Saturday, September 11, 2010

Grand Teton, WY: 09/11/2001

Author’s note: I had been writing this story in my head for the past nine years. Today, the ninth anniversary of both the World Trade Center attacks and my Grand Teton climb, seems like the right time to finally share it.

Like the JFK assassination more than a generation earlier, the memory of the 9/11 terror attacks is etched in the memory of virtually every American. Ask almost anyone, and they invariably remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the attacks occurred. That day is etched in my memory as well, but my 9/11 story is different from most.

When Damon and I left Wyoming following our Gannett Peak trip in August 2000, we were already talking about coming back to climb the Grand Teton. With their jagged peaks, glaciers and hanging snowfields rising 7000 vertical feet straight up from the plains of Jackson Hole, the Tetons are America’s most recognizable mountain range and a magnet for climbers. There is a wide range of compelling climbing options in the Tetons, but sooner or later every climber feels drawn to the Grand Teton itself.

Teton range from Jackson Hole. The Lower Saddle is the col just to the left of the Grand Teton.

We began planning an ascent of the Grand for early September 2001. Early September can provide an ideal window for climbing the Grand: just after the busy prime climbing months of July and August, but before the usual arrival of winter conditions on the mountain. The most popular routes by far ascend the Grand Teton from the south, beginning in the broad col between Middle Teton and Grand Teton known as the Lower Saddle (elev. 11,650). From that point a series of gullies and ridges climb more than 2000 vertical feet northeast to the summit of the Grand Teton at 13,770 feet. The Owen-Spalding route, the route of the first ascent of the Grand in 1898, ascends this line. The Owen-Spalding remains the most popular route for climbing the Grand, and at 5.4 it is considered the easiest route to the summit. Most guided parties ascend via the O-S, and it is the route that virtually all climbers use to descend. Much of the route is steep class 3 and 4 scrambling, with just a few roped pitches of easy technical climbing. The O-S is one of two routes that Damon and I considered in our planning.

Climbing routes on the south face of the Grand Teton, as seen from Middle Teton summit: Owen-Spalding (yellow), Upper Exum and Wall Street approach (red), Lower Exum (green), Petzodt Ridge (violet), East Ridge (blue). Credit: Alan Ellis

Exum Ridge, the south ridge of the Grand Teton, is the left-most of three prominent ridges on the south face of the peak. It forms a continuous ridgeline that begins approximately 500 vertical feet above the Lower Saddle and ends at the summit. It is the second most popular route on the Grand, but presents much more of a climbing challenge than the Owen-Spalding route. Most parties ascend only the easier upper half of Exum Ridge by traversing across a ledge named Wall Street from the Owen-Spalding Route. Combining the steeper and more difficult lower section with the upper section results in a North American classic ascent known as Exum Direct, rated 5.7.

3D topographic image of the approach trail through Garnet Canyon to the Lower Saddle. Camping zones are depicted in red. Credit: SummitPost

Along with the Owen-Spalding route, Damon and I had considered Upper Exum, via Wall Street, as a possible route in our planning, but that all changed when Damon’s friend Errett signed on for the trip. Damon and I had been climbing for a couple of years, but Errett had decades of climbing experience, and all of a sudden Exum Direct was in play as a viable option. We certainly weren’t expecting to be “guided” up Exum Direct, but Errett’s experience enabled us to consider options that otherwise would have been out of reach.

South face of the Grand from the Lower Saddle

So on Saturday, September 8, 2001 Damon and I boarded a plane in Albany, landed in Salt Lake City, made the 5 hour drive up to Jackson, Wyoming and met up with Errett, who had driven to Jackson from his home near Estes Park, Colorado. The next morning, after re-packing our backpacks and obtaining climbing permits from the National Park Service, we began our approach hike to the Lower Saddle. Although some parties make the entire 4800’ ascent from the Lupine Meadows trailhead to the Lower Saddle in a single day, we planned to split the approach into two days and use the extra time to acclimatize to the elevation. We camped Sunday night in an area referred to as the Meadows, a beautiful open area around 9,300’ elevation directly below the Middle Teton that marks the end of the official NPS trail. Beyond the Meadows, a climbers trail ascends the remaining 2400 vertical feet in 3 or 4 miles to the Lower Saddle.

