Unsafe at Any Altitude

“Everything is half as dangerous as it’s supposed to be.”

After 22 years of countless “Safety First” signs, permission slips, waivers, orange cones, speed limits, Nerf footballs, national “Click it or Ticket” campaigns, liability lawsuits, plastic-tipped darts, bicycle helmet laws, toy guns with orange caps, scare-mongering local news segments, drive-through-window warning stickers, and trips to the principal’s office, that’s what I had decided.

It was a personal mantra shaped by a lifetime of ridiculous safety rules and regular run-ins with busybody authorities “looking out” for my well-being. Touch football banned from recess; rope swings cut down; I was given detention once for holding a hallway dance party in high school! At some point, I stopped listening. I didn’t want to be looked out for.

That’s what was on my mind the day I started climbing in the Grand National Teton Park last year. Armed with an array of complicated climbing gear, scattershot book knowledge, several weeks of training, and more guts than experience, I aimed to scale the mountains — and I wasn’t going to let anyone’s cautions get in my way.

***

On that June Day, the snow began at around 8,000 feet, or about a three-hour hike up an infrequently used trail starting from Jackson Hole. I had come to the Tetons by myself; there was no one in the valley I knew.

I’d hiked up into this canyon purely to explore. Since I had seen a picture of the Grand Teton in middle school, I’d wanted to climb it, and a trip had been in the works for years. During my senior year of college, I spent many nights reading route descriptions in A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, poring over maps, examining the mountains via Google Earth, and generally just daydreaming. I had trained vigorously for several weeks prior to leaving. But now that I was there, I wanted nothing more than to roam to my heart’s content.

The snow was a problem. I hadn’t intended to climb past the snowline when I left the valley because I had never trained or practiced using an ice axe, the tool used to stop a fall on snow. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, a bible of the sport, sternly warns would-be climbers not to rely on mere book knowledge, but instead on practice and experience. Other climbers had told me the same. It was sensible advice.

My exploration brought me to the edge of the snow. It was later in the day than I would have wished and the climb up more strenuous. My original plan had been to hike back down to the valley, around Rockchuck Peak, and into Paintbrush Canyon. But now it occurred to me that instead of climbing all the way back down, I could just climb up the snow, over a ridge (part of the peak), and down into the canyon. In retrospect, this would seem rather absurd.

I consulted my map. The contour lines, each showing an increase in altitude of 80 feet, looked . . . well . . . I honestly didn’t know. They were kind of close together — but not that close together. Was the ridge a cliff or just another steep hill, like the one I was on?

“I can do this,” I thought. It didn’t seem that hard, at first. The technique is as follows: 1) Using your ice axe as an anchor, plunge it into the snow several feet upwards, 2) Kick a step into the snow above your higher foot, and 3) Place your foot into the kicked step. Imagine climbing up a very steep set of stairs made of slippery snow.

The slope was easy to begin with, and though I harbored doubts both of my ability to climb the snow and of the nature of the ridge above, I pressed on. I was happy to explore further if nothing else.

Ten minutes later, the angle of the slope got steeper. I looked over my shoulder at a newly perilous view, concerned about the prospect of descending in the snow. The first problem would be turning around. The “steps” I had kicked were only large enough for a toe-hold, so pivoting and climbing back down them was out of the question. The added weight of my backpack, which held a tent and sleeping bag, made balancing all the more difficult. There was nowhere to go but up.

Several minutes later I tried to step up into a freshly kicked step, but it didn’t hold my weight. For a terrifying half-second, I fell. Thankfully, the ice axe held my 200 pounds (and 40-pound backpack).

I kept climbing. Looking below, I was half in awe, half-terrified. Beneath the snow-line were several lakes; they seemed to be directly below me. The snow itself, descending into the distance, was punctuated by sharp rocks and occasional trees as well as my many winding footsteps.

