Rod Newcomb is a man of few words, and he chooses them with care. I'm standing alongside the 64-year-old Newcomb, a long-time Exum Mountain Guide, one overcast August morning more than 13,700 feet above sea level in the northwest corner of Wyoming. At my back is an enormous granite slab, the dark-gray shade of a weathered tombstone, on the southwest face of the Grand Teton. Before me is a 180-degree vista of eye-popping scenery -- a breathtaking view of mocha swirl sundae mountaintops reaching into Idaho. The view is even more compelling given its "reach out and touch" quality, since there is precious little firmament beneath me. If nothing else, the Grand Teton is steep.
Newcomb inspects the climbing rope in his hands, and then, squinting, studies the solid rock wall behind me. "What are you thinking?" I ask.
"Well, I'd really like to do the Horse," Newcomb replies. "The Horse is the classic finish to this climb, but rarely done. In fact, half our guides have never done it. But I'm not sure our ropes are long enough."
As the remaining three members of our party inch their way to our narrow platform, Newcomb says we can complete the climb he envisions if we scale another section without roping up. With a voice I'm not sure is mine, I say I'm game. The others, including my brother Sean, agree. Newcomb allows a sliver of a grin to crease his thin lips, and with a dexterity that belies his age, shimmies up a quick pitch that will save a few feet of rope. I start in behind Newcomb, a bit nervously. I'm much more comfortable with the protection of a belay. The sheer, clean surface offers only the slightest ridges for hand and footholds. My chest and cheek hug the rock like magnets as gusting winds buffet my 6-foot-2 frame. No sooner do I reach Newcomb, he's off again, about 20 feet above me. He steadies himself, the rope snug around his waist, and gives the order to climb.
Painstakingly, I wedge my shoes into the crease of granite and, secure in Newcomb's belay, find fingerholds to steady myself. Looking up, I see the edge that Rod is perched on. I grab hold, pull myself up and watch the entire mountain fall away in front of me, exposing the broad expanse that is Wyoming. With my heart beating like a trip hammer, I swing my right leg up and over the spine of the Horse.
"Welcome to the Horse," says Newcomb in self-assured tones. "OK, Brion, you're off belay. Don't fall."
Ignoring the adrenaline rush, I crawl away from Newcomb and toward the Grand's summit, my thighs, knees, ankles and feet all pressing hard against the sides of the old mare's backbone. The drop on either side is so precipitous that just looking is a dangerous gambit. The elation is just as palpable, though fleeting. Seconds later, a single word splits the thin air: "Falling ... "
I'm not a mountaineer by nature. Though I hike and ski, I typically admire imposing peaks from afar. Say, from the deck of a ski house. The idea of entrusting my well-being -- my life -- to a series of ropes, harnesses, suspect footing and strangers providing belay is an unsettling concept.
My introduction came at the insistence of Sean, who was spurred by the tales of our youngest sibling, Matthew. Matt, the family's true rock hound and manager of a climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado, convinced Sean to try sport climbing. He got hooked. Apparently, he's not alone -- according to a recent Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America study, roughly 800,000 people in the United States regard themselves as climbing "enthusiasts." The number of "participants" - those who tried climbing using a rope and harness at least once - jumped 12 percent to 5.7 million in 1999. After flings in New Hampshire's White Mountains, and Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, Sean set his sights on the Teton Range in Wyoming. And he wanted company. So I ask him what the attraction is.
"The first thing is the total immersion that you have in it," he says, almost with reverence. "It came home to me when I was climbing in the Sawtooth Mountains. I got to the end of a decent climb, the toughest thing I had ever done to that point, and the guide says to me: 'Not thinking about work, are you?' You're just completely focused on the next bolt or the next hold. It clears your mind of all the other things your doing.
"Second, it's just you against the elements. It's not a race or a competitive thing in that regard. It's just you going against the route, yourself and your fear. Like downhill skiing, I've got to be able to control my fear and keep doing it. You have to put your anxiety in some back pocket of your brain."
Why the Tetons? Sean paraphrases President Teddy Roosevelt, who said the range was "what mountains are supposed to look like." No foothills, no gentle, rolling slopes. Instead, the Tetons's rugged silhouette rises abruptly, high above the flat valley floor. And the Grand Teton itself? Author Richard Rossiter puts it this way: "Anyone who fancies himself an alpine climber in America must sooner or later get acquainted with this outstanding mountain."
