Solo on Middle Teton
Thinking about risk in the outdoors
On June 24th, 2021 I climbed Middle Teton alone. The Middle Teton is the second highest major peak of the Teewinot (Teton Range), in the ancestral homeland of the Shoshone People. The prospect of me doing this had Joelle very concerned, more than I've ever seen before in our whole time together, actually. She had to work that day and wasn't available to join me. For a while, it was clear that she did not want me to go solo. Eventually, I convinced her it was a tolerable idea. I was surprised by her worry, but thinking from her perspective led me to understand. Throughout our time in Wyoming, we had been hearing about a solo hiker who was still missing after hiking from the same trailhead. Additionally, 5 days prior, we had attempted to hike to the South/Middle Teton saddle together and there was a lot of snow on the route. We were prepared for this snow with ice axes and crampons, and I was excited for an opportunity to use them. While climbing the steepest snow slope of the hike, Joelle was outside of her comfort zone. Even though I knew the terrain above wouldn't be that steep again, we decided to turn around. We were both excited for some glissading practice. Unfortunately, glissading this steep section scared her as she attempted to slow her descent, succeeding, but feeling like her axe wasn't biting into the snow as much as she wanted. She also scraped and froze her hand on the choppy snow because we forgot our gloves. Overall, the steep snow conditions heightened her concern for solo travel in that terrain. I felt differently, having comfortably climbed the slope without even putting on real crampons and danced back down it mostly on my feet. This level of concern about my solo hike got me thinking extensively about risk in the outdoors.
For those of you who live a more urban lifestyle the prospect of thinking analytically about risks in life may seem like a foreign concept. Maybe morbid, even? In most cultures, it tends to fall into the background. We go about our daily routines unaware of risks until something tragic happens, when we respond emotionally. Then, for a brief moment in time we are hyper-aware of the risks associated with living the way we do. Eventually, this awareness fades away.
In the modern outdoor sports community, we strive to do the opposite by thinking about risk in a more consistent way. For experienced outdoor recreationists and professionals, risk is something discussed frequently and often written about. For onlookers to this community, these activities are often perceived universally as high risk. There are a whole lot of statistics that I could dive into to elaborate on that perception, which I'll avoid doing for now. But if you do perceive outdoor sports as risky, then it probably makes sense why their practitioners think about risk strategically. Although I'm pretty young, I am an avid participant and student of this community and have developed mature opinions on the topic of risk. I'm going to use this trip report as an opportunity to write about risk philosophy.
A long walk through meadows and forests to start off the day.
Finally seeing the objective through the trees.
5 days prior, this whole path had been covered in snow
I left the car at 5:30am. It would be 3.5 miles on trail to get into the alpine. These trails out of Lupine Meadows at the base of the Tetons are usually busy, but on this early morning I wouldn't see anyone. Knowing that bears are active at this hour and that I couldn't rely on the crowds to keep them away, I wanted to mitigate the risk of surprising one. Of course, the odds of a true bear attack are incredibly slim, but I wanted to take the easy precautions to increase certainty. I called out a loud "yooooo-hoo" every minute as I walked up the trail. To mitigate the consequences of surprising and upsetting a bear, I carried bear spray in a quick access location.
At the end of the maintained trail section, Joelle and I had found a large snow bank that caused us to put on gaiters 5 days prior. Today, most of the snow was gone and I proceeded without even tying my shoes (I often leave my shoes loose for ascents because it's comfortable). I was amazed by the rapid melt-off that had occurred, and interested to see how the route above would be affected. As I ascended, I continued to avoid snowfields and stick to rocks. When I arrived at the steep section that Joelle and I had glissaded previously, I easily bypassed it on rocks. Above that, I could see the rest of the route to the saddle.
To be prepared for the terrain, I carried crampons, an ice axe, and a helmet. But at this point in my hike, it was obvious that snow travel was going to be entirely avoidable. I like snow travel, but the hassle of putting on and removing crampons constantly would have been annoying, so I mostly stuck to rocks. One big snowfield remained, and I opted to put on my crampons and climb the slope. These were new, and although it would have been more efficient to walk around the snow, I wanted to take the opportunity to try them out.
