Southern Exposure in Climbing
Friday, July 15, 2011
By Molly Loomis
The Grand Teton’s Exum Ridge and Owen-Spalding routes are coveted climbs, and for good reasons—they’re aesthetic, fun, and provide the two easiest ways to the top of this iconic peak. But the Grand is home to more than 90 other routes, and multiple seasons can pass without a single ascent of many of these alternate avenues. Moreover, though snowfields and icy winds are still factors, some of these routes are among the sunniest on the mountain. Next time you’re heading up Garnet Canyon—the approach to the Exum Ridge and Owen-Spalding—consider one of these alternatives for an off-the-beaten-path adventure and quality alpine climbing.
Lower Exum Ridge (III 5.7)
Jack Durrance, Kenneth Henderson, 1936
In their focus on the summit, the majority of climbers bypass the Lower Exum Ridge, a solid 5.7, and scramble up another thousand feet of easy terrain to reach the Wall Street traverse ledge, gateway to the Upper Exum Ridge (II 5.4.) But in doing so, they miss six pitches of excellent climbing.
The route is best known for the Black Face, a gorgeous, 80-degree wall on the fifth pitch that delivers big-time exposure as well as plentiful placements for your hands, feet, and pro. Take note: In their excitement over the steep, stellar climbing, more than one climber has continued up too far, forgetting to begin a diagonal traverse to the right after ascending about 15 feet. Look for a series of pitons to know you’re on track.
As you dance your way up, look east at climbers ascending the Petzoldt Ridge—an unforgettable view. Continue up a corner system to Wall Street, the famous catwalk used to access the Upper Exum. Either descend via Wall Street or continue another 1,200 feet of easier climbing to the summit.
Numerous variations exist along the way, including Unnamed (III 5.7), Direct Start (III 5.8), and Direxum (III 5.9). Perhaps best known is Gold Face, put up by Renny Jackson and Jim Woodmencey in 1988. This 5.10 route ups the ante with the full gamut: a chimney and dihedral, delicate face climbing, and a 5.10- crack of varying size leading up through a section of gorgeous golden granite.
Direct Petzoldt Ridge (III 5.7)
Willi Unsoeld, LaRee Munns, James and Rodney Shirley, Austin Flint, 1953
This 5.7 variation to Paul Petzoldt’s 1941 ridge climb is said by one local guide to be “one of the best routes in the Tetons—as good if not better than the Lower Exum.” The route shoots up the ridge’s nose, passing a unique arch and a scare-yourself-silly pitch with massive exposure. For geology buffs, there’s the added intrigue of garnet chunks embedded in the rock. Keep your eyes peeled for the smooth, angular lines of these blackish-brown nuggets as you climb. The time to cowboy up comes on the second pitch, which forces you to put all your faith in a massive chicken head (match your feet) and gets your heart going with nauseating exposure. (“Bring your adult diapers,” recommends one climber.) The fourth pitch (or fifth, depending on which guidebook you’re using) ends just short of the Window, a granitic arch that’s an anomaly in the Tetons’ rockscape of cracks and pillars. Work left for the thrill of climbing over the Window on the sixth pitch. Once atop the ridge, rappel 30 feet into a notch and traverse west to join the Upper Exum Ridge directly above the Windy Corner.
A pair of alpinists nears the summit on the East Ridge’s prominent snow arete, a landmark visible from the valley for much of the year. Photo by Greg von Doersten
East Ridge (III 5.7)
Robert Underhill, Kenneth Henderson, 1929
As early as the late 1800s, visiting climbers were keen on conquering this striking ridge, which runs in a continuous line from the summit of the Grand all the way down to the southern extent of the Teton Glacier’s moraine. (Unlike the other routes in this article, the East Ridge is not approached from Garnet Canyon.) But early climbers, including experienced Teton hardmen like Paul Petzoldt and Albert Ellingwood, were stymied by the Molar Tooth, a huge tower about one-third of the way up the ridge. It wasn’t until 1929 that Robert Underhill and Kenneth Henderson solved the riddle and found a way around the Tooth, becoming the first team to summit via the East Ridge. Today, most climbers skirt the Molar by the Southern Traverse or the Tricky Traverse (both 5.7).
