The Zebra has been somewhat of a white whale to me ever since Bill and Peggy brought it to my attention five or so years ago. It is a minor and obscure peak northwest of Mount Moran, first climbed by Leigh Ortenburger in 1970 and seldom climbed since, supposedly 5.4 by its only known route. I had twice tried to reach it from Leigh Canyon via the Thor-Moran ridge. Peggy and I turned back the first time after she dislocated her shoulder, and I gave up the second time after my will was drained by the arduous approach around Leigh Lake, along Leigh Canyon, and up to the ridge. This time I tried a different approach, around Moran and up the West Triple Glacier, and a different partner, my Sierra friend Robert. Though it was definitely better than the Leigh Canyon approach, it was still a brutal day, with a challenging return over Mount Moran and down the Skillet Glacier. Climbing the East Horn as a bonus peak added about an hour, making for an almost sixteen-hour day, the longest I have done in months. We left the Ranch a bit before 4:00 AM, and were on the String Lake trail by 4:15, putting in a few minutes of headlamp time before the near-solstice dawn. Both mosquitoes and campers were still asleep as we made our way along Leigh Lake and down the stream to Bearpaw Bay, though we woke the humans catching up on events since we had last hiked together. From the bay, we continued along the Skillet Glacier use trail for awhile, then took off north where it heads west along the glacier’s outflow. I had done the Triple Glacier route before, and remembered finding an excellent game trail that saved me much suffering, but I was not so lucky this time. The woods between Moran and Jackson Lake are choked with deadfall, brush, and bogs, making for savage bushwhacking by Teton standards, and Robert and I got a healthy dose. We found the game trail for awhile, then lost it again, finally ending up on the subtle ridge leading to the 10,000-foot shoulder on Mount Moran’s northeast ridge. After traveling much of our horizontal distance, we gained the majority of our elevation on the steep but more open ridge. Somewhere around 9000 feet the mosquitoes relented and the snow began. I had visited this area in 2015 to climb Moran via the Triple Glacier, which should have made the approach familiar and quick, but I am slower now, and did not remember it well enough to help us much. Moran’s Triple Glacier route climbs the eastern glacier, then continues on snowfields above. As we were headed for the western one, we were soon on new ground. I initially hoped to traverse low on the eastern glacier, then continue across the other two to climb the western one, but after crossing the first glacier’s toe, we found ourselves cliffed out far above the second. We descended the ridge separating the eastern and central glaciers toward Moran Canyon, then dropped through steep woods and class 3-4 terrain to the latter’s terminal moraine. From there, we climbed the moraine’s crest to where it joins that of the western glacier, then made a sketchy third class dirt descent to the western Triple Glacier. I had been out of water for half an hour, so while Robert put on his crampons (a much more involved process than me putting on mine), I crossed to a cascade on the other side to grab a couple liters of the last water we would likely find for awhile. Once Robert joined me, we began a steady ascent up moderate snow toward the upper-right corner of the glacier, just below the saddle on the spur ridge between the Zebra and the main Thor-Moran ridge. The angle was moderate most of the way, and the snow was firm enough for our steps rarely to collapse. The upper glacier is split by a rock band on the right, and an ice bulge on the left. I considered going to the far left of the bulge, but decided that a snow ramp through the rock would be more direct and not too steep. I had been able to French-step the rest of the route, but had to “front-point” on my front-point-less crampons through the gap, and on much of the snow above, which remained steep. It was too steep for self-arrest to be realistic, but not steep enough for climbing to feel insecure. Robert did well on this part, following my boot-pack without hesitation and even stopping to take some photos. Coming from the increasingly dry Sierra, he was unnerved by the Tetons’ steep snow two years ago, but has since become much more confident. Reaching the top of the snow, I climbed a short gully of mud and rotten rock to reach the saddle, where I hid away from the breeze to put away my crampons. Robert shortly joined me, and we decided to stash our axes and spikes at the notch before scrambling to the summit. We started left of the crest, climbing a class 2-3 talus chute with good holds on the left, then crossed to the right to continue on broad ledges. The Zebra’s rock slopes down to the east (right), and is mostly sheer on the west (left), so climbing right of the crest can be either fast or tenuous, while the route along the crest is slower but more secure. Traversing right, we soon regretted leaving our axes behind, as we were forced to cross a short slush-field with a bad runout. Grabbing a sharp rock, I kicked deep steps and hacked in a handhold, which I left behind for Robert’s use. Beyond, we climbed a moderate but wet and mossy corner to return to the ridge. I checked out the crest, which looked like a cheval country, then opted instead for an exposed and outward-sloping moss traverse below a snowfield. Robert, sensibly enough, did not like the look of this and, being a Real Climber, took the ridge, meeting up on the other side of my green folly.