I climbed that snowfield with ease and removed my crampons at the top. From there, I trotted across easy boulder fields for the rest of the way to the saddle. There I stopped for a snack, and surveyed the route to the summit. I knew that it would require some rock scrambling, that some rocks might be loose, and that another climber could be above me to knock them down. The risk of this happening was small, but to mitigate the consequences I put on my helmet. This is a much more familiar concept to most people who I go outdoors with in Arizona. But some things I've said here aren't, so let me explain.
The fearsome cornice guarding South/Middle Teton saddle (sarcasm)
My pack, full of safety gear that ended up being mostly unneeded.
Helmet on for the steep rocky scramble ahead.
Crampons and an ice axe. "What are those?", asks the average Arizona hiker. To the mild-climate recreationist, simply carrying them implies that the user must be doing something extreme, or highly risky. In reality, these are safety tools that allow us to mitigate risk while traveling through yet another type of terrain. I first learned about these just a little too late in life, after doing one of only two things ever that have been outside my personal risk tolerance. That's right, two things in my whole life that were dangerous enough I regret doing them. This one happened to be a small piece of one of the best days of my life: climbing the Mountaineer's Route on Tumanguya (Mount Whitney).
2 aspiring mountaineers, appearing confused but they aren't really. Just below Iceberg Lake on the Mountaineer's Route, Tumanguya.
On the morning of August 21st, 2017 I found myself at Iceberg Lake in the Sierra Nevada. My friends Kevin, Charles, and I had started at 3am to allow time for us to complete the massive hike in one day. Above us was the crux of the Route, a steep east-facing couloir just north of the summit, from which we were 2000ft below. Often in late summer this couloir is completely snow-free, so videos of climbing the route in August showed people scrambling up a loose rocky slope. However, as I later pieced together, 2017 had been a big snow year, so a thin sliver of snow was still packed into the gully. No problem. Since we thought there might be a chance of snowfields on the route, we came prepared with the best lightweight snow traction we knew of: shoe spikes and trekking poles. These were what we often used to get down the icy upper portions of trail in the Grand Canyon.
Looking at the couloir (left), we estimated that we would be able to stick to scrambling the solid rock on the climber's right side, but we might have to climb short sections of snow (such as that band near the bottom). We headed up, and the rock scrambling went well. That short band of snow went fine too, and allowed us passage, but it was much firmer than I'd expected. In hindsight, I now have the knowledge to understand that although this couloir was east facing, it was still early in the morning. More importantly, most of the sun had been blocked by clouds that day. Although it was summer, the snow had frozen hard overnight and not yet melted much.
The Risky Part: I don't have pictures of the climb, but I'll describe briefly what happened. We made efficient progress up beautiful, solid rock slabs on the right of the couloir. In the image above, you can see that chute appears snow free after about 1000ft. So from this view, we planned to get above the snow and then re-enter the couloir. In reality, the gully turns to the right at that point, and narrows. When we found ourselves there, the narrowing walls pushed us closer to the snow as we ascended. Eventually, the wall of the couloir became vertical and we were forced to crawl up along the right side of the snow. The heat absorption of the wall had melted the snow adjacent to it, forming a 5 foot deep slot canyon. We loved slot canyons, so we stemmed up it, half of our limbs on the snow "wall", half on the rock, feeling secure tucked into the crack. I think we even put on one shoe spike each, for the foot that touched snow.
Eventually that slot ended, and with it, that feeling of security. The couloir now had steep walls on both sides, and was packed full of snow wall-to-wall. We had come a long way and were not enthused about going down. Descending is harder than ascending, so turning around seemed both hard and scary. We put on both shoe spikes, held our trekking poles by the tips like daggers, and moved out onto the snow. The snow was hard, and research as I write this tells me it was about 45 degrees in angle. Luckily, we had already bypassed the steepest part of the couloir using the rocks, which was 60+ degrees. Directly in the middle of the gully, a line of footsteps ascended. These were essential, but not as helpful as they could have been. The creator of these steps had been wearing crampons, so they didn't have to kick their entire foot into the snow to feel secure (which would have left large steps for us). Instead, their front points bit sharply. This is where my experience differed slightly from Kevin and Charles'. Their shoe spikes were bigger, like microspikes, providing more traction. Mine were Yaktrax.