Climbers path to the Lower Saddle, directly below the Middle Teton and its glacier

We arrived at the Lower Saddle mid-day on Monday, September 10 and established a base camp in a sheltered spot just below the saddle. The Lower Saddle is a barren and rocky perch, often windy and cold, but it is a strategic location for ascending the Grand via any of the south face routes. In addition to campsites scattered among the boulders, there are two small huts maintained by NPS and Exum Mountain Guides. Our plan was to ascend the Grand Teton via Exum Direct on either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on weather conditions, and then return to the trailhead in a single day on Thursday.

Our campsite at the Lower Saddle. Our tent is in the shadowed foreground area with the Grand Teton above.

A different perspective of our campsite (look for the yellow dot) at the Lower Saddle. This photo was taken on the afternoon of our arrival at the Lower Saddle, on a short hike to locate the start of the Exum Direct climb. A shoulder of the Middle Teton rises in the background.

Upon our arrival at the Lower Saddle, we had several concerns. First, early winter weather had deposited up to 10 inches of snow in the upper elevations several days earlier. Second, we wanted to find the start of our climbing route in order to avoid wasting time the morning of our ascent day. And lastly, Damon, who was still recovering from a 100-mile ultramarathon that he had completed several weeks earlier, was not feeling 100%. So after getting our campsite established, we used the remaining daylight hours to explore the terrain around the saddle in order to assess conditions, find the starting point of our climb, and see if Damon’s condition improved. The results of our reconnaissance were a mixed bag: the snow wasn’t an issue at all, we thought we may have found the start of the route, and Damon wasn’t feeling much better or much worse. A few hours later, we hunkered down in our 4-season mountaineering tent under clear, crisp, windless skies and anticipated excellent climbing conditions for the next day.

Grand Teton in the evening light on Monday, September 10, 2001

Damon (red pack and helmet) and Errett ascending the Lower Saddle in the early morning light of September 11, 2001

Tuesday dawned bright, crisp and clear: excellent conditions for our ascent. The 3 of us shouldered our climbing packs and made our way up the Lower Saddle and over to the base of Exum Ridge. Damon was still feeling sub-par, and declared that he would wait the day out at the campsite while Errett and I made the climb. Although we were all disappointed, Damon’s decision ultimately enabled Errett and me to complete the climb because the two of us topped out at the summit with little daylight left, and a party of three always moves slower than a party of two. At the base of Lower Exum Ridge Damon headed back to base camp as Errett and I roped up and began the climb.

Errett on Lower Exum Ridge

Lower Exum Ridge consists of a half-dozen pitches of steep climbing on excellent rock in an exposed, commanding position. Errett led most of the pitches, although I led one or two of the easier pitches. The crux of Lower Exum is the 5th pitch, known as the Black Face pitch (5.7). This pitch follows a near-vertical face of black and gold rock, with wild exposure but solid holds the entire time. Above the Black Face, an additional pitch of sustained 5.7 climbing leads to Wall Street.

Jeff on the Black Face pitch, Lower Exum Ridge

From Wall Street, we continued on the Upper Exum Ridge for another 6 or 7 pitches to the summit of the Grand Teton. Although the climbing is easier, it’s important to pay attention to route-finding the entire time. As with Lower Exum, Errett did the majority of the leading. His experience and comfort on lead enabled us to complete the climb, and we topped out on the summit of the Grand at around 6:30pm.

Errett on Upper Exum

Although we had not encountered any other climbing parties on our route, we had spotted another party on the next ridge over to the right: the Petzoldt Ridge. At the summit we met up with that party, and the four of us descended the Owen-Spalding route together as daylight faded from the mountain. Descent on the O-S requires careful route-finding. In particular, it is critical to locate the top of a rappel pitch not far below the summit. Our combined party completed the rappel as dusk gave way to twilight, and as we made our way down the steep scree slopes to the Lower Saddle, twilight transitioned to full-on darkness. We finished the descent with our headlamps, and approached the NPS and Exum huts at the Lower Saddle around 8:30pm, on our way to our campsite. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened next.

