Grand Teton, North Ridge

By: Gary Clark| Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark|Trip Dates: September 15, 1992

Photo: Steven Doorn

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A Chilly Encounter with the Grand

This climb was pretty much the result of a miscalculation. We had been targeting our trips to Canada for August for the past decade, with the result of experiencing a lot of rain, but not much climbing success. I had heard that the first part of September often brought drier weather, so we tossed down jackets into the gear bag and headed north with great expectations. Airline tickets to Calgary had been prohibitively expensive, so instead we booked a flight into Missoula, and reserved a rental van to finish the drive north. We had ambitions for some highly technical climbs in the Bugaboos, and had a haul bag stuffed to the top with jumars, extra ropes, and full big wall gear. Unpacking that night at a campsite in Alberta, I asked Lynn "Where the hell is the haul bag?" But I already knew the answer - it was still sitting in the rental car parking lot! A round trip to Missoula ensued. At least the van rental contract included unlimited mileage.

The end of the first week of September found us in southern British Columbia with a van finally fully equipped with climbing and camping gear. However, appropriate equipment would have included skis or snowshoes; an early storm dumped major snow on all the ranges for which we had rock climbing aspirations. We dug out the climbing guide and looked for a way to salvage the trip. There was a "classic" easy ascent on Mt. Hector just to the north that looked fun. The scenery from the glacier was exceptional, but the recent snowfall had covered the crevasses, and after I fell in to my waist for about the sixth time, I said "You know, this is my birthday, and I'm not having fun." It is extremely unusual for us to abort a climb just because we are not having fun, but down we went, with no complaints from my partner.

Now, how to salvage the trip? Soon after we began the drive south, I had an inspiration. We had been up the Grand Teton before, both via the Direct Exum route and the North Face, but the North Ridge remained on our tick list. We had to return the rental van to Missoula, but that's only one state away from Wyoming!

Checking in with the rangers at Jenny Lake, we learned that the Lower Saddle was deserted, a situation roughly comparable, in my experience, with finding solitude in Times Square. The hike up Garnet Canyon was spectacular in full fall colors, and we delighted in having the entire Saddle area to ourselves. A pine marten even showed himself briefly as we hiked around taking in the sights after setting up the tent. It was brisk, but the wind was light; still, we were very happy to have brought down jackets and gloves.

There are two approaches to the North Ridge. The most popular, and the one we would take, is called the Valhalla Traverse. It proceeds from the Lower Saddle on a grand traverse of the west and northwest slopes of the mountain. At first we dropped down to avoid steep buttresses, then crossed numerous gullies and small, sharp ridges as one would expect on a traverse of this nature. Routefinding was not difficult, but this is not a casual hike; exposure is significant in places, and the footing is anything but secure. After an hour or so of such scrambling, we rounded a corner to view a very different landscape - a substantial snow slope barred the way. We later concluded that this was the lower part of the Black Ice Couloir, a classic and popular climb on its own. Some friends who had climbed the North Ridge had told us a story of crossing this without crampons or ice axes after receiving such advice from the Park climbing rangers! This is about the worst advice I can imagine, and highly uncharacteristic; the rangers are highly qualified, and tuned into the local conditions like nobody else. The snow in this and several other wide couloirs would be softer earlier in the season, but to be without crampons or axe in the conditions we encountered would have resulted in a very fast, fatal ride down the northwest side of the mountain to the bottom of Cascade Canyon 3000' below.

September days are short, and so we were anxious to keep moving, so we kept the rope in the pack. This could have proven disastrous. Part way across the widest snow slope, which I estimate at about 40 degrees in angle, I looked back to see Lynn taking a step with her crampon hanging from its safety strap. We hadn't wanted to carry heavy mountaineering boots up the climb, and were wearing instead some fairly soft hiking boots, but with step-in crampons. I had not anticipated how serious the snow slopes would be, and this equipment choice could have been disastrous. We were extremely careful for the rest of the traverse to check our crampons with every step.

