Take a look at our photos from this adventure, and then find your adventure.
We all develop notions about what is realistic for ourselves in our personal and professional lives.
These programmed thoughts stem from parents, friends and other sources since childhood. At some point – if we are lucky, or determined – we may flip the switch and question these preconceived ideas. We begin to consider new possibilities, to seek new challenges, to discover hidden potential and capability. Such was the case for me in the summer of 2013. I was a 54 year old businessman and weekend warrior.
For years, I had seen the Grand Teton from afar while skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I always admired it’s scale and formidable appearance. From its base you bend your head back and can see the very summit 7000 vertical feet above you. It was something to marvel at and a curiosity at that point. I always knew it was a real bit of mountaineering, beyond my pay grade, I thought.
I had read some books over the years about the Grand Teton and the images of climbers dangling from ropes, thousands of feet off the deck was completely out of my comfort zone.
It was not until my new brother-in-law invited my wife and I to climb “The Grand” that the full magnitude of it really got my attention. My brother-in-law had climbed the Grand four times prior and is a world-renowned mountain climber, explorer and writer who has summited Mt. Everest, Mt. McKinley and many of the worlds highest peaks. I had complete confidence in Mark’s ability to guide us and his judgement about our readiness to attempt this climb. What remained were my quiet, persistent doubts about whether I was fully committed and prepared to tackle the challenge that lay ahead.
Commitment & Preparation
Wendy and I trained for about two months prior to our July 29, 2013 summit attempt.
Our training consisted mostly on building aerobic fitness. Before you do any technical climbing on the Grand, you must first hike up 5 miles and 5000’ vertical feet with 40 lb. backpacks. Our plan was to camp on the Lower Saddle, a broad sloping, rocky tundra like area at about 12,000’ between the Grand and the Middle Teton. The summit is just northeast at 13,770’ and we would make the summit climb starting early on day 2.
We live in Evergreen, Colorado at 8400' so we already benefit from an “elevated lifestyle.” My training centered around running up and down a steep 2 mile stretch of dirt road west of our house that climbs 900 vertical feet. I would run the 4 miles just once a day for a several weeks. Then I pushed it to 8 miles. Before this training, I had never run longer than 3-4 miles at sea level on pavement, other than playing soccer in high school – "I’m not a runner, I’m a cyclist" was the story I told myself.
Wendy’s training was also cardio focused and she joined a hardcore group led by a very fit massage therapist named Renee, that trained every Friday morning at Red Rocks Amphitheatre at 6:00 AM. I joined her once and thought I could hang. Most of Wendy’s training mates were 10 years older than me I reckoned. After 90 minutes that morning I could barely walk down the famed 400 or so steps and pour myself into my car. Holy shit were these people strong! Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, I thought.
We also planned several rock climbing weekends to sharpen our technical skills. Over July 4th, we slaughtered ourselves on some off-width cracks in Mark’s backyard of Vedauwoo, just east of Laramie, Wyoming, right off I-80. I say slaughter because the texture of the rock at Vedauwoo is very sharp and crystalline. Also, climbing off-width cracks is very physical and one must jam arms, legs and large body parts into the cracks to create friction to both hold yourself fast and then ascend. Your clothes and skin get shredded.
We also made a couple of treks to Shelf Road, a very popular climbing spot near Canon City, CO. The climbing at Shelf is much more civilized limestone sport routes. At any rate, the cumulative benefit of our rocking climbing excursions gave Wendy and I the confidence we needed to attempt the Grand.
Moment of Truth
We awaken at 3:00 AM.
We carefully fire up 2 tiny stoves placed on a 12” wide strip of dirt between our 2 tents. We boil water to make oatmeal and coffee. We had organized our climbing gear and food the night before. Our small summit packs are ready to go. We are making haste because there are 2 other guided climbing parties of 6 to 8 clients each, camped nearby that will be climbing much of the same route as our planned approach. We want to be in front to minimize the hazard from falling rocks and not be slowed by larger groups. Weather moves in quickly in the high mountains. Lightning, rain, sleet and snow are very real possibilities at the height of Summer even as early as noon.
We exit our tents at 4:00 AM on the nose, literally 60 seconds in front of the Exum Guides and their clients. It is pitch black, freezing and a wind is blowing. We can only see what our headlamps illuminate. We inspected the terrain during daylight from camp yesterday. We also talked to climbers who had completed their climbs yesterday afternoon. I knew we would be scrambling up through very steep class 4 terrain and this would be without ropes or protection until we got to the Upper Saddle and then to our planned technical route, the Wittich Crack. While there are many routes to the Upper Saddle, none are actually marked. It would be Mark’s route finding expertise that would keep us safe and get us to the summit. The Wittich Crack is 4 pitches of 5.7 grade climbing that would lead us to the summit ridge and ultimately to the summit itself.
