My Grand Adventure — part two

Leslie Silverman

I made it! I can still hardly believe it because it was the hardest physical thing I have ever done. But I did it! Slowly. Like, 20 hours slowly. Like my partner called us the “elderly couple everyone was passing” slowly. And by my own eyes it was true that I did not see any women in their 50s all day. Not even in their 40s! It took everything I had to do it. The Grand!

We woke up at 1-ish for our hike. I think I fell asleep sometime around 10 p.m. And I slept very poorly. We were sleeping in the Tundra with four sleeping bags below us. I also had a blow- up sleeping pad and two pillows. I’m usually quite comfortable sleeping in the truck, but it was hot and noisy with other hikers/climbers coming in and out, some celebrating as they returned to their cars, others pulling up to get some sleep before their quest.

It was warm when we started hiking around 2 a.m. I wasn’t hungry and started at as top a speed as I could muster, which wasn’t my usual 2 mph. I felt exhausted. Mentally and physically. The trail starts flat, but soon you encounter eight switchbacks. I mentally trained for these, but they were way longer than I imagined. I think the sixth one was short, but the others were endless. My mind was on a loop: “I’m tired. Turn around. Get some more sleep.” I heard it and countered, “God, please walk with me. Help me take another step.” I didn't speak to my partner. He didn’t speak, either. The enormity of this undertaking was setting in. We stopped to take off layers and I ate a bite of my hummus/bagel sandwich. It didn’t help much. I forced myself to sip from my Camelbak, knowing how important fuel and water would be. We saw headlights coming at us...this confused us. Who could be coming down at this hour? The looks on the boys’ faces showed defeat and exhaustion. We got passed — by several parties. My brain started again. “How can anyone be moving so fast?” I did not see anyone without a rope, which began my brain moving in another direction, “How can I solo this when I’m so tired?” I kept my thoughts to myself, never once sharing them with my partner.

When we stopped for water I finally said, “This is a death march. I don’t want to go on.” He concurred. And gave me the option to turn around. And even though it was harder than what I had trained for, I kept going. I told myself, “Just see the sun rise. Then you can turn around.”

First light was at 6:20 a.m. We had been hiking for four hours straight and I had expected to be at the lower saddle by then. After all, it was only six miles from the trailhead and I was training at 2 mph.

That did not happen. We were somewhere around the five-mile mark when my eyes adjusted to the light. Past the two boulder fields, which I had been scared to cross in the dark. But still not at the fixed lines which would lead to the lower saddle and the “hard” part of the hike. I saw the shadows of the cliffs around me and they were enormous. I imagined their beauty. The water was rushing loudly. The sun poked through the hazy smoke and I knew a second wind was going to hit me. My partner uttered that he felt like continuing. I did too — to the lower saddle, at least.

The lower saddle sits at 11,600 feet, 5,000 feet above where we started. To get to the lower saddle requires one to climb “fixed lines,” ropes permanently on the trail to assist climbers because of the steepness of the terrain. From what I had read, if I felt comfortable soloing this part (not using the fixed rope) I would be OK with the Owen Spalding (OS). Of course a fall from the fixed line portion of the climb would not prove fatal like an unroped fall off the OS would. I started up the rocks next to the fixed line pretty easily. At one point I did in fact use the line, but I figured if my pack hadn’t been on me it would not have been necessary to grab the rope, and I was doing the OS sans pack. Above the fixed line I could make out the permanent camp the guides leave up for their parties. I also could finally see the upper saddle. There was still a lot of hiking left.

It’s about 2,175 feet from the lower saddle to the top of the Grand Teton, and from the lower saddle to the upper saddle it’s a distance of about one mile; basically from the lower saddle to the start of the OS you gain 1,500 feet in one mile! It’s touted as the hardest part of the hike. I was not sure I wanted to go on. I was even less sure because the wind was intense. Really intense. We knew this was the last place to get water, so we found the hose, which is marked by a cairn. It’s glacier-fed with no need for filtering. I saw the black dike I had read about numerous times and began to make out other features like the Needle. I also began to feel very tired and extremely loopy. Elevation was beginning to get to me.

Between us and the black dike was an up like I had never seen. It appeared to just be completely vertical. It was loose and the wind was so strong I had to fight to stay upright. I watched one gust almost knock my partner to his knees. He yelled to me, “It’s always this windy here.” I recalled a hiker in blue shorts passing me. He was tall and lanky and seemed to be running. My brain once again asked, “How could he be moving so fast?”

