Teton Madness

In August of 2003. I set aside 4 weeks for vacation beginning on Friday the eighth.  It would begin with a white water rafting trip down Hell's Canyon, then move to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho for several days of camping and hiking, a stopover to Craters of the Moon National Monument, then five days in Grand Teton National Park, ending with several days in Glacier National Park.  But to me, the highlight of the trip was the five days in Grand Teton National Park.

As the Park Service likes to say in their brochure, the Tetons are the adolescents of the Rocky Mountains, still growing and flexing their muscles.  I had read much about them and eagerly anticipated seeing them for myself.  As I approached the entrance gate, I was disappointed by the haze in the air.  I asked the Park Ranger at the gate what he thought was the cause for the haze, and he said that the wind had shifted and was blowing in smoke from 33 forest fires in Idaho and Montana.

Even with the haze however, I was awestruck by how these mountains just jut straight out of the Snake River plain there above Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  There were no foothills leading up to these mountains, and the brochure was right, these were cocky adolescent teenagers bellowing out to all around, "look at us, aren't we magnificent?"  This is not a large national Park, yet on the official map handed out at the entrance stations, there are twenty-two peaks listed over 10,000 feet in altitude, 16 over 11,000 feet, 6 over 12,000 feet, and one, Grand Teton over 13,000 feet, towering over all others at 13,770 feet in altitude.  There are in fact many other peaks over 10,000 feet, but these are the major ones listed on the map.

 I drove north on Teton Park Road until it junctioned with 191, then continued north to Colter Bay Village where I had a tent cabin reserved for five nights, taking snapshots along the way.  After checking in and getting my Jeep unloaded and my tent cabin set up, it was late afternoon.  Finally I was able to get down to the visitor center, and after looking around for a bit, I finally was able to corner a park ranger.  I was interested in hiking a loop trail that would not take longer than a day, and by the appearance of the map, there seemed that there were only two alternatives; a loop trail in the Jenny Lake area, and one in the Granite Canyon Trailhead area.  Since Jenny Lake was so much closer than Granite Canyon to where I was staying, I decided to pursue the Jenny Lake area trail with the ranger.  It looked as though the trail started out at the String Lake Trailhead, went up Paintbrush Canyon, crossed over to Cascade Canyon starting at Lake Solitude, and then back down to the String Lake Trailhead.

He pulled out a more detailed map from underneath the desk and agreed that there was indeed a loop trail there, but then he tried to dissuade me from taking it.  I mentioned going to see Lake Solitude via Paintbrush Canyon and he said, "you don't want to do that, you'll have to go over the mountain pass, and it's at 10,700 feet."  Well, maybe he was 15 years younger than I, and maybe I was a fool to try, but as soon as he said a pass that was 10,700 feet in altitude, I knew I was going to try.  That would be the highest I had ever been, and come hell or high water, I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to at least try.  When he realized that I was not to be discouraged, we discussed which direction to hike.  He said that Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude was a much gentler upslope, and I said that maybe I should hike in that direction, but he said that when he does it, he goes up Paintbrush Canyon and over Paintbrush Divide for two reasons.  1) To get the pain over with, and 2) So the downhill pounding is less severe.  I immediately knew he was right, my right knee always bothers me when descending down a sharp decline, so I decided this was the route to take.

I purchased a book about Teton Trails there at the visitor center, and that night read about my hike.  I was very excited.  I planned to go to String Lake the next day, familiarize myself with the trailhead area which can sometimes be the most confusing are of the trail, and take a small loop hike around String Lake to see how my back felt (I had hurt it white water rafting down Hell's Canyon a week earlier).

