Summiting America’s Matterhorn may not be easy, but that lingering smell alone is worth the effort

By Chip Brown

Outside Magazine
June 1996

The night before the climb we turned in early, wasted and footsore. We had hiked 3,000 feet up the slip-fault face of the Tetons–up the meadows and switchbacks of Garnet Canyon to a camp in a talus field below the Lower Saddle. Now we were squeezed into a single tent, the four of us–Tom, Bill, Jim, me. It was a careless summer night, late in July, but you might have thought otherwise from the wintry air off Middle Teton Glacier.

And needing to sleep, I of course lay awake, daunted by the thousands of feet that divided us from the summit of the Grand. From the park highway, the Grand Teton appears as an irresistible image of the sublime, a kind of American Matterhorn reigning over a court of lesser peaks with a classic mix of savagery and grace. At 13,766 feet, it seems much taller for the precipitous way it leaps 7,000 feet above the hay fields and horse corrals of the Snake River Valley. For more than a century it has held mountaineers in its thrall, its storied routes hung with legendary names and feats.

For climbers of more marginal talent, however, what inspires admiration from afar can elicit anxiety up close. That night in the gloom of upper Garnet Canyon, the mountain was not a parkway-turnout highlight but an untender presence announcing itself with the hot-oil hiss of rockfall crashing off its upper reaches. I listened to the cascading stones, and when the breeze was right I could hear the wind-chime racket of climbing hardware as late-returning parties straggled home from their trials on the cliffs. Ours, I thought, awash in dread, was still ahead. And what was the point? What did we hope to discover on the Grand that we couldn’t find down in the valley in more temperate forms of recreation?

I was on the brink of an answer to this chronic question when the alarm on Bill’s watch went off. It was 4 a.m. Outside the tent the air bit like January. We packed our gear, drank cups of hot chocolate, and hit the trail, scrambling by moonlight. Over the rocks and up the snow on Middle Teton Glacier until we gained the Lower Saddle, a windy gap commanding a view of Idaho’s still-darkened pastures.

Here the mountaineers in the 1872 Hayden Expedition (now widely credited with the first known ascent of the Grand) had stopped to rest, and to shout encouragement over gale-force winds. That long-ago summer, millions of grasshoppers had been wafted into the icy zones above the Teton summits and had then tumbled onto the snowy couloirs and small glaciers of the Grand, where they pitted the melting ice and snow; John Stevenson and Nathaniel P. Langford used the pockmarks as hand- and footholds during their ascent.

In the east, first light was breaking over the Gros Ventre range. We traversed along a band of black rock until we reached the shadows of a ridge named for legendary Teton climber Paul Petzoldt. Fifty years earlier, Petzoldt had pioneered a new route on this spur, one of his many ascents of the Grand. The route had been climbed many times since. The guidebook advised that it was “very steep” but that handholds were plentiful and we could expect to find some of the best granite in the Tetons.

We roped up in teams of two. Bill led out; I belayed and followed his progress, shivering, eager to get moving, up into the sun. When it was my turn, I climbed like the Tin Man, rusted with cold. We switched the lead and I went on, working up a chimney, a strenuous pitch that left the hair under my helmet matted with sweat. We traded leads again. Bill delicately picked his way up a series of steep and airy slabs. The route moved around a ceiling in the rock; from a high ledge I spotted our tent, a tiny birthmark in the talus at the bottom of an ungodly drop. Tom and Jim were below, moving steadily up.

Philosophers of climbing often speak of the narrowing of attention en route, how the past dwindles until it is only the rope that traces the way you’ve come and the future is just the pitch ahead, if even that, if even anything more than the here and now, the life you own by virtue of withholding it from oblivion. As it tends to do, the work of climbing–the pulling and hauling and jamming, the placing of nuts and slings, the clipping and unclipping of carabiners, the constant effort to study the gray and golden stone for useful cracks and holds–forced its peculiar focus on us. I could feel my scattered selves converge and that paradoxical time begin to flow in which minutes seem like hours and hours fly like minutes. It seemed we would never be warm, but then–like that–we were luxuriating in the sun. With each pitch we gained a more panoramic view. Tom could see not just the shadow of the Grand stretching west but the outline of the very notch where he was anchored.

