Complete Exum Ridge: Grand Teton

By Warren Teissier (
Photos by George Bell (

Written September 2003; Climb date 9/7/2003

[Click on any image for the full size version]

George and I had planned a trip to the Tetons last year, we wanted to do the complete Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton, but unstable weather forced us to cancel the trip. This year, with only a week's worth of planning, we decided to give it another go. The weather forecast called for 10% chance of T-storms for the weekend of Sept 6th, perfect weather.

We left Boulder at 4PM on Thursday, stopped for dinner at a KFC in Rawlings, WY and cruised on through the night towards the Grand. On the lonesome stretch of road heading north after leaving I-80, George stepped on the gas. We were happy climbers, heading for a happy place, with full bellies and good tunes from Steve Miller, we were young again: "Go on take the money and run…" A lone car goes by, heading in the opposite direction, it's a cop, he makes a U-turn, blue and red lights flashing, we slow down, the tunes are stopped, we are forty year old men again and a WY cop with a thick Eastern European accent reads us the riot act, George tells him we are heading for the Tetons, hoping to impress him or at least draw some leniency. He looks at George, shrugs his shoulders and issues us a $69 dollar ticket. It is 65mph from then on. At midnight we drive up to the Jenny Lake parking lot and crash in the back of the Suburban, the stars are out, weather looks fine.

The Climber's Ranch with the Tetons
getting snowed on behind
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Our plan is to get a camping permit for the Meadows for Friday night in order to do a Saturday ascent. As the day dawns, clouds move in with remarkable speed and the "perfect weather" deteriorates before our eyes. We can't believe our bad luck! We line up outside the Ranger cottage with only one other person. The door opens up at 8 am sharp, an older looking ranger steps out, book in hand and closes the door behind him. He greets us with a smile as he tells us: "this is your poem for the day" he quotes the author, some poet from 4th century China, and reads us the poem intermingling climbing jargon in random spots. He then allows us into the cottage and starts the conversation with grim weather news: "two rainy days with a possible window of good weather on Sunday, followed by a cold front on Monday large enough to sock in the mountain for the season".

After recovering from the initial shock, we decide to get a camping permit for Saturday night to be ready to climb during the Sunday weather window, if it opens up. A younger ranger encourages us to go for it, and shows us various escapes off of the route in case of weather trouble. It is so cool to be treated right by the rangers. What a contrast with the way rangers deal with climbers in Yosemite…

As we step out of the cottage it is already raining. We can't believe how quickly the weather has deteriorated. After driving to the Climber's Ranch to book a room for tonight, we discuss climbing Teewinot but it is late and it will be wet and 5,000 vertical feet are too far to go to be turned down by wet 4th class moves near the top - we hesitate, to quote our friend Mark Oveson: "the mind is weak but the flesh is weaker" and we opt for a large, warm, breakfast in town. After a huge sourdough pancake breakfast at Jedediah's we return to Jenny Lake, hike up Cascade Canyon and picnic in front of Valhalla canyon where we get a good view of the North Face of the Grand, the Black Ice Couloir (no longer icy) and the Enclosure as they play hide and seek in the clouds. Eventually we head back completing a 13 mile round trip hike.

During dinner, at the Climbing Ranch's communal cooking area, we see a huge feast being prepared for a group. It's the Marmot Equipment sales meeting: 30 Marmot people decked in some of the coolest gear I have seen in a while…

The Grand Teton from the
Lower Saddle late Saturday evening
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
We turn in for the night, soon after, it starts raining again and thunder serves as our alarm clock in the morning. The mountains are completely socked in, worse than the day before. Things are looking dismal, we begin to question whether the weather window will indeed happen. After breakfast at Bubbas we stop for a weather update at the ranger cottage. A young ranger tells us the forecast is the same but he is way negative about our route. He claims the night before it snowed 6 inches at the top of the mountain and 2 inches in the lower saddle, "expect ice and snow on the lower section of the route, the starting chimney will be caked in ice" he tells us while he shakes his head and starts offering other routes alternatives. We are really bummed out.

We head up Garnett Canyon convinced that we will be climbing some other route, some other peak, but as we reach the Meadows in the afternoon it is really warm, it had stopped raining in the early morning and we see no trace of snow. I am not ready to give up on the Exum, George suggests hiking up to the Moraine to have a look at the bottom of the route. We set up our tent and hike up after lunch. We wind up hiking all the way to the Lower Saddle, and there it is, our route appears dry. Happy times again, we hike back determined to give it a shot the next day. That day we hiked 10 miles and 5,000 vertical ft.

We wake up at 3:20am. During the night it rained a fair amount, in fact we both thought we would have to bag the climb. But by the time we exit our tent we are greeted by a cloudless sky. The weather window seems to have opened up just in time. After breakfast and hot tea, we leave camp at 4:00am, it is pretty cold but worst of all, windy.

