Close Calls on the Middle Teton
It was 4 in the morning when the alarm stole me from my slumber. I had planned this hike for weeks and today was the day I would finally conquer the Middle and South Teton. In total, I would gain over 7,000 feet of elevation over the course of a 12 mile hike. I donned the clothes I’d laid out only hours before and grabbed my pack to depart for the trail. In a matter of minutes I was on the fog laden road, driving slowly through the darkness to begin my journey at the Lupine Meadows Trail head.
With only the light of the full moon to guide me, I hiked higher and higher up Garnet Canyon. Each step took me further above the clouds and the sun tried fervently to catch up from below. In only two hours, I was at the hikers meadows where climbers camp before their final ascent of the Grand, Middle, or South Teton. The sunrise from here was spectacular and it felt like I was a god on Mt. Olympus. I took a moment to relish in the beauty of it all but I knew that my walk was still very far from over. I moved on to tackle the miles of boulder and rock fields between the meadows and summit and this is where I met a family who was attempting the same feat that I was. They were gracious enough to accept me into their party and let me pace off them for the approach to the summit. We moved slowly but surely towards the peak, taking ample breaks to catch our breath and nosh on our snacks.
Within 400 feet of summitting, the weather took a turn for the worse. We were walking through clouds at 12,300 feet and you could see no more than 30 feet in any given direction. We pressed onward in an attempt to beat the impending storm which in hindsight, was a very poor decision. With only 300 feet to go the distinct sound of thunder shook the mountains in the distance. In our minds, we could still summit before it came any closer. So our scramble continued until another bolt, and another shook the peaks to the west. Just the day before on a float down the river, my river guide told the guests stories about the lightning that took climbers lives only a few years ago. I had no intention of laying my life on the line for this simple achievement. No photo opportunity could mean more than my life. I reared back as the rest of my party continued on.
Within moments, the lightning was on top of us. I instinctively began to scramble down the mountain and was soon in a full slide down the loose rocks of the Middle Teton. Panic overtook me and I knew a mountain storm was absolutely no joke. I needed to get off the mountain and back to the valley as soon as I could or I’d risk becoming a fatality in a story much like the ones I linked to in blue. At this point, we were literally inside of the storm. In my haste and obscured view, I could not find the route we’d approached on. There were only two options for escape as far as I could see; glacading down a sheer face with no ice ax (which would have certainly resulted in broken bones or worse), or the small, exposed ledge that led in the direction of the pass we’d ascended from. I chose the ledge.
I inched across it as lightning crushed the peaks above me. Each movement was a blur and I wanted nothing more than to escape back down to safety. In a panicked step, my feet parted ways with the slick rock beneath me. I was left holding the entire weight of my body and the contents of my pack with nothing more than my bare hands, 500 feet above the valley below. In that moment, I was 100% certain I was going to die. Whether by a strike of lightning or by falling to the jagged rocks below. I was terrified. I let out heaving grunts and vividly remember screaming the words, “NOT LIKE THIS.”
I thought of my mother and father. I thought of how many Art of Cool Shows I would never see and my puppy licking my cheek. I thought of my brother and wished I could talk to him just one more time. I reminisced on the times I spent in Europe and wanted nothing more than to go back and experience thosemarvelous times over and over again. These fond memories were mixed with deep regret. I still had so much that I had yet to accomplish and in that moment, I could have left all of those dreams strewn out across the valley floor. In a surge of adrenaline I screamed in pain as I pulled all my weight up with every ounce of strength I had. I rolled up over the edge safe from a fall but still exposed to the gusts and the lightning. The threat of weather was still very real.
I ducked around a corner and was met with a large granite overhang. I tucked myself into the small opening at it’s base and I sat there, wet and cold and said my last peace to a GoPro camera, fully convinced that these would be my last words spoken on earth. The storm raged on for what seemed like an eternity and I can’t say how long it was until the dark grey sky gave way to blue skies. Either way, the trail was now in full view and I scurried back down to the safe embrace of the valley below.
As darkness fell on Jackson Hole, I took a seat inside my car and took stock of what had happened that day. I was banged and bruised, with cut hands and swollen knees. I could barely stand on my own weight without my trekking poles and I wanted nothing more than to sleep in my own bed. I lost my Oakley’s somewhere in the confusion but I’d lose those over my life any given day of the week. Even as I write this, I’m being informed by volunteer SAR members in my office that a climber was just trapped in a rock slide in the same area my ascent took place in.
I was reminded of a few things that day…
Never underestimate your opponent
In this case my opponent was the mountain. The Middle Teton didn’t sound that hard, and to be perfectly honest, it really wasn’t. But when you least expect it, work, a class, or in my, case a mountain, can throw you a curveball and catch you completely by surprise. Be prepared for anything, do your research and “check the weather” before pursuing your goal.
Don’t take the people in your life for granted
Never miss a chance to tell your loved ones how much you appreciate them. The moment I had enough service to send a text, I texted every member of my family to tell them just how much they meant to me. You never know when you won’t have that opportunity. So what are you waiting for? Go give your loved ones a hug and tell them how much you appreciate them. If they ask why, tell ’em you did it” just because.”
Don’t leave this world with regrets
I’ve said it before in a poetic sense but the above means more to me now than ever before. There was a churning sickness in my stomach when I thought I’d never see the Pyramids, Petra or Australia in my life. I knew that I wanted to achieve these things but I now have a new found sense of purpose. After all, these were the thoughts that crossed my mind when I was dangling off the edge of a cliff. If that’s not validation enough to pursue them, I don’t know what is. Start small and write down 2 goals you’ve always wanted to accomplish. They could be anything from travelling, to asking out that pretty girl in accounting, to losing those stubborn 20 lbs, or anything else that comes to mind. Now put those goals where you’ll see them everyday to keep them at the front of your mind. Work everyday to reach them…life is too short not to do such things.
On a final note, I want to sincerely thank those of you who have interacted with my blog thus far. I truly appreciate you playing audience to my adventure called life and it means the world to me when I know I’ve inspired even one person to follow their dreams, no matter how small. -Nick 🙂