Boarding the plane in Boston, Sean sits beside me. "Here, I've brought a present for you," he says, handing me a length of climbing rope. "We're going to practice a few knots." And I begin my tutelage -- bowline, double figure eight, prusik, friction. On my left is a bearded young man. He watches as I fumble with the rope.
"Climbers?" he asks.
"Not yet," I reply.
The Exum program consists of two days of rigorous training, after which the guides judge each climber's ability and compatibility. Day One is referred to as Basic School, which, on this day, is led by Dave Carman, Exum's co-chief guide. A wiry, frenetic man with a long gray and silver ponytail, Carman looks like an emaciated Jimmy Buffett in a bright floral-print shirt, ratty climbing hat and knapsack. But with more than 25 years experience, Carman has my undivided attention. His pedigree shows on the rock. Using smooth, graceful movements, Carman prowls over steep faces, dispensing instruction on weighting our feet, smearing the soles of our shoes into tiny cracks, letting our balance do the work, and the dangers of hugging the stone.
"Just remember, nose over toes," he repeats, highlighting one of the sport's maddening, counter-intuitive truths -- if you're too close to the rock, your weight actually works against you, pushing your feet from their holds. "It's a natural response -- you want to hug Mother Earth."
Damn right, I think. Carman delves into the intricacies of the rope, from design to knots to belays, explaining ropes aren't essential for climbing, but for safety. They don't help you go up, they just prevent you from going down. Stuck halfway up a bouldering face, my confidence gets a huge boost when I decide to put more faith in my belay than my footing. I lean back, away from the rock, and suddenly discover my shoes have new-found purchase. It is a personal turning point.
Day Two brings Intermediate School, and our large group is divvied up. Sean and I partner with two co-eds from the University of North Carolina, Caitlin Gotwals and Emily Chaplin, and Emily's dad, Saxby, a 52-year-old lawyer from Charlotte.
"I figure I better do this now, before I get any older," says Saxby.
Our instructor, Rick Wyatt, is the physical opposite of Carman. A short, powerfully built man with keen eyes and ravaged knees, Wyatt is the only man to have descended the Grand aboard telemark skis. Taking our training to the next level, we learn to "free rappel," or rappelling down a rope without touching the rock. As I step off the ledge, suspended 40 feet off the ground, with Jenny Lake at my back, I again question this flight of fancy.
We then get a crash course in the language of climbing. Like any sport, climbing has it's own jargon. The weighty difference, of course, is that in climbing, your life can depend on your communication skills. The series of commands and responses -- "That's me," "On belay," "Climbing" -- are intentionally short and concise, allowing climbers to converse even in deafening winds.
Wyatt also introduces us to the fine art of stemming -- climbing deep cracks by placing a hand and foot to either side, spread-eagle -- and reinforces Carman's lessons about looking ahead to find the best holds. As he climbs, Wyatt points out numerous spots to place a hand or foot. Oddly, those same spots disappear once I take Wyatt's place on the rock. I struggle with the physical and mental demands of the sport. Wyatt, though cautious, doesn't let me dawdle.
"Faster Brion," goads Wyatt. "You've got to set a faster pace if you want to summit the Grand."
Day Three, time to climb. My brother and I are paired with Rachel Maupin of Saint Louis, and Jerry Moyer of Greenville, Illinois. Moyer, a 51-year-old science teacher, is enamored with the Tetons -- "They are just so majestic" -- and has been planning a Grand summit since climbing nearby Mount Moran in 1988. Maupin, a 23-year-old researcher, has more personal motives -- "I want to overcome my fear of heights."
We meet Newcomb, and begin our trek to the Grand along the Garnet Canyon Trail as it winds through Lupine Meadows. "You got the short straw and the slow guide," says Newcomb with a grin. But Newcomb's limber stride employs a wonderful economy of motion, and when the trail turns rocky, he glides over obstacles and quickly puts a short gap on our group.
Our goal today is the Exum Grand Teton Hut on the mountain's Lower Saddle, at 11,650 feet. The weather, like my native New England, is erratic, so Newcomb reserves any talk about a summit bid. We hike along hard-packed switchbacks through forests of evergreen into steep hillsides dotted with spectacular wildflowers, gushing waterfalls and remnants of rockslides, eventually gaining almost 5,000 feet over seven miles. I delight in Newcomb's tales of his friends, pioneering alpinists Glenn Exum and Paul Petzholt.