The next day I did as planned and took this shot of Cascade Canyon from the west side of Jenny Lake.  Then I drove on down to Jackson Hole to refresh my supplies, (I expected food to be more expensive in Colter Bay Village, but it was absolutely outrageous, cut up chicken at $4.89 per pound), and to visit it for my brother Jeff.  He was the one who first told me of Jackson Hole, he'd read about it all the time in his "Outdoor Life" and "Sports Afield" magazines.  He dreamt about coming out to this country one day, and while he never made it, I felt obligated to at least take a look at the town he introduced to me for him.

That night I made a decision to hike with my aluminum frame Kelty instead of my soft backpack.  There were a couple of reasons for that.  for one, when I hiked up Mt. St. Helens, I had taken along two liters of water, and was very dehydrated by the time I was finished with the hike,   This would be an even longer hike, and it was hotter, so I decided to double the water.  Since water is so heavy, and since I would play it safe and take along some warm clothes in case of a storm or in case I didn't make it out in one day, a flashlight, my camera, and a couple of apples, I decided that with all that weight, it would be better for my back with the slightly heavier Kelty, which at least rests on my hips instead of pulling on my back.  The extra 25 lbs. would be a burden, but I felt it prudent.

Finally the next morning arrived.  I was on the road by 6:15 AM.  It took 30 minutes to get to the String Lake Trailhead, and I wanted to be hiking by 7:00 AM.  The first few hours were pretty placid.  The forest became prettier as I progressed from a Lodgepole Pine forest to a more alpine forest with true firs.  Soon these began to thin out as well as the trail began to slope more steeply. As I hiked, I gulped mouthfuls of air, grateful that I had already spent some time getting acclimatized to a higher altitude in the Sawtooths.  I could not imagine going straight from Eugene, at 400 feet to the Tetons and attempting this hike, where I would climb from a base of 6800 feet to 10,700 feet.  Still, with every step forward, I was breathing as deeply as I could.  I took my time, but after a while, I could turn around and see Leigh Lake lying below me.  I couldn't believe how lucky I was once again.  For the first time since I had arrived, the haze began  to clear from these magnificent mountains.

I continued hiking until the trail split into two branches.  One led off to Holly Lake, but the park ranger said that he always took the one to the left which he said was easier and quicker, so I did also. When the trail made a hard right hand turn, I could see the pass clearly, riding atop a glacier, although I was not yet sure that this was the route.  In fact I was hoping the pass would find a lower route, this one seemed so high and so far away.  After the trail from Holly Lake joined up again, I knew I was at about 9500 feet, with 1200 to go in 1.7 miles.  The most difficult part of the hike was about to begin, and as it was I was greeted by a stunning alpine meadow in full bloom. 

August 20th, and only now blooming.  Whites, pinks, yellows, and purple dazzled the eye in a sea of green grass.  Yet in six weeks surely snow could not be entirely unexpected, as it must surely not have been unexpected six weeks previously.  There is not much time for theses grasses and plants to grow, flower, and reseed.

It was about 1:00 PM now, and I was beginning to run into some more people now, backpackers who had stayed overnight and were now descending, in addition to younger people less heavily packed coming form both the same direction as I and the opposite direction.  As I strained under the weight of the pack, thin air, and increasingly steep incline, disgust with myself grew, not because I was progressing so slowly now, no, I actually thought I was doing all right for my age, but at the fact that I hadn't done this thirty years ago when my body would have been able to handle it much better.  But as a young man, I was so averse to anything that was too physically demanding.  A lazy ass, plain and simple.  So now, at the age of fifty, if I wanted to see some of the things I always wanted to see, I had to do it now before it got too late.  It's why the park ranger could never have talked me out of this hike.  It now became quite apparent that the pass did indeed lead over this glacier.  Additionally, the trail now led across a steep snow field, which was extremely nerve-wracking for me.