Along the right side of the "ladder", deep, skinny holes were periodic. I later realized these were from plunging the shaft of an ice axe into the snow, called "self-belay". This provides the holder with great security, and they are only at risk when they move it higher (ensuring both feet are solid first). Now, with the frozen snow, I was able to use these holes as 2-finger pockets. Me left hand still clutched my trekking pole tip which I would jab into the snow. Maintaining 3 points of contact at all times by moving only one limb at once, I progressed up the snow without issue. I was unsure what the risk was. Obviously minimal, as I made it up hundreds of steps. But looking down the 1500ft of shear ice below be, the consequence of a fall was clear.
Despite my regret of taking this risk, this experience made for one of the best days of my life so far. I knew I wanted to do activities like this, but I wanted to do them safer. I researched and bought crampons and an ice axe. Having the gear and the skills to use it allows me to now feel comfortable doing climbs like the Middle Teton.
Above the scary section of the Mountaineer's Route, nearing the summit. Now, the steps in the snow are easy to stand on and the consequences of a fall are minimal, with rocks right below.
I think of risk management as a spectrum, with extreme aversion on one end and extreme tolerance on the other. When I look around at people I know, I find myself solidly in the middle of that spectrum. I'm not often scared, but sometimes am. I tend to stay within my comfort zone, and rarely do things that scare me. But occasionally, I am willing to push outside of it in the interest of learning. When I decide to do something that I don't feel comfortable doing, I think about why, and I think about the consequences. My inability to do this on Tumanguya is what made it one of the only things I've ever done that exceeded my risk tolerance. Why was I unable to? Lack of maturity maybe, resulting in lack of comfort turning around for both physical and psychological reasons. Turning around is one form of saying "no" to a risky situation. Saying no to risk in the outdoors can take many forms, like walking instead of biking, downclimbing instead of skiing, bypassing instead of rappelling, or portaging a rapid instead of running it. I'll talk more about saying no to risk later, but let's take a look at what healthily saying "yes" looks like in the context of portaging.
Here's a better example of appropriately managing risk in a scary situation, from a recent day on the Snake River. We were at Lunch Counter rapid, where the river flows through a narrow rock constriction. That constriction results in huge waves, and a keeper/surfer hole, making it Class 3+ (some say it was 4 that day), the hardest on the Upper Snake. We generally consider ourselves limited to Class 3 packrafting, so some questions were in order to consider whether to portage the rapid.
Why is this rapid scary? Because I'm not positive I have the skills to stay upright. Would I like to develop those skills? Yes, advancing those skills will help to reduce risk in the future. In this particular rapid, what would happen if I flip? I'll swim for a bit, maybe be underwater for a few seconds, and there's a small chance I'll be separated from some of my gear temporarily. Am I prepared for that? Yes, I'm wearing my PFD and wetsuit, I know how to swim, the water is deep, and I know to try to hold onto my paddle and boat. What happens if I flip in the keeper hole? It could keep me underwater for longer, separating me from my boat, or even keep my boat and wash me downstream without it. Can I avoid the keeper hole? Yes, it's at the very top of the rapid and is only about half the width of the river. There is no risk of entering the hole if I don't want to. So, is the prospect of advancing my ability as a paddler worth the moderate risk but low consequence of flipping? Yes, so let's do it. I did actually end up flipping (Joelle went first, and did not flip), and it was okay. I even got separated from my raft, and swam into an eddy, catching the boat when it eventually drifted into the calm water.
Icefloe Lake, viewed from Middle Teton saddle.
Back on Middle Teton, I considered what I knew about the route. Not much really, I had done my research but all I was able to gather was which gully to take to the summit, and that I could expect some class 3 climbing along the way. Maybe class 4, according to some sources. The line between these two difficulty levels is very subjective, but I'm generally comfortable with both. With this knowledge considered, I headed up to see what I could find. Continuing into unfamiliar terrain alone might seem risky to some. But most of us do it without question. A new hiking trail perhaps? Sure! But hiking trails are easy terrain, right? Not for everyone, actually. Additionally, do we have the skills or resources to navigate that system of hiking trails? Are we familiar with the weather of the area and prepared to deal with it? What happens if we do get injured on that trail? Can we call for help? Do we have enough food? Water?
