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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.