The Upper Exum of the Grand Teton in a Day

Home » Blog » Trek Type » Mountaineering » The Upper Exum of the Grand Teton in a Day

We pulled into the Antelope Flats National Forest camping area at 7:30pm. Running a bit behind schedule, we’d still have about 3 hours of sleep if we set up camp and fell asleep immediately. The sky was clear despite the torrential downpour that occurred about an hour earlier as Wes and I sat eating breakfast for dinner in a small diner in Alpine, just outside of Jackson, WY.

Fortunately, we left the clouds behind us as we began winding our way through the canyon, into Jackson, and alongside the Teton Range. The small patches of whisking clouds were beginning to turn cotton candy colored and contrast against the light blue sky while Wes and I organized our gear one more time.

We were quick and were lying on top of my tent by a little after 8pm. The sky was bright and I could see the glow through my eyelids as I tried to force my heart rate to slow and convince my body that this was a normal night’s rest. Eventually, the glow of the sky faded, but my anxiety remained.

Wes and I both knew that we would be awake for a long time and that every minute we slept now would make the next 18 hours that much easier. It was no use though. We both tossed and turned until, simultaneously, our alarms sounded 10:45pm.

“Welp, I didn’t sleep for one second.” I said to Wes as I sat up into the dark of night.

“Neither did I.” Was Wes’ response.

We packed our sleeping bags and other gear into the car and drove toward the trail head driving slowly passed campers as they slept on our way out.

We reached the trail head and went through the gear one more time. Triple checking that we had everything we needed for a successful summit. At 11:45pm we began hiking.

The trail in Lupine Meadows starts out very flat. We wound our way through the trees making a lot of noise to scare off any bears that may be in our path. After 1.7 miles we hit switchbacks. They were long and it only took 3 of them to go 1.4 miles.

Just before the final turn on the switch back that led us into Garnet Canyon we saw a pair of eyes in the trees about 20 feet from the trail ahead. We both stopped and backed up slowly.

The animal didn’t move, but just stared at us. The eyes were relatively low to the ground and far apart on the head. In the pitch black of the night we were unsure of what the animal was, but seemed certain that it was not a dear or an elk. We started hitting trees and rocks with sticks and shouting loudly, hoping to scare the animal away from the trail.

It didn’t seem to worried about us, and took quite a bit of time before it moved far enough from the trail that we felt comfortable moving past.

We could feel the scenery changing on the trail. The flat dirt turned to rocks and boulders, the trees that loomed over us became cliffs. We were in the canyon.

We hit a sign that marked the entrance to the canyon and pointed us upward passed camping area and toward the lower saddle between the Grand and Middle Tetons.

When we flipped our headlamps off and let our eyes adjust to the darkness, the stars lit up the night and silhouetted the impressive peaks above us. We could see the ridge that marked the South Teton. It dropped to a saddle and the up to the Middle Teton straight in front of us and down again to the lower saddle and the Grand Teton.

We continued up a faint trail along a waterfall and into more boulders. In the dark we would lose the trail for a bit, but eventually return to it. We slowly neared the Moraine Camping area. As we did, we could see headlamps heading up the fixed rope section of the climb and others on the lower saddled prepping for their climb. We looked down at the mouth of Garnet Canyon and could see others coming up behind us.

It was almost 4am and we were making great time. We passed through some tents and along the right side of the Middle Teton Glacier until we hit a steep cliff section. It took a minute to identify the easiest route up, but once we did, the fixed roped revealed themselves. We climbed the ropes as the sky began to turn light grey and the stars slowly faded.

We cut left to the top of the ridge were it leveled out. We were on the lower saddle.

We slowed our pace on the saddle and began to look for a spot to stash our heavier gear. We dropped it behind a rock and swapped our heavy hiking boots for approach shoes.

The sky was getting much brighter as we finally made our way onto the lower section of the Owen Spalding route. We follow a gully of rock until we hit an obvious wall. We cut right and found ourselves on the traverse that by passed the eye of the needle. We scramble up another 50 feet and Wall Street came into view directly in front of us.

A rush of excitement and nerves filled me and our pace quickened as we dropped down into the gully that separated us from Wall Street. It was a quick down and up before we were walking out onto the slowly narrowing ramp. In a few moments we were near the end and the exposed step around.