Warren freezing on the second pitch
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
We negotiate the steep trail in the dark, getting off track a couple of times but only for a few moments (thanks to yesterday's reconnaissance). As we reach the 4th class step below the Lower Saddle and Batman up the three inch rope, we meet a couple of climbers. George greets one of them who smiles but does not answer, his friend steps in and answers in broken English. They are Russian, very friendly and seem rather inexperienced and their gear seems 50 years old, in contrast to the Marmot gathering the day before at the ranch. They are going for the Upper Exum.

At about 5:45 am at the Lower Saddle, we stop to filter water in the dark. We are now exposed to a stiff wind from the west, and although we immediately add clothing we are shortly chilled to the bone and shivering. We timed the sunrise wrong, it is still pitch dark and we can't see the start of the route. But waiting for the sun is impossible in this cold wind so we slowly inch our way towards the base in an attempt to keep warm. For a while we are on an exposed ridge as the wind from Idaho hammers us, but our movement gives us some warmth. We are both wearing every piece of clothing we brought! Soon we contour off the ridge and out of the wind as our route requires. But it is still dark - this area appears tricky as the terrain around us steepens, although in daylight it is a simple traverse.

As dawn arrives we are close to the start of the ramp that leads to the first pitch. We scramble up the ledge and make a rising traverse left through a small waterfall to the foot of the chimney, the start of the first pitch. With anxiety we peer into its interior and are happy to see it is snow-free and dry. We rope up and I start leading, it is 7 am. I climb the cracks and blocks right of the chimney and they prove to be steeper and rounder than I first thought.

George leading the Black Face
as it warms up.
Copyright © 2003 by Warren Teissier
After a few moves and one piece of gear I am having trouble linking up the moves. My hands are too cold to feel the rock. After what seems like an eternity of moaning and hand warming, I make it to the belay and bring George up. He reaches me and seems surprised with the stiffness of the pitch and complains about the pain in his hands, later on we realized, we probably did the 5.8 variation from Rossiter's guide.

George takes off for pitch two, he traverses up and left on easier ground and disappears. The rope keeps feeding through my hands, it is a long pitch and I am very cold. Finally he reaches the belay and I follow, with my gloves on, nice pitch, great lead.

We move the belay to the base of the third pitch and I mention that I might link it with the 4th pitch. I lead up a left leaning hand crack, up to a blocky, bulging section and traverse right. I get confused looking for the V-Dihedral and realize I am in it after a few moves, it is really a series of two dihedrals, the features are very confusing in this section of the climb. I grunt my way up the second dihedral system, the rock is very polished and pro is not good for a long while, it is a very physical pitch made harder by the altitude and cold. I climb past a chock stone and set the belay at the base of the Black Face just as the sun peeks around the Petzoldt ridge.

Warren at the top of the Friction Pitch
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
In the sun we cheer up, the Black Face pitches look great. George leads up the 5th pitch (first of the Black Face), the wall is nearly vertical, in fact sections are overhanging and the main challenge on lead is to weave through the bulges while finding the nice positive holds and a series of fixed pins. Happy times, George is now his usual self, commenting, mainly to himself, on the climb as he leads up the face. What an awesome pitch this was.

Another party is visible to the east climbing the Direct Petzoldt route. It looks quite spectacular as the leader climbs over a large hole/arch and belays atop a tower. This ridge is in the sun earlier and we are envious of this. We are to see this team later in the day and eventually discover it is extreme skier and Exum Guide Doug Coombs with two clients. The spring before last Doug Coombs and other guides completed the first ski descent of the CMC route on Moran. Amazing!

I take the last lead of the Direct Exum section. It starts with a rounded, wide, left leaning crack that eventually peters out and I traverse right to a second crack on the right. The starting moves are very thin, or so I thought anyway. George thought this was the hardest pitch of the route. Afterwards, while re-reading the route description on the 50 NA classics and the Ortenburger guide book, we realized that the original route traversed left from the end of the first pitch of the Black Face to where Wall Street meets the ridge, thus skipping this last harder pitch. We reach the start of the Upper Exum at 10:30am.

Warren on the V Pitch, Middle Teton Glacier far below
Copyright © 2003 by Warren Teissier
The contrast between the Direct or Lower Exum and the Upper Exum is amazing. Like the Ying and Yang of the ridge: The lower section is technical, cold and the features make it feel enclosed at times, the upper section is much easier, sunny and open. In the lower section we were alone and isolated, in the upper section there are streams of climbers funneling up the Wall Street ledge.