Unlike rocky terrain, the kicked-in steps never felt like solid footing. One was always on the verge of sliding down. Absurdly, my fear of climbing down fueled my climb upwards. My mind wandered to less immediate dangers: Would I be able to pass the ridge? An enormous amount of intellectual energy went into guessing, and second-guessing, the meaning of those contour lines on the map. Each interpretation at times held sway. Increasingly, I became convinced the lines were close enough to indicate a cliff ahead. But what to do? I couldn’t climb down!

Plunge, kick, step for another half-hour. Several times I reached points I had thought would offer a clear view ahead, only to find another long stretch of snow to climb. Every step was a step deeper into my predicament. I had to pass the ridge.

And then I passed over a crest and saw that the “ridge” was in fact a 1,000-foot cliff. There was no way in hell I could pass it. As I was in a canyon, I had been walled in on both sides for the entirety of the ascent. But now I saw that the cliffs came together, encircling a long, relatively flat section of snow. They rose vertically in what resembled knife blades scraping the sky.

“I have to get the hell off this mountain,” I muttered aloud. I looked again at the impenetrable fortress of rock walling in all sides. Perhaps I could have spent the night, but what would morning hold? I was pretty sure the soft snow of the afternoon would freeze overnight.

The slope had flattened out so at least I could turn around. I peered down. There was no other option: I had to descend. Again, I relied on book knowledge. “Plunge-stepping” is a technique whereby one steps forcefully down, leading with the heel — the force of one’s entire weight propelled downward — to carve a step into the snow. Attempting this was three times as frightful as climbing upwards because I was looking down at my potential fall — and leaping toward it no less.

The first step was a leap of faith; I only hoped my heel would stick in place. I leaned out, my body weightless for half a second as I fell, heel outstretched. It worked! My heel sank into the wet afternoon snow and stuck there. I took another step and another. To my happy surprise, plunge-stepping was going rather well and was far less tiring than climbing. “I can do this,” I thought. My confidence was buoyed, and 500 vertical feet passed. Relief overcame me as I realized that, yes, I could get off this mountain alive.

Then I fell.

Instead of my heel sinking into the snow and stopping, it slipped forward. I fell backwards, slamming into the snow, beginning to slide downward, my speed accelerating. Book knowledge to the rescue! With the technique of “self-arrest,” the climber uses an ice axe to stop himself. The plummeting climber twists to his stomach, puts the point of the ice axe into the snow, digs in his toes, raises his back to put all of his weight on the three points of friction, and (hopefully) slows to a stop.

I dug the tip of the ice axe into the snow and prayed. It worked! I was still alive, terrified as I have never been. I picked myself up and continued the descent, plunge-step by plunge-step.

I got to a particularly steep section of the snow and was being especially cautious. The thing about plunge-stepping, though, is that it requires an aggressive step, or else one’s heel won’t properly carve a step. Thus, my attempt to inch down this steeper section led to another slip. My feet up in the air, I felt again the backward launching of my body down the grade. I went into self-arrest. It was only later that I would learn that digging one’s toes into the snow was an integral part of the technique — which was why my self-arrest was not stopping my fall.

I hurtled hundreds of feet downward, my ice axe tip buried deep into the snow. Three times the axe caught on a solid section of snow and was nearly jerked out of my hand. I was cursing aloud repeatedly as I slid down the mountain at breakneck speed. There was a tree approaching to my right. I thought of making a last ditch effort — rolling over and grabbing for dear life — but decided against it.

Much to my astonishment — for I knew I was doomed — the angle of the slope receded, and I slowed to a stop. I couldn’t believe my luck. My expectation had been to stop via rock but instead the slide just petered out. I looked at the path I had slid down and took a photograph in bewilderment. I was completely unscathed.

Once again, the same phrase escaped my mouth. “I’ve got to get the hell off this mountain.”

Only minutes later I had reached the end of the snow, and was back on solid ground. My hands were shaking. I was talking to myself, negotiating with the mountain. Later this would evolve into a signature phrase — “Ain’t no thing.” — which meant that the coming maneuver held no chance of death. I hiked down — having abandoned my plan of camping — into the valley.