Those may seem obvious to some readers, but as a professional hiking trail guide, people hire me because they don't trust their own ability to take care of any of that stuff, and for good reason. Inexperienced trail hikers get into troublesome scenarios surprisingly often. Being a professional, I obviously trust my ability to take care of myself in those categories. Additionally, I can say with confidence that class 3 terrain is easier and less risky for me than many hiking trails are for most people. This gets into "perceived risk". Risk is often a product of mental and physical preparedness. People who would be unprepared for the travel that I am prepared for, perceive doing that travel alone as risky.
Despite my level of confidence that I could handle the scrambling to the summit of the Middle Teton, I was psychologically prepared for the prospect of turning around if I found something that exceeded my risk tolerance. In fact, the ease of turning around is a critical benefit of going into an experience alone, whether we like it or not. Peer pressure dissuades us from saying no to risk. In both of the scenarios where I've exceeded my risk tolerance, I was with 2 partners. If you're curious, the other scenario is not a secret, just less relevant. It was a particularly sketchy loose rock traverse above Colorado River on our 16-day Grand Canyon hike in February, 2021. Feel free to ask me about it. In both of those situations, turning around would have been an enormous inconvenience, and slightly hazardous as well. As humans, it is psychologically easier for us to deal with inconveniencing only ourselves rather than other people. In mature outdoor partnerships, we strive to foster a culture where saying no to risk is acceptable. I would characterize my most recent experience in Grand Canyon as a mature and open partnership. If one of us had said no to the risk, the others would not have been upset. In fact, none of us wanted to take the risk. But the underlying unwillingness to inconvenience others made us continue. Additionally, in that scenario the consequence of a fall was less clear (although still scary).
On the summit of Middle Teton, with the Grand behind me. That summit is only a mile away, if you're a bird. I hope to climb the Grand soon too, but it requires harder moves so I probably won't go up there unroped anytime soon.
A close up of the beautiful rock near the Middle Teton summit marker. "Birds poop in cool places" as Daniel Conley says, so I was unsurprised to find some here. A nearby pile of marmot poop was surprising, though.
On my way up to the summit, I didn't encounter any climbing that I precieved as risky. Nothing class 4 even, and all of the difficult sections had very solid rock. Actually, I only needed my hands in a couple sections. The rest of it was simply walking on loose footing. In this terrain, I usually move as fast as possible. There's no significant thinking to slow me down, and generally the longer your foot is in one place, the more it slides down.
Unfortunately, I was struggling to move fast for a different reason: altitude. Throughout this hike I had made a point to not exert myself too much, conserving energy and savoring the time in the alpine. Now, above the 11,400ft saddle, I struggled to keep moving for more than a hundred feet at a time, no matter how slow I forced myself to go. I was very surprised by this, because I considered myself to be an altitude-adapted person. Last summer I was above 11,000ft every weekend, so when I frequently climbed high peaks above 13 or 14,000ft, the altitude didn't affect me much. Here on Middle Teton, I expected the same, so my experience was startlingly different, but some quick thinking revealed why. I consistently live and exercise at 7000ft, but in the winter and spring, my only means of getting truly high in the mountains is by backcountry skiing. In 2021, the draw of hiking in Grand Canyon and biking in the desert left me with only 2 ski days above 11,000ft. Unfortunately, this is pretty characteristic of every year in Arizona, and it occurs for the sole reason that I have more friends who bike and hike rather than ski, because those things can be done all year in the southwest.
Over the years, I've learned that I'm actually not a natural at high altitude exercise. If I'm not acclimatized, I struggle. I believe this is because I actually have a weak respiratory system. If you've ever been slower than me while hiking, this may be hard to believe, but that's because I do hard exercise regularly which helps compensate. The rest of my body is strong, which also helps make up for my (usually minimal) struggle with air. But at high altitude, the respiratory system is always the limiting factor, and if mine is unprepared, I get messed up. In 2014, when I flew to Denver from Phoenix and immediately climbed Mt. Harvard in the Saguguachipa (Sawatch) Range, I had never even been above 10,000ft in my life. I made it to the top okay, but my body was not happy that I forced it to. I vomited the whole way down and for most of the next day.
