Ascent of Grand Teton on 2017-08-08

Climber: Austin D. Smith

Others in Party:Mark Smith -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Glenn Campbell
Date:Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Grand Teton
    Elevation:13770 ft / 4197 m

Ascent Trip Report

I have never have been so close to death in my life, and I hope to never experience anything like this ever again. This experience left a stinging reminder not only of the dangers involved in mountaineering, but also how quickly and drastically situations can change.

The day before we set out on our fateful adventure, we stopped by the ranger station in Yellowstone NP to pick up our permits, glean information on our route (Upper Exum), and examine the weather forecast. The forecast predicted 20% chance of thundershowers in the afternoon. After speaking with the head S&R climbing ranger, he said “it’s just a forecast. Get an early start on summit day. If you’re to the top of the moraine and at the base where the scrambling begins by sunrise, you’ll be totally fine.” This sounded perfectly reasonable and logical to us as 1. The rangers are the S&R team for the mountain and are very experienced on this peak. 2. We would be on the summit hours before noon and the 20% chance of thunderstorms. With this in mind, we prepared for our climb.

The next morning, August 7, we got an early start and headed off on the trail from the Lupine Meadows Trailhead. We chose to camp at the Moraine, finding a very nice spot sheltered by a large boulder. We contemplated camping at the Lower Saddle which would have saved 800 vertical feet and 50 minutes on summit day. However, we were advised wind can be a strong higher up, and there is a short 4th class section of climbing which would be a massive pain to haul ones pack up. After setting up camp, eating, and packing our bags for the next day, we went to bed early with an alarm set for 3:00am.

August 8: We awoke at 3am to the inimical sound of our mountaineering alarm. As they say, “A climber's day always starts at the crux: getting out of bed”! We quickly got up, changed, ate breakfast, and headed off for the summit. We were doing good on time and were up to the Lower Saddle in about 45 minutes, refilled our water at the hose, and headed up. We reached the base of the scrambling right at dawn. The sky was so far clear and we were hiking strong. We made good time scrambling past the Eye of the Needle and we reached Wall Street around 7:30am. There were two guided groups ahead of us, but they were efficient and didn’t slow us down much.

We began pitch 1 right around 8am. Pitches 1 – 3 were pretty straight forward. On pitch 4, right after the wind tunnel, we ended up climbing too far to the left and found ourselves a ridge too far to the left – we were following the typical guidebook which is poorly written about this pitch! This turned out to be a costly error. We lost about 30 minutes of time, which at that point in time wasn’t really a big deal. Sky was mostly clear and we still had plenty of time. Then, at the top of pitch 4 at about 9:45, it happened. All the sudden clouds came in from behind the peak and the sky started getting a bit dark and the wind picked up a bit. No more than 5 minutes later some ice pellets starting falling. Any mountaineer who has experienced ice pellets knows this is a really bad sign. For those who have been fortunate to have never experienced this, ice pellets typically precede a wind/thunderstorm.

By 10am, low clouds were setting in, the wind had picked up significantly, and it was starting to steadily rain ice pellets/snow. The rock was still above freezing so it was all melting on contact. We were now at the base of the Friction Pitch. At this point, had we had the option to bail, we would have in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, the Upper Exum would be extremely difficult to rap back down and really offers no escape. The best option was straight up. We quickly made the decision to get moving before things got worse. My dad, an experienced rock climber, lead the Friction Pitch which is considered to be the crux of the climb at 5.6 YDS. The three of us have all had many years of climbing experience, but the melting snow had made the rock wet and slick and quite difficult to climb.

Once we got to the top of the Friction Pitch, the temperature had dropped, the wind was getting stronger, clouds coming in thicker, and it was steadily showering us with ice pellets. We were feeling better though as we only had the V Pitch and one more short one to the top. Then things got much, much worse. As we were quickly flaking out the rope for the next pitch, we began to hear the sound of sheer terror – a high pitch crackling which causes any experienced mountaineers heart to skip a beat. It was then we realized how drastic the situation was, and was about to become.

Within minutes of the first crackling sound, the static electricity had built up to the point my hair was sticking straight out of my helmet and my clothes were puffing out. The high pitch crackling had quickly become a steady buzz. Any movement caused an audible disruption of the static in the air. We were stuck; climbing was simply out of the question. One lightning bolt to the rock could send electricity through the rock and kill us instantly us instantly. We needed to try and wait it out. As we were looking for somewhere to hunker down, the loudest explosion of thunder I have ever heard rung out through the clouds. I don’t know if my heartrate shot through the roof due to being so frightened or the electric shockwave traveling through the air. Either way, we were in serious trouble. We found a 90 degree corner in the rock at the base of the V pitch and crouched down with our heels touching and arms crossed, making sure to touch nothing. Our best hope was for this storm to pass – the “20% chance of afternoon thunderstorm” storm was here in full force at 10:30am.

Allow me to step back and paint a picture of our situation: Imagine a group of three climbers at 13,000 feet, climbing on an exposed, wet, and now snow covered lighting rod, on a route they have never been on before, in extremely low visibility and strong winds, with only a few layers of at this point wet/damp clothing, covered in wet metal climbing gear, in the middle of an intense electrical storm, on a mountain famous for its lighting storms which claims lives every year from lightning…yeah, it was not good.

After about 20 minutes of crouching, the storm was not showing any signs of letting up. It was snowing steadily, winds howling, explosive thunder, and we were COLD! We soon realized we had to make a critical decision. We were significantly underdressed for this type of storm and I was beginning to shiver uncontrollably. I had already completely lost all feeling in my feet and my hands weren't doing much better despite my decision to bring gloves "just in case". We had two choices: stay and surely die of hypothermia/exposure or continue on and hope and pray to not become a human lighting rod. We decided to continue climbing as staying there would more than likely lead to death. At least we had a chance if we tried to escape.