Finally, I reached the trailhead where my car was parked. I drove to Dornan’s, one of the few restaurants in the park and only 15 minutes from the trailhead by car. (Jackson, the nearest town, is about 45 minutes away.) There are huge windows in Dornan’s overlooking the mountains. I ordered a drink. I ate dinner in silence, my hands still shaking, and watched the sun set behind the mountains.

***

I was staying for a month at the Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch. It’s a group of cabins in the park where climbers can sleep for $16 a night (or $8 if they are members of the American Alpine Club, which owns the facility). Every year the ranch runs a five-day work week at the beginning of June that grants cash-strapped climbers a free month’s stay. The cabins surround a common eating area where the campers would light up their backpacking stoves and cook meals, some rudimentary, others quite ambitious. Stories were told here.

The first day of work week I found myself on door refurbishing duty with Tom, a 40-year-old man who was often paralyzed by indecision (at that moment regarding how to proceed on a particularly tattered door). Tom was contemplating a career shift from corporate training to, well, he didn’t precisely know yet. We shared a love for political philosophy which made the work go faster. I began to tell him about my experience the day before.

“Have you ever heard of the term ‘alpine start?’” he asked. I hadn’t. He explained that mountain ascents often begin as early as midnight so that one reaches the summit by noon and can safely descend before afternoon storms or darkness make things dicey. The other reason was snow conditions: “Harder is safer,” he explained. When the sun hits the snow, it gets “sloppy,” making climbing more dangerous. There was also the potential of falling through where the snow had melted and perhaps breaking a leg. The hard snow of the early morning required crampons — metal spikes attached to one’s boots — but was in many ways safer.

Tom declined numerous proposals to accompany me on a climb all summer, probably because of that conversation. Thankfully, others were willing to take a chance, even after hearing my harrowing tale. Topher (short for Christopher) was an arborist hailing from New Orleans, having moved there to help Hurricane Katrina victims. After much cajoling, he agreed to an ascent of Mt. St. John (11,430 ft.). The climb is nothing more than a strenuous hike in August, but with so much snow still on the ground it would be much more difficult.

During work week I had hiked to Granite Canyon with Topher to practice my ice axe skills on snow with a “safe runout” (a stretch of snow that flattens out and is clear of rocks), and now felt somewhat comfortable wielding the tool. However, I learned that the flexible backpacking boots I had brought to the mountains weren’t suitable for climbing snow, a fact which bothered me little but brought me much grief from Topher.

Nevertheless, we awoke one morning at 5:00 a.m. to climb Mt. St. John and were dismayed to find clouds swirling around the mountains. Perfect mornings are cloudless, but even these often bring afternoon storms. Mountaineers talk about how the Tetons are big enough to “create their own weather.” We decided to give the climb a shot anyways.

Topher was fast; I couldn’t keep up. Just the hike into the approach canyon was five hours. Having reached the snow-line, we cut horizontally across snow that bottomed into an alpine lake, still mostly ice even in June.

The most difficult aspect of the route was navigation. Mt. St. John is a series of ridges and their corresponding false summits, all of them nearly the same height. Picking the right coulior (think of an alley leading up the mountain) via a route description was an art and left one uncertain well after making a decision.

The weather deteriorated. Clouds blew into the canyon. The wind howled. Sleet swept over the summit ridge and down past us. We found shelter and hunkered down for nearly an hour, impressed at the power of the mountain. Topher was into various forms of Eastern spirituality and pontificated about whether the mountain would “let us” climb it. I found the notion silly. On the other hand, it was an apt metaphor, for we were at the mercy of things beyond our control.

For a fleeting moment we saw a patch of blue sky. That was our signal to move on. To expedite the “summit bid” we ditched our backpacks and took only our ice axes. The idea was to “run” up and down to the summit before the weather could get worse. Topher’s pace quickened, but I was already going as fast as I could.

An hour of fierce climbing later we reached an outcropping of rocks leading 100 feet further to the summit. As we climbed the boulders we saw over the edge to the other side of the mountain, a 4,000-foot cliff. I could also see the canyon where my fateful first day had taken place. Careful to test the solidity of every rock, we scrambled further up to the top of the mountain. My jacket was flapping in the wind, and I was soaked to the bone. But we reached the summit. I was ecstatic.

