Cathedral Traverse- Ups and Downs in the Tetons

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Clouds had been building for a few hours, but we kept climbing. Rain and sun alternated for 24 hours, but the last six were bluebird. We’d finally begun belayed climbing, on the beautiful “Dog Ear Pitch.” I led steeply out of the Gunsight Notch between The Grandstand and Mt. Owen’s sawtoothed South Ridge. Protection was hard to place, but the holds were decent. I felt solid, and rose quickly and confidently to the belay stance. All of a sudden the sky went black, lightning cracked, and light snow and rain began to fall.

On belay! I shouted, and Scott earnestly followed the pitch, knowing the weather we’d dodged all day had caught up with us. A late afternoon thunderstorm had roared out of the southwest, and here, under the tall shadow of the immense North Face of the Grand Teton, we had no way to see it coming. “Well,” I said, as he tethered into the belay stance and put me on belay, “I guess we keep going for now, but it looks iffy, to say the least.” Inwardly, I was desperate to see the weather blow by and another blue hole appear. Simultaneously, I scanned my surroundings for somewhere to take shelter if the worsening storm trend continued.

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The second pitch above the notch is easier, and I barely noticed the 5.6 moves as I boogied up through swirling flakes of Alta powder. It was July 20, but above 12,000 feet in the heart of the Tetons, dry stellar conglomerates filled the air. Reaching a ledge, I glanced left and spied a possible overhang. I placed a directional cam above the line Scott would need to follow, and shuffled horizontally south. Rounding a blind corner, I was delighted to see a perfect alcove, overhung by a 5-foot roof! Establishing an anchor, and counting my lucky stars, I brought Scott up as the storm intensified.

We huddled in our safe, dry haven, as all hell broke loose. Lightning was everywhere, and we shoveled our ropes under our butts, to prevent ground currents from entering our bodies. Thunderbolts cracked the sky and rattled the mountain. We pulled on layers, ate bars, drank water and watched 3 inches of graupel snow cover our feet. We were cold, miserable and retreat was obviously imminent, but our timing in finding this shelter had been fortuitous.

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As suddenly as it began, the tempest passed, the sky cleared, and we looked at our watches. It was 6 pm. The rock ahead was wet and shadowed. Would it dry? If another storm cell arrived, would we be halfway up the north face with darkness approaching and few options for retreat? We had only light bivvy gear, having planned to complete the Cathedral Traverse, from Teewinot, to Owen and over the Grand Teton to the lower saddle in one day. But a warm, dry night at the Exum quonset hut was not to be. We made the painfully frustrating, yet mandatory decision to bail.

I’d started up the North Ridge of the Grand in early afternoon in a light rain before, with Brendan, Andrew and Lars in 2008. But there’d been no forecast for heavy precipitation, and it passed. We moved well up the classic Italian Cracks, and across the wildly exposed, but amazingly convenient Second Ledge, and on to the top via the standard Owen-Spalding Route. We hustled down to Lupine Meadows by 7 pm. Unfortunately, 2014 would be far different.

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On that mild evening in ’08, three of us cracked celebratory beers after pushing hard for 19 hours, including some 40 pitches of rock and 10,000 feet of ascent. But where was Andrew? Checking the latrine, and my phone rang; It was him. “Was I supposed to go to Bradley Lake?” he inquired in his polite British accent. “Shoot, no!” I replied. “You need to come back a mile along the Valley Trail to the junction, then its 1.7 miles to here. I’ll come back and meet you.” He’d been ahead of everyone, charging down on auto-pilot, at the base of the switchbacks portion of the Garnet Canyon Trail, and made a wrong turn south.

“No, no, Tyson, that won’t be necessary,” he answered brightly. “I haven’t reached my limit yet!” I was quietly amazed, but gladly acquiesced, and went back to rejoicing with the boys. Andrew was fine and would be here soon. It had been an epic, rewarding journey, made only sweeter in retrospect by all the challenges we’d overcome since 1 am. On a perfect day, with a strong team, “Cathedral-in-a-day” is possible. It had been one of the hardest, best days of my life.

