Death hike into Grand Teton National Park

For the first night in nearly a week, the sky was clear in Grand Teton National Park.

Questionable weather
Questionable weather

With the storms and snow blowing through in late September, hiking up and around the Teton Crest Trail had looked pretty dubious from continuous poor weather.  But there was a break.  It was supposed to be clear for two days and then a storm was to move through the area.  I had a very short window to make this happen.

I had wanted to hike the Teton Crest Trail straight through from the Granite Canyon trailhead to Jenny Lake via Paintbrush canyon for some time, as I am training to climb two 18,000′ volcanoes in Mexico.  It required me to do a death hike, that is, a hike that is done straight through without camping or sleeping.  I’ve done two in my life.

Grand Canyon
Notice the tiny trail on the right side cliff face. That goes up the north rim.

The first was hiking the Grand Canyon rim-rim-rim in 2006 from the south rim to the north rim (8,000′) and back to the south rim (6,000′) in 24 hours.  This is a classic must-do for distance runners.  Using the Bright Angel trail both down and up, I completed the 49 mile round trip in exactly 24 hours, starting at midnight and finishing at midnight.  I had to stop and tape up my ankle on the way back down from the north rim, as I had twisted my ankle on a rock.  That was by far the longest distance I had ever hiked in 24 hours.

My second death hike was off Highway 395 in California, just south of Independence and Lone Pine in 2010.  After chaining my bike up at the Onion Valley campground, I drove back around to Symmes Creek.  Starting at 7am, I hiked from the Symmes Creek trailhead, over Shepherd Pass (12,050′) , to Tyndall Creek

Forester Pass at midnight
Forester Pass at midnight

(10,870′), to Forester Pass (13,160′), past Kearsarge Lakes, over Kearsarge Pass (11,823′) and arrived in Onion Valley at 9am, a full 26 hours straight hiking.  I then picked up my bike, rode it down the massive hill and back to Symmes Creek.  Even though this trip was only 26 miles, it had far more vertical relief and higher altitude than Grand Canyon.

Now, I wanted to do the Teton Crest Trail as a straight through hike in 2013 (I had backpacked it in 2007). Realizing my time was very short, I went over to Smith’s in Jackson Hole and bought a small mountain of food to fuel me.  I had lots of calories in a relatively compact form.  I did not take any butter with me this time, though.  Lara Bars, Pringles, Smokehouse Blue Diamond almonds, Chex Mix, and a few more food bars made up the $33 of 3,200 calories I took with me.  All I had to do was fill up my Platypus water bladder, a generic 0.5L bottle and I was ready to go.  That was, except for sleep.

This week is the series of talks at Photography at the Summit.  I did not want to miss the

Teton Village streaking clouds
Teton Village streaking clouds

speakers that evening, meaning I wouldn’t get home until at least 10pm.  Heck, I had traversed the Grand Canyon on 4 hours of poor sleep.  I figured I might do it again.  And, I wanted to do it in the same style as I had done the Crest Trail before, leaving from the trailhead rather than cheating and starting off on the Jackson Hole Resort Tram.  As I was leaving early, the tram was not an option anyway.

Granite Canyon morning
Granite Canyon morning

Leaving Jackson, my girlfriend Kelly dropped me off at the Granite Canyon trailhead at 6:15am and I was off like a shot.  I had a lot of miles to cover and the sun had just begun to barely brighten the sky.  Wandering through the brush with a headlamp and a bottle of bear spray was fun but disconcerting.  Even though I had the bear spray in my hand, ready to fire off at a moment’s notice, the early morning sounds of the forest spooked me.  There have been a few grizzly attacks lately and my biggest fear was running into one in my haste.  So, every minute or two, I yelled out, “No Bears!”  The best part was the bold warning sign about being bear country right at the trailhead warning not to hike alone.  Yet, here I was.  I couldn’t scare anyone else up for a death hike, so this was a solo activity.

The hike up Granite Canyon is pleasant compared to Death and Paintbrush canyons.  The

Thin clouds coming in
Thin clouds coming in

grade is evenly spaced, so as to not feel like going up a massive set of stairs.  I spent the first 45 minutes in the dark, listening to the elk bugle.  It’s an ethereal sound normally, but by yourself going into the dark woods, it’s downright spooky.  It did not take too long to make it into the canyon and begin ascending the long grade.  The weather was pleasant for the first few hours.  But soon, a thin layer of clouds came in from Idaho.

On the way up, I ran into an entire herd of moose with one bull.  They were quite close to

Bull moose stealthing around
Bull moose stealthing around

the trail and I did not even realize I was in their midst until one of them spooked.  The sudden motion spooked me, too.  With bears on my mind, I was vigilant.  But moose are not to be trifled with, either.  Telling the large beasts, “Nice moose, I just have to slowly pass by you, moose,” I tried to charm them and let them know I was no danger to them or the two calves wandering around.  It was good none of them flicked their ears or stomped, as there were not too many trees to hide behind.

