On July 15, 1931, at the ripe age of 18, Glenn Exum walked into Garnet Canyon alone with the mission of pioneering a route up the beautiful southern ridge of the Grand Teton. Wearing borrowed and oversized, leather football cleats he somehow managed to navigate the gap separating ‘Wall St’, the ramp leading up to the ridge, and the platform below the ‘Golden Staircase’, which defines the start of the upper ridge. His leap of faith to gain the ridge is the stuff of legend and cemented his position in the lore of climbing history. He opened the way for what has become one of the most important and famous ridges in the world of alpinism. One can only imagine the courage and strength of mind the young Exum carried with him that day, and it is clearly appropriate that this incredible feature of beautiful rock now bears his name.
Fast forward nearly 86 years to the day and here we are standing at the end of Wall Street staring at that same stomach wrenching exposure that Exum encountered and all I can think is what a stud he was. We have our sticky rubber approach shoes and all the fancy modern gear but it still puts a lump in your throat making the delicate moves across that gap. I’m now across watching Wyatt and coaching him through the sequence. Having done it a few times myself I know it well enough that the intimidation of climbing through this famous feature has subsided but the respect for the consequences will always remain. This is Wyatt’s first Grand Teton attempt and we are climbing with his father Brad, cousin Michael, and friend Toby. When I heard they were going to give it a go I insisted on joining to document the climb and to have an excuse to return to the ridge once again. I have climbed the Grand almost every year since I moved to Jackson in 2003 and it seems to get better the more familiar I become with it. It’s like an old friend that you see every now and then and fall right back into a comfortable rhythm once reconnected. And this day was particularly special as we had the privilege of sharing in one of the great mountain experiences with a father and son on their first Grand Teton adventure together.
A car to car day on the GT means an early start. With the sun rising and mild temps we cruised the switchbacks up Lupine Meadows trailhead.
At the top of the switchbacks you turn a corner and enter Garnet Canyon with the Middle Teton and Nez Perce looming above. The immensity of this zone is breathtaking and it’s a not so subtle reminder of how far you have to go.
After navigating the lower section of the canyon known as the Meadows, you begin the more grueling ascent up the steep trail passing the Petzoldt Caves and then the moraine of upper Garnet Canyon. Hopping around house sized boulders makes you feel quite insignificant.
Early summer conditions persist which means there is still snow in certain areas up high. And it makes for much better travel on days like this. Climbing up the headwall of the lower saddle is much faster with the summer snowpack.
From the lower saddle you get perfect views of the complete Exum Ridge. Follow the line down and right from the high point in the photo above. That’s it…
I am always in awe of how life finds it’s way in such harsh environments. These alpine flowers are tiny but strong. I love the spattering of color dotting the barren alpine landscape.
After a brief hike/scramble from the lower saddle you cross over the gully to gain Wall St, the ramp that accesses the Exum ridge. It’s clear in the image above to the climber’s right. All the while the Middle Teton looms to the South.
The real fun begins! Wall St is a big, beautiful granite ramp and at the end is the famous gap where young Exum became a legend. It’s hard to appreciate the exposure from this angle but you can get a sense of the space below.
Once you navigate the exposure of Wall St you are on the Upper Exum Ridge. From there it’s South facing sun all day and fantastic climbing.
The summit of the Grand Teton stands at 13,772′ above sea level. It’s around 7,000′ above the valley floor. Standing here gazing across Jackson Hole on the roof of WY never gets old. It’s a special spot on the globe and even better when shared with your friends. Of course this is only the half way point and day dreams of beer and pizza start to find their way into your head. Time to descend…
Nothing like early summer mountaineering! Walking down on the snow is so much better.
And of course any good adventure in the Tetons isn’t complete without a stop at Dornans to satiate that beer and pizza craving and to gaze back up at the Tetons contemplating the day’s work.
Images and story by Taylor Glenn