The iconic view of the Tetons. Courtesy: wikipedia.com
Thank you, Lewis Carroll, for capturing how I operate mentally day-to-day in all of its unproductive and self-sabotaging glory. When I sense this running in place is occurring, I know I need my escape hatch.
The escape hatch that brings this Alice into her Wonderland isn’t a rabbit hole, per se. For me, it’s the trailheads and rivers in and around Jackson, Wyoming. I haven’t spent enough time in this backcountry, but each time I do it seems to be a grand (and welcome) ass-kicking. Welcome – because expansion always seems to follow each Wyoming outing. Climbing the Grand Teton in a single day via the Complete Exum (III, 5.7) this month was no exception.
Jackson elevates wilderness to a ginormous, new level. When I’m out there, I feel so very tiny, like Alice in the story. It’s pure wilderness – large and in charge. There’s no controlling it. Bear spray? Check. Gear to combat weather? Check. Climbing fitness to speed hike one mile per pitch of roped climbing? This time, that box remained unchecked… but we went for it went anyway!
I’m lucky that I have some seasoned people to help me not get lost forever here, at least physically. Exum’s Jack Tackle is one of these people and would be my guide for the one day endeavor.
Whenever I fly into Jackson, I always look to the right and study the Tetons and the surrounding peaks. For the better part of this past year, that vantage point from the airplane gave me a front row seat to where I had climbed to before, in 2012: the top of the Golden Staircase via the Upper Exum. While I loved the concept that I was close to the summit that day, I wasn’t. That last 1000-feet of climbing is a lot to surmount to gain the summit; the descent is a hell of a lot more than that.
Exum Mountain Guides has made a business out of climbing the Grand Teton. Most clients sign on for a “411” course on how to rockineer and belay. Jack could have served that up, but knowing me well, he proposed an alternate route.
“We can try the Upper Exum again, and it would be just fine,” Jack said as we ate lunch the day before our outing. “But I think you’d want to do the Complete… It’s more roped climbing, more fun. Knowing that you’re a climber and have done things like this, I think you should do the Complete.”
The difference between the Upper Exum route and the Complete Exum route is seven pitches of “Grown Up Climbing,” located between the base of the Grand to Wall Street. The very second he locked in the concept of having me try to do what seemed to be a vaster version of the Grand, there really was no turning back in my mind. I have an unfortunate default in my head – anytime an option that’s more robust is introduced around an adventure, I pretty much can’t say no to it without the nagging feeling that I would need to go back and do it that way the next time. I’d already tried the Grand once…
The decision was made: I was in Jackson. The weather looked splitter. I was climbing with Jack. This all equals “go,” but I couldn’t help knowing – deep down inside – that the choice to do the Complete in a day was, well, a little crazy.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
That nagging ‘this is crazy’ feeling could have been tied to the fact that I had not hiked more than four times this summer or done anything on a rope except for some ice pitches earlier this year. But doing this route in a day with my two partners (my own head plus my guide, Jack) was more about self exploration than it was about physical endurance.
It seems that when I’m engaged in one of those two pursuits, the other falls into focus more; probably because there’s no room for my mental shenanigans.
Lupine Meadows trailhead, dark at our 2 a.m. start time, was the rabbit hole entrance once again. The headlamp beam only reaches so much ground on that trail leading up to the ridge, and what’s not in that beam of light really isn’t considered. It acts like blinders for my thoughts.
The climbing that day also demanded focus. My brain was active, but with only productive thought. Doubts about safety, returning alive, maiming my partner, injury, failing in my marriage or in my business, the general “am I good enough” to do this, and the other sabotaging bullshit that habitually swims around my head has no place up here.
What does have room up there? Faith.
Having faith in myself and complete faith in my partner. I had unshakable faith that I’d return to my hotel that night safe and with a cleaner head and perspective on life.
This mountain calls me on my bullshit. I leave old stories about myself on its flanks. Jack helps. In classic Jack fashion, he sets my head up to take on the climb’s toughest aspects. As I finished what I now call the “greased pig” pitch, P4 – a beyond-awkward, sort-of chimney that really isn’t meant for someone to climb with a pack on who isn’t built like a multi-armed Hindu deity – I arrived to Jack at his belay completely worked.
Little did I know that the next pitch, p5, the Black Face Pitch, was in Jack’s words: the Money (aka: best pitch of climbing on the route). Had I been fresh and had my head been geared for exposed, airy face climbing, this pitch likely would have been Money, dear Jack. He saw the look in my eyes as I perched on the tiny belay ledge and watched him head up and out of earshot. But before he left, he gave me this:
“Kristin, this is the best pitch on the climb, you’re going to love this!” he said, with that trademark sparkle in his eye. How could I not trust that?
That pitch simultaneously scared the crap out of me and got me back in my head and body properly. That pitch forced me to eradicate fear from my head – there was no room for it. Period. There would be no down climbing. There was no choice but to successfully climb up to reach my partner.
A truer story of myself couldn’t have emerged without this: if my head gets the “F” out of the way, I do much, much better work on this planet.
This is why we climb and why we choose initiatives like the Grand in a day. It’s not about puffing yourself up to conquer an undertaking like this athletically. No. I bow to the mountain and to the challenge. …
Kevin Fedarko, author of The Emerald Mile (a must-read story about the fastest running of the Grand Canyon via dory), thankfully sums it up perfectly:
“What if the summit on which you had set your crosshairs had absolutely nothing to do with trying to elevate yourself above another (man’s) achievements, and everything to do with forging a connection inside yourself …? What if the reward that you were chasing lay not in the result to which you were ostensibly striving, but in the simple doing of the thing?”
Being in the Jackson backcountry always enables me to push myself physically while working on myself spiritually and mentally. It’s a round the clock immersion up and down a very far path, and up and down a beautiful mountain. What a high and wild way to gain grounding!
And Jack: I am always happy about the fact that you think I am so capable. Looking back, the Complete Exum crushed me physically. But man, did it ever catalyze me spiritually.