Anyone who’s enjoyed clear days around Jackson Hole is familiar with how the Grand Teton dominates the area’s skyline. Rising hundreds of feet over the neighboring peaks in the range, the Grand commands an impressive position from every direction—north, south, east, and west.
For some, the sight of the lofty, craggy summit and hanging snowfields tickles a curiosity and ambition to experience these forbidding places up close. Mountain guiding outfits offer inexperienced clients the opportunity to climb with seasoned professional climbing guides. With some information and skills, however, it is possible to climb the Grand Teton unsupported without the aid of professional guides. This article will explain the preparation, skills, and planning needed to attempt a climb on the Grand Teton unguided.
The Grand Teton is the highest point in the Teton Range and the second highest in Wyoming. Its summit is 13,775 feet above sea level, and it rises seven thousand feet over the valley below. Attempting to climb the Grand is a burly endeavor. For the standard routes, trailhead to summit is seven miles and 7,043 vertical feet of climbing. Reaching the top is only halfway—all that distance must be reversed back to the car, and often the downhill portion is most taxing on the body. Training and conditioning are critical when preparing for a climb like this.
Staying active and maintaining good fitness is the best strategy. Try exercises that use the same muscles used for hiking, such as: stair climbing, biking, running, and elliptical machines. Your workouts don’t need to be super intense. Consistency is more important, and developing a routine that allows you to measure performance and track improvement over time is also helpful.
Besides your muscles being ready, your feet need to be ready too. Going for hikes regularly helps make sure your feet can handle the added mileage of a longer hike. Make sure your hiking shoes are broken in and fit well with your hiking socks so you can go all day without getting blisters.
Beyond basic backpacking gear, the routes to the summit of the Grand require some additional climbing gear. This gear list may seem intimidating, but, apart from rock protection, most of these are basic items that many entry-level climbers have.
- Climbing helmet
- Climbing harness
- Climbing rope
- Climbing approach shoes, or hiking shoes or boots with sticky rubber
- Rappel device
- Rock protection (i.e. cams, nuts, & slings)
Climbing the Grand Teton unguided requires some basic rock climbing skills. These can be substituted for boldness as was demonstrated by the first ascent party in 1898 that lacked specialized rock climbing equipment and technical experience. However, climbing the mountain with a rope requires that someone in your party is capable of leading the technical rock climbing pitches and establishing safe belay anchors. For the easiest route, the Owen Spalding, the technical climbing is graded 5.4, which is easy to moderate.
Most parties rope up for the technical, steep sections of the last 600 feet below the summit. In good weather conditions, experienced climbers who are comfortable at this grade will climb the O.S. free solo—without ropes—and then downclimb the technical sections. From the summit, everyone must either climb back down or rappel past the steepest section back to the Upper Saddle.
This should absolutely not be your first time on a rappel. Do not assume that more-experienced climbers will be there to help you, and causing a delay on the descent puts others at risk. Practice rappelling at your local crag so you’re comfortable with your systems once you’re up there.
It’s very unlikely that a party could show up and successfully summit the Grand Teton without any prior attempts or knowledge of the routes. With weather, permits, and route finding all posing different challenges, this peak is a bit complicated—not to mention the physical demands of climbing the mountain.
Weather forecasts in this area are not very reliable beyond five days. Plus, Grand Teton National Park is a huge area and weather may vary throughout the park. Even short-term forecasts can shift suddenly, so having a multi-day climbing window can allow a party to sit in camp for a day or two to plan their summit attempt around the best weather forecast.
Camping in Grand Teton National Park is limited and fills up with advanced reservations. Sleeping in your car in the park or at the trailhead isn’t allowed and could result in a fine. Backcountry camping permits are available on a first-come-first-served basis, and demand is high because many parties need multiple days to complete the climb.
Reservations for backcountry camping permits are available in advance from January to May. However, booking a trip so far in advance means you’re committed to specific dates that may or may not have good climbing conditions due to weather, snowpack, or forest fires.
Some very fit parties can complete the climb in a single day. This eliminates the need for overnight permits and alleviates the added weight of extra food and camping gear. How can you tell if your party is fit enough to climb the Grand in a day?
For those living in Utah, Mt. Timpanogos is a good test hike. If your party can complete the Timp. trail from Aspen Grove to the summit and back to your car in six hours, then you might be able to climb the Grand in a day. The total mileage is about the same, but the Grand Teton is over 2,000 ft taller. And the final two thousand vertical feet of the Grand is covered in less than a mile, so it’s very steep.
Breaking the climb up over multiple days can make the entire endeavor more manageable. Plan on arriving at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station well before they open as climbers will que for the most desirable campsites. Depending on strategy, some may prefer camping lower or higher the night before a summit attempt. Many groups will camp two nights prior to their summit bid and move to a higher campsite the second night. This can help climbers from lower elevations acclimate to the altitude, but carrying a full pack with camping gear high up the mountain can be exhausting. The highest campsite is at the Lower Saddle, and, with an elevation of 11,650 ft, the effort to camp there is like hauling a full pack to the summit of Timpanogos.
Below the Lower Saddle there are four other camping areas:
- The Moraines (10,800 ft)
- The Caves (AKA Petzoldt Caves) (9,700 ft)
- Garnet Meadows (9,300 ft)
- The Platforms (9,000 ft)
The Moraines camp is the only campsite that doesn’t have permanent bear boxes for your food. Climbers with backcountry permits for this site must store all their food in bear canisters. This can be a pain since these canisters are large and take up lots of space in your pack—a potential problem when you’re already carrying a full load of camping and climbing equipment. For this reason, the Moraines is usually the last campsite picked for overnight permits and the most likely to be available if you get a permit late.
Navigating the permit system can be one of the cruxes of the climb. A third of the available permits at each camping area are available to reserve online in advance. The remaining permits are released on a first-come-first-served basis one day in advance. For example, climbers hoping to camp at the Petzoldt Caves Friday night prior to a summit attempt on Saturday must obtain a permit for Friday night, which will become available when the ranger station opens Thursday morning.
Scoring permits for the same day on a busy summer weekend with nice weather is unlikely. So, unless you’re capable of sending it in a day, it helps to set aside a few days so you can get the permit you want when it’s released. Now, if only the weather will cooperate!
Climbing is an activity with inherent risk. It is solely the responsibility of each climber to make their own decisions about the risks they are willing to take. People have been injured and killed while climbing the Grand Teton. If you have any doubt about your experience, ability, or whether you’re ready to attempt climbing the Grand unguided, then it’s better to be cautious. Hire a guide if you’re really eager to get up there, or spend another season or two working on your skills. The mountain will be there when you’re ready!
By Chris Norwood, Editor