“Let’s quick snap a picture, and get off this mountain,” Topher said. I would learn more and more that fast is safe in the mountains. There are dangers — falling rocks and bad weather chief among them — inherent to being there at all.

We sped down the mountain. My fear of descending in the snow — the memory of my fall still fresh — had been gnawing at me. We reached a steep section. Topher went first. I followed warily, then easily.

Triumph is sweeter for the toils endured. But few toils can compare in their intensity to mountaineering. For one thing, the difficulties encountered in real life often involve a lot of work, but they don’t normally require the backbreaking physical exhaustion of climbing mountains. And if there are risks encountered, those usually don’t include risk of death. The other thing is that a project spanning months can obscure the difficulties with time, but the work of an ascent is fresh in one’s mind when one reaches the top. All of these things make reaching the top of a mountain a nearly peerless joy.

I was pretty proud of myself. Topher, I think, was getting a bit annoyed with all my talk about what we had just done. I peppered him with questions. His answer was invariably “You’ll learn” and a knowing smile. He was right. There are things about mountaineering that don’t seem intuitive until you’re there — then nothing else will work.

We reached the bottom of the mountain and drove back to the ranch. I was glowing. We celebrated over dinner at Dornan’s. The other climbers weren’t impressed with my accomplishment — by their standards it was a rather humble climb — but they understood my excitement because they had once felt it themselves.

***

My boots were causing distress among my new friends. They insisted I buy proper mountaineering boots with a stiff sole. The reason is that when climbing snow, standing on kicked steps means standing on your toes. A stiff sole makes this much easier.

Rob had graduated from West Point, became a cop, and then — tired of being one of the authorities — grew his hair out and started climbing. He now owns an outdoor gear shop in Colorado. Topher appealed to Rob’s authority in the matter of my boots and his advice was particularly emphatic: “This isn’t a game; people die in the mountains.” He listed several friends that had died climbing.

So I bought the boots that made my feet feel like 6’7” Hell’s Angels bikers. I broke them in bushwhacking my way up to Delta Lake, which afforded one of the best views of the Grand Teton in the park, with Tex, a ranch resident with a dry sense of humor.

A day later I awoke at 5:00 a.m. to attempt a solo ascent of the Middle Teton (12,804 ft.). No one else had wanted to climb it by the route I was attempting (the Southwest Coulior), so I had decided to go it alone.

The hike up was on a path I’d already done several times. It took three or four hours to get to Garnet Canyon, the most popular canyon in the park and the base of many climbs. I reached the beginning of a steep section of snow and looked up. My experience had brought me confidence. “Ain’t no thing,” I said. I climbed up the snow without incident, my new boots slicing easily into the snow and providing a much more solid perch.

There were clouds blowing through the canyon. I kept climbing anyway, hoping it would clear up. Finally I reached the end of the canyon, where the Southwest Coulior began. The canyon ended in a saddle between Middle Teton and South Teton, dropping off on the other side to an icy lake. Were it not for the clouds, I could have seen Idaho out to the West. Instead I saw that pretty much every cloud on that side of the mountain was being siphoned by the wind through the opening where I stood.

I waited for two hours, growing colder and colder. The coulior was thick with fog and uninviting. I hunkered down behind a rock to avoid the wind.

Then I made the tough decision to give up. I descended the mountain. Seven hours of climbing for naught, but it was the right choice. I had come to respect the mountains as well as my own limits.

***

It was late now, and I had climbed the South Teton, Middle Teton, and several others. I had hiked alone through Death Canyon, camped and then gotten semi-lost in the expansive Alaska Basin, hiked 16 miles back, and driven to Wendy’s for a spicy chicken sandwich upon my return. That was the first time, I believe, I had been 24 hours without seeing another soul. Rob, who had prodded me into buying proper boots, now took a different approach: “I’d let the mountains teach you now,” he said.

Much consideration had gone into my latest plan: three summits in one day. I had garnered a reputation for going long distances. Although I was not much of a technical rock climber, I hiked a lot of miles — “for an Eastern boy.”

