What happened to summer? Part two: scrambling the Middle and South Tetons

In an interview recently, I mentioned that I’ve a hard time being excited about places and individual route ideas until I actually get there. Food is the same way: sure, a cheeseburger might look great on a billboard, but how does that compare to one steaming on a plate in front of you?

Somehow, I’ve been able to ignore the Tetons for quite a while. Their tops stick over the foothills and can be seen on the drive to SLC, so I’ve had a little bit of that in-your-face mountain lust as I passed south before. However, seeing them from Driggs, as I did while doing a few days of hanging with my dad at the beginning of August, ramped it up. He either got tired, got tired of me, or saw that I was keen to go for a big mountain day after an aborted day of rain backpacking and a hike above Teton Pass the next. Thus did I find myself making the commute from the affordable side to the mountainy side with everyone else the next morning. If I big day was what I needed, the 4th class southern couloir on the Middle Teton would fit the bill.

6:30am saw me leaving the trailhead, though that wasn’t quite headlamp material. Cold had me wearing a long sleeve for the first time for the summer: it’s nice to be reminded mid-summer that my winter fantasies aren’t some conjuring with zero basis in fact. Some guys I met in the switchbacks beneath Garnet Canyon told me that a there was a bear cub below the trail. If there’s anything scarier than an adult bear, it’s a cub with a sow out of sight. Went a little faster there for a while, and had a scare when a blast of sound came roaring up the foothills, only to realize that it was a jet taking off at the Jackson airport. Everyone I passed was on the same program: headed to the Middle.

New terrain and ranges entail a bit of choosing: do I dive in on something that appears gnarly, or take the time to get my feet wet? What guidebook has the info I need to make good choices? How sandbagged am I going to feel once I actually get out there? Some friends had done the Grand in nothing but running shoes; I wondered if that would be where I’d find myself comfort wise.

I picked up Aaron Gam’s Teton Rock Climbs: A Guide to the Classic and Not-So-Classic Routes at Yostmark Mountaineering in Driggs. It’s not the bible, but covers a lot of the classic options with a number of 5.11-5.12 multi pitch trad lines I’ll only dream about in this life. It seemed a bit better put together and more recent than some of the others. I’ll be happy to have it when I go back, but more about that later.

The Meadows campground in the fork of Garnet Canyon is beautiful for all the right reasons: mountain valley, epic climbs right out the door, good water, and camping under boulders. I took only a liter of aqua to start the day, then zapped a bunch of glacially cold water as campers crawled out of their tents. It was a nice break spot. After, the trail in to the south fork of the canyon rapidly gets into shed-sized boulder fields, which make for a fun mix of hiking, rock climbing, and route finding as you make your way up valley.

Route wise, it’s easy: go until you hit the ridge. There’s a faint trail on the climber’s right that I lost several times. Once at the top of the ridge, turn right, work up the snow/rock edge, and then take the central gully up the face. Lots of loose rock in this area, so a helmet is a really good idea.

Somewhere above the snow, I met up with a couple guys who had joined forces at the AAC climber’s ranch. We angled up and left, then ran the ridge top to the summit. We were the first group up top, with tons of folks behind us. The view down to the Lower Saddle below the SE face of the Grand Teton was excellent. Climbers were making their way up to the Upper Saddle for their days on the Grand, and I wondered what it’d be like up there. Overall, it’d had been solid 4th class climbing with some optionally harder moves that I made to have more fun. The rock felt nice, I was comfy here on a mellow scramble day. Choosing to do a mellow day rather than try to dive in on something faster was the right call. I felt good, with the altitude slowing me down a little bit. With the AAC guys, I took some photos, enjoyed myself in a windbreak beneath the summit slab, and I barely felt the elevation. My confidence was up.

As was my energy. I’d wondered about a route up the South Teton too, and the hordes arriving on the summit and soon to drop into that rock infested gully, I worried about being a human bowling pin. Saying a quick goodbye, I bailed down the ridge quite a ways before dropping in, which took me out of the line of fire except for about some sixty feet or so. “Rock!” sounded halfheartedly about every thirty seconds from the main gut, and making my quick escape seem that much smarter. I glissaded the bottom snow and stopped for a quick break at the saddle.

Looking south at the South Teton. Route I took follows the ridge from climber’s right to left.

Much like the Middle, the South Teton has a scramble-able route leading up from the saddle at the top of the canyon. Lots of loose talus makes the bottom of the route, but near the ridgeline a sort of trail forms. It goes through some spikes of rock, up a couloir with plenty of loose options to roll, and then onto the summit ridge. The views aren’t much different from the Middle, though the clean lines of the Grand are less clear. Far fewer people graced the top, and and I sat atop the highest boulder eating more of my lunch.

Looking South from the summit.

Back towards the Middle and Grand.

The more I looked down the face in front of me, I realized there was a steep snow descent that would have worked had I brought crampons. Such thinking was indicative of how much confidence I’d already gained—these mountains didn’t feel alien. Good rock. Familiar route finding. The same feeling of strain at altitude higher than normal. Learning that I should come more prepared seasoned the flavor of the day as I started my way back down.

Some remaining snow patches added a little glissading to all the boulder hopping on the descent to the Meadow. If ever there was an alpine day to bring poles—this is it. I fueled up a bit of water and kept plugging away down the trail, glancing back at the options that had now appeared: the Grand up the north fork of Garnet. The Dike Route vaulting directly up the middle of the Middle. The potential of the place still has me jazzed to head back and spend more time.

What had felt like a bit of switchback fun that morning quickly degenerated into thoughts of “man, you could ride a bike down this be back at the car so quick.” Enjoying the moment can be hard when I’m hungry and ready to be done, but as they usually do, the miles passed. I hit the car to drive back over the pass towards pizza with my dad, thinking of the views where I had been. Maybe, just maybe, I could fit the Grand in before heading south.

Soon: heavy traffic on the Grand.

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