Meet the first woman to ‘Picnic’ in one push

By on July 23, 2014
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Kelly Halpin reaches the west boat dock on Jenny Lake as the sun kisses the water. Photo by Tristan Greszko.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – It was after midnight on Friday when I spotted Kelly Halpin stopped in her maroon jeep at the intersection of Cache and Broadway while late night revelers made their exodus from The Cowboy to The Rose.

“Hi!” I exclaimed. “I’m headed to The Rose. You should come in.” Halpin flashed me a big smile and explained that she was on her way to climb the Grand Teton. Just another night in Jackson Hole.

On Saturday, Halpin and local photographer Tristan Greszko completed a maniacal 23.5-hour triathlon that could only be dreamed up in the Tetons, thanks to David Gonzalez. The Grand Teton Triathalon, or ‘The Picnic,’ encompasses biking from town, swimming across Jenny Lake, climbing the Grand Teton and then doing it all in reverse. Halpin is the first woman to endure this grueling mental and physical experiment in one push and the duo is the first to complete the mission completely self-supported, meaning they hauled all their own gear. I coerced the 28-year-old illustrator to give us the beta in her own words. – Robyn Vincent

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Last summer I received an email from David Gonzales inviting a handful of people to attempt the Grand Teton Triathlon. The mission was to bike from town square to Jenny Lake, swim 1.3 miles across the lake, summit the Grand Teton, descend, then swim back across the lake and bike back to town using only human power. The idea of any kind of lake crossing was completely terrifying to me so I didn’t even consider it. I hate being wet, I hate being cold, and I’m terrified of dark water. But over the course of last winter the regret of not even trying the GTT sunk in and I decided to make a solid attempt during the summer. I asked my friend and climbing partner, Tristan Greszko, if he would be interested in doing the GTT with me, and we started some mild training to get in shape for the adventure.

Early in the planning process, we played around with the idea of being the first to try the GTT completely self-supported. Of course this would slow us down both with the logistics and the added weight, but we thought it was worth a shot, especially since it was David’s original vision. We chose climbing equipment and clothing based on its weight and made a couple of last minute purchases. The hardest part of this self-supported idea was that we were going to have to find a way to pull our gear across the lake not once, but twice.  Tristan and I did some research, asked a few friends for advice, and finally came up with a plan to use dry bags strapped to boogie boards which we would tow behind us as we swam. Of course this also meant we had to make it to and from the lake with boogie boards attached to our bikes. The final set up was pretty ridiculous looking, but with a high-pressure system moving in, we set a date for Saturday, July 19.

We met at 1:45 a.m. near town square and by 2:03 a.m. were on our way north. Biking up was relatively easy, even with the additional weight, and by 3:45 a.m. we were stashing our bikes and pulling on wetsuits. Tristan and I were pretty cold getting into the water, but once we started swimming, we warmed up fast. It was incredibly intimidating stepping into the dark water and looking across knowing that somewhere on the other side was the boat dock and we had to swim that distance alone without any boat support. We tied glow sticks to our bags so we could see each other in the dark and towed the boards using cord that was tied around our waists. It took us two hours to cross and by the time we were clawing our way onto the dock, the sun was rising. Both of my legs had cramped up severely during the swim and I had strained a muscle in my right side from breathing too hard, but other than that I felt good about continuing. Once again we stashed gear in the trees and started down the trail towards Lupin Meadows.

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Walking towards Lupine Meadows via Jenny Lake. Photo by Tristan Greszko.

Tristan and I were pretty efficient getting up to the lower saddle. We refilled water where we needed to and were continually forcing down power gels and chews to maintain our energy. There are a few snowfields to cross, including the winter route up the headwall, and at that point I was glad we had decided to bring ice axes. We refilled water at the lower saddle and met two other adventurers, Nick and Chuck, who were “picnicking” as well. After a exchanging a few pictures and encouraging words, we parted ways and Tristan and I made our way towards the upper saddle.