My plan went accordingly. I was going to hike up the infrequently traveled Open Canyon, then climb Mt. Hunt (10,783 ft.), an unnamed peak of 10,998 feet, and finally Prospectors Mountain (11,241 ft.).

I woke at 3:00 a.m., admired the brilliant stars, drove to the trailhead, and started walking alone in the dark by the light of my headlamp. Ten minutes into the woods, the LCD light guiding my way illuminated two reflecting dots in the distance — eyes. I could tell from the distance between the two eyes it was a large creature. I guessed it was a bear from their distance from the ground. A large bear. I clapped my hands, hoping to scare it off. No such luck. I had seen another bear en route to Garnet Canyon, a small black bear. Black bears are not known for aggressiveness, whereas Grizzly bears, found mostly in the remote northern regions of the Tetons, are. I obviously couldn’t tell which it was in the dark, so I walked a good distance into the woods around the bear. It never moved.

Ten minutes later, I took a break for water. There was a sound from the trail just around the bend, almost like a horse neighing. A moose, I thought. Most people do not know that moose attacks are just as dangerous as bear attacks. If a female moose feels her calf is threatened, she will viciously stomp the unlucky interloper to death. (There are YouTube clips to attest to this.)

Already rattled by the bear incident, I proceeded cautiously down the dark trail. I couldn’t see the moose but I heard the sound again. There was something odd along the trail: Was it a rock? But didn’t it just move? I walked closer to it but couldn’t make out its shape in the dark. Closer and closer until POOF! — a flutter of feathers came right at my face, forcing me to duck.

Daylight could not come sooner.

An hour later, the valley was lit by the rising sun. I came around a bend only to find a mother moose and her calf. They both ran away. Later I began to wonder why on earth I had decided to climb three peaks in a day? This was hubris, was it not? The night before my climb, upon hearing my plans, one veteran climber told me: “Just keep going.”

“Just keep going?” I asked.

“Just keep going.” I resorted to this advice often.

Scree, as it’s called in the mountains, describes small, loose rocks. Mt. Hunt is entirely composed of it, and this made the way up tedious. Each step was half a step, my foot sinking.

The peak offered a pleasant view. The southern part of the Tetons look less like the Alps and more like a range out of an old Western movie. Below me, fittingly, was Coyote Lake. After a quick snack, I walked down along a ridge to a long snowfield I had avoided on the ascent. If you know what you’re doing with an ice axe, there’s a technique called “glissading” where you pretty much sled down the mountain on your butt, using the ice axe to keep your speed in check. I glissaded down the mountain, which took an hour to climb, in three or four minutes.

Several hours later, I was at the top of the unnamed peak, snapping photos. I took a brief nap, awoke with a jolt, grabbed my pack, and departed, leaving my camera on the rocks. There was a saddle connecting this mountain with Prospectors, so I began my way across. The rocks were loose, and it took much care not to cause a rockslide while negotiating my path down. After descending about 1,000 feet, I wanted to take another photograph.

“#@$*!”

It was a critical moment. Up until then my trek, with the exception of the scare in the dark, had gone swimmingly. I was making good time and was in good spirits, but the thought of climbing another 1,000 vertical feet nearly broke my resolve. I couldn’t leave the camera, although I considered it, so I wearily went to fetch it. This was no longer fun. I wanted out, but there was no way out. There was only the long trek back the way I had come. This is one of the things about the mountains: It’s always easy to get yourself into something, but there is no escaping the trip back.

I climbed up toward Prospectors Mountain. I was exhausted. I had no water left so I was beginning to get dehydrated. I had my Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range and began to study the route down. I walked there, but found no way to descend. There was a cliff where the leisurely coulior was supposed to be. I found another coulior, but the snow was so steep that plunge-stepping would not work. I fell several times, stopping with my ice axe, but was unable to find a good method to descend. I tried reverse kick-stepping down the snow, but it took too long.