We were quite relieved to finally make the base of the slabs leading up to the beginning of the route. The route description in the (Ortenburger) guidebook was vague, but the rope-up spot was pretty easy to locate; the granite becomes even more monolithic at the same point that it steepens considerably, clearly becoming fifth class.

The second approach to the route is one we had partially explored before, since the lower two-thirds is the approach to the North Face. From Lupine Meadows, one follows the standard trail up to a junction, where a lesser trail takes you past Amphitheatre Lake and Disappointment Peak to a notch overlooking Glacier Gulch. A crude climbers' trail continues westward to the base of the Teton Glacier, where crampon and ice-axes are mandatory. Crossing the glacier brings you to the base of the "Grandstand" a massive shoulder of rock that is clearly visible from the Valley floor below. Scrambling and semi-technical climbing brings you to the spot where we now stood, racking gear for the climb. I have not done the final Grandstand portion of this approach, but what I have heard from others and seen up close discouraged me from it - the Garnet Canyon / Valhalla Traverse is anything but trivial, but it is apparently preferable, even involving a complete circumnavigation of the mountain!

The climb did not disappoint. There were crack pitches, slab pitches, and lots of chimneys, notable being the "Black Chimney", where we did our best to stage an exact duplicate of the photo in "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America" of Willi Unsoeld spread-eagled across this spectacular, but relatively easy chimney. The climbing was enjoyable and moderate, the rock quality excellent, and the protection plentiful. An early pitch up a colorful friction slab got my attention: as I carefully laid back up a sharp edge at foot level, I noted how difficult this would be if wet, or, particularly, verglassed. I have heard from other climbers that this pitch is the crux in such conditions.

We had both changed from our hiking boots to our trusty Mythos rock shoes at the base of the fifth-class climbing. However, I changed back to my boots at each belay to keep my toes toasty. To save time, Lynn left her rock shoes on while belaying me on a very long pitch, and arrived finally at the upper belay with no feeling in her feet. She had frost-nipped her toes, creating a long-term sensitivity to cold temperatures. She wasn't the only one to make a tactical error, however; the reason I had been so long on that pitch was a decision I made to keep my pack on while leading the "Weissner Crack", a short squeeze chimney. Once jammed in the chimney, I just kept stubbornly clawing my way up rather than admit the mistake and drop back down to hang the pack from my harness. This was the most physically demanding section of rock climbing I have every done. I arrived at the belay totally spent, and leaned against the rock panting and shaking the lactic acid from my arms for many minutes before I had the strength to arrange an anchor. As I've often told climbing students, "You'll learn something new on every climb." With the crampon problem, freezing feet, and the pack debacle, we were getting our money's worth of lessons from this one. After Lynn arrived at the bottom of this pitch, I hauled her pack, and she had no trouble with the pitch.

The upper part of the route degenerates into easy, somewhat loose chimneys that eventually lead onto the broad slab of the west side of the Grand's spectacular summit block. We were by now wearing down jackets, gloves, and helmet liners, even while climbing, even in windless conditions. With wind, an ascent this late in the year could have been a serious proposition. From the top of the chimneys, we could have traversed small ledge systems directly to the Owens/Spalding route and thence to the descent, but the summit beckoned.

The next day dawned beautifully, and we enjoyed the crisp air as we descended Garnet Canyon. Low on the trail, we encountered some of the first people we had seen on the trip. Remarkably, our conversation revealed that one of them was the niece of Fritiof Fryxell, who first climbed the North Ridge in 1931 with Robert Underhill!

Notes: The route is quality, but is compromised by the approach options. It involves a lot of approaching for the climbing that's there, but it is well worth doing, especially to complete your collection of classics on this important and exceptional mountain. Our time was on the order of 11 hours from tent to tent on the Lower Saddle. The mountain is almost deserted this time of year - we were the only tent at the saddle on the second night.