Over the course of this event there were a few extreme highs and lows and one of these lows hit right as we started up the gully. We both became extremely light-headed and slightly nauseous. Breathing became painful and I started coughing, which exacerbated the strained muscle in my side. But one of the remarkable things I learned from this event is how a human body and mind can recover after being pushed to the edge. I had never experienced altitude problems in the Tetons before and there was a definite moment where I wanted to call it. Tristan and I took a moment to set a pace we could tolerate without getting too dizzy and continually asked each other how we were doing. By the time we reached the upper saddle our lightheadedness had improved and we decided to continue up the Owen Spalding.

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Kelly stands on the summit of the Grand, just the midpoint of the Grand Teton Triathlon. Photo by Tristan Greszko.

We had packed alpine harnesses and minimal gear in case we opted to protect the exposed parts of the OS. At that point I was glad we brought the gear because our brains were partly fried and it was not worth the risk of soloing, even if it meant more time. We summited around 2 p.m., took a few photos, then headed towards the first rappel. The downside of not soloing was that we were forced to wait for other parties at both rappel stations and therefore lost time again. Once back down on the upper saddle, we booked it down the gully and stopped only briefly at the lower saddle for a quick “picnic” of bacon and pizza. We lost quite a bit of time again on the boot pack down the headwall when we had to wait for a few guided parties to ascend. Once down in the moraine, we set a super fast pace downhill and by 8 p.m. we found ourselves back at the Lupin Meadows parking lot.

While other parties in the parking lot were tailgating and high-fiving their achievements, Tristan and I were having a serious debate on whether or not it was worth it to finish the GTT. We knew at this point that the second swim was going to be in the dark, again, and that the bike ride home, too. We also knew we were physically and mentally fried and that a swim back across the lake in the dark without boat support was not only going to suck, but was extremely dangerous. I don’t think I have ever been so tempted to just walk away from something, but we also knew that if we didn’t at least attempt to finish, we would regret it for the rest of our lives.  With that in mind, we said, “To hell with it – let’s finish this!”

Due to the various dangers of crossing the middle of the lake again without boat support, Tristan came up with a brilliant plan. He roughly measured out the distance we needed to swim and mapped it out on the north side of the lake so we could swim about 100 feet off shore the entire time. That way if our legs cramped up or something else went wrong, we could make it to shore rather than be in the center of the lake without help. We grabbed our boards and wetsuits and hiked to the North side of Jenny. We put in at the inlet and swam out into the dark lake once more, only this time we followed the curve of the shore.

This second swim was the most surreal part of the day. Floating in black water against a black sky with nothing but stars to light the way and being absurdly exhausted created this euphoric meditation. There is really nothing to do but turn off your mind and continue to swim and breathe. After an hour of swimming in the dark and having no way to find the overlook, we decided to swim to shore. Once our feet hit the shallows underneath, we were both hit with the spins to such a degree that we had to take a moment and hang on to each other until the effect wore off and we could safely walk on to dry land. Turns out Tristan’s measurement was dead on. We had swam almost exactly 1.3 miles and were only a short distance from the overlook.

 Tristan and I found our bikes, repacked our gear, and turned our headlamps down the road towards Jackson. Most of the stories from the picnic last year indicated that the second swim was the crux of the triathlon. I found that, for myself at least, the bike ride home was the hardest. I was cold, dehydrated, nauseous, and extremely tired. The headlamp light against the moving bike path created this crazy, nauseating effect and there were a number of times I wanted to stop my bike, throw up, and pass out in the sagebrush. Tristan stayed ahead of me the entire time so I just kept my eyes on him and peddled until I could see the lights of town below. We made it back to the parking lot at 1:30 a.m., July 20, 23.5 hours later.

I would say that the GTT was by far the most amazing adventure I’ve ever been on- both physically and mentally. Tristan was an incredible partner and I don’t think I could have gone half as far without his support and encouragement. The entire experience really opened my eyes to what the human body can accomplish.

I’m backing up David’s vision 100 percent and can’t wait until the next human powered adventure! – Kelly Halpin


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