Beyond, we traversed right again, then climbed easy ledge-y terrain to the crux, a right-facing dihedral leading to the final false summit. While vertical, this short pitch had enough positive holds to keep it low fifth class. From the top, a bit more scrambling and a final short face section led to the small two-humped summit. We found no register or cairn, only a weathered piece of purple cord where someone had needlessly rappeled on their return. I found a seat out of the wind amidst the loose jumbled rocks next to the summit, while Robert took out his fancy camera to capture some enviable shots and a panorama.Having made the effort to reach this remote place, we had thought of climbing nearby Rotten Thumb, but the traverse looked impassable, with a vertical notch followed by a tower sheer on three sides and slightly overhanging to the east. The obvious route to Rotten Thumb leaves the west Triple Glacier below the rock band and climbs moderate snow to its northeast ridge. Since this would require 1000 vertical feet or so of backtracking, and the peak is aptly named (a rounded rotten blob), we decided to save it for sometime in the distant future. We reversed our route, finding the slush-traverse warmer and sketchier than before, then recovered our gear and headed toward the Thor-Moran ridge. While the Zebra’s rock is generally decent, the rock between it and the main east-west ridge is often rotten, and this section involved some cautious and time-consuming climbing back and forth across the crest. This section had drained my last motivation on a previous Zebra attempt from Leigh Canyon, but I found it easier to bear when it was mandatory. Robert had not climbed Thor, and it was only a short distance away, but we figured it would take one or two more hours to make the side-trip, and we still had quite a bit of climbing between us and home.
The section between the Zebra saddle and the main Thor-Moran ridge is frequently loose and/or outward-sloping, making it unpleasant and slow. I remembered turning around on this section on my previous attempt to reach the Zebra via Leigh Canyon, too discouraged after bushwhacking around Leigh Lake and slogging up the south side of the ridge near Thor. We found some low fifth class terrain in this section, but it could probably be avoided with better route-finding.The main ridge is still loose in places, but much better climbing than the spur. I have traversed all or part of it several times, and am always impressed by the exposure and a bit surprised at the occasional difficulty. There are sections of very steep climbing on blocky, debris-strewn rock, and a traverse to the north after a chossy white gap with big air down to the East Triple Glacier. Robert was dragging a bit at this point, but had enough climbing skill and scrambling experience to overcome his fatigue. I have done various things to surmount Moran’s final granite cap, many of them unpleasant, but this time I had good luck heading directly up and right from the final notch. We stopped to refill water at one of several snowmelt rivulets, then continued to the summit plateau. Moran is a souped-up version of Longs Peak in Colorado, with no easy way to a large and nearly flat summit.
Robert spent some time taking photos from the top, then we proceeded down the Skillet. The top had gone into the shade, so we put on crampons and downclimbed the first few hundred feet facing in. Below that, we were able to take off our spikes and plunge-step or boot-ski. The snow was frustratingly sun-cupped, but lacked the deep center runnel I had found in previous years. I am normally intent to get to the bottom as quickly as possible (generally 30-35 minutes for a 5000-foot snow descent), but this time we pulled off to the right below Moran’s saddle with the East Horn.There is supposedly a 5.1 Chouinard route up the Horn from this side, but what we found felt harder, perhaps because it was wet and we were tired. Robert had had enough, so I continued alone, wandering up outward-sloping ledges to reach the ridge slightly beyond the saddle. There are two headwalls between the saddle and summit, neither of which looks easy to take head-on. I went around the first to the left (north), then tried the same on the second, only to be turned back by ice and wet slabs. Instead, I made my way down and around to the right, climbing past some shrubs and up one side of a slight gully to return to the ridge perhaps a hundred yards from the summit. The route felt at least as hard as the Zebra’s supposed 5.4 — I’ll never be a good judge of climbing grades. Mindful of the lengthening shadows and Robert’s increasing boredom, I semi-hurried back to where he was waiting, then we returned to the glacier for what I hoped would be a quick descent. Normally the lower Skillet is fun and fast, with decent boot-skiing to the “pan,” perhaps a bit of postholing, then excellent snow extending down the outlet stream to the gravel- and aspen-flats below. However this year is the driest I have ever seen the Tetons in June, and the stream was only intermittently bridged by snow. We carefully slid the solid-looking parts, picking our way down the loose garbage in between, taking far longer than I had hoped.
I have done the trail from the Skillet to Bearpaw Bay enough times that I should be able to get it right, but I usually manage to screw up at least a bit, as the use trail fades or gets lost in the area’s many game trails. Fortunately Robert had recorded a track and had a bit of battery left, so we were able to re-find the trail lower down and avoid some tedious bushwhacking. The mosquitoes around Bearpaw and Leigh Lakes were the worst I have ever experienced in the Tetons, and they were fast enough to keep up at a walk. Along with the tedium of Leigh Lake’s endless east shore, the bugs finally drove me to jog, and Robert perked up enough to join me, so we hobbled into the String Lake lot well before dark, taking a respectable but not mind-blowing 15h45 to slay my white whale of a striped horse of a mixed metaphor of the northern Tetons.