The Grand done quick-ish

Eight years ago, I had a question: could the Grand Teton be run faster in Spring snow than dry? The current speed record was set in August, when the whole route is dry, but parts of the summer route are unpleasant and slow, particularly the switchbacks out of the Meadows and the slog across the moraine to the Lower Saddle. In good snow conditions, this climb is all direct and straightforward crampon-ing, and the descent is two fast glissades separated by a sliding run. On the other hand, the terrain from the Lower Saddle to the summit is slower and more complicated with a mixture of rock, snow, and ice, and carrying and switching to crampons is slower than running with a water bottle. Still, I thought the gains might be greater than the losses, and I was 38 and full of optimism, so I tried running the Grand. I turned around near the Upper Saddle that time due to conditions on the summit scramble, but returned the next year and ran the Grand in 2:36 Ranch-to-summit and 4:02 Ranch-to-Ranch, my current PR. This was 1:10 slower than Andy Anderson’s incredible record of 2:53, which still stands eleven years after he set it. I found that year that I was 10-20% slower than elite mountain athletes, so my time being around 35% slower suggests that Spring is slower than Summer for running the Grand.

While I established that the Grand speed record was beyond my reach, I had also intended to make running the Grand an annual fitness test, as I am in the Tetons at the same time almost every year. Somehow that did not happen, and I had not made an attempt since 2016, but this year I decided to revive that plan. I have long been a firm believer in the value of “knowing your place” through competition, looking both up and down the spectrum of human performance to understand your abilities and limits. As I age, I find value in measuring my inevitable decline to understand what is still realistic in terms of distance and speed. In short: I ran the Grand in 4:49 this year, 19% slower than my PR. Conditions were worse, with fresh snow between the Black Dike and summit, and rain-softened slush below on the way up, but this is roughly consistent with the 15% slowdown from a 2% per year age-driven loss of cardiovascular capacity. I have probably missed my window to run a sub-4 on the Grand in ideal conditions, but I hope to continue running it in June to keep myself honest.

And now for the rest of the story… This was the wettest June since I began coming to the Tetons in 2011, and also the warmest at night. This made for less-than-ideal mountaineering conditions, with snow that barely refroze overnight. It was overcast and humid on my chosen day, with the lower mountain drenched by overnight rain and the upper mountain hidden in clouds, but I was determined to at least give the run a try. I packed my bag with crampons, ice tool, rain shell, gloves, one liter of water, and four granola bars. I ate as much as I could the night before and in the morning, waited around until about 7:30 for what seemed like the best time window, then set off jogging up the Ranch driveway. The brush along the Burnt Wagon Gulch trail was wet, so my legs and feet were soaked by the time I reached the Garnet Canyon junction. This could force me to turn around if it was windy up high, but I decided to continue at full pace. I jogged the first three switchbacks, then hiked up the shortcut to the mouth of Garnet, something I only do when trying for a speed record.

I tried to run the trail up to the Meadows, but found myself walking short stretches, which I did not remember doing the last time. I hiked across the low-angle snow and up some strips of melted-out dirt and talus, then put on crampons near the base of the headwall. There was a crack running across it, but it was still easily navigable. The snow was slushy enough to cause some unpleasant backsliding, but not punchy enough for postholing. Still, I found myself out of breath at what I felt was a respectable pace. I stayed on snow through the moraine and up to near the Lower Saddle, crossing one short stretch of rocks lower down and making use of a bootpack on the upper headwall.

I switched back to running shoes below the Lower Saddle, and was pleased to find the wind calm enough to stay warm while moving in my damp tights and shoes. The clouds seemed to be thinning overhead, and I had an intermittently clear view of sunny Idaho to the west, but the day sadly remained dreary. I began to encounter fresh snow around the Black Dike, but surprisingly and fortunately found fresh tracks of a party ahead of me. I followed their winding path up high and right through the rocks, and became increasingly grateful for the their efforts as I avoided or stepped in their postholes.

I stayed in running shoes through the belly crawl and up the following chimney, which was a struggle with fresh snow, compacted slush, ice, and water flowing down the right-hand side. Stemming and a few tool sticks got me through with some caution. I finally switched to crampons at the next chimney, which made the fresh snow and wet rock easier, and passed the party ahead of me as they were setting up a rappel in the upper gully. I continued following their up-track on an indirect finish around to the right, stopping at the summit to pant and check my time. I was disappointed, but not too surprised, to learn that I had taken 3:02 from the Ranch, 26 minutes off my previous time.

I took a couple of photos of the non-scenery, then retraced my steps, this time keeping my crampons on until the Upper Saddle. I passed the other party near the top of the upper chimney, and saw that they were a group of three, seemingly a guide with a father and son as clients. I was impressed that they had made a successful attempt in less-than-ideal conditions before normal guiding season. I picked my way down to the Lower Saddle as best I could, then dealt with some sloughing slush on the upper headwall until I had a straight shot to glissade. I ran across the moraine, then slowed to carefully downclimb past the crack facing in (still in running shoes) before going full-speed to the Meadows.

I knew whatever time I made would be disappointing, but was still putting in a full effort when I came across an ice tool lying in the snow. It turned out to be a nearly-new Petzl Sum’Tec, my favorite general mountaineering tool, and I happily shoved it behind my pack as a birthday gift from the Booty Gods. Had I run across a party descending, I would have asked if they had dropped a tool, but I did not see any other people until I was well down in tourist-land, so I consider it fairly taken. Running with two tools stuck in my pack was clanky, but did not significantly slow me down. I bombed past the hikers, then turned off for the final unpleasant sage-whacking of Burnt Wagon Gulch. The flat part of the trail and the Ranch driveway were the usual grind on tired legs, but I was pleased with the day as I returned home for a late lunch. I am fortunate to still be able to run the Grand in a long morning, and hope to continue doing so for some years.

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