Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Grand.

When Landon turned 29, I asked him in the car one day if there were any goals he'd always had that we should do before he turned 30. Something about turning 30 makes your mortality a little bit real, and I'm all about the bucket list! Landon had a few ideas. Some that I remember are that he'd always wanted to go to Alaska (working on this one), write a novel, get his first dissertation paper published (check!), and a few others. Some of his lifetime goals had already been accomplished - serving a mission, having kids, getting married in the temple, going back to Europe, etc. Then he mentioned to me, "I've always wanted to climb the Grand Teton." I suddenly got very excited, because I KNEW that I could make this one happen. Financially and physically this was within our grasp. Sure, it would be difficult, but not impossible.
Within a few weeks, I had chatted with my big brother, who has been up the Grand before. I asked him if we could do it and he assured me, "anyone can climb the Grand if they really want to." By the end of that summer, we had a plan. We began slowly, by climbing the hill near our house with our kids in the evenings. We graduated to some hikes, focusing on short, steep hikes that we could accomplish with kids. All the while, I kept harassing my brother, telling him we were serious about this and asking him about dates and plans.

Eventually we came to the conclusion that if we were really going to do this, we needed to join a gym. It's just not feasible to do real incline training with two kids, one who is simply too big to carry up the side of a mountain anymore. We went to the gym around 3 times/week, gradually increasing the time we spent on the treadmill, but above all, doing STAIRS. We got into a good rhythm, and I would text my brother with a report of how many floors I'd done each day. At some point, I made him commit to a weekend that he could take off work, I scheduled my mom to babysit, and it all became real.

For our final training feat we enlisted some awesome friends to watch our kids for an entire Saturday and completed the training hike for Mt. Rainier together with packs on - see previous post. It was so much fun!! Just being outside, using our muscles and trying to beat the clock felt great. An added bonus was the hours of conversation about anything and everything we were able to have. (This is a rare luxury between the demands of grad school and two small children)
Mt. Si

In August of last year we drove to Idaho loaded up with backpacks and outdoor clothes and other supplies. We left the kids with my mom, drove to Jackson to get our permit at the crack of dawn, and we were ready!!
I sent this to my brother the day before we left to make sure I was ready.
This whole experience was something I'll never forget. It was amazing to make a difficult goal like this TOGETHER and work SO HARD to make it happen. We sacrificed financially, gave up a ton of time and energy to working out, we used our vacation time/resources to get there, and eventually, we were on our way.
The first day was hard, but I was so proud of us because we kept up with the group and I could tell our training had paid off. This first half of the hike is no joke. We gained almost 6,000 ft in a 12 mile hike. The worst part is a set of switchbacks about halfway up to the campsite. You quickly gain a LOT of elevation - even my brother and his friend who were guiding us were huffing and puffing the whole way. We had to take frequent brakes and we went through a ton of water. My legs were burning and I can't imagine we would have made it without doing any training at all. But it was still so fun! We were all talking and joking and eating lots of snacks - one of the best byproducts of this hike was spending two full days with my big brother without a lot of other distractions around. We haven't talked that much in years.
Our campsite was in an area known as The Moraine, and it is exactly what it sounds like - the side of a glacier. I remember being so concerned that I wouldn't be able to sleep up on the mountain. I brought a small heating pack so I wouldn't be too cold, and several doses of Tylenol PM. But I needn't have worried; after completing that hike we were bushed and all asleep by 7pm!

We woke up early early in the morning - around 3am - and got started on day 2 of our adventure. It. Was. Breathtaking. I've never seen anything like the stars up there - laid out above the canyon between the Middle and Grand Teton at about 10,000 feet. It's also amazing to watch all of the hikers streaming past with headlamps on, getting higher and higher as they climb! There are climbers going past at all hours of the day/night. Some people start at night and summit at sunrise. Some, like us, camp and then start early in the morning. They were walking past our tent all night and all morning.
We climbed up the glacier and got to our first real obstacle, which is called the Head Wall. We roped in and started climbing. I had so much adrenaline at this point - it felt good to be climbing and it seemed like a breeze. We made it up to what is called the Lower Saddle and took some pictures. At this point we were at about 11,600 ft, about 1,000 feet below the peak of the Middle Teton. The view is spectacular - you can see the curvature of the Earth, there is almost no life up there and it is really other-worldly. We were able to see the sunrise from this point and even if we had stopped there it would have been worth it. But of course we didn't!
From the Lower Saddle, you basically take the Teton head-on. At this point in our journey I started to feel very overwhelmed. To be encouraging, my brother consistently told me that climbing the Grand Teton is just a really steep hike. He told me I needed leg muscles and that it would be exhausting, but you don't use ropes for most of the trip and he kept telling me it wasn't like rock climbing at all. I have to tell you - he lied. This climb was incredibly daunting to someone who doesn't regularly rock climb. True, you aren't roped in or doing technical "climbing", but the entire thing is exactly what it sounds like - just scrambling up the side of an actual mountain. It was thrilling and terrifying and EXTREMELY challenging for me. It was Landon's favorite part and honestly, it ended up being fun for me, too. I gained confidence with every obstacle that we cleared and for about the first half, it was pretty exhilarating. However, I was starting to feel weird. I was getting really emotional at odd times. I chalked it up to exhaustion and we kept going.

