Grand Teton, North Face
By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary Clark, Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: August 10-13, 1991
Photo: Steve Doorn
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Note: This report was written 9 years after the climb, so don't depend on it for route-finding details. The memory dims . . . .
As we checked in at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station and studied the route photos on the desk, I couldn't help but note a subtle attitude on the part of the ranger. Although polite and helpful enough, I sensed a cartoon bubble over his head reading "North Face, eh? Yeah, right . . . ." Apparently there are a lot of attempts each year that either fizzle at the base just at the sight of the thing, or fall victim to the many defences of the lower face well before the technical section is even reached. Lynn and I felt we had done our homework, but there was little light-hearted banter between us as we made our way up onto the glacier and beheld the face at close range for the first time. This was the face that had drawn my eye nearly twenty years ago on my first trip to the Park with my parents as a high school student. I hadn't been introduced to climbing yet, and looked at the peak with the same mixture of awe and disbelief as any other tourist - "You mean people climb that thing? All the way to the top? No way!"
Now we apparently felt worthy not only of getting to the top of this, arguably the most impressive mountain in the 48 states, but via the North Face! That's the steep side, Gumby! What were you thinking? Maybe a canoe ride on the Lake would be even more fun . . . isn't there a good football game on the tube?
The strategy was simple - leave the car at a civilized hour on day one and bivouac as close to the rope-up spot as possible, then try to get over the top on day two. The trail from Lupine Meadows had been routine to its planned destination, a small scenic lake at the base of the East Ridge of Disappointment Peak. Beyond there we found an indistinct climber's trail and finally nothing at all. We crawled over downed timber and through boulders, finally emerging at the edge of a steep drop-off into Glacier Gulch. I could see why approaching directly up the canyon was not an option - even though a bit roundabout, the trail coming in from the south had bypassed some truly difficult terrain. We stayed high against the wall as we made our way up the moraine leading up to the glacier. Finally we stepped onto the hard ice of the glacier proper, noting that the surface was impressively pockmarked with rocks - these must have fallen from the North Face. Clearly we didn't want to sleep directly beneath it, so we continued cramponing to the upper glacier and made our way toward a likely-looking spot in a band of rocks on its north margin. I was surprised to not find a prepared bivouac site here. We had no choice but to construct one - a modest rearrangement of rocks and dirt that should vanish with a few storms. Now we could enjoy the final rays of sun against the North Face, and wonder at what adventures we'd have on the morrow.
At first light we retraced our steps across the glacier to the base of the face. The bergschrund was tricky, but it went fairly quickly once I decided I just had to commit to stepping across rotten ice onto rotten rock, and get it over with. The need for speed dominated my thinking. Even though we had targeted our climb for the short window between peak summer thundershower season and fall freeze-up, I figured the probability of being caught high on the face in a serious storm at about 50%. We used every trick we had developed in 15 years of partnership to conserve time. The early pitches flew by, and soon I was in the first legendary spot - the "Guano Chimney." I found myself enjoying it in a perverse sort of way. It was truly a unique experience, like nothing I had ever encountered in the mountains: a chimney coated with bird droppings that spoke of centuries of accumulation. I could see nothing fresh, however, so it seemed more like a thick growth of moss. Quite low on the gross-out meter.
The chimney took us to First Ledge. Although not a boulevard, this feature is wide enough that we felt comfortable coiling the ropes. I felt good about saving time as we quickly scrambled the equivalent of 3 or 4 rope lengths. Then the exposure and difficulty began to strongly suggest that again a rope would be welcome. At the end of the First Ledge we came to the only real route-finding decision of the day. We could continue out to the very end of the tapering ledge, then climb directly up to Second Ledge, or bypass this via a short pitch straight up then right to arrive at the same point. I chose to continue on the ledge. This entailed first a short pitch of steep snow that was melting away in direct sun. Even with crampons and an axe, this was not a comforting stretch. But the worst was to come. I took my crampons off on an awkward and exposed stance, then stepped onto a slab of solid granite that led up and right around a corner. The moves didn't look too hard, but I could get little protection. The exposure magnified hugely as I tried to make the final few moves. I found myself contemplating a dyno to the only good hold in sight over a thousand feet of exposure. My pack, albeit modest in size, felt like a 55-gallon oil drum intent on dragging me into the abyss. Time to reconsider. Abandoning all precept of style, I slid slowly back down the slab on the friction of my clothing until my feet touched the small foot ledge I had so recently and reluctantly abandoned. I reconsidered for a few moments, then called down to Lynn that, need for speed notwithstanding, we'd have to try the alternate route. By the time I was back to the belay with crampons and axe stowed we had lost about 45 minutes.
