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Grand Teton’s High Adventure Trail

Some people head to Wyoming to summit the Tetons. But outdoor legend Paul Petzoldt had a better idea: Create a route for foot travelers along the spine of the great range.

The early-morning quiet along Teton Creek’s North Fork lulls me into a pleasant hiking trance. Sunlight hops along the clifftops high overhead, while in the canyon shadows, a frosty breeze trickles over me. Two hours up the trail, I step from forest into open meadow and the sun’s full power, and begin toiling and sweating through switchbacks up a steep canyon wall. The forest and cliffs shrink below my heels as my breath comes more rapidly at 9,500 feet.

Glancing up from the footpath, I freeze in midstride, the trance snapped. Straight ahead, the Grand Teton rises above the canyon headwall like a shark’s fin knifing through ocean swells. At its side, the jagged pyramid of Mt. Owen cuts a brooding silhouette against the cloudless sky. On this, my eighth time roaming the Tetons, that skyline still stops me in my boot prints. But this isn’t the place to loiter, so I push on to the mesalike, 11,106-foot crown of Table Mountain. Here, I drop my pack and plop down for a good, long gawk at the Teton Range fanning out before me like a 40-mile-long mural.

I’m certain Paul Petzoldt must have gawked too, not just the first time he stood here, but over the entire course of his 70 years of Teton explorations. It’s no wonder he was inspired not just to scale these peaks, but to devise a route that traversed the majestic length of Wyoming’s Teton Range-the route I’m now seeking to follow.

Petzoldt’s mountaineering and outdoor education endeavors are legendary. He first climbed the 13,770-foot Grand Teton at the age of 16; he was a member of the first American expedition to the world’s second-highest peak, the Himalaya’s K2; and he founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), the Wilderness Education Association, and the Paul Petzoldt Leadership School. Less known is his 1976 anecdotal guidebook, Petzoldt’s Teton Trails. Its final chapter describes a 67.5-mile traverse of the Teton Range that he called the “High Adventure Trail” (see the Expedition Planner below). I’d backpacked, climbed, skied, and paddled a canoe in the Tetons, but never thought about walking the length of the range. The idea captivated me.

So in mid-September, I set out to hike the southern half of the route: 30-plus miles that start at the Teton Creek trailhead, then immediately climb over Table Mountain and follow the crest south to WY 22 near Teton Pass.

When you’re standing on Table Mountain’s summit smack-dab in the middle of the range, Petzoldt’s high route stretches high and wild both north and south. Much of it follows the Teton Crest Trail, which cuts a serpentine path through Grand Teton National Park and the adjacent Jedediah Smith Wilderness, rarely dipping below 8,000 feet. Petzoldt’s route eventually shoots cross-country and stays abreast of the range, linking with other trails to complete the traverse.

I hike off Table Mountain and encounter the route’s only sketchy off-trail stretch, the roughly 2 miles from Table to Hurricane Pass. I eyeball my map and the open, treeless terrain stretching before me, trying to pick a route that skirts the cliff bands ahead. Leaning on my trekking poles, I descend gingerly through steep, loose talus, triggering several tiny rockslides. A pika chirps his displeasure.

Eventually, the talus levels out, my pace quickens, and I’m climbing the switchbacks to Hurricane Pass-and yet another stop-in-my-tracks view of the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons. Beyond the pass, the Teton Crest Trail crosses a gently undulating, treeless plateau of grasses and rocks below the stark profile of Battleship Mountain, then drops into Alaska Basin, one of the most beautiful, accessible, and therefore popular areas on the western or “back” side of the Tetons. A couple of hundred yards past Sunset Lake on the basin’s northern lip, well off the trail, I lay my pad and bag out on a mattress-flat slab of white granite.

Peeking over a saddle in the ridge above the lake, the Grand seems to wink at me, reminding me of the first time I backpacked through this very basin and glanced up to see the mountain framed within that same saddle. Three hometown friends and I hiked for 5 days through the heart of the Tetons. Our trek had all the ingredients-unbridled zeal, eye-popping scenery, wildlife, and the satisfying exhaustion felt after hiking hard days-for memories that were forever etched in our minds, touching our souls and forging an emotional bond to this place.

In the morning, I continue south along the Teton Crest Trail, weaving through the conifer forest and polished boulders of Alaska Basin, puffing up the switchbacks to Mt. Meek Pass at 9,700 feet. I traverse the rumpled plateau called Death Canyon Shelf, where to one side a 3-mile-long escarpment of daunting cliffs periodically sheds a piece of granite the size of a bus and to the other side the shelf abruptly plunges into the deep trough of Death Canyon.

A bare patch of ground beside a clump of small trees resembles almost exactly the picture in my head: The four of us camped on this very spot on that maiden Teton trip. A prodigiously racked bull elk visited our campsite during the night. And we woke before dawn to count about a dozen moose in the canyon below.

But my several return visits comprise only a puddle of memories compared with the reservoir Paul Petzoldt amassed here. Among his many notable ascents was the first of a prominent ridge on the Grand. Today both ridge and route bear his name.

I am reminded of a chance en-counter that brought our two worlds together, if only for a prized moment. In 1994, I was hiking up Garnet Canyon on my way to the Grand Teton, my pack bursting with camping and climbing gear. I bumped into an acquaintance, a NOLS alumnus who explained that he was part of a kingly entourage accompanying Petzoldt, who was there to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his first ascent.

Moments later, I stood shaking Petzoldt’s hand. I recall little of what he said, but remember clearly his enthusiasm for my first climb on the mountain. I was awed by this

86-year-old man, his sight so impaired by glaucoma and cataracts that he walked with his hand on a companion’s shoulder, clambering across Garnet Canyon’s sea of refrigerator-size boulders.

I remember him insisting-insisting-that I visit him at his home in Maine. Regrettably, I never did, and my chance has passed. Paul Petzoldt died in October, 1999, leaving his wife, thousands of “children” to whom he was a teacher and an inspiration, 91 years of memories, and a darn good thru-hike. Perhaps my pilgrimage on the High Adventure Trail will count as penance for missing that visit.

Michael Lanza, a frequent Backpacker contributor based in Boise, Idaho, has never been known to turn down high adventure.

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