We were projecting ourselves onto the world, or being projected. It was hard to know which. What I was astonished to discover was not the relief of dread abating, but joy: the joy of burgeoning confidence, of belonging to the earth. It seemed as if some balance were being struck between the glory of the outer world and the yearning of the inner. There was no tension between what we could feel and our power to express it.

Hegel once said, “Only insofar as something has contradiction in itself does it move, have impulse or activity.” I’m sure what propelled us up the Petzoldt Ridge were simply contradictions that could not be resolved by anything less than the risky rush itself. Climbing was its own expression; nothing stood in the way of the conviction that our relation to the world was at last palpably and almost conjugally real. We could slip our hands into the mountain, insensible to cuts and scratches; we could touch the foundation, the essential rock of reality, as if our lives depended on it. And of course they did. We belonged more completely to the earth, and in belonging we were made whole, more completely ourselves. Healed, I suppose you could say–healed of whatever various juvenile alienations we were grappling with at the time. For days afterward I could summon the fruits of this Hegelian exercise-flow, fullness, unity of mind and body–from just the smell of granite on my fingers, a dry powdery champagne smell, indescribable as ever, alas.

By midmorning we were high abreast the ridge, and then hours or minutes later atop it, fixing the rope for a short rappel down to a notch. The notch led to a snow couloir and the less difficult pitches up to the summit. The hard work was over, or would have been if during the last 800 feet of scrambling the altitude had not begun to hammer on my head. At last we crunched across the shards of granite and could go no higher.

Bill thrust his arms into the faultless summer sky. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. A white glider whooshed past, like a great Jurassic bird, dipping its wings. I felt too altitude-sick to do much but sweep the compass of the wraparound view. Jim set up his camera. We arranged ourselves for a picture. We coiled the ropes and ate some chocolate and drank some water. We milled around or rested; I lay down. We were lingering up there, waiting for some important message, but of course there was none, only shearing vastness and silence and stone. And then we started our descent. We scrambled down the route by which the Grand was first ascended, except for the stretch where you had to do a long free rappel into the Upper Saddle, dropping like a spider on a thread.

I’d like to say that the rest of the day was uneventful, but on Middle Teton Glacier, near the top of the Lower Saddle, I took it into my dazed head to speed up the descent by glissading–without an ice ax to arrest myself. I sat down like a toddler in a playpen and soon was fanny-sledding at 30 miles an hour. It all seemed harmless enough, until I was reintroduced to the boundary of the inner and outer worlds by large boulders at the bottom of the gray-ice runout and was lucky to come away with only a twisted ankle, which immediately began to swell. We still had 3,000 feet to walk down. (A day later I was on crutches.) Inspired by my near calamity, or maybe to make me feel better, Tom slipped and began to slide out of control as well. Jim shouted for him to roll over, and he did and kicked his toes and popped up onto his feet, encrusted with ice but unhurt.

It’s a truism that life has an intensity in the mountains that it lacks in the valleys, but that belittles the beauty of coming home. We got back to the Lupine Meadows parking lot at 9:30, in the dark–I could not have gimped another hundred yards–and when we were out on the road at last, being mercifully conveyed in Bill’s truck, we saw by starlight the summit where we had stood that afternoon. It was a haunting sight, so far away, so high, so ghostly. And less familiar, strangely, for our having been there. I shivered. It was not the top-gallant crown of the Tetons but we summer-of-youth grasshoppers who were ghostly, vanishing even now with hardly a pockmark in the snow.

We rode the rest of the way home in silence. The next day, I could swear, I made a long journal entry about the climb, but I haven’t been able to find it, except for a line: “We climbed the Grand yesterday, the four of us.” The mountain had put a new silence in my soul; I guess the rest is there.