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ON ROCK: Grand plans doused
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – I really don’t go up the Grand Teton (13,770 feet) much anymore. After more than 100 ascents to the summit over the years, I would rather spend time on other climbs in the Teton Range. However, when a friend invites me to go up, it’s hard to resist. So I did.
We knew the weather was going to be an issue due to the forecast of possible thunderstorms. Now that it is September, there could even be a chance of snow. As we were hiking up to the Lower Saddle (11,500 feet), I realized it was almost the anniversary of the ill-fated day that two parties got stuck on the Grand in a deadly storm on Sept.11, 1985. Grand Teton Climbing Rangers made a heroic rescue that eventually saved two of the five climbers. Three of them had died of hypothermia in a raging snowstorm that developed late in the day. Since the climbers had gotten late starts, and the weather was good when they awoke, they left warmer clothing in their camps. Later, high on the mountain, they got stuck in conditions that were worse than simply winter conditions: frigid temperatures and high winds, too much snow to walk through easily yet not enough to ski. They were literally stuck on the mountain, in snow, for almost 48 hours before being saved.
The rangers received the Department of Interior’s prestigious Medal of Valor Award for their heroic efforts. As my friend and I talked about that day, I started freaking out in my head thinking our scenario was starting to appear very similar, because the clouds were starting to look rather stormy. We got to the Saddle, set up our tent, ate dinner, and went to bed with the wind picking up, and dark ominous clouds above. I slept anxiously, thinking about the bad weather. Needless to say, we awoke in the middle of night hearing the familiar pitter-patter of rain on the tent.
Our decision when we awoke hours later was an easy one: go down. The clouds completely enveloped the summit block. The wind and rain were blowing horizontally. The threat of hypothermia was looming. I thought about the tragedy of those three guys slowly dying in conditions that no one would ever want to endure with minimal clothing. Such a sad situation. We decided to sleep in, and hike down later. “The mountain will always be there.” Rock On!