So we were a little behind schedule. Terri and Garrett needed to get stuff to be able to hike Delta Lake, and while I’d hoped to drive straight there from Oxbow Bend, instead we were waiting for them to finish packing at our campsite. I quietly stewed for the 15 minutes it required them to be ready. Finally, we were *actually* off to Delta Lake.
The sun was up in Grand Teton National Park as we drove toward the Lupine Meadows Trailhead. It’s actually quite close to the Jenny Lake area, just a little further south down Teton Park Road. This meant we basically had the same drive as the day before, just with the rising sun backlighting everything. This views from this drive live rent-free in my head. The Tetons were so pristine and majestic, rising literally straight out of Jackson Hole.
The enormity of them really came into relief when we turned onto the Lupine Meadows Road and crossed a cute little bridge across a cute bubbling creek that linked up Jenny Lake and the Snake River. We were legit all the way at the end of the valley, and if you were looking directly down there would be absolutely no sign that one of the most prominent ranges in America began a few hundred yards hence. Not only that, but we were at the base of Grand Teton itself, the tallest mountain in the range.
In less-good news, we barely were able to close to within a mile of the trailhead before we found cars packing the side of the road parked on both sides. So it turned out that Terri and Garrett’s delay was going to cost us a little extra hiking time down the Lupine Meadows Road. Nothing to helped for it, so we pulled off and guided Terri into parking right behind us. It was still a crisp morning, but I decided to shuck the sweatpants and sweatshirt based on my memory from the day before. This turned out to be one of my best decisions of the entire day, if not trip, and one that people smartly emulated. We warmed up just walking down the gravel road to the trailhead, and it wasn’t going to get any cooler from there.
The trailhead was a bustling scene of activity. Groups from 2 to 6 people assembled with various levels of gear – some, like us, prepping for a day hike up to Amphitheater or Surprise or Delta Lakes. Others were using the trail as part of a 1 or 2 day trip up to the top of Grand, and had backcountry camping gear to boot. Most of them made me feel self-conscious.
This screenshot of the trail map shows the challenge was faced. Originally, the trail paralleled the mountain front southward (up on that map) in a slow ascent. Then, after a wide bend to the right, we would enter the part that climbed in earnest. The trail switchbacked up the side of the mountain. At the third switchback on the north (bottom)side, an unmaintained trail would split off from the yellow dashed one leading to our final – and toughest – challenge – an ascent up a steep gorge to Delta Lake with three separate boulder fields.
The first part was, dare I say, easy-peasy. The seven of us hiked through the crisp morning air as sunlight filtered through the lodgepoles above us, turning the forest a bright green. It was easy and fresh. The first part of the hike was over a swamp at the foot of the mountain before we gradually started putting elevation on. I kept alert for bears for a while, but the trail was honestly pretty busy despite the time of day. Bears slid down my list of concerns. We crossed a bubbling creek that Google Maps informs me has the creative name of Glacier Creek. Now the elevation was actually starting to come in, but I still felt great. I think most other people did too, although there was some notable huffing and puffing coming from Pam and Rich.
The hike started getting more difficult around that large bend. It still wasn’t insanely steep, so I was still fine, but now we had to start entering a pattern of stopping every few hundred yards so that Elizabeth and her family members could suck wind. I still weirdly felt wired, like I wanted to tackle all of Grand. Taylor was feeling that same vibe, I think – we talked about Kyle’s fantasy football league among other things while waiting. I chatted with the hikers and climbers on their ways up and down as well. Meanwhile, Rich was dealing with the opposite problem – he was feeling the hike in his legs, which the constant pattern of stop-and-start was exacerbating. Before long, he let me know that he and Taylor were going to push on ahead to help keep him as limber as possible – the exact opposite trend that the flagging energy of Pam, Terri, and Elizabeth was showing. The group was splitting up.
If I am being 100 percent honest, I probably would have gone with the two of them if it wasn’t for the fact that I had promised Elizabeth I would call her Aunt Debbie and Uncle Victor to celebrate news of the engagement with her. Not that I necessarily wanted to do this. In fact, the longer the speaker phone call went, the more I felt vaguely embarrassed to be part of the group that was loudly yelling into speakerphone on this pristine trail in the backcountry, disturbing the peace of the morning. By the end of the call, I was very ready to get going again, and more than anything, I just wanted to enjoy the quiet. In reality, I don’t really think there was anything unreasonable about Elizabeth’s request, and I was probably being a bit churlish, but so it goes.
Our already splintered hiking group fractured once more about the time of this call. Terri and Garrett pulled ahead of Pam, Elizabeth, and myself, who were walking while still shouting into a phone. By now, Pam was clearly quite winded, and Elizabeth was also handling the hike surprisingly poorly. Eventually, once the call had ended, she shared why: in the cool of the morning, she had put on fleece-lined leggings. Now with the sun beginning to beat down on the western face of the Tetons, the day was warming rapidly, and she was overheating because of it. Taking the leggings off weren’t really an option, but leaving them on evidently wasn’t either. So what was there to be done? Elizabeth was (repeatedly) verbally wishing she could just cut the pants into shorts as one of the ubiquitous climbing groups descended by, when one of the climbers happened to overhear her and offered to cut her pants with a pocket knife. If it was me, I would have thanked him and just told him I was complaining, because who wants to let a stranger near you with a pocket knife? Either Elizabeth is made of sterner stuff or she was just that freaking hot, because she immediately took him up on the offer. We found a spot for Elizabeth and her new friend Christian to sit down, just above the bend of the first northern switchback, and Christian quickly and efficiently ripped off 3/4 of her pant legs. It was amusing to watch both as the deed was done, and Elizabeth’s reaction immediately afterward. To her credit, she did straggle slightly less for a while after, so maybe overheating was a valid excuse.