Finally, I resorted to the last available method, a controlled slide. I jumped down a few feet, gathered a bit of speed, and then put my ice axe into the snow. It was reminiscent of my fall the first day: I couldn’t stop even with my improved technique. The key difference was that I knew the snow continued for such a distance that I would eventually slow down. I did, but it was still frightening to be unable to stop.

Further down the mountain, there were more difficulties. I had trouble finding a suitable route. Exhausted, spending so much effort down a path only to find it impassable took a toll on my energy and morale. It was nasty terrain, but I finally got to the path at dark.

I had crossed 16 or 17 miles and climbed (and then descended) about 7,000 vertical feet — an absolutely crushing day. Now ahead of me were three more miles in the dark.

My encounters with the wildlife that morning made me nervous. I began to hallucinate. I imagined faces. I would look at a tree, a bush, anything, and see a threatening face. The thought occurred to me that I was in an X-Files episode. The faces were everywhere.

I was getting closer to the very end of the trail, where I had spotted the bear. I was terrified of it. I sang at the top of my lungs, making up lyrics as I went. I was clapping. I was shouting. I was doing everything I could to warn the monsters of my arrival in their woods.

At 11:00 p.m., I reached my car and drove back to the ranch. I would sleep until 4 p.m. the next day.
***

Before I ever set foot in the Tetons, I arranged for a guided climb up the Grand Teton (13,770 ft.). Having dreamt of ascending that majestic peak for so many years, and not sure what level I would advance to in the course of my trip, I wanted to ensure I “bagged” it.

The trip was set for August. I returned to the Tetons with my family; they would be there for my final triumph. We would celebrate at Dornan’s.

There were three clients and two guides, Eddy and Mark. The hiking pace was slow. The guides made our meals. We slept at 11,000 feet at a permanent camp. At 3:00 a.m., we departed for the ascent. It was colder than expected, and I hadn’t brought warm enough clothes. The guides set up the ropes and belayed us (meaning upon falling the rope would have stopped us) up sections of the mountain I would have happily climbed unroped.

The guides’ tone was stern; we were on a short leash. I was issued several warnings not to stray too close to an edge.

There was one difficult pitch of the climb (each pitch is roughly the length of half a climbing rope). The guides set up the ropes so that at the most difficult parts there would be a loop of webbing to grab onto and pull oneself up. I was determined not to make use of the artificial holds. But after my first unsuccessful attempt, Eddy demanded I use them. My hands were wooden with the cold, so I complied.

Most of the climbing wasn’t too difficult, but the exposure (potential fall) was huge. I could see why the guides would treat their clients like they did: They couldn’t trust us. They’d guided lots of people up the mountain and seen all types. Our lives were in their hands.

We saw plenty of other guided trips up the mountain; the route was crowded. Eddy and Mark greeted the other guides we saw. The climbers were in classes: guides and clients. We did as we were told. It didn’t seem to bother the others in my group.

Finally we reached the top. There were 20 others there already. It was bittersweet to me. This was the moment I had longed for but it came cheaply. The view was brilliant. A blanket of clouds covered the valley below, punctured by mountains in the distance and the glint of the sun off Snake River. Teewinot Mountain rose impressively like a giant black arrowhead. All of the places I had been that summer seemed so small now that they were below me. I thought of how many years I had promised to climb this mountain.

The guides rushed us down the mountain, eager to get off work. Since the other clients didn’t seem to mind this, or the general amusement-ride feel of being led to the top, I realized that what I had loved about my experiences in the mountains was the responsibility liberty required. At first, I was merely rebellious. I had found a sphere without external regulations. I had laughed at the thought of the Michael Bloomberg-type bureaucrats trying to regulate the mountains, perhaps wanting them A.D.A. compliant. They would find it couldn’t be done. I was free. There was nothing stopping me from killing myself — and I almost did.

What was so refreshing, though, so alien to our desire for autonomy from even the consequences of our own actions, was having to choose well. There was no passing the buck. I had to pay for my bad decisions — and I loved paying. Finally, nothing prevented me. What did constrict me was my nature, my physical abilities, my capacity to focus when exhausted. I pushed against the mountain, but there it remained.

Jonathan A. Strong is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email at jonathan.strong@gmail.com.

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