We knew there was a bail point to the Owen Spalding somewhere in our area, but having such low visibility, slick rock conditions, and no prior knowledge of the route, we dared not venture off to who knows where. We gathered our gear and pressed on. My dad again took the lead and we began on the V Pitch. My dad later described to us that when he got to the top of the pitch, when he stood up, his entire climbing rack started buzzing really loud so he had to move around crouched at all times.

Once my dad was at the top, he put me on belay. As I began trying to make my way up this 5.2 pitch (which now felt like 5.10), a blinding flash and an ear piercing BOOOM perforated the air and I found myself hanging sideways on the rope. My whole body felt a bit tingly and I was a bit dazed. Lighting had struck the mountain somewhere and the electricity had traveled through the rock and literally knocked me off. Fortunately, I able to immediately get back on the rock and continue climbing. As soon I reached the top, I crouch walked over to my dad to hand him some of the gear I had cleaned on my way up. As I was about to hand him the gear, another bright light filled the sky followed by a deafening explosion of thunder. The lighting strike produced a shock wave strong enough to knock me over backwards and the thunder left my ears fuzzy and ringing for a few minutes. I thank God as that was the last lighting strike we had.

We brought Glenn up next, regrouped as best we could, and climbed the last short section of climbing/scrambling to what appeared to be the top. It was now about 11:30am. There was no way in hell we were going to spend ANY time trying to find the summit. It was full survival mode at this point, even though the summit appeared to only be 50 feet away. Then, as Glenn was nearing the top, I saw a silver disk in a rock 15 feet away. The static electricity in the air had dissipated so I ran over and low and behold it was the summit benchmark! We gathered our gear, my dad and Glenn ran over touched around the benchmark (I aint toughing a metal disk in rock in lighting storm!) and we got out of there! Had I not seen the summit benchmark, we would not have known this was the summit.

I wish I could say this was the end, but it wasn’t. Glenn had climbed the Grand a few years prior via the Owen Spalding and knew what the route down looked like. But at this point, everything was covered in about an inch of snow and visibility was maybe 50 feet. We were essentially lost. After searching around for a few minutes, we found what Glenn thought looked like the route down, so we began to follow it. What normally would have been easy 3rd class was now a very slick and dangerous rock shelf which we felt needed to be belayed. This turned out to be the right decision as at some point, I slipped and fell about 30 feet off the shelf before the belay stopped me. This fall would have undoubtedly been fatal had I not been on belay. Amazingly, I sustained no injury, which would have probably been fatal as well given hypothermia would set it quick (our hands and feet were all soaked and numb from climbing which made even belaying difficult). I did break my back shoulder strap however – quite sad.

Finally after what seemed like forever, Glenn yelled through the clouds “I FOUND IT! I FOUND THE FIREHOSE!” I had never been so relieved that I almost cried. We were not out of the woods yet however. We still had to set up 2 rappels in the snow with completely numb hands. Still, I was extremely relieved to be at the rappels and almost off the most lighting prone area of the peak. Rappelling proved to be a freighting task in-in-of itself. Trying to thread an ATC without dropping it and tying a backup system is nearly impossible with numb hands. Thankfully, we all safely made the rappels and got down to the base of the Owen Spalding. We made it! We had actually made it. It was now about 1:30pm.

I have never been more humbled in my life. As we were gathering at the bottom of the rappels, the clouds lifted higher up the mountain and the sun began to come up. We all sat and prayed and then proceeded with the most painful unthawing “procedure” on my hands and feet I have ever experienced. To this day, I still have a very slight numb area on one of my toes which will probably never go away. From there, we hiked back down past the Eye of the Needle back to our camp, rested, made food, then packed up and hiked out. We made it back to our car at 11:20pm.

I have never been so scared and close to death in my life. The fear of having to actually having to make a decision as to what would be least likely to lead to death from options which all have a high probably of death is a sickening. It was an experience I will never forget. We miraculously beat the odds and are probably lucky to be alive. This really gave me a new perspective and fear of the mountains and Mother Nature.

In summary, this experience taught me a lot. The things I took away from our adventure was this: in normal circumstances, attempting a peak with a 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms is usually safe, and easy to bail from. But being on a peak famous for its lighting storms, we should have never chosen to take a route which left us no option for retreat. We should have climbed via the Owen Spalding. While we were not trying to beat a marginal weather forecast, it still firmly re-instated in our minds how seriously weather reports should be taken as well as how fast the weather can change. It also reminded us that a few small mistakes or poor judgment calls in the mountains, while being singly insignificant, can accumulate into a serious situation. I have always lived under the motto of bring more clothes than you need. Back at camp, I debated how much clothing to bring. Weather looked good, but I decided to bring a waterproof shell pants and a jacket, along with an extra base layer and gloves. Had I left these back at camp, my situation would have been far worse than it was. Small decisions such as these can make the difference between life death. I sincerely hope this experience has taught me a valuable lesson and will not only better me as a climber for all future adventures, but help me be able to make clearer and safer decisions in the alpine.
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Trying to prevent frostbite from claiming my fingers in-between the 2 rappels on the OS. Picture by Mark Smith (2017-08-08). Photo by Austin D. Smith.
Click here for larger-size photo.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:7038 ft / 2145 m
    Round-Trip Distance:16 mi / 25.8 km
    Route:Upper Exum
    Trailhead:Lupine Meadows TH  6732 ft / 2051 m
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb
    Gear Used:
Rope, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Windy, Low Clouds
Thunder and snow storm.

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