Upon waking from our slumber in the Jackson Kampground of America (KOA), we tore down camp and set out everything we might need for the journey before us. The Teton Crest Trail is a (roughly) 40 mile trek through Grand Teton National Park that brings hikers over four beautiful passes and maintains elevations upward of 8,000 feet for all but the initial ascent and descent.
Late spring is a difficult time for planning alpine adventures. Like most of the trip, we did it on the fly; partly because we love adventure and partly because we are terrible at planning. The day before we arrived, we had called ahead and learned that we’d find ourselves in deep snow, four to six feet of it. Before departing Madison, I had picked up a pair of the last snowshoes from REI (apparently they don’t move a lot of snowshoes once thermometers start showing 80). Those would come in handy, but the park rangers all but laughed at the idea of attempting the passes without crampons. Great, ANOTHER piece of gear we had never used before and now had to pick up. Fortunately, there was a rental shop in town that only seemed a little hesitant to lend them out to a couple of amateurs. Well, at first they thought we were experienced, until one of them said, “And of course you know how to watch for avalanches and identify wetslides…” to which we responded with, “what’s a wetslide?” Then the older worker there came over and made sure we had a GPS beacon. We are confident that they placed bets on whether or not we’d make it back alive as soon as the door closed behind us
With all the gear we (anticipated we) needed, we drove over to the ranger station in Moose, WY to pick up our backcountry permit and bear canister (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a canister full of bears) to store our food and other “smellies” in. The Teton backcountry camping system works by “camping zones,” large areas in the park where you are allowed to set up tents a certain distance from the trail. Our plan was to take Death Canyon (don’t worry; the name is deceiving: it’s more of a valley) up to Death Canyon Shelf camp zone for our first day, continue onto South Fork Cascade day two, and spend our last night at Holly Lake. We arrived later than we wanted (permits are limited and only a few are allotted during the offseason on a first come/first serve basis) but we soon found out that not many (any, actually) people shared in our excitement for the prospect of walking around in soaking wet, cold boots for their next few days. So it looked like it would just be us out there. Just how we like it.
The ranger expressed skepticism of our plan, especially the parts about covering 2 miles per hour and crossing multiple passes each day. I don’t know. We had never done anything like this before. How were we supposed to plan for it? Talk to credible sources and accurately reflect on our own personal abilities?! Nevertheless, she agreed to give us our backcountry permit (<$30.00 for 3 nights) and walked us through the backcountry rules (leave no trace, don’t approach wildlife without at least getting a sick pic of it ripping out your insides, etc.). I had one last question though…
Me: “Will there be trail markers visible?”
Ranger: “HAHAHAHAHAHAhahaha…haha….ha… no…”
Me: “…. Ok see you in a few days maybe.”
With that last reassuring detail, we departed for the trail head. Usually the approach to a trailhead is not really something worth talking about, and it will seem insignificant now, but I’m using a literary device called “foreshadowing” to clue you into something important that happens later. The paved road from Moose to Death canyon is followed by a mile stretch of unpaved road that our friend at Teton Mountain Rentals told us we would “probably be alright driving down” even though we didn’t have a four wheel drive, off-road-capable vehicle.
Tim took it slow, but each bump sent the car jolting every which way. After 10 painstaking minutes, we decided we should not push our luck, strangely, and stop at the next available pull-off. We haphazardly unloaded the car and meticulously loaded our packs. After taking care of the essentials (tent, sleeping bags, food, stuffed animals, bear spray, etc.) we deliberated on a last few items (two pound bag of raisins, gummy worms- come to think of it, we mostly disagreed on candy). The last item up for discussion was the SPF-50. Tim gave it the old, “yehnah,” and I threw it back in the car with a begrieved, “if you say so…” (I’m the one writing, so I can put the blame wherever I want). If this were a movie, I’d pan up to the sun as the fade-out to the scene, because, after all, it takes light to cast a foreshadow.