One of my favorite parts of the climb was the part called "Threading the Needle." You go through a small opening, crawl through kind of a short cave, and come out the other side onto a fairly stark drop off. Suddenly, you can see the top - you can also see what's below you. This part, I loved!
But...the higher we climbed, the odder I felt. I started to have panic attacks. And granted, we were up pretty high. The heights were dizzying, and it was a fairly dangerous thing to be doing. But things like Threading the Needle and climbing semi-exposed boulders I did fine at, and I would hyperventilate during easy parts of the climb. I would become frozen and couldn't move further. I remember getting so frustrated at one point where we were doing an easy traverse and I suddenly got really freaked out and couldn't move. Everyone seemed baffled and I felt like a total fool but I legitimately thought that if I moved my foot I would fall and die. I also started shivering.

We pushed on - I was so determined to make it. We reached the final stage of the climb, where you start to rope in and work around some serious exposure. This is about 400 feet short of the summit, and within 2 miles of hiking. Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a tour group and waited in an open area at above 13,000 feet for almost an hour. I started shivering and crying uncontrollably. I didn't think I could get down OR go up. Eventually, my brother tied me to himself and I was able to move forward.
We started to rope in for the technical climb but I couldn't move my fingers and I couldn't stop sobbing. I wanted to move forward and as my brother asked me questions, I could tell he thought something was wrong. I kept insisting that I was fine and asking to keep going, but I was still crying, still unable to move without being tied to someone, and still shivering. My hands were stiff and cold and Josh, Bryce, and Landon had a quick pow-wow and eventually told me we had to turn around. I was completely devastated. We could see the top, we were so close - and I was sure they were turning around because they didn't think I could make the climb. I kept telling them I could do it, but they made me sit, eat something, and start moving down.
I'm not kidding, with every step down the mountain my head started to clear and I was finally able to stop crying. By the time we reached the lower saddle, my brother finally told me that I had been severely affected by the altitude. Suddenly, it all made so much sense! It still seems like sort of a cop-out to me, but I realize that I wasn't really thinking rationally, and I was hyper emotional and not making the best decisions. When you're up that high, and you're literally roped to other people, it isn't safe to be climbing with someone who isn't thinking clearly. I was also shivering a lot more than I had realized and my brother and Landon were worried about hypothermia. Ultimately, I am glad that he made that call. I still feel guilty that Landon didn't make it to the top because of me, but I also realize that the circumstances were outside of my control and it wasn't that they thought I physically couldn't make the climb. Anyone can contract altitude sickness/hypothermia at the top of a mountain, even people who don't live at sea level or who have made that climb before.
And honestly? We were RIGHT THERE. We definitely stood on the Grand Teton. Even not quite reaching the top, we felt a huge sense of accomplishment in what we had done. A few days later, we went with my parents to a ski resort I used to frequent as a teenager and showed Walt and Zuzu where we'd been. Walt was suitably impressed and kept telling us he wanted to climb a mountain someday! Looking up at the Tetons, that view that I'd seen so often as a kid, and remembering the view from up there was pretty awesome.
I am so glad we had this experience. It gave me a huge taste for backpacking and also confidence in myself to do things out of my comfort zone. I think both of us have also realized that we can do big things if we are willing to put in the time and effort. Even while we're working through grad school, we can and have had fantastic adventures!!

1 comment:

Catherine said...

Kylie, you and Landon are so amazing! I'm not really sorry you couldn't make it to the top, because it sounds like you were still rewarded from all of your hard work. I'm glad you had your brother with you to know when to make the call to head back down the mountain--a less experienced climber might not have realized you were experiencing altitude sickness! Also, what a crazy thing to happen to you! But really, overall, I'm just really really impressed :)