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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Grand Tetons 101

An introduction to the Tetons, as an instructor

Just got out of a short quick two day hike in the Grand Tetons. Can’t wait to go for another round. When I was preparing for the trip I started hearing about complete snow conditions, ice axes and cramp-ons needed. I heard of 6 ft of snow any where above 8800 ft, and the peak of Tetons, which is what I really wanted to do, of course, is pro material only. Having heard too many stories of stupid people thinking too much of themselves I decided that for I trip like this I should maybe find a partner and not go solo, as usual.

I walked into the local hiking and gear store, and started talking to a bunch of people about where to go, what to see. A couple of people told me that what I want to do is pretty crazy, and they personally took a 150$ one day course on self arrest in the snow and how not to die while hiking class. Ha, 150$, that’s 2 weeks worth of living (on better days), I’m not doing that! But, I’m also not keen on dying too, so I’ll rent an ice axe, and go play in the snow, and teach myself, how hard can it be? I later found out that it really isn’t hard. So while I’m talking to some random dudes, this guy comes up to me, introduces himself as Ben, and asks what my plan is, we looked at the map together and decided to team up for this trip. Only later I would find out that this was their first backpacking trip, that they had never carried a full pack and never hiked a full day. But, I was glad to have people to join me. These kids, 21-22 years old, had every single item that the store recommends that you buy, the 3 person foldable pot by MSR, the Asolo trekking synthetic boots, bear sprey, and the Mountain Hardware synthetic hat. The pocket rocket stove, iodine tablets and the freeze dry meals for two, 7.50$ a piece. They were pretty cute, I have to admit, they were probably carrying five six hundred bucks of gear each before they had ever made their first step backpacking. Not a bad thing to be prepared, I admit, but shiny gear always makes me smile.

As soon as we started hiking, I kind of automatically drifted into instructor mode. While in instructor mode nothing can bother me, nothing can annoy me, I am one with whatever falls in my lap, and I can only enjoy. I actually love being in instructor mode, I can’t hear my own petty aches and thoughts, I am concentrated on other people and my own pain becomes irrelevant. So, instructor Daniel started the hike with Ben and Anna. They were very motivated and wanted to learn, and I love to teach, the hard way of course. They wanted to navigate, so I gave them a map and compass, taught them how and never looked at the map again, (navigating in canyon doesn’t require much). He wanted to lead and set the pace, so I stayed in the back and walked accordingly. It was nice to be in a position where I didn’t have to make the calls (although as every instructor knows, the terms you choose to explain each situation kind of decides for people what call they’re gonna make). I have to admit that I truly enjoyed myself, the only thing I struggled with myself was the slow pace, but I enjoyed their company. Ben, is an ambitious Connecticut Jew. He’s starting an Outdoor Ed program next year before his Ivy league MBA, and aims to start a business in the outdoors business for executives, all this before he had ever even been on a backpacking trip, from that point he was classified to me as a kid. Anna, keeps to herself more and didn’t share her life goals with me, is also starting an Outdoor Ed program, less “ambitious” but more real.

Throughout two days, I understood exactly where each of them was on their personal journey by examining their feet while hiking. The first day their pace was slow, the feet were heavy and hard, each step required the effort of lifting not only their body and pack, but the weight of their heavy thoughts not knowing what to expect of their bodies. Around us the beauty was breathtaking, piles of snow turned into 300 ft waterfalls, a grizzly bear 3 minutes after we started hiking, an opening in the canyon revealed the Grand Tetons, and made the adjective grand self-explanatory. When we were told that there’s a male moose 30 ft from the trail in front of us, Anna’s feet got lighter, the excitement and fear combined loosened the ache a little, a couple of pictures and her feet became heavy again. Ben’s feet were trying to lead, trying to rise higher than the steady uphill we were climbing up the canyon, but his own self concern, his concern for Anna and his inexperience set a steady slow pace wanting to go faster, but his feet would not comply. Arriving at camp, we had started to feel how much snow was around us. We had been told that around 8800 ft we would hit snow, and lots of it. Snow, in the end of July, I still couldn’t believe it, I wasn’t sure if I had secretly been teleported to Switzerland. Grassy flowing hills on the northern side falling from a great 2500 ft cliff with natural springs of melting snow falling every 50 yards. A great bowl (as abba would call it) covered in packed snow covering our future trail, and giving us a view of what we face tomorrow. At night it got cold, 35 degrees F which is 2 degrees in C for all you Europeans, and pretty cold for anyone, in JULY.