We walked up the road to the trailhead, about 500 meters ahead, and dove right in. With our feet. And trekking poles. So I guess we like, walked right in, actually. It immediately started snowing big, beautiful flakes that were a perfect prelude to the conditions we would be facing not much later. We encountered several people and REAL LIVE MOOSE
over the next couple hours of winding along a wooded mountainside, before reaching the mouth of the canyon. From there it was up, up, and away.
Switchbacks sporadically speckled the otherwise consistently inclining western march up into the heart of the mountains. We reached a snowfield that was brief, but steep and directly above a raging river of death, so we unhooked the ice axes from our packs and steeled ourselves for our first test.
Tim cautiously lead the way with his trekking pole downhill and ice axe uphill from him, just like the YouTube taught us. I followed not too closely, in case Tim caused an avalanche (a real doofus move in the mountaineering community) and several minutes later hopped down onto the dry dirt of the trail on the other side. From here on out, it was just us; the rest of the people we had met were just day- hikers, not prepared for traversing snowfields.
We continued down the trail- well, up the trail actually; it had an all too noticeable positive grade- for another hour or so, occasionally hitting patches of snow that we easily stomped through, before crossing a bridge to be met with sustained, deep snow. Snowshoe time! We dropped our stuff and set about attaching and adjusting our TRAIL snowshoes (REI hadn’t had any mountaineering ones in stock, but the salesperson gave me a reassuring, “Those might be fine,” so I figured we’d be good). Within (a lot of) minutes we were ready to go. The going proved to be pretty easy. For like 2 minutes. We didn’t expect trail markings, but we also forgot how hard it can be to navigate forested terrain with no reference points. It was reminiscent of our Porcupine Mountains misadventure, but at least here we could only go so far before hitting a sheer mountainside or tumble into frigid rapids.
The intermittent patches of trail became further and further between before they vanished entirely. The path we made followed a narrowing width of land between the mountain face and river, so we took out the topo map to see if we were on track or idiots (spoiler, it was not the former). We determined we were on the wrong side of the river and decided to make a leaping crossing to the more navigable looking northern snowfield.
Then, immediately upon crossing the river, Tim slipped while carrying his ice axe and fell onto the pointy part, tearing through his pants and skin. Although bleeding and without a first aid kit, he was mostly just mad about his favorite pants ripping. But bloody quad aside, we were on the correct side of the river!
A brief period of “aw shoot, can we even get up this hill now?” thinking was followed by a quick climb to the abundantly more forgiving terrain of the slope we should’ve been on for the past hour. The trees cleared up and we were soon walking over rolling hills of steadily increasing altitude
The three thousand feet of elevation gain and introduction to real snowshoeing started to really get to me. Our campzone was dead ahead… but about 700 feet straight up a cliffside… We still had about three miles to go on the day: two just to get to a pass safe enough to conquer the elevation gains, and another to hit the campzone.
I couldn’t do it. Despite Tim’s incessant encouragement to keep going, I called it for the day. We set up camp, cooked dinner on a big old rock, and settled in for the night.
Despite our tent resting on snow and being at 8,000’+ altitudes, we woke up boiling. My -1° and Tim’s -20° sleeping bags were damp with sweat and condensation. I rolled over to look at the mini thermometer I had brought along: 70 degrees! Shout out to the REI ASL II tent. We opened the tent to let in a cool breeze and were met with a blast of direct sunlight coming over the eastern canyon wall. We casually did the three P’s of morning backpacking: packed up, purified water, and pooped (and carried out our toilet paper in a portable bag-toilet the park service had provided free of charge with our permit).
The two miles leading up to the Fox Creek Pass went by quick. To follow a developing theme of not having a clue how to pick out a path, we started up a steep incline, just as it started snowing and making everything distractingly pretty. It soon became too steep for snowshoes, so out came the crampons.
We laced up this technical gear for the first time ever, gave the snow a couple of quick test kicks (they worked), and started ascending with a trekking pole in one hand and an ice axe in the other. Slow and steady did it as Tim took lead and I followed (to slow his fall in case of avalanche).
