The Grand Teton Birthday Mission

Words by Andrew Somps

Photos by Flip Mayernik

My 21st birthday – the long-awaited, clichéd day of legal drinking and debauchery – was unconventional, to say the least. I didn’t partake in the usual rite of passage celebrations that come with turning 21. Instead, my friend Cameron and I decided to climb The Grand Teton in Wyoming. It’s the highest mountain range in Grand Teton National Park, rising to just over 13,700 feet. Seeing the Tetons for the first time will be something I never forget. Their immense size was humbling and awe-inspiring and has forever been cemented into my memory. As we drove through Jackson Hole, we stopped at a mountaineering shop. It was suggested that we invest in some approach shoes – a grippy hybrid of rock climbing and standard hiking shoes. We also bought a Grand Teton guide book to help us get acquainted with the formidable difficulties inherent to the Tetons. 


That same night, we set up camp at The Colter Bay Campgrounds, where we both meticulously studied and prepared for the coming day’s ascent. The Owen-Spaulding route immediately jumped out at both of us. It seemed tricky but alluring, challenging but doable. And because neither of us had all the necessary rock climbing gear, we knew this climb was going to have to be done as a free-solo – no ropes, no harnesses, nothing.  It had been free-soloed before but still, the thought of clamoring up 7,000 feet of rock with zero safe-guards was unsettling, to say the least. As we kept reading we wondered if this was a crazy idea. We didn't say it to each other, but we both knew it was.

The following morning we were awakened by a fox trotting around our campsite. A good omen of sorts, we thought, as we packed up our things and prepared for the climb. The clock struck 7 am as we hit the Lupine Meadows Trailhead. But we weren’t alone. An elk, standing alone in the morning mist, greeted us and let out a hellish scream echoing across the land. Quite the alarm clock that thing is. Sneaking past our antlered acquaintance, we began ambling along at a moderate pace. About four miles later we arrived at Garnet Canyon. Once in Garnet Canyon every step becomes slower, with an increasing probability of tripping. You’re too busy gawking and screaming at cruise ship-sized rocks to care what’s underneath your feet.  We continued on the trail and scrambled up a boulder field until we finally reached the Lower Saddle.

We broke out the guide book to figure out our next move. We were about to embark on the final ascent and needed all the reassurance we could get. The most technical and dangerous sections of the climb, known as the Belly Roll and the Belly Crawl, are the last two major feats before the summit. Shortness of breath and a pounding heart took over our bodies as we slithered across a treacherously thin, five foot wide slab of stone, exposing 2,000 feet of nothing but space to fall.  There is a strictly enforced, zero-tolerance policy for mistakes of any kind at 13,500 ft.  And, as you’ll recall, we didn’t have ropes or harnesses which made the margin of error even smaller. Despite our lack of gear, we managed to safely execute The Belly Roll.  

As adrenaline coursed through our veins, we continued on to meet up with our next challenge – the Belly Crawl – the technical crux of the climb. Cameron and I cautiously began traversing along the 20 foot ledge, looking down only to ensure adequate footholds. Any lapse in focus would have resulted in our demise. We were climbing the most exposed route of our lives. And yet, the prospect of sudden disaster, death itself even, did not dispirit our motivation or dispute our longing for the summit. This wayward mindset of course, working to combat human instinct for safety, works in mysterious ways in order to banish the timid mind of its thoughts and replace them with a body that has a mind of its own, allowing only those innate tingling sensations to propel the body forward – without thought, worry, or difficulty. 

When we made it to the top, we were the only ones on the summit. We had done it. We had climbed the Grand Teton. We stayed at the top for about 15-20 minutes –gazing at the vastness and unparalleled beauty of our world. The stillness of that moment, the wave of serenity washing over us, served as a humbling reminder that we are but a mere piece to the puzzle. Everything falls into place when you’re cast into the throes of wilderness unknown. Nothing is certain, but everything is sacred. The morning after my 21st birthday, I didn’t wake up with an alcohol-induced headache or an aching in my bones. No, instead, I woke up with a fiery appreciation for the world in which I live, and for me, that is more than enough.