Climbing the Grand Teton - A Ski Butlers Story
At Ski Butlers, we are surrounded by adventurous people, with inspiring stories from the mountains. We want to bring more of these stories to you.
Our first story is about climbing The Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Last weekend, the president and founder of Ski Butlers, Bryn Carey, had this opportunity and here is his tale.
“Intense! Unbelievable! Inspiring!” – Bryn Carey
When my dad asked me if I wanted to climb the Grand Teton with Zahan Billimoria of the Exum Mountain Guides, I said, “Of course! When can we go?”
At this point, the only knowledge I had about the Grand Teton was that it was a beautiful and stunning mountain north of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. I had no idea of the rich climbing history, the exposure, the challenging terrain, the intensity, the triumph, the reward, or the lifetime experience I would walk away with.
At 13,770 feet, the Grand Teton has some of North America’s most classic climbing routes. Climbers have been coming to The Grand for over 100 years. The first ascent of The Grand was on August 11, 1898 by William Owen, Franklin Spalding, Frank Peterson, and John Shive via the now-called Owen-Spalding route. However, there is a controversy on whether they were actually the first to climb The Grand; some say Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson climbed it 25 years earlier.
My first ascent of The Grand would be with my dad Chip Carey, my brother’s girlfriend Krissy Poehling, and Exum Mountain Guide and friend Zahan Billimoria, whom we call “Z.”
Saturday August 25, 2012
Our party met at the Exum Mountain Guides office at 6:15am and hiked about 6 miles and 5,000 vertical feet up into the Alpine, to the Lower Saddle of The Grand. Arriving around noon, we saw the route we would climb for the first time. It was one of the most breathtaking, yet most intimidating sights I had ever seen. This is when the nerves and adrenaline began to kick in.
We would be climbing the Upper Exum Ridge, which is the most popular route up the mountain. The route and ridge are named after Glenn Exum, who pioneered the climb in 1932. He is also the co-founder of Exum Mountain Guides. It is a 5.3 – 5.5 exposed route.
To get to Exum Ridge, we had a 45 minute aerobic climb with little exposure. Our entire crew was beginning to gain confidence; however, none of us understood what was just around the corner. After a small roped-in section over a slab, we traversed east and saw where we were about to go; a small “path” across a ledge to nowhere.
When Glenn Exum discovered Exum Ridge, he was 16 years-old and playing in a band in the valley. He was not an accomplished climber at this time, but he had the opportunity to climb with his mentor, Paul Petzoldt.
On this day, Petzoldt, who was guiding a couple up the original Owen-Spaulding, showed Exum a ledge, which today is known as ‘Wall Street.’ Petzoldt believed that once past Wall Street, there might be access to the summit. He then told Exum to go check it out and see if he could get around to the next ridge.
Exum, wearing his football cleats as climbing shoes, walked out onto Wall Street. As he crossed Wall Street, it became narrower and narrower, until he reached a point where it ended. Exum, scared out of his mind and hanging over this ledge not able to go any further, was in an interesting situation. He saw a boulder a few feet slightly below him and took his famous leap of faith through the air onto the boulder. This move allowed him to access the Exum Ridge.
As we approached Wall Street, our nerves were full blown. Not only were we high up on a cliff, we were in unfamiliar territory. Unlike Exum, we had one of the best guides in the valley that knew the route and was leading the way.
“OK, watch where I go and follow exactly where I go,” said Z. Anything Z said, we would do, without hesitation. “When you get towards the end of Wall Street, your instincts will tell you to go up -- but don’t; step down and around this rock. And oh yes, don’t forget to look down!” he added at the end, with a big smile.
Z does a remarkable job of being a safe and disciplined leader, yet always pushing and getting the best out of us. Not only did we all make it across Wall Street in one piece (without having to do a leap of faith like Exum), we stayed low and around the rock, and all successfully looked down a few hundred feet.
With one wide step from the end of Wall Street to the Exum Ridge, we had entered the first stretch of technical and exposed climbing. Following Wall Street, we immediately climbed 10-12 pitches, including the Golden Staircase, the Friction Pitch (the most difficult pitch on the route), and the V-Pitch, which puts you directly on the edge of the ridge.