We pulled out the rope and began gearing up. Wes, who was feeling a bit under the weather due to altitude and fatigue handed me some cams and slings that he had in his bag as he prepared to belay me. I tied in, loaded up and thought to myself, “here we go.”

I scrambled the last little bit of the ramp and stepped down onto a small ledge. I looked down and 600 feet of air stood between me and the Middle Teton Glacier below.

I place a cam or two be for stepping down and over to a small knob on the face. I reached and felt a good hold. I pulled my self over and was back on solid ground.

“Wooo!” I yelled. I knew we were on the ridge and ready to being climbing. I built and anchor and belayed Wes around to the ledge where I stood.

Wes’ spirits had lifted as he came around the corner. He was suddenly pumped and began racking up to lead the golden staircase.

For a moment, I was preparing to lead the entire route, but I was really glad to see Wes become much more optimistic once we had become fully committed to the Upper Exum Ridge.

He lead the short pitch to the top of the Golden Staircase and we untied and packed the rope away. We soloed along the ridge to the Wind Tunnel pitch and continued up without rope.

At the top of the wind tunnel, my studying of the route paid off, I easily recognized 3 or 4 different routes that would lead us to the base of the Friction Pitch. We continued off rope and chose a steep dihedral that was about 100 feet tall. About half way up, I looked down and wished we had roped up for this pitch, but after a few awkward bulges that looked harder than they were, we stood at the friction pitch.

We pulled out the rope and I began to lead the pitch. The spot that was supposed to be the “crux” felt just as slabby as the entire pitch and I never really felt like one section of it was harder than another.  On this pitch, there was one moment that stands out to me. The gear isn’t very great and it requires you to run it out quite a bit, but the climbing is very easy. After a long run out, about 3/4 the way up the 100+ foot pitch, I placed my first solid piece of gear in a while and stopped for a moment.

I turned and looked around and the moment really sunk in. I was part way up a technical pitch.  Actually, the crux pitch of the Upper Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton. I felt perfectly comfortable and at ease. I knew we were one more major pitch from the summit. We would make it to the top for sure, 100%. I looked down at the Middle Teton that looked so small and around at the mountains and valleys below and could help but start laughing.

It was an incredible moment that I don’t think I will ever forget. I had spent over 6 months training for this exact moment and I was so glad that, amid all the stress and anxiety to move quickly and reach the summit safely, I had stopped for just a few seconds to appreciate all the hard work I had put into climbing this ridge.

I looked down at Wes and said, “Look at where we are! We are in the middle of no where,” pointing out the amazing view.

The moment passed and I finished the pitch, built an anchor and belayed Wes up the Friction Pitch.

A bit more off-rope scrambling put us at the base of the V-pitch. Wes was up. He loaded his harness, we double checked his knot and my belay and he headed upward. Another 30 minutes and we were both at the top.

We untied once more and loaded the rope back into the back. We followed the main ridge the best we could, dropping left and right a bit and suddenly, there was no more ridge. We were at the top and it was 10am. We had beat our expected schedule by an hour.

We soaked in the success, drank some water, ate some food and relaxed on the top for some time before we headed down.

We down-climbed the chimney pitch of the Owen Spalding Route and traversed over to a long 40m rappel to the upper saddle. We followed the Owen Spalding Route down until we reached the eye of the needle and went through. A few more hundred feet of scrambling and we were back on the lower saddle.

We gathered our gear from behind the rocks and swapped our boots back out, eventually, heading over to a small stream of water to filter and fill up.

We restocked water, eating a drinking a bunch while we rested.  After some time, we prepared to begin the long decent back to the Lupine Meadows trailhead.

Just as we were about to begin hiking down, Conrad Anker walks up and sits down. I am a bit shocked and not quite sure if I know who I am looking at. I look down at his helmet and see “C. Anker” written on the back of it. “What route did you climb,” I asked him.

He explained that they had done the Petzoldt route to Upper Exum. Just then Jimmy Chin walked up behind me. Wes and I were blown away.

We chatted with them for a bit before getting a picture with them and eventually started our descent.

The hike down was long and boring and by the time we reached the car it was 6pm. We had been awake since 10:30am the previous day and hiking almost continuously since 11:45pm… It was a long day and night, but also one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far!

Leave a Comment