On my Tumanguya climb, the icy couloir wasn't the only negative of the amazing day. That summer, I lived at 7,000ft, I had hiked 12,600ft Doko'oslid (Humphreys) in Flagstaff a few times, and had been backpacking in the Sawtooth Mountains (also on Shoshone land). I felt more prepared and was excited to cruise up the mountain with my friends. Unfortunately, the day before and that morning, I was feeling a bit congested, which I frequently am. Oddly, this didn't hinder my ascent speed much. The three of us were all very fit and hiked fast up the mountain, but once again my body was not happy that I made it breathe so hard for so long. At the summit, I struggled to eat anything. We descended the trail for a mile at a great pace, then had to do a gradual climb of maybe 50ft elevation before going down further. I made it about halfway and then felt a complete lack of energy and had to sit down. I vomited there, then felt sick for the rest of the day, vomiting a few more times on the way down.
On the summit of Middle Teton, I was a little worried about how hard I had to push my respiratory system to make it to the top. This threw a completely unexpected risk at me. I was feeling totally fine up there though, and ate plenty of food without hesitation. I was well hydrated too, which I knew might help. But I probably needed to go down to be able to recover fully, even though I wasn't having trouble breathing. So I did, and for the rest of the day I didn't have any issues. I felt a little off, in a way that told me that if I had pushed harder or longer, I might have been sick, but it was okay.
As I descended, I chose to head directly into the canyon bottom via a snowfield instead of taking the rocky ridge to the saddle. With my helmet still on, I took out my ice axe and slid down on my feet for a while. I came to a steep section, steep enough that I opted to downclimb. Facing the snow, I plunged the axe shaft into the soft snow for "self-belay" and kicked hard to make solid steps in the snow. I was never scared, but I would not have put myself in this position without the axe. As I did this, another solo hiker came around a corner, onto the snow slope below me. They were about my age, and looked a little nervous, traversing horizontally towards the rocky ridge that I had ascended from the saddle. They had failed to go all the way to the saddle before starting up the climb, which I had read online was slightly important. We exchanged some short friendly conversation.
"I guess I thought just crampons would be enough" they said, noticing I had an ice axe.
I had already noticed that they were in a precarious position. If they slipped, they would have surely slid into the boulder field below, fast, with no hope of stopping. This was a pretty steep slope, enough to cause me to downclimb instead of glissade, even though I had an axe to (probably) self-arrest. I talked them through the scenario, encouraging them that they could actually complete the climb as there was no snow above. I noted that if they had gone to the saddle, they never would have needed crampons for the whole hike. They were headed the right way, off of the snow slope and onto the rocky ridge, and were over halfway, so turning around would do them no good.
The whole interaction was friendly and I tried to give them some safety tips without belittling their decision making. As they continued walking though, I noticed that they were wearing Yaktrax, not crampons. This is a common misconception among hikers due to annoyingly ignorant branding, and usually it's fine, because most people who make the mistake don't venture into terrain where crampons can be helpful. "One last thing", I said. "I just feel obligated to make you aware that those don't count as crampons". They were surprised to hear this, so I recommended that they do some research about the differences. "If a route in the mountains says that crampons are required, using Yaktrax instead could be dangerous, like it was for you right now". I briefly shared that I had made the same mistake a few years ago. They were grateful for the heads-up.
Back down at "The Meadows" junction in Garnet. Stoked!
At the bottom of the steep snow slope, I walked across easy boulders for a while, searching for the next snowfield. On the way up it was preferable to avoid snow except for practice, but on mountain descents, there's nothing better than sun-softened, moderate-angle snow! I love descending on snow whether that's running, shoe sliding, butt sliding, and best of all, skiing! Descending snow is way faster, more fun, and easier on your body than descending on trail or rocks. The best part about having an ice axe is the ability to maintain safety when descending steeper snow slopes, which allows you to go faster if you're comfortable. I got to do a lot of this on the way back down to the Garnet Canyon trail.
Climbing Middle Teton was a perfect solo day in the mountains. I got to move at my own pace, get really high, and practice some of my favorite skills. As I learn, I only get better at managing risk, and I keep it in the forefront of my mind while I'm outdoors to make sure I have a lifetime of doing things like this.