The next morning it was time for a real challenge, it was time to climb the 700 ft bowl of snow, and hit what’s known as Death Canyon Shelf. We started climbing at ten a.m, and Anna’s feet were even heavier the second the incline rose beyond the gradual 500 ft a mile we were doing the day before. Ben, ambitious and pumped by adrenaline, was still struggling to make his feet obey to his ambition. When we hit the real snow, I took some time to play with my latest and most recent item – my rented snow axe. “So, how do I use this?” I asked myself. If I fall, I switch to my front and stick it hard in the snow, “let’s see if that works?”. I start traversing on the snow to find the long lost trail, to my right is another 400 ft of cliff and snow combined and to my left is a 400 ft drop, or should I say slide, of unpacked slushy snow. “Don’t fall, don’t fall. Every step slow. Step, step, axe. Step, step, axe”. I walk gently and cautiously to get used to this newly acquainted snow hiking. “FUCK ME”’ I yell to myself the first time I slip, for the lack of a better word I start sledding involuntarily down the “slide” to my left. “turn to your belly and stick the axe in the snow” I vaguely but calmly tell myself, and it works! I stopped, and I get back on my feet. “That was fun! Scary but fun. I should try that again but intentionally next time”. So I try it again a couple of times, get familiar with my ice axe, and I then feel completely competent and confident to lead the trip, that I never intended on leading. I return to Ben and Anna, and we start hiking up. “Step, step, Axe” I explain the new technique, and I let Ben lead our final ascent to Death Canyon shelf, a final 200 ft of elevation in complete snow at a nice 350 angle. Anna’s feet moved slowly up the hill. But they made it up, as did Ben’s feet and mine. But through the ache in our feet we were able to appreciate the view, a marvelous view indeed. Snow covered peeks, and a blue sky patched with random clouds of white and grey. Our way down was shorter and more fun than I could have expected, no need to walk. “Go to your cave, this is your safe place, and glide” I reminded myself of the scene from Fight Club, just glide. And glide we did, Ice axe behind as a break and semi skiing until you fall on your butt and then keep going. Within 30 minutes we were down what had taken us 3 and half hour to ascend. When we got to the bottom I explained that there is an option to get out today if we were to walk at a quick pace, but realistically, after our pace yesterday I knew we were staying another night in the canyon, which I had no problem with. We decided to try. Ben, took his place as trip leader once again, with more pride and confidence this time and Anna and I followed. To my extreme surprise, their feet glided above the snow with great ease, their constant pace for the first 45 minute stretch brought me to believe that there may be a chance to leave today. But I knew, I knew, that they couldn’t keep that pace up. Within an hour and a half we had finished almost 4 miles, that only yesterday had taken us most of the day. “We’re flying” Ben commented with a wide smile of pride on his face. Anna’s feet were telling the story her facial expressions refused to reveal, “I fucking climbed that mountain, I am a fucking rockstar!”. I asked congenially what food we want to eat if, and emphasized the if, we get out of here tonight. “Pizza”, Anna revealed her most inner thoughts. To my greatest surprise, we kept at that pace almost all the way to our car. Somewhere on the way I asked Anna to quite down here thoughts because I could hear her feat yelling “Pizza, Pizza”, she laughed and asked how I knew. “it’s all in the feet”, I explained “ words have limitations, and people learn to conceal their facial expressions, but the pace of your walk is driven by your thoughts not by your physical strength. When you think of pizza as an attainable goal, your feet walk faster, when you dwell on the pain, your feet walk slower. It’s a simple choice.” Towards the end when the car was close, our pace had slowed down a little, but the goal had been met and we were driving to the pizza place within several minutes of unpacking.

The joy in their eyes devouring the newly appreciated pizza made the trip worthwhile for me. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing pure passion for the most simplest of things, never fully appreciated until they are missed. The Tetons are truly beautiful and I feel a deep desire to go back in for another couple of days, to find real partners that can push me to my limit, and now that I feel comfortable with my new toy, I have to go for round two, round me.

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