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A final creek crossing to top off a long day; Photograph by Terry Stonich

What It Takes to Climb and Ski the Grand Teton

At 13,770 craggy feet in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, the Grand Teton is an icon. Mention you’re tackling it, and climbers’ eyes light up. It’s not the tallest nor hardest mountain, but it delivers every component of a classic adventure: 7,000 feet of elevation gain, technical climbing, dramatic exposure, thrilling rappels, and breathtaking views. But why just climb it when you can ski it, too?

I had never scaled such a technical peak, and I didn’t have much backcountry ski experience. To get prepared, I hiked and skied a lot, broke in approach shoes, and went to rock climbing school. I even ventured on a demanding practice climb in Rocky Mountain National Park. Rather than boost my confidence, it freaked me out. I started wondering if attempting the Grand Teton was a good idea at all.

I tried to put this out of my head as we began our Grand adventure. Hauling 40-pound packs loaded with gear, we set out from the trailhead, staring in awe at the Tetons looming overhead as we hiked past mountain meadows ablaze with blooms. At times the Grand poked into view, revealing a tiny, steep peak. “How the heck will we get up there?” I wondered. Rain dampened our foot treads, making us wonder if it was snowing on the peak.

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The Exum hut on the lower saddle of the Grand Teton; Photograph by Terry Stonich

After six hours and 5,000 vertical feet, we arrived at base camp: the Exum hut—a primitive structure perched in a rocky moonscape in the lower saddle at 11,640 feet. It’s a magical place to bunk down for the night. Rugged ridges smile down from above. From one side of the saddle, views stretch past snow-covered ridges to Idaho. To the other, you see the Teton Valley floor, where the setting sun casts long shadows of pointy peaks.

Tucked in the hut as wind whipped at its sides, we huddled over steamy coffee mugs, swapping stories and speculating on conditions on the peak. Would it be dry? Or slick with snow and ice?

“What will tomorrow be like?” I asked our Exum guide, Bill Anderson. “Will it be hard?”

“Let’s just say, you won’t remember today,” Bill said.

Summit day is a guaranteed grunt. From the saddle, it’s 2,000 vertical feet of steep climbing to the peak, then 7,000 feet back down to the valley floor. We basked in the glow of knowing we could ski more than half the descent.

We woke in the soft light before dawn. Before I’d even shaken the fog from my head, we were climbing the Upper Exum Ridge, pleased to find it mostly dry. My sticky shoes clung to the granite as I searched for handholds, letting my beginner grips find solid moves. I sank into a rhythm, warming in the glow of the sun as it rose in the clear blue sky. The route’s exposure was breathtaking, not scary. I felt calm and deliberate. Not a whisper of wind marred the perfect day. It was ideal. I was in heaven.

After four solid hours of climbing, we reached the summit, the staggering view made more special by earning it. I breathed a sigh of relief but knew we had completed just one small part of the day. Climbing back down to the saddle takes almost as long, so you can’t get lost in giddy thrill too soon.

The descent was long and arduous, requiring focus. Choosing each step carefully, we picked our way down steep rocks, dangled from belays, and crunched across snowy slopes, inching our way toward the tiny hut in the distance. Time stretched into a long ribbon with no end.

Finally we made it back to the saddle to stop and refuel. For many, this signals the tail end of the journey, with a long slog back to the trailhead. For us, a new chapter began, our reward for lugging ski gear. Off the backside of the saddle, Dartmouth Basin beckoned us. Here there are no trails, yet spring corn snow formed a magic carpet to carry us home.

After retrieving our skis, we climbed 20 minutes to Idaho Express Couloir. My legs wobbled in protest, wondering how I could ask them to carry me uphill again. I was tired—bone tired—with a long way to get home.

Clicking into skis, we began our descent, carving carefully in variable snow that was first hard, then slush, then coated with rivulets. This was adventure of a whole new sort. We skied for two hours, dwarfed in the shadows of towering ridges and peaks, and marveling at the vast scale of the landscape. It seemed endless. In 4,000 feet, we took off our skis only once, to cross a talus slope. Otherwise, our June timing rewarded us with beautiful turns. At the end, we had to ford a river in our ski boots to get to a trail—perfect. Who wants to end on an easy note?

Our adventure spanned 36 hours—13 on the second day—as we summited and circumnavigated the mountain. When we finished, my mind kept flashing to a line that had looped through my head all day: “There’s no place I’d rather be.” It turns out, climbing the Grand Teton was a grand idea after all.

If you want to go:

Exum Mountain Guides can provide you with all the training you need to summit the Grand Teton with a guide. Peak climbing season is July and August. June is best if you want to ski.

Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.