A tense half hour later, we were up and over onto the Death Canyon Shelf! And we just so happened to land ourselves right on a ten foot patch of trail! Tim and I disagreed on where we were exactly, so it was nice to have the trail under our feet at least as reference. Tim and the topo map were right: we had ascended prematurely and had cut off about a mile of trail. A much welcome shortcut. We set off north, leaving the trail behind, the trail we wouldn’t be seeing any more of for the next two days…
The terrain was not much different on the shelf than it was in the canyon, except the views. To our left we had another 500 foot sheer cliff, to our right was the dropoff to the canyon below, and dead ahead, Grand, Middle, and South Teton.
Spirits were high for the next four miles as we wove our way through the hills leading up to Meek Pass, only stopping to purify water on some run-off. Snow flurries, which had been sporadic throughout the day, intensified as we approached the saddle, peaking as we crossed it.
We made a quick descent to get out of the winds and pelting flakes, only for it to clear up moments later, revealing the most beautiful scene we could’ve hoped for.
There is this feeling I get when the whole world gets opened to my eyes and I fill with the energy to run everywhere to take it all in and not miss a thing, as if were I to take it slow, the moment would somehow be taken away from me. I’d love to go back to that moment. Not just for that reason, but because that was right before we screwed everything up.
The next stretch of trail was supposed to take us to the edge of a two hundred foot drop and lead us safely down the “sheep steps,” a narrow set of switchbacks that used to serve cattle on their movement through the mountains. Wouldn’t have been a problem in August, but the snow left us relying on the topo map, a compass, and our experience using both. So we used our one day combine experience from the afternoon before to plan our route. We found a landmark in the distance, aimed just to the north of it, and got going. Three miles later- sorry, three miles of DOWNHILL later- we realize we had been off by about 15 degrees. Now we faced a choice: keep going and attempt a different descent named “Death’s Staircase”; or turn back and retrace our three miles of crampon prints.
We decided to not literally tempt death and his staircase. The going was grueling. As evening set in, the winds picked up and the temperatures dropped. The only thing more frigid than our spirits were our feet, which had accumulated a good deal of moisture throughout the day from sweat and snow-melt.
I once again called it quits after hours of climbing and searching for the sheep stairs. We searched for a flat patch of snow to set up the tent, to no avail. We used our ice axes and snowshoes to carve out the hillside enough to lay the tent. We staked down the tent as best we could (we had bought two snow stakes from REI before leaving to test-run them; we will definitely be getting a full set), resorting to using snowshoes to secure the guylines. We piled snow around the base of the tent to keep the cold winds from flowing under the fly.
Once settled as best as we could get, we sent out a preset check-in message from our locator beacon, but we still tried desperately to text loved ones to let them know how we were doing and to take our minds off what we had in store for us tomorrow. I made ramen soup dinner in the vestibule, but Tim was a bit sun-sick or altitude-sick or something so he didn’t eat anything. After dinner, we each ducked out once
more to make sure our bladders wouldn’t be stealing of our bodies’ precious heat overnight, and then tucked in for the night. Well, Tim hung back for a bit to dry heave into his toilet-bag first. Could have been from the sun or altitude, but the summer-sausage lunch probably didn’t help. Something about half a summer sausage and sun sickness. Tim had not brought sunglass and both of us now realize just how poor a choice it was to leave the sunscreen in the car, where it can very noticeably not be applied from. Eventually we drifted off to sleep to the sound of snow pelting the tent, dreading the morning.
The morning came and the tent was still standing, though it was clear from within that snow had accumulated and started creeping up the side of the tent. But that’s why you get a four season tent. We unzipped the fly, ready to gaze upon a beautiful portrait of the Tetons, towards which we had strategically faced our tent the night before. This is what we got instead:
This was AFTER punching off some of the snow from inside the tent. Had we waited longer, we could have set up permanent residence in our very own igloo!
