Oh, but we were so much older then,
We’re younger than that now.
There is a website (www.tetonclimbinghistory.com) where you will find digital images of the summit registers for the Grand Teton from 1898 through the 1980s. I couldn’t resist. After hunting for a bit, I found, on the page for August 4, 1971, the following entry: “Bill Hutchins, Philadelphia, PA, Petzoldt Ridge.”
Yep, on that day, 37 years ago, I and a fellow also named Bill whom I had met at Jenny Lake climbed the Grand via the Petzoldt Ridge. My partner was a very good rock climber from the Gunks, but had little experience in the mountains, so most of the planning and route finding fell to me. I spent a sleepless night in a wind buffeted tent on the crest of the Lower Saddle worrying about everything that could possibly go wrong, from not finding the start of the route to being hit by a monster thunderstorm on the summit. However, and despite a few disagreements about Bill’s belaying me without gloves (we used hip belays then, kids) and my tendency to run out moderate rock, we made it to the summit without problems. My cunning plan to follow a guide party down the Owen Spalding descent route (which the guidebook warned could be hard to follow) fizzled when the guide got lost and we had to find our own way down, followed by the guide and his two clients.
I talked Bill into glissading down from the Lower Saddle into Garnet Canyon, but forgot to warn him to wear long sleeves. He rubbed his forearms raw doing an ice-ax self arrest part way down. I wrapped his arms in gauze, which stuck to the open wounds as they dried and was very painful to remove the next day. Bill was not at all happy with me. Nonetheless, that climb of the Grand was one of the hi-lights of my thoroughly undistinguished mountaineering career.
As the years have gone by, I have thought often of that climb. A proud achievement, yes. But one that belonged in a different lifetime to a younger, stronger person. In the several years before my retirement last fall, I walked past a beautiful photograph of the Tetons with the Grand in the middle (of course) as I made my way down the hall to my office each morning. I remembered my climb and tried without success to imagine myself again climbing to the summit. No, that kind of adventure, requiring real physical strength and stamina, was behind me. I was old and far too weak to do anything like that again.
But as I have gotten back into climbing in the last two years, thoughts of the Grand have stayed with me. I asked for, and received, the photograph as a retirement gift from my colleagues in my old office. They framed it beautifully, and I look at it in my bedroom every day. I bought the latest edition of the Teton guidebook and then a topo map of the Grand Teton National Park. As I studied both, the idea grew: maybe I could climb the Grand again. Sometimes I think its possible; other times I think its beyond me. But I've decided to try.
My Red Rock friend and climbing partner Marc and I have arranged to meet at the Teton Climbers Ranch in late July of this year. Our tentative objective is the complete Exum Ridge, a wonderful Grade III, 5.7 right next to my old friend the Petzoldt Ridge.
I am doing everything I can to prepare. I’ve been working out regularly, with a particular emphasis on cardio-vascular conditioning to try to get ready for the strenuous hiking and climbing we will have to do at altitudes up to almost 14,000 feet. I have been climbing a lot, including leading quite a few Gunks 5.7s and one 5.8. I am climbing as well or better than as I was in 1971. I will be spending a week climbing at Seneca Rocks shortly. Then, Lois and I are going to take another week to hike through New Hampshire's Pemigewasset wilderness.
I am going to go out to the Tetons about 10 days before Marc to get acclimated to the altitude and to reconnoiter the approaches to our route. I am hoping to be able to do a couple of warm up climbs as well, which should give me a good sense of whether my fitness is up to the Grand. If not, I’ll call Marc and give him the bad news that we need to scrub the climb. But I am hopeful we can do it. If so I’ll post pictures and a trip report here.