As we climbed in pitch blackness, I was aware of my complete focus on the task at hand. I was conscious of every foot and hand placement, as was every member of the team. I reflected how this hyper-focused state was keeping me safe. Anyone who pushes his edge will find himself in a place where he has never been before. This is the moment of truth. Courage is not absence of fear, but rather pushing into fear and managing one’s thoughts and actions. These kinds of experiences cannot be simulated in any way. There is nothing more real I thought.
We came to a rock slide with a small tunnelike passageway about two feet in diameter with chunky walls. We'd have to belly crawl through pushing our packs in front of us. I shined my light through the opening into it's blackness and reckoned it was about 20' from end to end. So Mark led, then Wendy, me and finally Joel. About half way through, as the light from my headlamp pierced the dust Wendy was kicking up, I suddenly experienced a shift and was overcome with a feeling of joy. I could feel my face stretch due to the shit eating smile and was suddenly observing myself from outside myself. The feeling was a collage of words and images revolving around how cool this experience was. I was crushing my limiting beliefs in this moment! I was grateful to be doing something so cool with my badass wife, brother in law Mark and new friend Joel. My attention was very concentrated yet I felt at ease and in control. Thoughts and actions were one, connected. This was a moment of flow I realized! I exited the tunnel stood up to join Mark and Wendy and in the blackness exclaimed "This is so cool, I want more of this".
We reached the Upper Saddle at around 5:30 AM just as the first light of day was barely visible. As Mark and Joel first located, then inspected our planned route, the Wittich Crack, they observed ice and free running water obstructing the route. We had a quick pow-wow and the decision was made to climb an alternate route, the nearby Pownall Gilkey route. Joel would lead and then belay me from the top. Mark would solo (climbing without protection from a belayer) behind me towing up a rope that Wendy was tied into. Once I reached Joel and Mark reached me, he would give me the rope he was carrying and I would belay Wendy after I was anchored. We repeated this approach for 4 pitches.
The rock was ice cold. My fingers went numb within minutes. The first pitch proved more challenging than I had imagined. I was concerned about Wendy because I knew she would be experiencing the same thing. I also knew she was strong mentally and physically and was well prepared for this challenge. We put our gloves on the moment we completed each pitch and until we started the next. We continued this process for a couple of hours ultimately cresting the summit ridge at the south facing snowfield that drops away like a giant frozen basketball. I was stunned to think that Bill Briggs skied from this very same spot by himself in 1971 with a fused hip.
We summited at 8:30 AM – the first team to reach the summit that day. I was overjoyed. The feeling was one of pure bliss. The views from the summit of the Grand are the most spectacular I have ever seen anywhere. The valley floor is 7000’ feet below. The real estate on top of the Grand is sparse. It drops off in all directions and one is challenged to find a comfortable seat among the jumble of jagged boulders. You feel as though you relate more to the sky than to the ground.
We spent a few moments on top, drank and ate to regain our strength.
Heading down we took the more pedestrian Owen Spaulding route. By now more guided climbers were heading our way. We reached the rappel station around 10:00. This is a mandatory 120 foot free rappel – meaning one will be hanging in mid-air for a portion of the rappel. Another moment of truth. Wendy was gripped. Mark had to shout “WENDY SUE!” to snap her out of fear's grasp. It worked. She gathered herself and made an excellent controlled rappel.
As we all stood on the Upper Saddle, now mostly done with the climb, except for some careful walking down, I was overtaken by the feeling of accomplishment. This is what it’s all about. This feeling cannot be re-created in typical life, I thought. It’s most satisfying when one has to prepare physically and mentally to achieve something big for themselves. To push their edge, whatever that may be. For me this was challenging, for Mark and Joel, it was a Sunday stroll. Struggle is a good thing. The reward of accomplishment and camaraderie is even better.
We’ve been programmed to settle for a safe, sanitized and packaged life. We miss so much of life when we don’t realize that we are stronger and can do more than we give ourselves credit for. By pushing our comfort zone, we discover reserves of strength and calm, we didn't know existed.
As I reflected on the climb, I felt compelled to build upon this experience and find a way to share it with others ... and this thought became the humble beginning of BizAdventure.