I woke up shivering, as one usually does during unplanned bivouacs in the mountains. My thorax was damp with sweat while my legs froze. You’d think that I would have at least vaguely figured out how to balance my insulation layers by this point in my climbing life, but apparently I still have a lot of basics to learn. In my tired state I didn’t put much care into the spot where I stopped to bivi, so I was laying in kind of an ‘S’ position to avoid rocky projections on each of my sides. My little static rope served as a surprisingly agreeable sleeping pad, while my head rested on my backpack. After about 25hrs on the go, my standards for a suitable place to sleep had been lowered to this. No tempurpedic mattress for this guy; I’m a fucking alpinist.
The climbing was kind of just a bookend: an excuse to explore a new sport culture and learn some unfamiliar skills. Getting to the Tetons was a lot more scary and intimidating than the climb itself; I rode, walked, dragged, and cursed my bike from my house in Boulder, CO. I jumped headfirst into a daily cycling routine that made my muscles more sore than climbing ever has. I chafed my ass through lonely gravel forestry roads and broken highway shoulders where unforgiving cars & trucks would zoom past with a modus operandi that I could only understand as being annoyed and hostile. I don’t usually use phrases like modus operandi, but I want you to think that I’m smart. It’s Latin, obviously. You probably didn’t even know that.
I decided that this might be an interesting multidimensional trip when I looked at a map of the Continental Divide Mountain Bike Route, which a handful of strong legged folk ride or race from Canada to Mexico (or vice versa) each year. I noticed that it goes fairly close to both Boulder & Teton National Park, so like, why not connect them and do some climbing when I get there? A few friends who are overwhelmingly stoked about bikepacking/touring had made me interested to try, so I figured this might be a good way to test the waters because even if I hate biking I’ll still get to do some climbing, so it wouldn’t be a total loss.
With no beta other than a GPS track of the great divide bike route, I set off. I ignorantly followed google maps to reach the actual divide route, which guided me through the most difficult terrain that I would encounter on the entire trip. I ended up hauling my bike up five miles of extremely difficult walk-only terrain. I slogged through steep & narrow trails of snow, mud, and single log bridges, all the while keeping a death grip on the seat and handlebars of my overloaded bike. It was not a smooth introduction.
That night in Winter Park, I was hosted by a family who I met on this cool bike touring site/app thing called WarmShowers. They were some of the most interesting & generous people who I’ve met. I couldn’t have known then that they were the first of many exceptionally high caliber people who I’d briefly share lives with on this trip. They let me in on secrets of traveling for cheap, and making a life of perpetual travel possible despite raising two young kids. They fed me and gave me some muscle recovery wine before I crashed on their porch.
Over the next couple of days I covered some more of the steepest biking terrain of the trip. Long hill climb, long descent, repeat. I was really starting to hurt, so I took a much wanted rest day in Steamboat Springs, where another WarmShowers host gave my bike a complete tune up and taught me how to keep it feeling fresh. On my way out of there, I met the first person who I’d seen going the same direction as me on the route (Most people roll North to South for the sake of Wyoming’s westerly winds). This sixty-something year old dude looked fitter than most triathletes in their thirties. We ended up riding together for the next two days, and experienced the power of that Wyoming wind firsthand. We would ride while leaning aggressively into the wind. Our wheels would even scoot sideways on the loose gravel when it became especially gusty. I never realized quite how desolate southern Wyoming is. I never want to see fucking sagebrush again in my life.
From Rawlins, my ancient companion hitched west while I opted to jump onto the Trans America route that more pavement-minded cyclists ride/race from coast to coast. The headwind through the following section was nightmarish. Pedal, pedal, gust, pedal, gust. I slept in an old blowing over church that hosts cyclists in Jeffrey “City”, WY that night, which is a town made up of only that church, a bar/cafe, and a pottery shop owned by an alcoholic who shoots every piece of wet pottery with a rifle before heating it in a kiln. From there I redirected to Lander to check out the Climber’s fest. It was nice to ditch my anonymity for a little while and see some familiar faces. I bailed the next morning for a big ride that finally brought me into Grand Teton National Park. The rock spires looked bigger & scarier than I expected, although that may have just been contrast shock after looking at nothing but Wyoming flatland for the past five days.
I posted up at the American Alpine Club Climber’s Ranch, then prepared to finally start climbing. I spent a day pestering the climbing rangers for beta and digging into the guidebooks to ensure that I had at least enough info to bail without having a complete epic. I wasn’t even sure which peaks the Grand Traverse covers when I showed up at the Climber’s Ranch, so I was super grateful to find a library of guidebooks there. …although there’s still no wifi (gasp!).
