When The Mountain Howls

The wind, the breezes, moving air. After forty years of mountaineering I have a thing about the wind. In the high places near the cliffs, the walls, and massive peaks the wind is always moving, first one way and then another. Sometimes the wind is welcome—a cooling elixir on a hot day. At other times it can be utterly dangerous, a steel hand that can lift you up and carry you away.

I’ve been lifted before, pack and all, three of us tossed through the air to land in the frozen talus like rag dolls. It was the summer of 2007, three-thirty in the morning, perhaps one hundred yards above the Exum hut on the exposed ridge-trail leading to the Needle on the Grand Teton.

The gale came of out the northwest like a hammer. Every few steps we bent at the waist, turned slightly into the icy blast and waited for it to stop before struggling up the steep slope only to halt and bend into the wind again.

I had two clients—a woman and a man—neither knew the other. I think the man was from Colorado somewhere and the woman from California but I actually don’t remember much about them except for the woman’s eyes and her demeanor. Fear of the mountains and high places lurked near the surface of her gaze. A gaze that shifted nervously when she spoke about her experiences rock climbing—like her inner fear of heights could snap her self control at any moment.

We were short roped and had slogged most of the way to the Needle when the gust hit us like a run-away train. Two things happened simultaneously: I was picked up and thrown into the dark sky and the woman screamed, a wild, wavering screech of terror. We were slammed face first into the rocks twenty feet off the trail on the eastern side of the ridge. I dug my fingers into the loose talus, turned my head and directed my head lamp at my two clients.

They were also face down in the scree. The gale roared, tugged at my pack, and threatened to roll me and my clients down the slope. “Hold on,” I shouted. The wind tore my words away and jettisoned them into the darkness. Ironically, I could hear the woman screaming, “I’m gonna die! I’m gonna fucking die!”

And then, as suddenly as the gust had hit us, it failed and the mountain fell silent.

I leapt up and helped the woman and man to their feet. “Let’s go! We’ve got to make to the Needle. There is shelter there.”

I turned and marched up the hill moving fast. I pulled hard on the rope. Now was the time for action—we needed to get off this exposed ridge. The woman began to complain, “Why are you climbing so fast? This isn’t any fun.”

And then another gust punched into us. Weightless, I was lifted and thrown down the east side of the ridge again. I landed hard, something blunt knocked the air out of my lungs and my little finger felt like someone had smote it with a hammer. The woman screamed, “I’m going to fucking die,”—over and over—her panic gushing into raging sky.

There was nothing to do but wait for the icy blast to subside. I pulled the rope until I could feel it tug against the woman’s waist, closed my eyes and imagined sipping hot coffee in the warm sunshine at Doornans—the local breakfast joint in Moose, Wyoming. I thought of my daughter and imagined reading “A Kissing Hand” to her when she woke this morning. In the backdrop was the gale and the high pitched scream of the woman.

And then it stopped and I was up and running. I tugged on my clients rope and ran up the slope. We reached the Needle and sheltered among the boulders before the next gust tore across the ridge. It utterly sounded like we were standing next to a jet engine. Air whistled between my teeth as I tried to regain control of my breathing. We had just dashed two hundred meters up a slope at twelve thousand feet. My lungs burned like I had inhaled fire.

The woman and the man were bent at their waists, hands on their knees, their breath puffed white plumes of mist into the light of our headlamps. The woman heaved stale coffee onto the rocks.

The man shook his head, “That was fucking intense.”

I nodded, “I’ve never experienced wind like that before.” And I hadn’t. Not a wind that literally picked you up and tossed you through the sky.

The woman turned her face up and found my eyes with her eyes. “We are not going down are we?”

I turned away, took my pack off and found my water bottle. It was time for “that” discussion. It was time to level with my clients and speak honestly about the situation. Especially in regard to the woman because she had clearly just displayed the inability to stay calm in the face of adversity. I took a sip of water and measured my words carefully.

“The Exum Ridge is out,” I said. “There is no way that we are going to climb out onto that exposed ridge in this wind. Our only option at this point is the Owen Spalding route. But we will have to cross open terrain at the Upper Saddle and that may not be passable under these conditions.”

I explained that the upper saddle was like a funnel that opened up over the four thousand foot north face of the Grand Teton. The wind gusts would be compressed like a wind tunnel. We would have to cross this section very carefully.

“I’ve paid a lot for this,” said the woman. “I want the summit.”

I found her eyes with my eyes. “Then you will have to do exactly as I say. And quite frankly, you need to calm yourself. Loosing it in situations like that just makes the circumstances more dangerous.”

She set her jaw, anger flashed in her eyes. “I am as composed as you are,” she said, with a shaky voice.

I nodded. “Have some water and snacks. We need to move before you start getting cold.”

We scrambled up broken terrain through dripping chimneys. We climbed the Briggs Slab and the Black Rock Chimneys with a belay but otherwise moved together as a rope team. All the while the roar of the wind raged around us. Sometimes fickle gusts found their way into the confines of the chimneys to buffet us – perhaps a harbinger for what was to come at the Upper Saddle. We moved simultaneously up the steep runnels and serrated gullies. In this way we came to the Upper Saddle in perhaps two hours after leaving the confines of the Needle.

I tucked both of my clients under an alcove beneath a boulder while I surveyed the Upper Saddle. The darkness had greyed into the coming dawn. Dark walls rose around us, grey clouds ripped across the sky with the wind moving from west to east. The wind roared like a freight train just a few meager feet above where I stood. I imagined that I could see striations in the thundering air like it was a river passing over the saddle. The flow was fickle: a flash flood one moment then faint the next.

If we could get across the saddle to the start of the Owen Spalding traverse we would be sheltered from the worst of the gale. The key was moving quickly during the lulls to avoid being caught by the rampage of the wind. I sighted on a pocket—a rocky scoop that was tucked in against a short wall about half way to the traverse. If we could make it there, then we could make the traverse on the next go.

