within a Black Diamond tent with a ground mat turned out to be bliss. After resting, I had lunch and packed up my summit backpack with the items needed for the final push to the summit.
With the peak looming above, I had to fight back tears–trying to escape many times, digging deep inside for strength to continue and not give up. The required technical skills were not beyond my level, but the exposure is what would get me. The consequences of making a mistake could end in death or injury. I knew that was unlikely but still couldn’t get it out of my head. Smith would guide me. I asked him to tell me what I needed to do but to not mention any consequences or I would get in my head and possibly talk myself out of continuing.
We slowly started up into the abyss of rocks that would lead us up to the peak. Smith set up the ropes when needed and used “disaster rigging” that included an extra Camelot shoved in a crack with a carabiner tied to the rope in spots that were of high consequence. The rigging would prevent us from falling and gave us the warm and fuzzy feeling of being safe should he or I get hit or knocked off course by a rogue rockfall. There were a few times I would laugh hysterically at that situation I clearly put myself in. It seemed more appropriate to do that than to cry and give up. A few times when I said to myself, “I’m done, this is scary, I want to go back,” Smith was out of sight and earshot so giving up wasn’t an option. He didn’t let me give up, only took us safely to the next route.
There were so many times that I looked down and was in awe by the beauty that surrounded me, but it also scared me as the drop-offs were thousands of feet below me. Smith would disappear into the abyss of beautiful granite to set up a belay, allowing me to take a moment to become one with the rock. Sometimes I had views of the other surrounding summits, including the Middle Teton. Sometimes I needed to stop and catch my breath. The altitude didn’t bother me too much as we weren’t moving too swiftly.
We had to traverse a spot called ‘the crawl.” There was a sheer drop to the valley floor from near the top of the mountain. The option was to crawl or shimmy over, and though I wanted to crawl, I actually wanted to turn around and not do it at all. There was a gentleman who came along free soloing–meaning without a rope–that came by right as I was about to go, leaving me in awe. He was doing it without a rope, which meant I could do it with a rope. After I told myself not to look down and made my way across. Shortly after, we came upon a group of women near my age coming down. They cheered me on and said I was almost to the top! They stated a couple of hundred feet! I was elated. I couldn’t believe it!! I was almost there. A few more technical routes and I would finally be standing at the top of the GRAND TETON!
Smith was moving more swiftly and had the biggest grin on his face I had seen since I met him. We arrived safely at the top and what a rush! After 10 hours of climbing with an hour break, functioning on a few hours sleep, at 3:30 pm on August 9th, I summited the Grand Teton and finalized a fifteen year or more goal. This is the moment that mountaineers strive for. All the pain, hard work, not giving up, digging deep and finding diligence, resilience, perseverance and persistence to get to the top paid off. A wonderful feeling of accomplishment. A dream summit achieved in just one day. The views took my breath away as I soaked it all in. I got out my phone and Facetimed my parents. The tears flowed.
After many photos and videos, I sat and enjoyed the views. It seemed surreal to be sitting there after so many months of training, dreaming and planning. Unfortunately, all that work to get to the top is only the half of it. I still had to go back down most of the way I had come up. Downclimbing this beast of a mountain soon became my least favorite part of the trip. I managed to make it down some of the routes I came up without grace but got it done. I tore my new climbing pants by dragging my legs through spots because it was easier to slide down on my bum.
We rappelled off a tall cliff and worked our way through a section called the “eye of the needle.”. We slowly down climbed the boulders, rocks and routes we had climbed up. I started to get tired and found myself yawning while waiting for Smith to reach me after he downclimbed sections I had just come through. We arrived back at the lower saddle camp at 6:30 pm. I was starving and found my cold pizza stash and hammered in. I took a sweet cocktail of arnica, a CBD gummy and a couple of Advil shortly after finishing my dinner of champions. I was in my tent almost sacked out when Smith knocked on my tent to congratulate me and mentioned the sun was about to set if I wanted to view it. I decided to get up and check it out. I had to pee anyway.
As I got out, the glow of the setting light was shining on the peak I had just climbed. The difference in how I viewed the summit from that moment is different. The day before it had seemed daunting. Now, not so much. My thoughts went from, “Holy crap, you’re going to climb that?” to “Wow, I did it and I now understand the unknown that kept me up at night the last few months. I conquered it.” I walked a few feet from my tent to view one of the most beautiful sunsets I had seen in a long time and soaked it all in before passing out for the night.
I wish I could remember the details of all the climb segments, but as the time moves away, the details become a blur. It feels like the whole thing was a figment of my imagination. What I do remember is the feeling of achieving a major goal by putting my head down, doing the prep work of hiking my ass off every week to get in shape, and persevering when I wanted to give up.
I remember a point near the summit where I mentioned to Smith that I had no idea why anyone would ever want to do this again. I was good with a one and done scenario. He gently laughed as we moved on. On the way down Garnet Canyon the next day we came across a gentleman around my age who was heading to the summit for sunset and then going to climb up the Middle Teton the next morning. Funny how my brain works as it started firing ideas of coming back and doing the same thing. Until I got home and discussed with my friend Scotty about attempting the Grand Traverse, which is a slew of summits, including the Grand, Middle and South Teton, along with a couple of peaks that can be scaled in a couple of days. Insert the hysterical laughter of a crazy adventurer who doesn’t realize her limits.
About Diana – Owner of Your Adventure Rx
If you thought you couldn’t do it, think again. If you hang out with us for too long you’ll start believing in yourself and leave knowing you can accomplish anything. Diana is an Adventurer, Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist (CTRS), worked as a professional outdoor recreation educator for people with and without disabilities for the last 20 years, traveled to over 20 countries, and is also certified in Wilderness First Aid. She climbed many mountain peaks, biked numerous trails, and paddled all around the world.