My breathing is labored as we enter the magnificent Garnet Canyon. Before us is Middle Teton, with its dramatic "Black Dike," a vestige of volcanic activity millions of years ago. Above 9,000 feet, we're surrounded by snow. Newcomb announces we need to cross several pitched snowfields. He warns that people wearing nylon who lose their footing have "a friction co-efficient approaching freefall." After this image sinks in, my brother turns to Newcomb and politely asks him to save similar anecdotes until after we traverse the fields.
At the foot of a snow and ice-packed headwall, we watch boulders from a minor rock slide come tumbling down with a huge roar, the harsh granite-on-granite cacophony echoing off the surrounding walls. By late afternoon, we reach the camp at the Lower Saddle, a col between the Middle and Grand Teton, and watch nervously as menacing storm clouds move in from Idaho. As we huddle around the stove, one guide puts our summit plans into perfect perspective.
"You don't conquer these mountains," he says. "They let you up."
Exhausted from the day's effort, excited about the prospects of the climb, I fall into a fitful sleep. The hut sleeps our eclectic group of 18, ranging from 15-year-old high schooler to 65-year-old grandmother, like sardines. Our guides set up camp outside. Of course, I'm tucked in a back corner, the furthest from the hut's only entrance and exit. I pray my bladder holds.
Shortly after 1 a.m. on Day Four, a howling storm rips me from my dreams. The soft sides of the hut snap and convulse as strong winds rifle though the saddle. Close by, another rock slide thunders down the mountain's slopes. I'm oddly calm, knowing there's nothing I can do to improve my situation. Unfortunately, my kidneys aren't as relaxed - my penalty for hydrating properly. For the next 40 minutes, I debate whether the discomfort of a bulging bladder is preferable to tackling the elements outside.
By 3 a.m., the worst of the storm has blown through. "We have a window," says Exum guide Hooman Aprin. "It's nice now, but we have to move." A mad dash ensues, as climbers grab gear -- including helmets -- and a quick bite. I watch as a stream of headlamps go bobbing along the southwest flank toward the Grand. My head aches, a combination of exertion and thin air, but I'm game. Shortly after our group squeezes through a tight rock formation known as the Eye of the Needle, Newcomb casts a wary eye to the west. With the faintest hint of morning light wrestling with a thick cloud cover, we have a decision to make.
In his characteristic deliberate manner, Newcomb explains our options. The Owen-Spaulding Route offers the best bet to summit if the weather doesn't cooperate. This route, named for Franklin Spaulding and William Owen, who first climbed the Grand in 1898, is generally considered the easiest path to the top. The more-daring Exum Ridge, Newcomb admits, is a better climb, but can be more time-consuming, which might prevent us from reaching the summit. With no point of reference, I opt for the Owen-Spaulding, "if it means a better chance to summit."
Everyone signs on, and we make a beeline for the Upper Saddle. Several deep cracks, or chimneys, test our recently acquired belay and bouldering skills. At a large slab known as the Belly Roll, I break one of my Cardinal Rules -- with solid holds for my hands and feet, I peered down the precipitous thousand-foot chasm between my legs. Another deep breath, heart racing, I scoot to the other side of the chasm.
"Did you look down?" asks Moyer after our foursome regroups. "You bet," I reply. "I couldn't resist."
Just before 11 a.m., I reach the top of the Horse. Newcomb turns his attention to Maupin. Halfway up, she slips, and shouts "Falling!" Newcomb arrests her fall with a textbook belay. After a moment to regain her composure, Maupin climbs aboard the Horse.
Once on top of the Horse, it is a short shuffle off the mare's spine and a quick walk to the Grand's summit. Bright sunshine breaks through overcast skies, matching our glow of accomplishment. In every direction, dozens of jagged peaks, ravines, and forested ridgelines poke through the cloud cover. More than 7,000 feet below lies the valley of Jackson Hole.
"I never thought I'd be looking down on the clouds," says Maupin.
Another reality of mountaineering is that the descent is often trickier than the climb. Most injuries occur on the way down, warns Newcomb, when people are more apt to let down their guard. We try desperately to burn this remarkable panorama into our memories before beginning the return trek. Soon, the muscles in my thighs start to burn, and my lower back tightens. A 120-foot free rappel is the only break in this long haul. The weather also returns to its fickle ways -- large pebbles of ice bounce off our helmets as a hailstorm sweeps in just as we arrive at the Lower Saddle camp. We then retrace our tracks through the snowfields and Garnet Canyon.
My spirits match my flailing limbs during the final few miles. The euphoria of our noontime summit gives way to a predictable let-down, coupled with weary arms and legs. At a clearing, however, Sean fortuitously glances over his shoulder, and then taps mine. There, between the tall, stately evergreens, looms the massive Grand Teton, glorious in the late afternoon sun.
