Grand Teton (Upper Exum, 5.4, 6900ft, 5h15 up, 9h RT)

Exum ridge.

Prelude, or diary of a 3-day day-trip

Day 1, 4:00 AM: The alarm goes off. I look outside to see clouds.

4:10 AM: It starts raining. I go back to sleep.

Day 2, 4:00 AM: The alarm goes off. It rained in the night, but is clear.

4:30 AM: I hit the trail.

Noon-ish: I return from a long hike along the Owen-Spalding route. The last few hundred feet above the upper saddle were verglassed from the night’s rain.

2:00 PM: It’s clear and sunny on the Grand. I should have brought a book and waited.

Day 3, 4:00 AM: The alarm goes off. I’m tired, so I re-set it.

5:00 AM: The alarm goes off. I’m still tired.

6:00 AM: I hit the trail. This time it’s personal.


I’m getting tired of the Lupine Meadows trail, but it’s the main access to the central Teton peaks, and this time I started late enough to see it by the light of day. The top of the Grand was hidden in clouds, but they didn’t threaten lightning, and there was a peak that needed bagging.

The first part of the climb was the same as the day before: 1 hour to the Amphitheater Lake turnoff, two more to the lower saddle. I hoped to see the friendly climbing ranger I had met the day before, but there was no one at the Exum tube-shacks as I passed. This time I knew roughly where to aim to approach the Upper Exum, and bore right below the black dike rather than continuing up the Owen-Spalding trail.

I saw a line of tracks leading to the Direct Exum start, but nothing leading where I thought I had to go. The route description I had printed said to go left of “the Needle,” so I chose one among many pointy rocks, and headed to its left, first on scree, then on posthole-prone snow. This led eventually to the low-point of my day, struggling through steep, knee-deep slush and treacherous ice under snow, headed up a couloir to nowhere. It was windy, and my hands were wet and cold. I nearly turned back, either to the Owen-Spalding or defeat.

I made my way to some rocks to the left of the slush-gully, and saw two encouraging signs: some slings around a rock, and two climbers on Wall Street, the ledge leading to the ridge. Climbing on, I found some boot tracks leading to the base of Wall Street. The climbers seemed to be paralyzed, and when I caught them on the ledge, I understood why.

When a move is described in the route description as “extremely exposed and… not especially difficult,” it is usually no big deal. The “step-around” mentioned in the Upper Exum description, however, is genuinely terrifying: an outward-sloping ledge with a bulging, hold-poor face above it and deadly exposure below, leading to a step over a gap to safety. The fierce, gusty wind made it even more nerve-wracking. After a minute of dithering, I made a calculated dive to grab a horn beyond the gap, combined with a step to the other side. It worked, but did not reassure me; I would be reluctant to repeat it. Glen Exum had serious guts to try this move not knowing if the rest of the ridge would be passable, since it’s not clear how one would reverse it. I unfortunately did not take a picture.

I talked with the party ahead of me, who kindly offered me a rope if I needed it, then headed off up the ridge, bearing right rather than sticking to the crest of the “golden staircase” pitch. There was a bit of 5th class, followed by mostly 3rd class to the “wind tunnel.” The wind was bad enough on the rest of the ridge, and brutal in the tunnel. Ice complicated the climbing a bit, but it was no worse than 4th or easy 5th.

After some more straightforward scrambling, I reached the crux “friction” pitch. You can choose a tenuous climb along the ridge itself, or a tricky traverse to the right, followed by apparently-easier climbing on a broad face. Thankfully, the “friction” pitch does not require true friction climbing, only careful, delicate foot placement on small nubs. After the first few moves, there are cracks to grab or hand-jam, and the climbing is reasonably secure.

Beyond this pitch, everything is a normal 4th class scramble with decent route-finding. The “V Pitch” was icy and difficult, but very short. There were some snowfields, but between the soft snow and boot tracks they were not a problem.

After a long flat section, during which I saw some people descending the Owen-Spalding, I finally reached the unoccupied summit around 11:15. I waited awhile for my companions on the ridge, or some guided parties on the standard route, but seeing neither, I ate the last of my pop-tarts, took some pictures in the 10 second windows of clear sky, and headed down in search of the Owen-Spalding. The Exum cow-path saved me much time here. I passed a few guided groups above the lower saddle, had an epic glissade near the Middle Teton glacier, and tried to be friendly to fellow climbers on the way down.

I met a couple of tragic groups. First, I met two men camped below the saddle who had turned around for a lack of snow/ice gear. I encouraged them to go without it, and hopefully they summited the next day. Second, I met a Spanish (?) couple who had headed down because someone had told them that the Exum ridge was iced over. It was perfectly dry. There might have been language difficulties, but they were well-equipped and seemed competent, and it’s a shame that they didn’t summit because someone misled them.

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