Errett on Upper Exum, Middle Teton Glacier moraine far below

Looking down at Middle Teton and its glacier, from Upper Exum Ridge

A lantern illuminated the small Exum Mountaineering hut as two Exum guides were completing their job of closing up the hut for winter. “You guys just coming down from the Grand?” they asked. When we replied, they shocked us with the news of the day: “You’re not going to believe this,” they warned, “but terrorists attacked the World Trade Center towers this morning and both towers have collapsed.” We couldn’t have been more stunned. There, in the darkness and thin air of the Lower Saddle, we became among the last Americans to learn of the terror attacks that had occurred fourteen hours earlier. The Exum guides had few details of the day’s events as they themselves had been at the Lower Saddle for most of the day. They mentioned the plane that had attacked the Pentagon, the plane that was brought down in Pennsylvania, and that all air traffic had been grounded. Exhausted from the climb and dazed with the news of the attacks, we stumbled the last few hundred yards to our campsite, prepared a quick supper, and crawled into our sleeping bags. The worrisome news kept me from sleeping well as I turned over all the uncertainties: family members in the New York City area, what kind of response would follow the attacks, how would we get home?

Ascending a shoulder of the Middle Teton, the Lower Saddle and our tent far below

No additional news reached us the following day, Wednesday. The Exum guides had stayed in the hut Tuesday night and left early that morning for the valley. We half-heartedly explored some of the terrain around the Lower Saddle, and Damon and I scrambled some distance up the north slope of the Middle Teton for interesting views of the Lower Saddle and the Grand, but we were too distracted with thoughts of what might be happening in the outside world to undertake anything substantial.

Middle Teton through clouds as we descended from the Lower Saddle, Thursday Sept. 13

After another night of fitful sleep, we packed up our campsite Thursday morning, September 13, and began our descent back to the valley. We passed just a handful of other parties along the trail, and exchanged little more than nods with them. In the day and a half since we learned of the attacks, I had become increasingly concerned about my brother and his wife. They had moved from North Adams, MA to Yonkers, a few miles north of Manhattan, just two weeks earlier. I knew that my parents had gone down to visit them and help with unpacking, and they would have been there on the 11th. By the time we reached the trailhead, I was anxious to confirm my family’s well-being and to find out what was going on in the world beyond. Damon had a cell phone in our rental car, and I used it to call my parents’ phone and then my brother’s phone. There was no answer at either location. I dialed my sister in Stratham, NH next. I still remember the tone of my brother-in-law Norm’s voice when he picked up. As soon as he spoke, I knew everything was okay and the worry drained out of me. A few minutes later, we loaded our packs into our cars and headed back into a world that we knew would be completely different from the one we had left four days earlier.


  1. In it's poignant way, this TR illustrates that for all our love of mountain sports, they serve as recreational outlets, temporary escapes from harsher realities.

    The cloudless photos taken on your way up are great - a real enticement for climbing in the Tetons after Labor Day. Nice route, nice conditions.

  2. 6 Archived Comments:November 2, 2010 at 8:15 PM

    Sep 11, 2010; 08:01am
    Excellent. Jeff killing it again with FIS-level pix.

    Question: how did you return home? Hitchhike? Didn't it take well more than a week for the FAA to allow planes nationwide to fly?

    I certainly like your location on 9/11 better than mine. I was in the northbound 4 train going directly under the WTC when the first plane hit. By the time, I got to my office near Union Square, there were TV reports of a "small, Cessna-type plane" crashing into the tower. I watched the second tower crumble from my window.

    I walked the entire route back to my apartment in Brooklyn, across the Manhattan Bridge. It was the closest I'll probably ever come to a war experience.

    Sep 11, 2010; 08:07pm
    This is so compelling, that I want to relate my own experience to it, but I can't. Nothing I've accomplished in the mountains can compare.

    The times I've come from sea level to ski (hut-to-hut) at elevation - even with a few days to acclimate - my head pounded above 10,000 feet. To flyout and climb the Teton IMO is really an accomplishment.

    Looking at the photos and diagram of Upper Exum approach ... climbers are in another world from most skiers. 40 degree pitches seem incredibly steep to me when I'm on them, and pictures make those pitches look flat.

