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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Return to the Tetons

I hadn't climbed among the high peaks of the Tetons for at least a decade, and it was high time. Dave Goldstein and I hatched an ambitious plan (too ambitious, as it turned out), and we headed north last week. The Tetons are, of course, one of America's greatest alpine ranges, and I was reminded of their beauty and staggering uplift as we hiked up Cascade Canyon to the north of Teewinot and Mt. Owen. I was pleased to see that Owen's northeast snowfields were hanging in there, and equally pleased to find that the stream crossing to reach the base of Valhalla Canyon was trivial.

Our goal was the Serendipity Arête on Mt. Owen, a steep, stepped ridge on the peak's western flank. The forecast was excellent and we planned to bivy somewhere on Owen, so we weren't worried about an alpine start. We climbed out of the shuttle boat at Jenny Lake at 10:30 a.m. and started the steep climb into Valhalla Canyon a little after noon. We didn't find the good trail until we were halfway up the headwall below the canyon, and then, despite carrying descriptions from two different guidebooks, we couldn't find the start of the route. Actually, the start was well-described and plainly visible, but we didn't believe what we read—the big, orange left-facing corner that marked the start seemed impossibly high above the canyon floor, and so we scrambled around the ledges below for a couple of hours looking for other orange left-facing corners until finally we concluded that the original corner really was the one and continued trudging up the scree gully that led to it. Then I got quad cramps and ... long story short: We didn't reach the start of the roped climbing until 5 p.m., six and a half hours after starting. Black clouds were moving overhead, but no rain fell and only a faint rumble of thunder disturbed the calm, so we decided to carry on.

The Serendipity is an old-fashioned route, more mountaineering adventure than great rock climb, but it has a few memorable passages. The promised "spectacular knife-edge ridge" that must be climbed à cheval was a stroll, but several "fourth-class" sections required an attentive belay. After six pitches we reached a broad ledge system between Third Tower and Fourth Tower and, though we might have been able to continue to the top before pitch dark, we decided to sleep where we knew the sleeping would be good. Later, we ran into Jack Tackle, who told us he had made the first winter ascent of this route, solo. How long did that take? I asked him. Just a day, he said, car to car. Well, some people are faster than others. Anyway, a planned bivy high on a mountain route is a great experience. Dave had made a paella at home and we packed a 3.5-pound bag of the stuff for this climb. Now we dug in hungrily—it was cold, because we carried no stove, but it tasted great. I laid out a small pad, stuffed a skimpy sleeping bag inside my bivy sack, spread the rope under my feet, and used my pack for a pillow. I crawled inside but kept my glasses on to watch the first stars appear as the last light faded from the nearby north face of the Grand Teton. That's where we were headed.

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