The variation went quickly and easily. The Second ledge was short in comparison to the First, and the Third longer but routine. We were finally done with "the approach." The technical section that had defeated attempts on the face up to 1953 loomed above. A light shower began, reinforcing my worries of being caught in a thundershower, then as quickly died down. The solid steep granite above was warm enough to dry itself, and it looked welcome and inviting after the decidedly different sort of challenges now below us. I got out the rock shoes again, re-racked the gear, and prepared for some serious, even anchored, belaying. The first pitch was, well, should I say it, "classic." A steep 5.7 corner with a good crack at the back, so well equipped with fixed pins that I didn't need to place any of my own gear. From the stance at the top we could see the famous "pendulum pitch", the crux of the route at 5.8. I decided to belay as close to the real difficulties as possible in case we decided to haul our packs, so I stopped short and put in a belay at the beginning of the small ledge leading to the historical pendulum spot. As Lynn photographed and belayed, I crawled out on along a small airy ledge on my knees, an overhang above preventing any more graceful position. I was reminded of the "Thank God" ledge pitch on Half Dome, although this one was much shorter. The ledge ended at a corner, where the face made an abrupt turn back to the right. An exposed spot for sure. I clipped into a fixed pin and stuck my head around the corner. I could see that the ledge turned into a horizontal crack on a ten-foot wide vertical wall. I was glad I had left my pack behind, as it was clear the next move would be one to remember. The crack might have afforded some handholds to provide for a hand traverse, but it seemed that every wide spot was already occupied by an angle piton! I made the awkward and difficult move off the ledge, clipped yet another pin, hung there a while from my fingertips looking for the next move, then gave up and stepped into the sling. This might just possibly go free at 5.8, but on this day I wasn't going to find out. As I traversed on the fixed pins I left a sling on each so Lynn could follow in the same fashion, and was soon to a small alcove where I set a solid belay. Now we had to get the packs over, which was a bit tricky since the pitch had largely been a horizontal traverse.
Somewhere above we found ourselves in a small alcove just to the left of a small waterfall. The waterfall was the route. I knew that the Vibram soles on my mountain boots were nearly useless on wet granite, but didn't know about the "sticky" rubber on my rock shoes. I opted for the sticky rubber. I put my hood up to channel the air-borne water down my back rather than my neck, gathered some determination, and stepped out onto the steep wet slab. What followed was only about 30 feet of lower 5th-class difficulty, but for me it was one of the cruxes of the route, particularly given a total absence of protection. Part of the adventure of routes like this is their unpredictability - on this day that section was a waterfall. On another day, it could be dry, on another covered with ice. This ain't no climbing gym.
The remaining rock pitches included the "Ortenburger Traverse" at 5.7, and some excellent easier climbing on quality rock, then we were on mixed terrain of moderate snow slopes alternating with short easy chimneys. A few hundred feet of such scrambling saw the angle ease markedly, and then we were on the summit. To the west the sun broke through a layer of clouds, producing little warmth but an impressive shadow of the mountain in the valley to the east. We had at most an hour of usable light, but the view was so dramatic that we lingered to enjoy it. After a while we found a large bivouac ring, looked at each other, and quickly decided it would be a lot more fun to spend a night atop the Grand Teton than to rush downward in the failing light with headlamps.
Back at Jenny Lake we were happy to see the same ranger at the desk.
"We'd like to check out from our climb of the North Face."
"You mean you made it?"
"Yep, we bivvied on the summit."
"Well, congratulations, that isn't done much anymore! You guys should be proud of yourselves!"
And so we were.
Equipment used (technical gear and major camping items only):
Note: This is a big and complex route. Highly recommended is the single-route description of the North Face with photos published by Alpenglow Photography of Moose, WY. We purchased this locally, and found it detailed and accurate.