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Sniff the Granite, Grasshopper
Summiting America's Matterhorn may not be easy, but that lingering
smell alone is worth the effort
By Chip Brown
The night before the climb we turned in early, wasted and footsore.
We had hiked 3,000 feet up the slip-fault face of the Tetons--up
the meadows and switchbacks of Garnet Canyon to a camp in a talus
field below the Lower Saddle. Now we were squeezed into a single
tent, the four of us--Tom, Bill, Jim, me. It was a careless summer
night, late in July, but you might have thought otherwise from the
wintry air off Middle Teton Glacier.
And needing to sleep, I of course lay awake, daunted by the thousands
of feet that divided us from the summit of the Grand. From the park
highway, the Grand Teton appears as an irresistible image of the
sublime, a kind of American Matterhorn reigning over a court of
lesser peaks with a classic mix of savagery and grace. At 13,766
feet, it seems much taller for the precipitous way it leaps 7,000
feet above the hay fields and horse corrals of the Snake River Valley.
For more than a century it has held mountaineers in its thrall,
its storied routes hung with legendary names and feats.
For climbers of more marginal talent, however, what inspires admiration
from afar can elicit anxiety up close. That night in the gloom of
upper Garnet Canyon, the mountain was not a parkway-turnout highlight
but an untender presence announcing itself with the hot-oil hiss
of rockfall crashing off its upper reaches. I listened to the cascading
stones, and when the breeze was right I could hear the wind-chime
racket of climbing hardware as late-returning parties straggled
home from their trials on the cliffs. Ours, I thought, awash in
dread, was still ahead. And what was the point? What did we hope
to discover on the Grand that we couldn't find down in the valley
in more temperate forms of recreation?
I was on the brink of an answer to this chronic question when the
alarm on Bill's watch went off. It was 4 a.m. Outside the tent the
air bit like January. We packed our gear, drank cups of hot chocolate,
and hit the trail, scrambling by moonlight. Over the rocks and up
the snow on Middle Teton Glacier until we gained the Lower Saddle,
a windy gap commanding a view of Idaho's still-darkened pastures.
Here the mountaineers in the 1872 Hayden Expedition (now widely
credited with the first known ascent of the Grand) had stopped to
rest, and to shout encouragement over gale-force winds. That long-ago
summer, millions of grasshoppers had been wafted into the icy zones
above the Teton summits and had then tumbled onto the snowy couloirs
and small glaciers of the Grand, where they pitted the melting ice
and snow; John Stevenson and Nathaniel P. Langford used the pockmarks
as hand- and footholds during their ascent.
In the east, first light was breaking over the Gros Ventre range.
We traversed along a band of black rock until we reached the shadows
of a ridge named for legendary Teton climber Paul Petzoldt. Fifty
years earlier, Petzoldt had pioneered a new route on this spur,
one of his many ascents of the Grand. The route had been climbed
many times since. The guidebook advised that it was "very steep"
but that handholds were plentiful and we could expect to find some
of the best granite in the Tetons.
We roped up in teams of two. Bill led out; I belayed and followed
his progress, shivering, eager to get moving, up into the sun. When
it was my turn, I climbed like the Tin Man, rusted with cold. We
switched the lead and I went on, working up a chimney, a strenuous
pitch that left the hair under my helmet matted with sweat. We traded
leads again. Bill delicately picked his way up a series of steep
and airy slabs. The route moved around a ceiling in the rock; from
a high ledge I spotted our tent, a tiny birthmark in the talus at
the bottom of an ungodly drop. Tom and Jim were below, moving steadily
Philosophers of climbing often speak of the narrowing of attention
en route, how the past dwindles until it is only the rope that traces
the way you've come and the future is just the pitch ahead, if even
that, if even anything more than the here and now, the life you
own by virtue of withholding it from oblivion. As it tends to do,
the work of climbing--the pulling and hauling and jamming, the placing
of nuts and slings, the clipping and unclipping of carabiners, the
constant effort to study the gray and golden stone for useful cracks
and holds--forced its peculiar focus on us. I could feel my scattered
selves converge and that paradoxical time begin to flow in which
minutes seem like hours and hours fly like minutes. It seemed we
would never be warm, but then--like that--we were luxuriating in
the sun. With each pitch we gained a more panoramic view. Tom could
see not just the shadow of the Grand stretching west but the outline
of the very notch where he was anchored.