    Big props to Damon for putting himself in position attempt the summit, and double kudos for making the right decision to stay in camp.

    Thank goodness you didn't learn the news of the day from a chance encounter with someone up high with a radio.

    Incredibly compelling storytelling and great images, Jeff. Bravo.

    More please.

    Sep 13, 2010; 09:30am
    We were due to fly back on the following Sunday - I forget what the date was - maybe the 15th or 16th.

    We spent most of the previous evening on the phone with American Airlines, given that flights would start flying that Sunday. Our flight was listed as a "go", but on the phone, we found out that only the second half of the flight was going to fly. (As an alternative, our rental car company had authorized us to drive the car to Albany with no drop-off fee. Jeff and I even talked about climbing Devil's Tower on the way, if it came to that.)

    After a long time on hold, we got re-routed, from SLC to Dallas (they had to put us in first class to get us on the plane) to Boston to Albany. They also told us to be at the airport by 5:00 a.m., although they had no idea that no one would be on duty at the AA counter that early. We finally got on our first flight. Free drinks in first class on the way to Dallas - mimosas, I believe.

    In Dallas, we got on our second flight and the flight crew announced free drinks for the whole flight. So, we settled in with some books (I was reading Not Without Peril, about accidents of all sorts on Mt. Washington) and some beer. Behind us, the flight attendants talked nervously about layoffs, knowing their industry would be feeling the effects of the attacks.

    So, we finally got to Logan, without much time to make our connection to Albany. We were literally running through the airport when an armed security guard stopped us cold and demanded IDs. Apparently, Logan was in a near lock-down, and some scraggly looking characters running and carrying backpacks looked very suspicious.

    We managed to make our flight and my wife picked us up in Albany. We immediately headed to Saratoga for some dinner and (more) beer, and some unwinding after all that had gone on in the previous week.

    I told Jeff recently that this was a very disappointing trip for me - not feeling 100% and feeling like I was holding people back at times. But, the whole trip is well etched in our memories.

  3. 6 Archived Comments:November 2, 2010 at 8:17 PM

    Sep 15, 2010; 08:28am
    What do you call the ultralight climbing shoes you wear, when you are roped in? To keep the dumb questions to a minimum I tried to figure it out on, mountain gear etc ... but I just found "climbing shoes."

    As a non-climber, there something I've always wondered — what do you do about shoes on summit day? I could imagine a climb where you wore hiking boots on the approach, and carried your specialized shoes in your pack. And then if it was all rope work, no problem. But it looked like on Grand there was some class 3 or 4 stuff mixed in? Do you normally carry more than one pair and change shoes?

    Adk Jeff
    Sep 15, 2010; 11:55am
    Beleive it or not, they are called... climbing shoes.
    On a climb like the Grand, hiking boots or approach shoes (low-cut hikers typically equipped with "sticky rubber" soles) for the descent are carried in a pack. Hiking boots or approach shoes are also commonly used for a class 3 or class 4 scramble, climbing shoes are only used for roped 5th class technical climbing. Climbers typically don't switch footgear back and forth on a climb, even if there are short sections of class 3 or 4 climbing mixed in.

    Adk Jeff
    Sep 17, 2010; 09:56pm
    Errett emailed me with this ominous recollection from the day:
    "I distinctly remember remarking when we were sitting on the summit about the fact that I had never been on a summit before and not seen any jet trails in the sky!! Of course we didn’t know at the time that this was because all jetliners had been grounded."

    I also got emails from both of the Exum guides that we had talked to at the Lower Saddle on the evening of 9/11. They had gotten word of the attacks from a friend of theirs who had come up to the Lower Saddle that morning. I think it's fair to say that they were probably as stunned by the news as we were. I think it's pretty cool that this TR made it into their hands, thanks to Exum Mountaineering for helping to make that connection.

  4. I am headed out on Saturday (07/16/11) to the Tetons for 2 weeks and am attempting the Grand via the upper Exum.
    Loved this trip report on so many levels...evocative and comprehensive and beautiful photographs.
    Thank you for posting!


  5. Thanks Dana, and best wishes on your Grand attempt