When my family and I returned from a yearlong trip around the world in 2009, people often asked me to recall the places we liked best along our route. Instead of choosing between so many beloved locales, I’d flip the question around and would give them the places we’d most like to revisit. Botswana–which my entire family returned to this past spring–and Jackson, Wyoming, were always top-of-list.
So, why Jackson? If you’ve ever been, you know the spell the Grand Tetons can cast on you. For me, going back served up an opportunity to scratch an itch I’ve had since I started working for National Geographic back in 1996.
During my 13 years at the Society, I had the good fortune of meeting some of the world’s premier mountaineers, including David Breashears and Ed Viesturs. Their stories of scaling the world’s tallest peaks were inspiring, and always made me want to give climbing a try. But then I’d start thinking about how risky it was, and how much suffering seemed to go with the sport. And what about all the technical skills you need to learn?
I’d always found a reason to put it off. But now that my eldest is old enough to be looking at colleges, I realized that this was the perfect chance to try something new together. Happily, he enthusiastically agreed.
The beauty of Grand Teton is that it affords tyros like us a taste of real mountaineering. Granted, being in good physical condition and having some agility are prerequisites, but we’d still need to learn some basic skills if we wanted to summit the 6,530-foot peak.
My son and I flew out in July and opted for a comprehensive private instruction session with veteran climbing guide Lynne Wolf, who would be teaching us climbing movements, multi-pitch belaying, rappelling, and key rope-management techniques. I was a little nervous when we arrived at the legendary Wort Hotel (a Preferred Family hotel) but General Manager Jim Waldrop told us that the owner of the hotel and his wife had climbed Grand Teton with three of their four children. “It’s an incredible experience and great challenge,” he said. There was no looking back now.
After Jim’s words of encouragement and a full-day of learning the ropes (pun intended), we felt tired, but much less intimidated. Dare I say it, we even felt confident that we could make it to the top.
In the winter, abundant snow and challenging terrain make this mountain town a magnet for hard-core skiers and college students looking for work. But come summer, family vacationers take over. Serving as a gateway to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as the National Elk Refuge, there are countless opportunities to expose the kids to the great outdoors.
When we weren’t busy buying provisions–which included long underwear, fruit, beef jerky, freeze-dried spaghetti and meatballs (yum), and plenty of energy bars–for our impending two-day assent, we spent the day happily floating down the Snake River learning to fly cast under the tutelage of a guide from Fish the Fly.
We arrived at the Exum Mountain Guides office in Lupine Meadows, with Grand Teton towering what seemed like miles above us. It was hard to fathom that we’d be climbing all the way to the top, but our guide Gary Falk, who regularly leads expeditions up Mt. Rainier and El Capitan in Yosemite, assured us that if we worked together, we wouldn’t have a problem.
On the first day, we mostly hiked and rock-scrambled our way up Garnet Canyon for about nine miles to Exum’s private hut on the Lower Saddle, which sits between the Grand Teton and the Middle Teton at an elevation of 11,600 feet. Though it was a long haul, and strenuous at times, the views of the alpine scenery were stunning.
After a restless night’s sleep worrying if my son would be able to execute the technical climbs awaiting us, we were awoken at 3:30 and told to pack up and be ready to go in 45 minutes. For the first hour and a half, we slowly made our way up a steep ridge guided only by the light from our headlamps. As the sun rose over the valley, we had reached an altitude of over 12,000 feet. Breathing became more difficult, making the need to focus on the task at hand paramount.
We soldiered on, tackling each of the seven technical pitches one by one. When we had completed the technical parts and reached the summit, I couldn’t remember a happier moment while traveling with my son.
After basking in our accomplishment for a good half hour, we started making our way back down, which, as we had been warned, was just as demanding as the ascent. Safely back at The Wort Hotel, Jim treated us to a round of drinks and toasted our success. I thanked him for his encouragement…and the lovely heated room with plenty of down comforters and pillows we’d soon be enjoying.
But in Wyoming, there’s no rest for the weary. The following night, we found ourselves at the Jackson Hole Rodeo watching some serious cowboys getting knocked silly on the broncos. At the end of the show, the crowd watched as a six-year-old rode his first bull. I leaned over at my son and whispered, “Don’t get any ideas!”
Rainer Jenss is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel. Follow him on Twitter @JenssTravels.