A veteran of two previous ascents of the upper Exum, George takes the lead and makes quick work of the Golden Stairs pitch. We are supposed to simulclimb but the terrain proves to be too easy so we unrope above the Golden Stairs and solo the Wind Tunnel pitches passing three folks from Salt Lake. We rope up for a short pitch below the Friction pitch and bump into the rest of the Salt Lake party. Dallas, one of the Salt Lake folks had lost the bite valve for his camelback which I found it and handed to him a pitch later (this was to pay dividends later). At the base of the friction pitch we queue up behind the Russians. After chatting with us for a while, the Salt Lake folks avoid the Friction Pitch by going right and we follow behind the Russians.

George sets a belay well past the Russian belay but they start climbing before I can reach him, as a result, they cross over our rope. As we unrope and untangle, their leader who seems intent on passing us runs out the rope and pulls his belayer along. But the belayer is attached to the belay. Under tension, the belayer cannot take down the belay in order to simulclimb. While we coil our rope, they scream at each other in Russian, the leader keeps pulling on the rope. We try to tell the leader what's going on but he doesn't speak English. Using signs we finally get the leader to give some slack. We take off and pass them in the step called the Notch. As I am passing them the one that does not speak English asks me:"you going down?" I say: "no, going up". He nods.

On the summit!
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
After a bit of scrambling we rope up again and George leads up the V-pitch, a beautiful, awesomely exposed dihedral pitch that in spite of being easy, is probably one of the best pitches of the climb. As I get ready to follow George, the Russian is setting a belay behind me and ask me again if I am going down. I respond that we are heading for the summit and plan to go down the Owen-Spalding route. He smiles and nods with a stare that tells me he didn't understand what I just said. I point up and say UP. He nods happily. I think they were trying figure out whether they should follow us to the summit or not. As I reach George at the top of the V-pitch he suggests we put on our approach shoes, we are going to the West side of the ridge and there is snow everywhere.

The next pitch is called the Petzoldt lieback and under dry condition would probably be two moves of 5.3 climbing. But today it is all iced up. It is my lead and as I approach it, I am getting really nervous, George offers to lead it and I am quick to accept. I set up the belay in the dripping cave under the lieback and put on my jacket, tossing my pack in the cave. George places a piece and balances precariously placing his feet on small indentations on the ice. As he stands up and places a second piece, I get closer to him to avoid a side pull on his first piece should he fall. He miraculously makes two more balancy moves on the verglas and disappears above me. Soon enough I am on belay and following, the rock is 100% covered in verglas, and small traces of snow provide the best footholds, I am amazed at his lead. The "Iceman" has come through yet again.

I take off on the nearly horizontal ridge, past a short boulder crack and run the rope out. George joins me and runs out another rope length after which we unrope. We are now 20 yards from the summit, an easy scramble over broken talus. Just then I realize I do not have my pack with me. I must have left it at one of the belays… I run back two pitches and can't find it. I ask a party coming up the ice pitch and they confirm the pack is at the bottom of that pitch, in the cave. I climb back to George and we decide to summit and deal with the pack later.

We summit at 1:51pm. We are pretty happy but I am worrying about my pack and George is worrying about the descent. There is a lot of ice and snow on the summit slabs and two parties are slowly belaying their way down the Owen-Spalding. George feels this is not safe, he has done the Owen-Spalding descent before and is concerned about the conditions, we assume they will be similar to the ice pitch we just did. We discuss this a bit and decide to go down the Exum Ridge to Wall Street, along the way we can pick up my pack.

Rapelling the Petzold Lieback
with ledge to Owen Spalding below
Copyright © 2003 by Warren Teissier
We reverse the two easy pitches and down-lead the boulder move (passing Doug Coombs and his two clients who are going up) to the top of the ice pitch where George had spotted some rap anchors. A short rap put us back in the cave where I retrieve my pack. Just then I notice tracks on the snow on a ledge below us, further exploration shows us that the ledge leads to the lower raps of the Owen-Spalding. We follow the tracks and find the Salt Lake folks doing a double rope rap to the upper saddle. We kid around for a while and they offer to let us use their ropes. Two single rope raps would have been unpleasant here as the intermediate anchor, a wedged chockstone, is encased in several inches of ice. In a short time we are hiking down the easy gully and through the Needle's Eye. We reach the lower saddle at 4pm.

We hike back the three miles and 2,500 vertical ft to our camp, take it down and head for the car. As we hike down we meet several teams with full packs heading up intent on camping, hoping to climb the mountain the next day. I look at George and ask" Don't these people know about the window?" I guess they are hoping like we were, 24 hrs before, that this might be their chance to climb the Grand. We reach the car at 8pm after being on the move for some 16 hrs.

What a great route but most of all what a great mountain. We spent the night at the Climber's Ranch and at 4am we were awakened by rain. Heavy rains pound the roof and by morning the mountains are socked in again. Through the drifting clouds we see that the top half of the Grand is covered in snow. The window is now shut, we were lucky to be there at the right time.

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