Saturday, March 2, 2013

Trying to Climb Middle Teton, GTNP

We made an attempt to summit the Middle Teton (12,804' or 3902m) via the Southwest Couloir in August 2011.  Due to the winter of heavy snow and the long cold spring, we were thwarted by the lingering snow pack high in the mountains.  We had a great adventure nonetheless!
How do I look?

Garnet Canyon Boulders

Garnet Canyon Meadows Camping

Garnet Canyon Meadows early Alpenglow

I wonder why they call that Shadow Mountain? Oh, wait...
The night of thunder and lightning kept us awake all night and slowed our attempt at what should have been an early start.  That was our first failure - not leaving early enough. 
A little early for the gear?
There was a lot of snow still lingering in the high mountains for this time of year.  While the snow fields are easily negotiated by those with snow experience, the snow fields can also prove deadly to those who make mistakes.  Lots of search and rescue missions deal with people who have slipped on snow slopes and slid to a rocky accident.  Due to our minimal snow experience/confidence, we chose an abundance of caution which also slowed us down.  Still it was the wise choice in avoiding an accident. 
Did I tell you I don't like snow?
Victory!  What do you mean it was the long way?

Snow again? Really?

Slightly (ok, waaayyy) off-course in South Garnet Canyon
We had a little trouble with routefinding on our ascent.  There's never much more than a climbers trail through the rocks near the saddle between Middle and South Teton.  We lost the faint trail under the snow a few times and tended to wander off course a little bit.  We stuck with the indispensable advice from "A Climber's Guide To The Teton Range" (Ortenburger/Jackson) and just kept going up and West until Icefloe Lake was clearly visible before turning North towards the Southwest Couloir so we weren't really in danger of being lost.  We did end up wandering through some large boulders where our progress was slowed and our patience tested.  Incidentally, on our descent we finally noticed the numerous route cairns left by previous parties. 
Looking East-SouthEast from high in South Garnet Canyon

Icefloe Lake from the Middle/South Teton saddle

Climbing the Middle Teton via the Southwest Couloir is one of the more popular routes in the Tetons.  We saw evidence of other parties from earlier in the week but we encountered no other climbers on our summit day.  From our high point we did hear some triumphant climbers that sounded like they had summited the South Teton.  So despite popularity and accessibility it's still easy to have a peaceful day of relative solitude climbing in the Tetons.

Why is it so steep and so snowy?

Our high point (approx 11,800') with the Middle Teton Southwest Couloir in the background

The (safe) descent of defeat 
We decided to abandon our attempt for the summit and descend after reaching approximately 11,800'.  Many factors were considered but primarily these:

Fatigue - we had not slept well due to the lightning storm the night before.  This delayed our start as well.  By the time we turned around we had been scrambling steadily for about 7 hours but our progress was slow.  We still needed many hours to backtrack to our campsite.  We were starting to fatigue rapidly.

Weather - when we turned around there were some threatening clouds building in the sky.  Mountain weather can change rapidly and we did not want to be caught at high elevation in worsening conditions.   We were still a little skittish about lightning from the previous night's storm.

High Altitude - despite spending time at 6000' and hiking to 8000' a few times, we struggled with the high elevations.  Altitude can have detrimental affects for anyone.  Some are fine at altitude and some really struggle with the change - a physiological trait.  We definitely felt the effects of the altitude.

Time - not only did we spend too much time just to get where we were, we also had to descend back to our campsite safely.  The effort it takes to get back off the mountain is often overlooked.  We knew we had a long way back down to safety. To keep going up and attempt the summit would have further complicated our descent.  The snow fields become harder and more difficult to cross as the temperature drops after the sun sets.  We did not want to be out on the snow fields after dark.  We also would have been even more fatigued, anxious to be done, and unable to give the descent the clear and concentrated attention it required.

Could we have summited?  Yes, I think so.  But the risk was not worth the reward.  We were exceptionally cautious.  Many others could easily have made the trip with no problems in much faster time, but we recognized our limitations and despite our disappointment were able to turn around and go home safely.
lots of snow to cross

You just can't beat a beautiful day in the Tetons.  Sure, we didn't summit the Middle Teton.  But we had a wonderful day in the mountains with the outstanding scenery,  and we went home safe and unhurt. 
There's where we didn't go

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