The Middle Teton

Posted on: June 1, 2007

The author's feet in February 2007. Despite the loss of toes on both feet, he continues to climb avidly today. [Photo] Dan Long

The rain remained liquid for a second before freezing, polishing the schist and gneiss with a quarter inch of verglas. Then, as suddenly as it began, the rain turned to snow. The ledge I was on was three feet wide by ten inches deep. I slipped off a low-angle fist stack a few times, ending any more attempts to exit with a particularly vigorous, arm-waving recovery. One axe, useless crampons, no pro and iced-up rock seventy meters above steep ice: I was fucked.

I sat down, cursing myself, and began shouting into the storm and vacant mountains for help.

For years I'd climbed in the Oregon Cascades, where I'd learned to dodge their warm, sluggish storms. As the cinder cones became more familiar, I longed for steeper climbing on better rock. With ridges and cirques rising sharply for 7,000 feet, the Teton Range captivated me the moment I saw it.

A late-September front was predicted to roll through on the evening of my inaugural Teton climb, so I set my sights low: the Glacier Route, the second easiest on the Middle—a perfect warm-up. To get an early start, I left in the evening for the Meadows, a popular camp nestled below the peaks. A fifty-something gentleman was enjoying what he said was "probably the last good night" in the mountains before the storms. He coached our conversation like a concerned uncle and suggested I abandon my plans. "I'll just give it a look tomorrow," I lied. My thoughts of light and fast wavered as I silently compared my heavy glacier axe to his short ice tool, but the stars were shining. Besides, I'd climbed numerous glaciers in the Cascades.

The next morning I set off at a sea-level pace. The glacier came into view after dawn. My crampons bit into the old ice, harder and denser than the Cascades'. As the east face brightened, its steepness distracted me from my labored breathing.

Still, as I French-stepped over old glacial ice, I fell into a pleasant rhythm. Above rose a prominent dike that ended at a notch in the north ridge. I decided to alter my route to enjoy some scrambling.

Some overhanging chockstones made my heart race: I didn't want to reverse those moves. I grew less easy the higher I climbed. Thin icicles dripped from manky-looking rock on the step to the north ridge. With no other way to avoid it, I descended the west side of the dike to the Northwest Couloir.

The gully's steep, gray ice disappeared below into nothing. Above, it cut deep into the north side near the summit. As I frontpointed brittle ice, a boot flexed, popping off a crampon. Swallowing hard, I reattached it; the other popped a few steps farther. Slipping now would be a free fall.

A featured buttress to the left looked doable; I climbed it slowly, my blood pounding in my ears. An icy gust shook my focus. Confined deep in the north-facing gully, I hadn't seen the mare's tails streaming through the notch between the Middle and Grand Tetons.

Weather be damned, I thought as I continued; but when I approached the steepest part of the prow, only fifty feet from the summit, the clouds opened.

I sat down on the small ledge and prayed for the second time in my life.

Throughout the first night, I shivered uncontrollably, the only heat coming from involuntary muscle contractions. Spindrift accumulated on the ledge, its weight pushing me toward the void. My focus narrowed to sweeping it away. I slid into a dream about a buddy showing me a manicured gravel descent and awoke with such a start I almost slipped off into the blizzard. No more sleeping.

Minutes passed like hours. I pushed the illumination button on my watch too often. Briefly, the temperature rose enough for freezing rain to encrust me in a protective ice cocoon, until the urge to piss forced me to break back into the storm. Darkness paled to gray clouds and horizontal snow throughout the next day.

The second night my shivering stopped. My watch faded in and out. The blizzard drowned all noise. The first day of October entered, soundless. I was warm, calm and strangely comfortable. Morning brought no break in the weather.

The clouds parted. The rock on the far side of the ice gully morphed into a Native American ready for battle; his eyes pierced me with a strength and resilience I knew I also possessed. His image blurred into a woman cradling an infant, her high cheekbones and straight hair so beautiful that tears ran down my cheeks. She stared at me with the ferocity of a grizzly defending her cub. The image vanished, and I was alone.

My watch stopped.

I heard them murmuring before I made them out: a battalion of small, blurry creatures directly across the gully. They seemed like a mixture of Boy Scout and National Guard-type volunteers. I could hear them whisper: "What is he going to do?" "Doesn't he know what he should do?" Their murmurings clarified what I had known all along; down climbing was the only way off this mountain. I blinked to see them better, but the fog was too thick.

Two small figures emerged from the brigade of little people and lumbered up the ice gully toward me. Were they here to rescue me? Their backpacks were as large as cars. They remained out of focus as they gained the base of my prow. I needed to move. Their whispers became more urgent. Down climbing was indeed my sole option, especially since I knew their backpacks would hold my fall.

I rose weakly from my ledge for the first time in two days. As I did, a human rescuer crested the summit. He seemed as big as a giant. He introduced himself.

"Yeah, but who are they?" I slurred, gesturing to the little people.

At that, he and the other rescuers quickly rigged a five-to-one and hauled me up.

Miscalculating the storm was a mistake. Losing my toes was the reality. As my core temperature rose from 86 degrees F, the agony of thawing flesh was hypothermically distant. For the next few months, weeping blisters and sloughing skin would keep me busy changing foul-smelling bandages through a hydrocodone fog. I had completed my journey from the ledge to a world of frostbite, pain and rehabilitation... but it was life, nevertheless.

The Middle Teton from the north, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The Glacier Route ascends the glacier on the left to the summit. On his ascent, the author got off route and climbed into a notch on the north ridge, then descended toward the Northwest Couloir, on the right (shadowed) side of the mountain. When his crampons popped off, he started up a rock buttress—until the season's first winter storm caught him on a ledge fifty feet from the top. He would spend the next two days on that ledge, encased in verglas. [Photo] Christian Beckwith

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