Yeah. So that was cool. Compared to the next two hours, this scene was a Bob Ross palette of happiness (“there’s no such thing as mistakes, just happy falling off a cliff-cidents”). Despite concluding that we had set up camp right above the sheep steps, we did not feel comfortable descending them in the conditions we had, and decided to turn back, something we don’t really do around here. Except “back” wasn’t exactly as simple as it sounds. By the time we had everything loaded into our packs, we could see nothing. Nothing would be an exaggeration only in the sense that even when you close your eyes, you still see something. Seriously. We could not even tell if we were walking uphill or downhill, at least until we’d fall over and either have a short trip or a longer trip to the ground. The snow was so thick on the ground and in the air that at least once each we walked knees/face first into a hill. This happens when you take a step thinking you are going downhill, but you didn’t realize that you are going uphill. You basically fall up a hill. With your face. At another point, we decided to go right instead of left. When we glance back left a few minutes later, we realize that the path to the left ended over a ledge.
We used our compass to guide us on a line that did not have any steep drops in elevation and hoped for the best. We did not get the best. After about an hour, we figured we had taken a line to far east and not enough south. Yet again, we had to backtrack. Except this time, our tracks were gone. Within a half hour we had lost our prints entirely. The snow had completely filled them in. And not just like how a carpenter spackles the walls of your college’s sophomore slums. These things were indistinguishable, even upon the closest inspection. Not that we had time for that.
We finally caught a break, when the clouds broke (that’s why they call it “catching a break”) for a brief moment. It was enough for us to realign ourselves and set a new beeline towards the last pass we had come over the day before. The sky began to clear up as we walked, revealing a set of snowshoe prints! We first thought they were ours from the day before, since it looked like the exact path we had taken upon descending from the pass, but then we remembered we had done that portion in crampons. That means that VERY recently (remember, it was still snowing) someone with snowshoes had passed through on this path. We debated following the prints and trying to catch whoever made them, but we decided the risk was still not worth it, as we were running out of food and had sunburn on our sunburn, and reluctantly continued on our retreat.
Light snow followed us down the opposite side of Mount Meek and along Death Canyon Shelf until we reached a huge boulder with an overhanging enclave sheltered by trees.
Lunch was ramen (as it had been for the past two lunches) and melted snow. It’s a great recipe. All you have to do is put snow into a Jetboil, turn it on, and a few minutes later, you’ve got delicious, life-sustaining melted snow. After a couple batches of that, we decided it would take too long to replenish our empty Osprey bladders and searched for pre-melted snow, which we found in a puddle under some dripping icicles. Ready to face the trail again, we departed our cozy shelter and booked it for the Fox Creek Pass. Of course, “booking it” means stumbling along at like a mile an hour.
We tentatively hoped that, if we could get down into the canyon before long, this could be our last day. The car would only be about 8 more miles, all downhill. This fueled us to descend sloppily, but quickly. Most importantly, neither of us got swept away in an avalanche that we thought we were bound to cause.
Back in the canyon, we really started gunning it, rarely stopping but to check the map to avoid anymore big blunders. The return through the snowy forest was much easier as we found parts of the trail that were not visible just a couple days before. Enough melt had occurred that we could make out a much clear route than we expected.
After a few more dips, slips, and trips we made it to the bridge at which we had first laced (rubber strapped?) up our snowshoes. We took them off with as much glee as we had left to muster, ate a quick snack (basically that all remained of our food) and set off on (booted) foot to tackle the last few miles. The ice axe came out one last time for the last stretch of snowfield, the one above the raging river that would’ve been just no fun to end a day in, and then we were home free.
A couple hours later we stumbled out of the trailhead into the parking lot, and trudged the last couple hundred meters to the car.
The mention of pizza and beer for dinner brought joy to our eyes and tears to our hearts. We rode into Jackson, hobbled to the first pizza joint we could find, and chowed down on the largest pie they sold.
We sat and reflected, “At least nothing could go more wrong with this trip than this last trail.”
Boy were we wrong…