We were projecting ourselves onto the world, or being projected.
It was hard to know which. What I was astonished to discover was
not the relief of dread abating, but joy: the joy of burgeoning
confidence, of belonging to the earth. It seemed as if some balance
were being struck between the glory of the outer world and the yearning
of the inner. There was no tension between what we could feel and
our power to express it.
Hegel once said, "Only insofar as something has contradiction
in itself does it move, have impulse or activity." I'm sure
what propelled us up the Petzoldt Ridge were simply contradictions
that could not be resolved by anything less than the risky rush
itself. Climbing was its own expression; nothing stood in the way
of the conviction that our relation to the world was at last palpably
and almost conjugally real. We could slip our hands into the mountain,
insensible to cuts and scratches; we could touch the foundation,
the essential rock of reality, as if our lives depended on it. And
of course they did. We belonged more completely to the earth, and
in belonging we were made whole, more completely ourselves. Healed,
I suppose you could say--healed of whatever various juvenile alienations
we were grappling with at the time. For days afterward I could summon
the fruits of this Hegelian exercise-flow, fullness, unity of mind
and body--from just the smell of granite on my fingers, a dry powdery
champagne smell, indescribable as ever, alas.
By midmorning we were high abreast the ridge, and then hours or
minutes later atop it, fixing the rope for a short rappel down to
a notch. The notch led to a snow couloir and the less difficult
pitches up to the summit. The hard work was over, or would have
been if during the last 800 feet of scrambling the altitude had
not begun to hammer on my head. At last we crunched across the shards
of granite and could go no higher.
Bill thrust his arms into the faultless summer sky. It was 2:30
in the afternoon. A white glider whooshed past, like a great Jurassic
bird, dipping its wings. I felt too altitude-sick to do much but
sweep the compass of the wraparound view. Jim set up his camera.
We arranged ourselves for a picture. We coiled the ropes and ate
some chocolate and drank some water. We milled around or rested;
I lay down. We were lingering up there, waiting for some important
message, but of course there was none, only shearing vastness and
silence and stone. And then we started our descent. We scrambled
down the route by which the Grand was first ascended, except for
the stretch where you had to do a long free rappel into the Upper
Saddle, dropping like a spider on a thread.
I'd like to say that the rest of the day was uneventful, but on
Middle Teton Glacier, near the top of the Lower Saddle, I took it
into my dazed head to speed up the descent by glissading--without
an ice ax to arrest myself. I sat down like a toddler in a playpen
and soon was fanny-sledding at 30 miles an hour. It all seemed harmless
enough, until I was reintroduced to the boundary of the inner and
outer worlds by large boulders at the bottom of the gray-ice runout
and was lucky to come away with only a twisted ankle, which immediately
began to swell. We still had 3,000 feet to walk down. (A day later
I was on crutches.) Inspired by my near calamity, or maybe to make
me feel better, Tom slipped and began to slide out of control as
well. Jim shouted for him to roll over, and he did and kicked his
toes and popped up onto his feet, encrusted with ice but unhurt.
It's a truism that life has an intensity in the mountains that it
lacks in the valleys, but that belittles the beauty of coming home.
We got back to the Lupine Meadows parking lot at 9:30, in the dark--I
could not have gimped another hundred yards--and when we were out
on the road at last, being mercifully conveyed in Bill's truck,
we saw by starlight the summit where we had stood that afternoon.
It was a haunting sight, so far away, so high, so ghostly. And less
familiar, strangely, for our having been there. I shivered. It was
not the top-gallant crown of the Tetons but we summer-of-youth grasshoppers
who were ghostly, vanishing even now with hardly a pockmark in the
We rode the rest of the way home in silence. The next day, I could
swear, I made a long journal entry about the climb, but I haven't
been able to find it, except for a line: "We climbed the Grand
yesterday, the four of us." The mountain had put a new silence
in my soul; I guess the rest is there.