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Six years later, Scott and I started at 8 pm, after a big meal at the Dornan’s Chuckwagon Buffet. But 200 yards from the trailhead, we felt our fist raindrops. Despite the bad omen, we pressed on and it dried. We hiked to the top of the Apex Trail on Teewinot in a couple hours, and decided to sleep for a few hours before tackling the steeper, more complex terrain ahead. With full bellies, we hadn’t stepped as quick and light as we’d hoped. It was dark, and sprinkling again. Our bivouac spot was not ideal; nor was the weather. The sky pissed on us intermittently through our short night and early the next day. But it broke clear on the summit of Teewinot, and that lured us on. So did another 6 hours of sun enroute to Mt. Owen.

In 2012 I solo climbed to the summit of Teewinot in the late evening to meet Mike and Mike, who’d rallied up from Salt Lake that afternoon and were on a mission to do the Grand Traverse in short order. This would include Cathedral Group (Teewinot, Owen and The Grand) plus Middle and South Tetons, Cloudveil Traverse and Nez Perce. The Mikes had an inauspicious start, struggling to find their way in the dark on what should have been the 4th-class terrain of Teewinot’s East Face. They told me the next day of several near-epics getting well off-route.

Scoping Route

Upon learning my comrades were behind, I snuggled into my light bivvy sack, and enjoyed a pleasant nap. I woke to the most glorious sunrise I’d ever seen on the east faces of the Grand and Owen. This was alpine climbing at its finest! Sunshine and stable weather followed us over snowfields, small peaks and multiple rappels before we dashed up the East Ridge to summit Owen. We down-climbed the north chimneys, and rappelled loose gullies onto the West Ledges. We found the sweet ledge system going back south. Finally we rappelled into Gunsight Notch.

After the two nice belayed pitches out of the notch, one can solo scramble or short-rope and short-pitch followers on moderate terrain to the base of the North Ridge. Then the route finding is a bit daunting as you move up and left, behind a white tower and find the elusive Italian Cracks. These are two long, steep pitches on good rock with ample cracks for placing cams and stoppers. However, Brendan O’Neill, a 5.13 climber who knows the Grand Traverse like the back of his hand, doesn’t waste time with “pro.” He just floats up in sticky-rubber approach shoes, even in a light rain.

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Mike, Mike and I, mere mortals by comparison, lead in rock shoes and/or place pro frequently while constantly glancing around to make sure we’re on the correct (easiest) route up the cool, dark, intimidating wall. I always seem to be here in the afternoon. The only sure way to avoid this is to spend the night below the face. Depending on snowmelt and current weather, decent camp spots exist. Standard procedure is to carry a camp and do the Cathedral Traverse in 2 days, and the full Grand Traverse in 3. Usually the second night is spent on the saddle between Middle and South Tetons. The Mikes however, made it there for their first real night’s rest.

Having paced and directed them (often from behind) through the vagaries of route finding on the Cathedral portion, I said goodbye at the Lower Saddle between Grand and Middle Tetons. After all, I was scheduled to meet clients back here at the saddle the next morning around 4 am.

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I would be doing a “Midnight Express.” Dan had hiked up with 6 clients, that afternoon, and I’d be joining them tomorrow. I gave the gang at the saddle a wave as I trotted down saying, “See you early.” I dropped 5,000’ feet and 7 miles to Lupine Meadows. At midnight, I woke up and retraced my steps. Then I met a nice, eager family, and climbed with then, at a whole different pace than yesterday, to and from the summit. That was the easy part.

Descending over the course of 6 hours, with an elderly father who was so gassed he could barely walk, was when guides’ mettle was tested and pay earned. But I’ve learned long ago, that’s not the time to push people. Most accidents happen on the way down a mountain when climbers are tired, hungry and emotionally spent. I just dig deep and walk slow, uttering encouragement. Big personal days in the mountains, and other’s with clients are what we do. It’s all in a day’s work for an Exum Guide.

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