During these pitches, we worked like a giant slinky with Z leading the way. Z would climb up a pitch and find a secure place to hip belay Chip as Chip climbed the pitch. Once Chip made it up the pitch, Z would climb the next pitch, and Chip would belay me. When I climbed to Chip and finished the pitch, Chip would leave to climb up to Z’s new spot and I would belay Krissy. Once Krissy got to me, I would then climb up to Chip, and so forth. Since Krissy and I were the last two climbers, we probably didn’t see Z for over an hour as we climbed.
As we climbed higher and higher, we began to get above all of the other peaks in the Tetons. It felt like we were climbing into space. It was the first time that I ever felt like I was climbing to the top of the world -- yet, the top was nowhere in sight. We had to climb higher!
After a few hours of climbing pitch after pitch, we reached the summit of The Grand Teton after 5pm. We did not see a soul on the ridge or at the summit. The mountain was all ours. Emotions were running high.
Although it is difficult to describe the feelings we were all experiencing once we summited, the following words came to my mind while sitting on top of the world; Intense, Unbelievable, Scary, Awesome, Rewarding and Inspiring!
To me personally, it was one of my greatest accomplishments and journeys of all time.
Exum Mountain Guides
When Petzoldt appeared at the Summit, some 80+ years ago, he was not feeling the same feeling as we were. Petzoldt was greeted by Exum, who had summited on his new route. Petzoldt, a very proud and accomplished climber, was not only amazed, but also disappointed that he was not the first to have climbed this new route.
On the way down the mountain, via the Owen-Spaulding route, Petzoldt decided he needed to try the new Exum Ridge and headed out over Wall Street. Petzoldt found himself in the same situation as Exum, needing to summon up the courage to make the leap of faith onto the boulder. This took some time, and after some heckling from Exum, who yelled to Petzoldt that “anyone could do it,” Petzoldt made it onto the Exum Ridge and summited.
Exum went on to start Exum Mountain Guides with Paul Petzoldt in 1931, and today boasts a roster of some of the country’s most accomplished mountaineers. In 1982, Exum, made one last climb of the Exum Ridge route on the 50th anniversary of his first ascent.
While climbing the Grand Teton, we kept talking about Andy Anderson, a climbing ranger who just three days prior, had ascended and descended (car to car) the Grand Teton in 2 hours 53 minutes and 2 seconds. Anderson broke a short-lived record by the Spanish runner Kilian Jornet, who on August 12th had set a new record of 2 hours 54 minutes and 1 second, over Bryce Thatcher, who had run it in 3 hours and 6 minutes in 1983.
Wow, how could anyone climb it so fast? As Z says, it is 14 miles round trip so it is doable and these are some of the best endurance athletes in the world. What Z did not tell us, was that he had once gone car to car in 4 hours!
The first skiing descent of The Grand was made by Bill Briggs in 1971, down the Ford Couloir. The descent does require one free rappel, which is done with skis on. If you ever want to meet Bill Briggs, go to the Stagecoach in Wilson, WY, just south of Teton Village, on a Sunday night to listen to his band.
Backcountry skiing is prominent in the Tetons and Z will be guiding this winter. I might have to reserve a spot!
Zahan Billimoria – Our Guide
There are a lot of great guides in the world but no one is like Z. Z is a humble leader, who is full of information, inspiring stories, and greatness. As everyone else in the group agrees, we would follow Z anywhere.
Here is more information about Z from the Exum Mountain Guides website;
Climbing and Ski Mountaineering throughout the United States with routes in Yosemite, Eldorado Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, Indian Creek, Squamish and Grand Teton National Park. Climbing in the Mt Blanc Massif, including the Mt. Blanc du Tacul and Aiguille du Midi in the French Alps. Ski descents of all major Teton Peaks. 10h39m hour ski enchainment of the Grand, Middle and South Tetons. 12 hour round trip ascent of the North Face of the Grand Teton, 4 hour car to car ascent of the Grand Teton and numerous other speed records in the Tetons. Climbs up to Grade V and 5.12b. Guided ski descents of The Grand Teton, Mt. Moran and others. Member of the 2007 US National Ski Mountaineering Team, Competitor in the 2008 World Championship in Champéry Switzerland, former member of the US La Sportiva Mountain Running Team.
Zahan is passionate about the mountain experience and a believer in the transformative power of the high and wild places for all people.
Click here to see photos from the summit on our Facebook page.
Click here to view a video showing the same route that we took climbing the Grand Teton from Exum Mountain Guides.