Sizzling summer temps and quiet blue skies provide the ideal backdrop when climbing the Grand Teton in Wyoming. The Exum Ridge, a trademark route, gets climbed ad nauseam because of its aesthetic, scenic nature and airy exposure. Parties often tackle the route in a long day. Guides solo the upper Ridge, short-roping clients through the exposed 5th class terrain, arriving at the summit in customary good form.
However, it’s a completely different story when Old Man Winter perks up – which went well into what most consider summer months this year. Seven thousand feet separate the valley floor from the spikey crown of the Teton Range. Late Spring storms and huge temperature gradients paint the upper stretches of the mountain in snow, ice and rime that often linger until mid-July—a full-meal-deal for mountaineers.
I climbed the upper route a few weeks ago with a friend who’s a much more experienced winter climber, which is good for me because … well … he’ll lead the hard pitches and I get the added value of learning how better to negotiate technical terrain in its winterized state of affairs. At the time of our climb, one guiding service forbid its guides from taking clients up the Exum Ridge because of conditions.
Much of the allure is experiencing a broad spectrum of route conditions. In doing so, we bring significantly more gear to accommodate the different circumstances. One major consideration in gear selection is footwear. I have SCARPA Freneys, a Gore-Tex ice-climbing boot that I like for its warmth and dexterity in moving over snowy ice and rock. Not only did we climb the entire route with ice tools and crampons, the wind kept us clad in puffy jackets, hats and gloves. As much as I like snow and ice, I’ll never make friends with wind. Having no aspirations to take up sailing, I’m comfortable with that decision.
I like the mixed bag of early season conditions in the Tetons. What in late summer is considered loose scrambling over crappy rock is relatively easy for kicking steps now covered in snow. Conversely, the very-exposed signature step-around move from the top of Wall Street to the base of the Golden Staircase is considerably more attention-grabbing. For a moderate climber like myself with limited winter climbing experience, making the snowy traverse in gloves, one ice tool, boots and crampons is not the same thing as shimmying around warm granite in sticky rubber, shorts and sunglasses.
Yet, that’s what’s cool. Having begun this trip in the humid, hyper-green valley floor, we got to utilize a large part of our mountaineering skill set to reach our icy goal, for a dynamic, extensive and rewarding mountain experience.
Er … mostly. On our descent, Mother Nature threw me an educational bone in the form of an ice chunk that tagged me square in the mouth (should of kept my head down), sending me to the ER for stitches later that afternoon—so, uh, not quite the full experience I wanted.
Acknowledging my new scar, my climbing partner told me, “Look at the bright side,” he said. “Everybody else in the world just got better looking.”