As I reached Marion Lake at 1030am, thicker clouds had begun to move in, cooling the

There are bears out there
There are bears out there

temperature down considerably.  It felt like when I was in Antarctica.  The moment the sun’s warmth is taken away, the perceived temperature drops rapidly.  I was doing pretty well on 4 hours sleep thus far.  I found dog tracks (coyote, wolf?) of some sort following deer and also a single bear track.  That was rather disconcerting.  Though the paw mark looked more like a black rather than grizzly bear.

I forged on toward Fox Creek Pass.  Hiking up Snow King with a 35 pound pack 3-4 times a week was really paying off, as I was able to push and hoof it without having my legs burn out.  Very soon, I started to get into a little bit of snow.  With only trail gaiters on, I knew that if it got too deep, there was no way I was going to make it very far.  But I had hopes.  Then, one of the trail drops had a cornice of snow and I went in up to my bare knees.  That was not very pleasant.  And, by this time, even thicker clouds had rolled in, the type that portend snow.

Fox Creek Pass
Fox Creek Pass

At Fox Creek Pass, I had to make a decision.  With satellite phone in hand, I was able to connect with Kelly and get an up-to-the-minute forecast.  Not good.  There was an increasing chance of rain in the valley with highs in the 40’s.  That meant there was going to be freezing rain or snow up at this elevation.  Even though I had all the right gear with me, I was still pretty cold due to the lack of sleep.  I wasn’t sure of the intensity of the storm coming in and didn’t want to get buried.

Even though I had been over Paintbrush Divide in a storm, I was not sure how deep the

4 backpackers on Paintbrush Divide in a storm, 2007
4 backpackers on Paintbrush Divide in a storm, 2007

snow was going to be on Hurricane Pass.  If Hurricane was impassable, I would have to backtrack 4 miles to reach this junction again.  Looking north, I saw snow and knew that it was pretty risky.  The trail going up Hurricane was tight, so with snow on it, there was real danger, as I had never been on it with ice before.

The lateness of the season conspired against me.  It had snowed a week before and had melted off pretty well.  But the farther north I looked, the worse things looked.  I just didn’t want to get trapped with no way out.  As I was lightly geared without a shelter, I would be in trouble if I got stuck.  So, I decided it was time to cut this one short and head down Death Canyon.  As I had wanted to take this route at one time or another, it was a bonus.  Plus, I had recently read a geology report of the area and learned of several caves on Death Shelf, so had the chance to scout those out.

For the sinister name, Death Canyon is beautiful
For the sinister name, Death Canyon is beautiful

After slipping on one steep, snowy slope, I felt better about my decision.  Getting smashed up prior to a big trip was no way to go.   I knew I had been over the north side of Paintbrush in snow with a backpack, but the forecast freezing rain was another matter.  I had no backpack to keep me warm, even if it slowed me down.  I’d rather have it snowing and 20 degrees than raining and 40 degrees.  It’s much easier to deal with blowing snow than rain.

On the way down Death Canyon, I ran into a small group of deer.  And I saw one pika, though I heard several higher up.

Late season flowers
Late season flowers

They’re just so fast I only hear and rarely see them.  By the time I exited Death Canyon neared Phelps Lake, the rain had started coming down, making me quite cold.  I decided to head toward the park’s south entrance to be picked up around 730pm, as Kelly was unable to come much earlier anyway.  Moving fast kept me warm, though barely.  It was ironic that carrying a pack made me slower but kept me warmer.  For a death hike, I need to move fast but can’t generate as much body heat.

The rain went from a drizzle to a steady gentle stream.  With the wind, it was getting a bit

We see you...
We see you…

unpleasant.  When I stopped to prepare for night travel by pulling out my headlamp, I was able to get a cel phone message to Kelly.  She would be able to meet me at just the right time when I would be coming out of the park.  Since my shorts were fairly wet by this point (yes, shorts….it seems crazy but it’s not that bad), I had to put away my camera to prevent damage.  I mentioned in the last video recording that once I put the camera away, something interesting would happen.

Sure enough, I ran into a bugling bull elk with six cow elk.  Classic.  It was so dark I would

Phelps Lake color
Phelps Lake color

have had a grainy, cruddy picture, so I just enjoyed the sight.  I wondered how they dealt with sleeping in freezing rain.

Reaching the Granite Canyon trailhead again, I began walking toward the south entrance in hopes that Kelly would find me.  Sure enough, her FJ’s headlights shone through the rain and I was out.  The thermometer showed 38 degrees F.

It was only a trip of 26 miles over 13 hours.  It wasn’t nearly the 35+ miles I had hoped to do.  But with sketchy conditions and a very long walk back

The pika's view
The pika’s view

through the park, I thought it was the prudent thing to do.  I’ll just have to wait for a better weather window next time.  Much to my surprise, I only ate two Lara bars, a Ziplock full of Chex Mix and half a Ziplock full of Pringles.  When I’m going downhill, I hardly stop to eat.  Knowing this, I’ll carry far less food next time.  As a bonus, the next morning I saw I had shed a full pound just from this hike alone.  This is a way better way to lose weight instead of dieting.

Death hikes rule.

Author: Aaron

Aaron Linsdau is a photographer.

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