I looked at my partner desperately and yelled, “I need to stop. I just can’t go on.” We found a large boulder to get a slight wind break from and I collapsed. I stuffed my mouth with pretzels and a Lara bar. I drank some water. I was near tears, feeling defeated. I had nothing left to give this mountain. Yet I was so close. I knew if I could just get out of the wind I would be OK. At this point I had on nearly every layer of clothing I had brought, but took it all off to put on the last upper layer I had. My hat and gloves went on, too.

And then I did what I knew I needed to do...put one foot in front of the other. I moved as fast as a turtle. The wind was keeping the tears flowing from my eyes from reaching my cheeks. I saw the blue-shorted man stopped above me and it looked like he was on somewhat level ground. I tilted my head down and like a bull I trudged on. When we reached the black dike the wind had subsided and the incline eased up. Well, sort of.

It was at this point that I could use both my arms and my legs, something climbers call scrambling. While normally I don’t love scrambling the idea of using both sets of limbs was such a relief to me I smiled. It was at this point, nearly seven miles from the truck and about seven hours after we started that I thought, “I have a chance to stand on top of the Grand.”

The scrambling wasn’t easy. We ran into a couple who were descending; they had not submitted because the girl in the party was not feeling well. The girl was having trouble descending a chimney I was going up. I am not good at chimneys — they essentially require you to push on the rock to move yourself up them. Mind you, I know the OS was mostly chimneys, but they are still not my thing. This chimney was hard, but if you fell you’d merely break or sprain something. I made my way up. I could see the look of sheer fear in the girl’s eyes as she made her way down. I knew that would be me at some point, but I brushed it out of my mind. My concern at this moment was up.

The Needle was a fun tunnel that I enjoyed a lot. From there it was a path of least resistance to the base of the OS, where the wind began to pick up yet again.

My partner looked at me and said, “It’s your call. I am here to support you. There is no shame in going back.” He knew what I was thinking. The gusts were really strong and we were going to do the last 600 feet of this adventure un-roped. The climb is rated 5.4. Most parties rope up for it. I am not an expert climber. A 5.4 is an easy grade for climbing and I am what climbers refer to as a moderate climber. But a fall on this route, whether due to wind, elevation loopiness, ice or a mere slip would likely prove to be fatal. I asked him for a minute alone. He went to go talk to some people who were coming down.

I took my alone time and prayed. I’m a stubborn girl and my will can sometimes get the best of me. So I needed to let go of my will and my ego and talk with God. My partner came back and reported that the wind on the route was about the same as we were experiencing. While I heard him, I was already moving to the start of the climb. We put on our harnesses and I began to climb in my hiking boots, although my climbing shoes were clipped to me “just in case.”

My partner went first, showing me exactly what to do. Normally I would have told him to shut up and let me figure it out myself. But I was in survival mode and I knew I could trust him.

The first move of the route requires you to belly-roll across a large rock. I had no problem with that. The second move of the route is the scariest and most dangerous on the entire route. It is “exposed”... a 2,000-foot drop if you slip. There are two ways to do it. He showed me the first. It required a “slab” move, moving up on tiny feet with no hands. The other option was to do a hand traverse. He made it look easy. I put my hand on the rock. It was cold and slippery. I couldn’t move. I just looked at him. There was no way for me to get to him.

He yelled, “If you can’t do this move, then we need to go back.” I tried as hard as I could to do the hand traverse, but everything in my body said “no.” My hands are tiny; the holds seemed enormous.

I looked at the slab movement again. I went down to it. I decided to change my shoes and go for it. My partner later told me he couldn’t believe I changed my shoes on the most exposed part of the route, where most people get scared. I never looked down, so I never got scared. The move was awesome. I love slab. I placed my right footd on this tiny little piece of rock and stood up. I did the same with my left foot. One more tiny little right foot and I could grab a very large handhold and voila, I was past the “crux” of the climb.

From there we walked on more slab, around ice and snow. I heard a roped climber say, “Dude, you don’t have a rope,” and I just nodded, so in the zone I was practically floating. There was one more spot that gave me pause on the route, the exit from Sargents chimney. I knew I had to make the move or reverse all my moves to get down. My partner made the move look so easy. For me it was the hardest move on the entire climb. But once I made it I was home free. When I reached the top of the Grand Teton the wind stopped. The sun was on my face. I shed layers. All the exhaustion and the loopiness from the elevation were gone. Only elation was left. I could not imagine that I was there, overlooking Idaho and Wyoming, surrounded by a handful of people way younger than me. I had soloed the Grand!


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