I came to a north facing overlook and realized that I was in the heart of the Tetons, and that I was now seeing in person things I thought I would only ever see in pictures.  It is those types of things that allow me to put my pack back on.  there was still a ways to go, but the divide between Paintbrush Canyon and Cascades Canyon was in sight.  As I got closer to the top, a young woman from Brooklyn named Charlotte caught up to me.  She was about 25 years of age, and had just begun hiking at the String Lake Trailhead with no idea where it wound up.  I remembered doing the same types of things at her age.  Once I took the Cass Scenic Railroad in Cass, W. Va., and after it got to the top of the mountain, instead of waiting for the return ride, I just started hiking down the mountain, having no idea how easy it is to get lost in a big woods like that.

We continued hiking together to the top of the pass, where I asked her to take this snapshot, since it was the highest I had ever climbed and I am sure ever will be.  This picture looks towards the Paintbrush Canyon side, and the next one, taken from the same spot, looks towards the Cascades Canyon side.

Lake Solitude lies 1700 feet below us to the right, while Mica Lake is to the left.  Both are glacially fed lakes, but the milky green color of Mica Lake indicates that there is a lot more glacial sediment suspended in the water.  I hadn't seen a lake that color for twenty-five years, not since my visit to Glacier National Park.  Now we headed back down the pass, and I got my first view of Grand Teton from the back.  I was also struck by the clear U shape of this glacially carved valley.

I got to Lake Solitude by 2:00 PM, which was what I had planned.  Charlotte and I hiked together for another hour.  She was a very interesting and nice person.  She was interested in working in the field of conservation, and had already spent time in South Africa.  After an hour however, it was apparent to me that not only was I struggling to keep up with her, I was also holding her back.  We finally paused, and looked at a map, and she was amazed at how many more miles were left.  I suggested that she get going by herself, that she was in much better shape and I was holding her up.  I could see the look of relief on her face.  She must have wanted to take off long before, but was too polite to just leave.

I continued on.  Cascade Canyon was to me, not nearly as pretty as Paintbrush Canyon.  Perhaps fatigue had something to do with it, along with the fact that the afternoon sun was quite warm and there was very little shade.  The canyon walls were very steep, and there was ample evidence of avalanche activity.  Pikas were abundant throughout the canyon.  The last three hours were just plain excruciating.  I was saddle sore, hot, dehydrated (even with 4 liters of gatorade), and my right knee was killing me from the downhill pounding.  Past Inspiration Point, the trail took a steep downhill decline, and I had to plant my walking stick firmly before planting my right foot.  Finally, 12.25 hours and 19.2 miles later, I was back at my vehicle.  On the last day of my stay, I got a good view from a distance of Paintbrush Canyon and Paintbrush Divide.  The glacier over which the pass traverses is clear in this photo on the right.

I didn't sleep real well that evening, I rarely do when I am overtired, but I did not suffer from leg cramps to which I am susceptible, so the gatorade mix must have done it's job restoring electrolytes.  The next day I drove up to Yellowstone National Park to see the geysers and do an auto tour of the park.  Click Yellowstone Slide Show for pictures of that excursion.

The next day I visited some of the more historic sights in the area, including the Cunningham Cabin.  J. Pierce Cunningham, who arrived in Jackson Hole from New York in 1885, staked his claim for 160 acres according to the Homestead Act of 1862, sometime between 1888 and 1890 and built this cabin.  Buck-and-Rail fences, like the one on the right were also a common sight.  An innovation of pioneer ranchers, it is named for the X-shaped braces or 'cross bucks' used to support the horizontal 'rails'.  It was not necessary to dig post holes in the hard rocky soil, and snow anchored the fences rather than toppling them over.  I also visited the Menor's Ferry Historic District where Bill Menor settled in 1894 and built a ferry across the Snake River in addition to a general store, storage shed and smokehouse.  The Episcopal Chapel was built on land donated by Maude Noble, who bought the Menor property in 1918.

Finally, I took the following last snapshots of the Tetons, mountains I had waited a lifetime to visit, and of the Snake River, impressive even here near it's headwaters.  The next day I would load up and be on my way to Glacier National Park.  To visit the official website for Grand Teton National Park, click here.