About 36 hours later, I pause at the trailhead in Lupine Meadows as the nasal bugling of a bull elk pierces the morning calm. Dave Simpson and I grin: It’s an auspicious start to the second leg of my week, which will take me and Simpson, a PR rep for Gregory, Scarpa, and others, up a peak that graces more photo albums than possibly any other in America. Teewinot’s 5,600-foot east face screams skyward directly above Teton Park Road and Jenny Lake, culminating in a sinister-looking, multihorned summit.
In air cool enough to raise goosebumps on our bare arms, we follow a steep climbers’ trail that switchbacks up Teewinot Mountain. Halfway to the top, the forest ends and the trail grows rougher, crossing scree and sloping, pebbly ledges. Several hundred feet below the top, it peters out. We reach what seems like a dead end at a nearly vertical, 20-foot granite slab. Dave, who’s been up here before, eyeballs it closely and identifies it as the crux of this serious scrambling route. Very patiently and deliberately, I follow him up, clinging to holds I wish were just a little bigger, trying not to think about the 5,000 feet of air under our butts. A short while later, my jaw unhinges as we take turns crawling up onto Teewinot’s 12,325-foot summit, which literally comes to a pointy arrowhead not suitable for lengthy sitting. The earth falls away thousands of feet all around us. Mt. Owen and the Grand Teton–looming another 600 and 1,400 feet, respectively, above us–look close enough to leap onto. In four hours, we’ve climbed more than a vertical mile, walking just less than two, and I feel positively euphoric. I’m amazed that such a magical wilderness aerie lies so close to civilization–and that someone who’s fit and knows the route could run up here and be down for lunch.
That thought leads to a plan that needs no debate. We begin trotting as soon as we clear the scramble–and just three hours after tagging Teewinot, we’re sipping cold beer in warm sunshine on the deck at Dornan’s, reliving a fine day beneath the most photogenic skyline in the Lower 48.
Tenting amid the industrial thrum of RVs at Gros Ventre Campground is tolerable enough, especially when I spot moose and bison in the nearby sagebrush flats. But the morning after Teewinot, my psyche is already craving another backcountry night. And I do have a schedule to keep. So I collect my buddy David Ports, just in from Missoula, and head for Garnet Canyon and another classic overnight. Nexus of climber ambitions in the Tetons, Garnet is a tight horseshoe of cliffs and flying buttresses soaring 1,500 feet straight up. After a nearly five-mile, two-hour hike with light packs, we set up home in the lee of an elephant-size glacial erratic. Clouds scurry above the sharp ridges, almost keeping time with a meltwater creek humming down the valley beside us. We kick back for a utilitarian meal of freeze-dried noodles and kick ourselves–with loads so light, we could’ve stashed a few beers from the cooler we left behind.
In the morning, we start hiking while it’s still cold and dim. The sparse human traffic this late in the season mostly turns off toward the Lower Saddle and the Grand Teton; we choose Garnet’s less-traveled south fork. Initially steep, the angle relaxes as we ascend steadily through a treeless landscape of granite tilting skyward. Less than two hours from our camp, David and I scramble up a refrigerated gully where fist-size rocks frequently roll out under our boots and bounce downward, gaining velocity and making longer ricochets before finally exploding far below. Escaping the gully, we walk a few minutes up a ridge of crazily stacked talus until we can’t go any higher. At 12,514 feet, the South Teton’s blocky crown overlooks almost the entire Teton Range, with the Grand and Middle Tetons in-your-face close.
As we descend, I gaze almost straight down more than 2,000 feet to Snowdrift Lake, a vivid turquoise gemstone shimmering in the sunlight, and think: tomorrow.