Britta looks down from her rappel to see Ben and I standing on solid ground. A smile of respite curls across her face. This day started 14 hours ago in the dark of night, and we still have 4 long hours ahead of us, but it feels good to know we are on solid ground.

We’re in Wyoming’s Teton Range, lost in a sea of boulders 13,000 feet up in the air. We spent most of the day hiking up here, and now our only concern is getting down.

7:30 am

The first part of the hike flew by. Britta and I left the parking lot around 5 am, using our headlamps for the first 30 or so minutes before the sun started peaking over the eastern horizon. I just met Britta for the first time last night, so I think it was the conversation that made the time seem to fly by quickly.

Our plan was to meet Ben at the camp sites where he was sleeping, then to continue up with him to the base of Petzoldt’s Ridge – a less-traveled, moderate 5.7 route that shoots up towards the summit of the Grand Teton from the south. We would connect the top of the route with Exum Ridge, the more popular route, and ride that up to the true summit.

11:30 am

The next four hours bring us to the lower saddle – a ridge line that extends south of the Grand Teton and connects with its next closest peak in that direction, Middle Teton. These hours pass by more slowly. The August sun rises high in the sky and burns hot despite the thin air of the alpine. We rest our legs and refuel every hour, being sure to drink some water, eat calories, and check on each other.

We wandered off-trail and stumbled upon one of the guide tents. It was bustling with climbers taking lessons, guides maintaining equipment. One guide pointed us back towards the trail, and we were back on track after just a little bit of lost time.

From the lower saddle we have one more eastward traverse across a spanning talus field before we reach the starting point of our climb.

3:00 pm

3rd pitch out of 4. My lead. As we get higher on the ridge, the wind picks up more and more. We spend a few minutes studying the map and the guide book, and I start off feeling good. I methodically place 3 pieces of solid gear and climb through the window feature I was expecting. I look for the ledge that is supposed to come next. I hop on the first ledge I see and make my way out.

I see some nuts and a red sling left by a previous party. I have this inkling that I’m off-route, as the gear in front of me looks like something to bail off of. I prod upwards past the bail gear, finding no protection. The climbing gets harder; it feels like 5.10. I down climb and test another direction. This one looks doable, but still feels insecure and doesn’t have any protection.

I see where I need to go. It’s a 20 foot climb from this ledge to the top of the face, and that will put me back on route, so I take a deep breath and send it. The climbing is strenuous, but positive, and falling doesn’t cross my mind. With pumped arms, I pull myself over the top of the face and find myself back on-route.

I didn’t have the chance to communicate with Britta and Ben that I went the wrong way, so they follow my error and the detour costs us more time than expected.

5:50 pm

With haste in our movement, Ben leads us up the final pitch. We reach the top of our route, but there is no taste of summit glory. In the distance we see afternoon storms rolling around, and much of the light on the horizon falls behind the dark, threatening clouds. Instead of connecting the top of Petzoldt’s Ridge to the Upper Exum and climbing 4 more pitches to the summit like our original plan, we decide to search for an alternative exit, hoping to get off the vertical rock before dark.

Big rocks look different up close. We spend another 30 minutes deliberating the route because none of us are sure where exactly we are or where to go. With storms and the darkness of night knocking on our door, Ben ropes up and casts off across the unknown gully in search of the next ridge line.

7:00 pm

Ben and his enthusiasm leads us across two unknown pitches, both easy but exposed 4th class terrain. We find a rappel station slung around a boulder. We talk about our options, lay out risks of rappelling down to an unknown area, and we decide to send one person down to try it out Ben goes first.

I can tell Britta’s flame is fading with the sunlight, and mine isn’t far behind. Ben shouts from below that he found another rappel station.

I lead us down the second rappel, again hoping to find another section to bring us down to more horizontal ground. My eyes light up as I see an inviting bright red sling around a horn. This next rappel leads into a gully that looks walkable. I bring my partners down and lead the final rappel.

8:00 pm

Ben and I am standing on (semi) horizontal ground and Britta is finishing off the last rappel. I snap this picture. Four dark hours later we are back at the camp site, stomachs full of warm rice and mashed potatoes. I lay down and let the black void behind my exhaustion engulf me.

Oh, the Alpine. The few times we’ve met, you’ve exposed my weaknesses without hesitation and forced me into places I didn’t want to go, both in my mind and on the rock. I am my best and my worst in your grasp. You expose the frailties of my mind much like the cliffs on which my body stands. Everything about you is a bit more natural, a bit more beautiful. I am drawn to you, and I have much to learn.

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