After a few gulps of coffee, I rode toward the trailhead at 1:30am the next morning. An easy to follow trail, some kick stepping with crampons strapped to my approach shoes, and a couple episodes of RadioLab propelled me to the summit of Teewinot.
Some scree walking, a few rappels, a snowy col, a wet set of cracks, snow patch hopping, and Freakanomics Radio brought me to the summit of Owen.
More of the same stuff & a few episodes of Reply All placed me on top of the Grandstand, at the base of the technical climbing on the Grand. I confidently started climbing way too far to the right. Even after I realized that I was off-route, I continued to try forcing my line to go so that I wouldn’t have to reverse progress. I pulled a handful of moves that I shouldn’t have, then finally admitted defeat by descending back to a place where I could traverse into the Italian Cracks. On-sighting & route-finding are hard. I certainly didn’t expect to spend so much time and stress. I’d pay for that later. Once I was back on-route, I relaxed into the clean & straightforward climbing that led me to the summit. Although the Owen Spalding route would have been a laid back downclimb, I used my rope since I had it with me. I was glad to have it for the my little off-route mishap, but I probably wouldn’t bring one next time since I know where to go now.
With almost no technical climbing, Middle Teton came and went quickly with the help of some 99% Invisible episodes. I filled my bottle with the last accessible water that I’d find on the ridge as I descended the easy & tracked gully down to the saddle.
At the base of South Teton, I bumped into the only other party I’d seen on the traverse. They were a guided party of three (two guides & one client) who had been on the ridge for two nights, and were settling in for their third bivi. They deemed me unworthy to converse with when they saw me stroll up wearing my bike helmet. I sat next to them expecting to relax and chat for a minute, but they prefered to show their client how big their dicks were by only answering my questions with one word responses before resuming their faff.
At this point I was trying to decide whether or not to continue climbing. I took so much time getting lost on the Grand that continuing would certainly set me up for an uncomfortable night of shivering without bivi gear, but this didn’t seem like reason enough to bail. I had already put up with so much difficult bullshit that a few more summits and a little sit & shiver (different than a sitting shiva) seemed worthwhile to earn my tick.
South teton was nothing but a scree hike. It would have been a boring pain in the ass if I didn’t have a Bill Bryson reading A Brief History of Nearly Everything into my headphones. The sun fell as a full moon rose. My headlamp was dead by that point, but the moonlight enabled me to continue.
Cloudveil Dome and its surrounding spires came and went.
I found myself at the base of Nez Perce (pronounced “nay pursay”?). I didn’t want to take on the more technical climbing of this final peak in the dark, so I splayed my gear onto the ground and fell asleep on it. I knew that taking extra time to sleep would make me even more dehydrated because I still hadn’t seen flowing water since the descent from Middle Teton, but it still seemed like the best option.
After a couple hours of rest, I got my stuff together & started stumbling toward the final peak. I thought my mind was playing tricks on me when I saw flashes of light on the rocks, but an investigation of their source revealed a peculiar morning thunderstorm to the west. I sat and watched to see what my fate would be: whether or not I would be forced to descend so close to the arbitrary finish of the route.
That was one of the most beautiful & intimidating scenes that I’ve ever pointed my eyes toward. The warm sun peaked its head over the edge of the earth, mixing with the cool moonlight that was still illuming the range. Everything was more powerful than me. I was just doing what I was told. Eventually the storm passed so I continued. None of the climbing on Nez Perce was particularly difficult, but I was glad to be doing it in the light.
I finished the thing! Woop woop!! …now for the mindless zombie slog back to my bike. All of the chipper, child-toting, cargo short wearing yuppies on the trail seemed to worriedly examine my exhausted eyes. I slept for something like 17hrs when I finally rolled back into the Ranch.
After a rest day I rode south. There happened to be major forest fires going on outside of Jackson. Fire retardant toting helicopters shuttled over my head, and massive pieces of the landscape around me had become ashen and desolate. I could see pockets of flames and clouds of smoke on each side of the highway. I didn’t think that I was gasping too much smoke into my lungs while I rode through the area, but an unrelenting cough as I fell asleep that night indicated otherwise. I rode for one more day to meet i80, where I hitched with a couple dudes driving a U-Haul who were making a pot run to Colorado.
I’m really happy with the experiences & personalities that I found on this little trip close to home. It felt like a big important life event, despite being inexpensive and only taking up a few weeks. My trip planning gears are already turning again.