THE CLIFF WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE. Back home in Boise, this spot–an obscure, 10,500-foot saddle north of Indian Lake–had appeared steep on both sides, but it sure hadn’t looked vertical. At least not on the topo map. Now, tearing my eyes from the sharp peaks and bottomless canyons that stretch for miles all around, I lean forward and peer over the lip of a 25-foot drop. The unexpected obstacle makes me wonder how many times enthusiasm and deceptive 100-foot contour lines have gotten me into trouble on off-trail adventures. Whatever the total, it looks like I’ll be adding one more. At the "pass" I’d envisioned us strolling over in the southern hinterlands of Grand Teton National Park, we’ve hit a dead end. And we’re only hours into our 26.8-mile, two-day hike.
"Looks like it gets interesting now," I joke to my friend Molly Loomis, who’s taken a rare break from her summer job with Exum Climbing Guides to join me on a trek exploring a corner of her "office" that she’s never seen.
A quick scan of our surroundings reveals limited choices. To either side of this saddle, the cliffs only rise higher, arcing like a great wall for more than a mile in either direction. Below and behind us, tucked into this stone fortress like an infant in the crook of an adult’s arm, Indian Lake sparkles in the September sunshine. From where we stand, it looks like we might be able to skirt the cliffs by hiking up a steep shoulder above the lake’s far shore. But that’s a definite maybe, and it lies in the wrong direction. Before resigning ourselves to a big detour with an unknown outcome, we drop our packs and poke around for a safe route through, examining scary-steep ball-bearing gullies, chockstone-choked chimneys, and billy goat ledges to nowhere.
Molly and I are attempting a cross-country traverse I’ve schemed for years. From Death Canyon trailhead this morning, we hiked seven uphill miles of trail rarely trod by hikers (we saw no one) to 9,710-foot Mt. Hunt Divide. Then we headed off-trail over terrain so primeval it wouldn’t surprise me to stumble over a mastodon bone. Our plan: bust a hiking route west over Mt. Hunt to Fox Creek Pass, where we’ll pick up the Teton Crest Trail.
As we panted up Mt. Hunt, Molly pointed out rocks riddled with fossilized mollusks from a prehistoric sea, magnifying the lost-world character of our surroundings. A steep thousand feet later, Hunt’s summit of shattered stone plates tinkled like broken glass under our boots, and we fell quiet before a 360-degree view that perhaps a handful of people enjoy each year. Dark cliffs and huge amphitheaters of rubble-rimmed lakes rarely visited. Summits pushing 11,000 feet, mostly unnamed, extended long arms to one another, earthen bridges for us to follow. To the north, the severely vertical giants of this range, including the Grand Teton itself, jutted skyward like gothic cathedrals. Here in the southern Tetons, the mountains spread out more horizontally, resembling rambling castles more than churches.
Our overnight hike is merely the appetizer in a weeklong smorgasbord of Teton adventures I’ve lined up with different friends. After numerous long backpacking trips here, I’m taking a cue from local hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers, who prefer fast-and-light forays over slogging for days with a heavy pack. A sampler of one- and two-day outings is possible because the Tetons, though reaching nearly 14,000 feet, are a relatively small and accessible range: They extend fewer than 40 miles north-south, with just seven crow miles separating the western (road’s end in Teton Canyon) and eastern boundaries (Jenny Lake). By biting off big mouthfuls of this wilderness in a series of quick meals, I’ll taste it all–and finally get to spots I haven’t seen despite many visits.
The recon trip for this week of multisport adventure had taken place five months earlier, when two friends and I skied for three days from WY 22 near Teton Pass to the Granite Canyon trailhead. For experienced backcountry skiers with avalanche-safety training and solid navigation skills, it’s a tour of unparalleled scenery, mostly above treeline with sweeping views of high, snowy peaks–all day long and even in camp–and ample solitude.
Afterward, at the trailhead, two women strolled up, both thirtyish and fairly fit by Jackson standards–which means they could probably run a sub-3:30 marathon in the morning and ski double black diamonds blindfolded in the afternoon. They asked where we’d been. I described our route, noting how long we’d been out. Frowning, one remarked, "It took you three days to do that?!" Feeling both amused and inspired by their bad-itude, I’d returned home and ramped up the ambition of my weeklong plan. Only now, I’m peering over a cliff, contemplating how big bites–if consumed too hastily–can lead to choking.