With that said, Pam was straggling worse than ever. At one point, I heard Rich and Taylor a switchback above us, but as we needed to take longer and longer breaks, I gave up hope of catching up to them. On the other hand, Terri and Garrett weren’t really pulling ahead of us, and we frequently took shade breaks with them. The view back down the mountain was fantastic:
As you can see, we were climbing up to where the trees were much more intermittent, with meadows interspersed. I don’t think we ever got “above” the treeline, but at times the mountainside was just so steep that we emerged into full sun. Despite my promises that each succeeding switchback would bring us one step closer to the top, the trail was just becoming too steep for anyone besides myself to hike for longer than a minute or two before needing a break. For reference, the trailhead was at 6,700 feet. The long bend occurs at about 7,000 feet, and the switchbacks begin at about 7,400 feet. The next 1.4 miles of switchbacks rise a daunting 1,100 feet to 8,500, an average trail grade of 15%. So if it sounds like I’m slamming everyone else for not being as in shape for me, I’m not. It was a very difficult trail and I had been winded by a far easier hike the day before at Inspiration Point. The real wonder was that I still felt so good.
The three of us ended up back in a group with Terri, Garrett and two other girls who were struggling about as much as us with the climb to Delta Lake. The convoy staggered upward slowly along the increasingly sunny trail until we were approaching the final switchback. What little wildlife I saw on the route to Delta Lake was generally from here up – a basic garter snake, a chipmunk that had far too little fear of humans, and soon, the grand prize of the trip. We hiked north through yet another stand of lodgepoles until we reached the third hairpin on the north side. The trail did a near 180 back to the south as it rose more towards Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes, but we were no longer following it. Even if we were past the 3 mile mark, in a way our climb to Delta Lake was just getting started. One half mile remained, if you believe AllTrails. Our challenges: three boulder fields and a 0.2 mile vertical ascent with a largely steady grade between 30 and 40 percent. Jesus, take the wheel.
I led our little pack northbound down some very large steps onto the officially Unmaintained Trail portion of the hike – no park rangers coming to save us now. Immediately, the going became more treacherous – little dips that required you to cling to something to maintain balance, tough footing, big drops, and a huge drop-off always waiting. At one point, Pam lost her footing and fell backwards… right into a fallen tree that prevented her from falling off the drop-off. A few more feet and things could have been Not Good.
The length of each venture before breaks had now broken down entirely into 50-foot jaunts, and I make no joke when I say that. I recognize that that means over the last 0.4 miles off-trail we should have made 42 stops according to The Math, and if anything that may be a low-ball? I do know that I was feeling antsy as hell, worried that somehow Rich and Taylor had blown all the way up to the top of Delta Lake and were going to be coming down past us at any moment. That unease manifested itself in my tendency to bound ahead another 50 feet to the next resting spot, then “guide” the intervening route. This became even more important when we hit the first boulder field, a 50-yard-long cascade of strewn boulders that we had to cross. Now, fortunately, we didn’t have to go too much *up* on loose boulders, but even crossing them on mostly level terms could be treacherous; twisted ankles, missteps, or a rock tumbling underneath you could lead to serious injury. I thrive in such a circumstance, and scrambled across like a mountain goat. It probably took 5 minutes for everyone else to catch up and regain their breath. Then we climbed around the final corner and hit a second, even more intense, boulder field that took longer than before.
This was it. The final home stretch, straight up the approach of Glacier Gulch. Framed on both sides by mountains, the mountainside was a tangle of boulders emerging from the distant ridgeline, surrounding the roaring Glacier Creek off to our right. On the fringes of the gulch, grass and flowers thrived. The approach to Delta Lake glimmered with the promising view of trees just beyond the distant lip of the gulch. I wish I had taken a picture facing up, but at this point everything mentally was committed to the climb and helping Elizabeth’s exhausted family members. You’ll have to extrapolate the view from this look back down:
But the view up was mostly just daunting, coming as it did at such a sharp angle. It became imperative to have something to either brace yourself or something to hold onto in the breathing breaks. Finally, I began huffing and puffing to join everyone else. The sun had climbed disturbingly high in the sky – in fact, it was well past noon. That meant there was a flood of return hikers from Delta Lake encouraging us, letting us know that the top was just 200 meters away. More than one guy told us to get ready to get down on all fours for the final stretch. Indeed they were right; my guiding sessions were spent watching Elizabeth’s family literally crawling their way to the top. One minute on, three minutes off, we sometimes literally just tried to make it like 10 steps up, or from one tree to another. To exacerbate my other concerns, several people were already running low on water, and the day had indeed heated up like I expected. I wanted to find Rich and Taylor just so I could use the life straw in Delta Lake. The top had to be any moment now, right? The trail was beginning to level off. Where was it?
I heard a gurgling stream off to my right. Following the sound of the water, I looked upstream. And I gasped.