The first pitch beyond the Molar Tooth presents the East Ridge’s crux: a slick, bouldery move. After this, it’s onto a series of granite slabs up to the base of the Second Tower, which is bypassed on the north side. Continue up more slabs until the base of the East Ridge snowfi eld, where the ice axe you’ve lugged all the way up will come in handy. Even though the slabs are easy, belay and protection anchors are often marginal. A choose-your-own adventure among four different options awaits you on the final summit block.
This 4,000-foot ridge is a serious endeavor. Incoming storms from the west are blocked from view, so good weather, an early start, and efficiency are necessities for this alpine undertaking, not to mention good route-finding skills. It’s one of the longest routes in Grand Teton National Park, so a notch in your harness is well deserved after a successful ascent.
Keith-Eddy East Face
(III 5.10-) Jason Keith, David Eddy, 1991
First dubbed Ritual de lo Habitual, this six-pitch route ascends a crack system through solid granite on the east face of the Grand. With five of its six pitches graded harder than 5.8, the Keith-Eddy East Face route is more sustained than the vast majority of routes on the Grand. Hand and finger jams are the order of the day, but just to keep things exciting, there’s laybacking, a chimney, and a reachy bulge comprising one of two 5.10 sections. Many locals recommend leaving this route after the second big ledge (top of the third pitch) and traversing over to one of the Beyer East Face routes [5.8-5.9] for more consistent rock quality. Descent is possible via the Underhill Ridge rappels, but continuing onto the summit of the Grand completes a true alpine adventure. Multiple pitches of 5.5 to 5.7 cracks and then scrambling up the East Ridge’s slabs and snowfield await you. Depending on conditions, you may want to pack an ice axe and a set of crampons, along with a double set of cams for the rock section.
(III 5.10) Jim Beyer, 1999
Comprising the Teton’s adored golden granite and topped off with a sharp spire, this feature is located just southeast of the Underhill Ridge. Jim Beyer compares the route in diff culty and quality to Caveat Emptor, a classic 5.10 in the Tetons’ Death Canyon, and it gets raves reviews from locals who love the route’s unique viewpoint and interesting features. After ascending five pitches, you can either rappel or, if the weather is better than expected, continue to the summit of the Grand via the Underhill Ridge. Aaron Gams’ Teton Rock Climbs: A Digital Guidebook (a CD) provides the only available route beta.
Corkscrew (II 5.8)
Steve Wuncsh, Diana Hunter, 1969
Frequently overlooked by the masses en route to the Lower Saddle, the Corkscrew is located right by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ high camp—an area where top-notch granite abounds. This 5.8 route of cracks, dihedrals, and chimneys climbs five pitches up the southern side of the Watchtower. If the weather is holding steady, walk off the summit then scramble to the Red Sentinel, rounding out your day with a fun 5.7 romp up the spire’s Regular Route, described by longtime Teton climber Andy Carson as “one of the best towers in the Park.” It’s just two pitches long, and the final section includes straddling a knife-edge à cheval.
In the Tetons, snow can fall any month of the year, and violent storms regularly pinball around the high mountain cirques. If the weather is worst than expected but you still want to salvage something from your trek into Garnet Canyon, these climbs offer good shorter options.
SEASON AND SNOW: Depending on the aspect, snow may linger long into the summer—especially after this extremely heavy winter—and may fall any month of the year. Steep south-face routes are quick to dry, while snow and ice on ledgy, east-facing rock is much slower to disappear. If fi nishing via the East Ridge, consider bringing an ice axe and crampons for icy ledges and the snowfi eld that leads to the summit block.
CAMPING AND PERMITS: All of these routes can be climbed in a day, but if you’re looking for a more humane pace, stay overnight at the Lower Saddle or Moraine campsites in Garnet Canyon. Free backcountry permits are available at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. As of 2011, food storage in either bear canisters or NPS metal lockers (available at the Lower Saddle) is required, with the exception of bivouacs on a few alpine routes. Contact Grand Teton National Park for addition information: nps.gov/grte
GUIDEBOOKS: A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, 3rd Edition, by Leigh Ortenburger and Reynold G. Jackson. Mountaineers Books, 1996. Teton Rock Climbs: A Digital Guidebook, by Aaron Gams. tetonrockclimbs.com, 2005.