I explained what we needed to do to my clients and we prepared to run. We edged near the tumult and waited. Then, after what seemed many minutes the thundering stilled and we ran for it…but not for long. The woman choked, the rope pulled tight against my hand and I turned to face her.

She was bent at the waist, chest heaving, “I can’t…,” and then the train hit us. I was lifted for the third time that morning and thrown toward the four thousand foot North face of the Grand Teton. The woman screeched like she was being drawn and quartered with electrified knives.

Face down in the freezing rocks I thought of my daughter, my wife…here I was at thirteen thousand feet with the jet stream trying to toss me into the void and I was tied to a client who was completely unglued to the core. And then the wind stilled.

In an instant I was up and pulled on the woman with the rope who was still flat on her face screaming into the rocks. “Get up!” I shouted, “We’ve got to move!”

But she remained prone, face down in the scree. I bent over to take her by the waist but the next blast of wind was on us and I collapsed in the scree next to her to wait out the rampage.

When the blast stilled. I lifted the woman onto her feet and half carried her back down to the protection of the rocks just before the next surge in the gale.

“I’m sorry, “ I said. “We gave it our best shot but we are going to turn around and go down.”

The woman wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I paid thousands of dollars to climb the Grand Teton. Its your job to get me to the top.”

The man just stared off into the raging sky. I could tell he was angry and if it was just him, I knew that we would already be at the traverse sheltered from the wind. But it wasn’t just him and I and I couldn’t leave the woman behind. No guide worth his salt would leave a client sitting on the mountain. We either summited as a team or failed as a team. That was it.

I was sick of the woman. She had no idea where she was or how quickly her place on the planet could change in an instant. People died on this mountain every year because of the lack of judgement, group complacency, or because of poor decisions made by the group leader or god forbid, the guide.

I’ve looked into the eyes of injured climbers and seen the desperation when they finally realize just how far from help they really are. I’ve lead my clients around the blood spatter and brain matter where the day before an entire rope team had bounced down the Exum ridge to their collective deaths and massive injury. I’ve watched the park service airlift bodies off the Grand Teton in a cargo net hanging off the bottom of a chopper.

One year earlier I had, along with two other guides and a park ranger, literally carried an injured climber from this very location down a thousand feet to the Lower Saddle where the victim was air lifted to the valley floor. The climber had rappelled off the ends of the rope, fallen forty feet, crashed down several ledges, tearing the flesh from the bone on one arm—the white, glistening bone of the upper arm was completely exposed when we found her. We had risked our lives to carry that climber down to the Lower Saddle. A task that required negotiating a thousand feet of climbing throughout the night in one of the worst storms of the summer. A storm that left the Grand Teton shrouded in several inches of hard water ice by the coming of dawn.

I saw the frustration in the woman’s face and I understood it. She had no doubt worked really hard and spent a lot of money to get here but she was not mentally prepared for what the day entailed. “I’m sorry,” I said. “The mountain is not going anywhere. You can always come back. Exum might even have an opening in the next few days and maybe by then the weather will have stabilized.”

“This is bullshit. I’m not asking. I’m telling you, goddamn it. Its your fucking job!”

The wind roared interrupting our exchange.

When the wind stilled I nodded toward the upper saddle. “You froze in the worst possible place. We were blown within a few feet of a four thousand foot wall. If we’d flown any further we’d all be dead now. And when I needed you to move you refused. This isn’t the day for you. We’re going down.”

But she wasn’t done. “You’re the fucking guide. I’m the fucking client. I say when I’m fucking through. Not you.”

“This is not a democracy. We are going down. That’s it!”

I took the rope in my left hand, stepped around her and started down. A couple hours later, just before we reached the Needle, the sun finally came out from behind the clouds. The wind still raged but the magnitude of it had died down somewhat. Unfortunately, with the sun came an elevation of the woman’s tirade.

I was a pussy, a fucking asshole, a whimp-ass guide. I listened to it for the seven miles and five thousand foot descent back to the valley floor. At the parking area I wished her well and reminded her that she could speak to the management if she felt that I had done a poor job of guiding her.

I apologized to the man and suggested that he come back. I felt bad about the situation but there was not much I could do about it.

Later, back at the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch where I was rooming for the summer with my daughter, I hugged her extra tight and barbecued steaks for dinner. I watched her running in the wild flowers in a white dress and loved every minute of our time. I read to her that night before she fell to sleep—you guessed it—“A Kissing Hand.” In the darkness I listened to her breath thankful to be home.

Post-Script:

A few years later a good friend of mine, who was a senior Exum guide, died while soloing the complete Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton. Searchers found his broken body in the talus field at the bottom of the climb. The Exum Ridge is a one-thousand-foot-long exposed knife edge and there is no where to go if the lightening comes or the wind blows. No one will ever know exactly what happened to him because he was alone when the accident occurred. A hold could have broken or he may have been hit by a falling rock, but I think that the wind blew him off the edge. On the day of the accident the wind was gusting on the mountain like a son-of-a-bitch.

Note: This story is based on true events. Some of the dialogue may not be the exact words spoken that day but the authenticity of the voices was maintained. The names were omitted because I can’t remember them but I would have withheld them anyway so as not to embarrass the woman.

I withheld the name of the guide who was killed out of respect to the family and the fact that when I say his name the sorrow I feel is still too intense for me to deal with. Even though he was not guiding any clients when he died, his death exemplifies the seriousness of climbing the Grand Teton.

Guiding the Grand is a serious undertaking given the objective dangers: lightening, rock fall, wind, etc. However, the clients can be just as dangerous as any objective hazard encountered on the mountain.

 

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