10 - Sharp End
Posted on: January 9, 2011
Outside of Rexburg, on the way to Jackson, Wyoming, the road bends, and all at once, the world transforms. Across the yellowed summer fields, a wall of silver spires, hewn and faceted like giant crystals, rises half-translucent in the alpine air, still shimmering with winter ice. There's nothing to prepare you for that view: just a stark and instant boundary between plain and mountain, tilled land and wild.
During the summer of 1924, two boys were traveling to Jackson to visit relatives, when they turned this corner, looked up—and their lives were altered. In that moment, Paul Petzoldt and Ralph Herron knew they were going to climb the Grand. "Now we were on an expedition," Petzoldt wrote in Teton Tales, "the kind that we had read about and dreamed about." Soon the boys were scrambling into a wilderness where they got trapped by night and storm, crawled across ledges, summited, went hungry and survived.
By the time they returned to the valley, they'd crossed an inner threshold, too. The reality of the Tetons seemed far greater to Petzoldt than the imaginary mountains of his childhood fantasies. He spent the rest of his life pursuing, again and again, that ideal vision in the hills.
Countless others have felt that yearning
for the range, like a call of the wild—the "wanderlust" as Renny Jackson names it, quoting Petzoldt. For me, the Grand was first a lav- ender-gray silhouette in the dim evening light. In 1990, as a young girl, I walked along Jenny Lake with my mother and sister, gazing up into that otherworld of airy pinnacles. We'd made a brief day's pause on a road trip to Yellowstone. I felt a sad longing: the high peaks belonged to a more adventurous life than mine.
Fourteen years later, my mother and I drove back to Wyoming on New Year's Eve. A blizzard whirled through dark canyons. I was about to start an internship with Alpinist, then based in Jackson. By then, I'd learned to lead on bluffs above the Missis- sippi, and I'd broken my foot on the quartzite of Devil's Lake. While I hobbled in my cast, the Jackson sidewalks faded under drifts of snow. Invisible, unattainable, the light of the
mountains seemed to filter through the town. I was still limping that June when I stumbled around the last switchback into Garnet Canyon, saw the watchtower summit of Nez Perce and the black dike of the Middle, and felt the thrill of glacial air. Each step hurt, yet took me deeper into an enchanted country: My first mountain! I marveled at the snow-covered slabs that tilted into the sky and at the sheer flatness of the world when I stood,
at last, on the apex of the Grand. During the next four years, I became one of
the editors of Alpinist. Like all the staff, I knew the magazine was struggling, and I fought for its survival, often working over ninety hours a week. I spent as much time in the Tetons as I could. On the Grand in winter, I saw my first rime mushrooms, spindrift plumes and avalanches. I had my first unplanned bivy one August on the cold North Ridge. Waking in that ashen morning, I huddled in a patch of
sun, delighted to be alive. Another summer, from the top of Nez Perce, I watched a rescue on the Exum. The injured climber turned out to be a friend. The Grand contained the entirety of the alpine experience: fear, wonder, loss, persistent hope. By the spring of 2008, I began running when I reached the Moraine, wanting to shout, I'm back! I'm home!
In October of that year, Alpinist went bankrupt. I started to hike up the Grand with a former coworker in search of solace. Near the Eye of the Needle, the snow rose to waist deep, and I wept. The Teton autumn light shone a brittle gold above the yellow aspens of the valley. The mountain was still perfect. I'd lost all my dreams. Then in January 2009, my phone rang: a new publisher planned to relaunch Alpinist. I drove straight to the trailhead and skied around the lakes, looking up at the Grand. Twilight fell as soft as snow. All of life rushed back into me at once.
This issue, our eighth since Alpinist's rebirth, stills feels like a miracle. It seems fit- ting that we're finally publishing a Mountain Profile of what was once our backyard peak. From the new Vermont office, I can't see the Grand as I used to: the summit glittering so suddenly above a parking lot or at the end of a street. But this autumn, I've listened to the stories of generations who have loved the mountain, and I've come to think of it in a new way. Close and often interlacing, its clas- sic lines and hard variations draw novices and experienced climbers to the same high point. The Grand is both iconic and universal. And as Jack Turner writes in Teewinot, the Tetons are "archetypical mountains—real moun- tains—and, of course, more than mountains."
I realize, now, the Grand had always been a symbol in my mind, intertwined with the ideals that kept me so committed to Alpinist: a reminder of what could be and what is. For there, always, at the edges of our thoughts, beyond every city and road, lies some por- tion of that radiant, envisioned realm of possibility—what Wallace Stegner once called the wilderness: "the geography of hope."
Why not strive for it?
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