Molly and I stare down a shadowed chimney that pinches to several feet of crack-climbing before it reaches the cliff bottom. "I think that might work," she says. I’m leery, but she carefully downclimbs and announces, "That’s not too bad." I follow, discovering she’s right: It’s easier than it looked. Molly climbs back up to lower our packs down–bless her studly heart–and we’re suddenly energized at having found a way through.
We cross steep scree and rolling grassy meadows, looking out over the nearer castles and the more distant cathedrals bathed in slanting sunbeams as if this were the day of their creation–and we have it all to ourselves. In cool evening shade, glad to have our boots and packs off, we pitch our tent in the park’s most gorgeous backcountry camping zone: on Death Canyon Shelf, a 9,500-foot bench sandwiched between a three-mile-long, 500-foot-tall cliff and the deep trench of Death Canyon. Boulders as big as small houses lie strewn about this alpine tableland, their sides and edges so neatly squared off they look quarried. Out the tent door is a postcard view of the Grand Teton.
Tomorrow, we’ll complete this rugged loop, traversing the Sierra-like granite parkland of Alaska Basin and climbing over Static Peak Divide on one of the loneliest and most scenic stretches of high trail in the park. We’ll hike the short climbers’ trail up 11,303-foot Static Peak, among the park’s highest walk-up summits, taking in its view of Buck Mountain, the southern Tetons, and Jackson Hole.
But for now, I sit on a rock to soak in the warm bath of déjà vu. After more than a dozen trips in these mountains over 15 years, I frequently walk in my own footprints. I first heard the comical whistle of marmots in the Tetons. I’ve shivered and laughed under snowmelt waterfalls and shared unforgettable summits and campsites with friends old and new. I’ve held my breath while my ice axe hummed in a thunderstorm, been the first person to come upon the remains of a climber who’d just fallen 500 feet, and found another who’d tumbled 200 feet down a snow couloir, where he might have frozen to death overnight had my hiking party not happened upon him. Many spots here feel like pages in a personal scrapbook, but few trigger memories as powerful as the Shelf does. On one of my first Western-mountain adventures, three buddies and I awoke during a night here to the clomping of a huge bull elk just outside our tents. Early the next morning, we sat peering through binoculars, counting a dozen moose in Death Canyon below. One of those friends returned with me the following summer to attempt the Grand; just two years later, I labored in vain to resuscitate him following a climbing accident. Every time I cross the Shelf, I think of Rick.
If a place can be a repository of memories both cherished and haunting, spanning an emotional gamut so complete it seems like a short but self-contained lifetime, the Tetons are that place for me.