Backpacking the grand tetons

by Kim on August 1, 2012 · 47 comments

The day before we were scheduled to hike the Teton Crest Trail Brian and I arrived at the Grand Teton National Park ranger station to pick up our backpacking permits.

When we spoke to the ranger about the trail conditions she told us that some of the mountain passes we’d planned to take were still heavily socked in with snow. We should carry ice axes and crampons, she advised.

Do you know how to use an ice axe?” she asked me.

I know how to use an ice axe in theory.”

The ranger nodded. “Perhaps you should consider changing your route?”


We met up with our backpacking crew at a coffee shop in Jackson, Wyoming. Jason and Gillian had flown from Calgary expecting to hike the Teton Crest Trail. Eric, whom Jason and Gillian had met on a boat in Turkey, was also expecting to hike that specific route. I was nervous to tell them that I had made the decision to change our plans without consulting them first.

Our new route looked like this:

We’d park one car at the Death Canyon trailhead and the other at the Jenny Lake trailhead. On our first day out we’d hike seven miles and camp in the Death Canyon camp zone. Day two would find us hiking eight and a half miles onto the Death Canyon Shelf and camping in the Alaska Lakes Basin. On day three we would hike up and over Hurricane Pass. We’d spend our final night camping at South Fork Cascade.  Finally, on day four, we would hike back to the car and celebrate like nobody’s business.

I relayed the news of our altered route to the group. “Will we still be hiking on Death Canyon Shelf?” Gillian asked. I said we would. “Then it sounds great to me.” The others agreed. I was saved from mutiny.

Day One: Death Canyon Trailhead to the Death Canyon Camping Zone

Our first steps into the Tetons

Day one was a seven mile up and down climb. We gained 1,300 feet of elevation before finally reaching Death Canyon.

The walk up into the Death Canyon camping zone

When we entered the camping zone we quickly found a campsite and began cooking dinner. Before long we realized that we were not alone. Four curious marmots were sneaking into camp to steal our sweaty socks and bandannas. The marmots were fearless. We’d throw rocks and run at them to chase them from camp but nothing scared them away.

In the early morning I awoke to a marmot dragging my shoes outside the vestibule of our tent. As we packed up a few hours later we inventoried the damage: one chewed camera strap, one hole nibbled in a shirt, and a dozen tiny holes stamped into the rain fly of our tent.

At least they weren’t bears.

Day Two: Death Canyon Camping Zone to Alaska Lakes Basin

The view looking up at Death Canyon Shelf

On day two we climbed up to Death Canyon Shelf. The climb up was tough but the view from the shelf was amazing. We sat to admire the vista and eat our lunch of peanut butter and jelly, trail mix and a snickers bar. Delicious.

The trail skirts along the shelf and then drops down into a lakes basin. The snow on this portion of the trail was still thick.

Taking the easy way and sliding down snowfields

Camp on night two was astounding. We set up our tents on gigantic rocks overlooking an unnamed lake. From our vantage we could look west through the divide in the mountains and south at the peak of Buck Mountain.

Camp in the Alaska Lakes Basin

It was a long day on the trail and everyone turned in early. Brian and I stayed outside to wait for the full moon to rise. Slowly the stars appeared as a setting sun lit the surrounding mountains with a warm glow. It was July 4th, Independence Day, and I’d never felt so free.

The sun sets and a full moon prepares to rise

Day three: Alaska Lakes Basin to South Fork Cascade

Climbing up Hurricane Pass

On our third day we tackled Hurricane Pass, a tough six and a half mile climb. For months before we left our jobs Brian had a picture of the Grand Tetons taken from Hurricane Pass in his cubicle. The photo was his reminder of what we were working for.

After a climb that felt like hours we crested Hurricane Pass and the Grand Tetons came into view. I turned to watch Brian’s reaction. He said nothing but a wide grin spread across his face and his eyes were damp with tears.

The Tetons from Hurricane Pass

Brian takes in the Tetons

As we settled down for our final night in the Tetons I asked Brian what he’d though about seeing that picture in his cubicle come to life before his eyes. He said that the experience had exceeded all of his expectations. “Even though I’d been starting at that picture for months, nothing compares to seeing it in real life,” he said. “The beauty of it blew me away.”

Day Four: South Fork Cascade to the Jenny Lake Trailhead

A cloudy view of Jenny Lake

We were in exceptionally high spirits on the morning of our fourth day, chatting about the beer and food that awaited us back in Jackson.

After 31 miles on the trail we emerged from the forest dirty but elated, hopped in the car and drove directly to a local restaurant where we raised our glasses to a successful few days in the mountains.

Celebrating a successful backpacking trip

Galileo said that he loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. I would add that I love the mountains too fondly to be dissuaded by the climb, the morning breeze too fondly to be troubled by the chill.

Backpacking is hard work. It rewards you with sore muscles and a stiff back. You have to poop in the woods.

But backpacking is renewal. The act of backpacking, of living outside for just a few days, always reminds me that we- the humans, the marmots, the mosquitos and, yes, even the grizzlies- are part of a beautiful and intricate web.

Natures provides. All she asks in return is that we lace up our boots and walk to her.