"Hard to believe we were just up there, on top, only a couple of hours ago," says Sean, his broad smile conveying immense satisfaction.
- 30 -
Guides and gear
If you're putting your life in someone else's hands, chose those hands carefully. During my Teton climb, my guides each had at least 25 years experience -- a comforting thought at 13,000 feet, fully exposed to the elements. In the Teton area, two highly regarded guiding outfits are:
Exum Mountain Guides (www.exumguides.com)
Box 56, Moose, Wyoming 83012
307/733.2297, 307/733.9613 (fax)
Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (www.jhmg.com)
PO Box 7477, 165 N Glenwood Street, Jackson, Wyoming, 83002
Good gear doesn't make the climber, but it can make the climb easier. In Jackson Hole - Ground Zero for any Teton Range adventure - you can find almost every piece of climbing gear imaginable. Recommended shops: Teton Mountaineering (170 N. Cache, Jackson; 307/733-3595) and Skinny Ski (65 W. Deloney, Jackson; 307/733-6094).
To find reputable gear on-line, check out Mountain Gear at www.mGear.com or REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) at www.rei.com. The array of hardware climbers use from protection, from carabiners and bolts to belay devices and ropes is staggering. Fortunately, if you climb with a guide service, you won't need to invest in these items - they'll provide them. However, there are certain pieces of gear that you should bring.
Approach shoes -- The right shoe can make a world of difference on the rock. Rugged hiking boots feature soles too stiff for intricate maneuvers on the rock. I arrived in Jackson Hole with a pair of approach shoes better suited for walking than for climbing. The hard rubber sole had a tendency to slip, instead of stick. At the suggestion of a guide, I tried the ACG Nike Air Exum ($100, www.nike.com), and my confidence, and climbing, improved almost immediately. The soft rubber sole is a cross between grippy rock climbing shoes and more traditional approach shoes. It's not as durable, but you won't be concerned about that at 13,000 feet. Other good choices are the Adidas Sahale X approach shoe ($75, www.thestore.adidas.com) and the LaSportiva Boulder ($119, www.lasportiva.com).
Helmet -- Helmets are like blue jeans - no two brands fit the same. Most reputable guiding companies will have one-size-fits-all helmets for you to use, but you're better off having your own (it's not uncommon for the guide companies to actually come up short on the helmet count). The one thing to keep in mind is that the helmet should be adjustable, so it fits as snug with or without a hat underneath. The heavy-duty Petzl Ecrin Roc ($75) the lightweight Petzl Meteor ($75), or the Edelrid Ultralight Helmet ($55) are all good choices.
Harness -- If there's one piece of gear you don't want to skimp on, it's your harness. Why? Because the very gear designed to save your life - ropes, carabiners, belay devices - all connect to the harness. Find one that's comfortable but snug, so your not tempted to loosen it while climbing. Consider the Black Diamond Bod ($50) or Chaos ($80), the Petzl Ciconia for women or Aquila for men ($82), and the Arc'Teryx Targa for men and or Isis for women ($65).
Lights -- Climbing steep rock faces in exposed conditions above 12,000 feet before dawn puts a premium on a good headlamp. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Petzl Arctic ($55) is nearly bomb-proof, while the Petzl Micro ($24) works well for light duty.
Clothing -- Layers, layers, layers. The weather along the route of the Grand is as unpredictable as you'll find anywhere. On my trip, we were hiking in shorts and tank tops near the base, triple layers with full storm gear near the peak. The weather can turn nasty, and turn fast. You need to be prepared. With the advent of improved insulating fabrics, such as Malden Mills' Polartec and WindPro, and waterproof/breathable materials such as Gore-Tex, there's no reason the weather should ruin your trip. If you prefer natural fibers, opt for wool instead of cotton. Top notch clothing companies include Sierra Designs, Patagonia and Arc'Teryx.
Pack -- Now that you've got all this gear, you've got to bring it. Today's high-end backpacks are remarkably versatile and, even more important, comfortable. Fit is essential. Even an expensive pack can be a pain in the back if it doesn't conform to your backside. Sample models from Arc'Teryx, Dana Designs, Lowe Alpine or Kelty to see which works best. Favorites include the Arc'Teryx Khamsin 38 ($155), the Lowe Crossbow 45 +10 ($199) and the Kelty Dune for men, or Zuni for women ($205).