Grand Teton Vs. Cancer: Owen Spalding Route

In July 2018, Alyson and Nathan will travel to Grand Teton National Park and attempt to summit its tallest peak, Grand Teton, at 13,776 feet. They will do so to raise awareness for pediatric cancer and funds for Vs. Cancer. They will blog their training and trip on www.alycatswalkabout.com. You can contribute to their campaign here.

By: Nathan Rode

Welcome back, friends. It’s been a little bit since we’ve had an update on Grand Teton Vs. Cancer, but we’ll certainly be picking up the pace now. Last summer, we announced that we would attempt to summit Grand Teton to raise awareness for pediatric brain cancer and funds for Vs. Cancer and Duke Children’s Hospital. Saying and doing are two completely different things, but right after the New Year, we took an important step toward reaching our goal. On Jan. 3, Grand Teton National Park opened the process for reserving permits for backcountry camping. To stay overnight in the backcountry of the park, you have to have a permit. While it’s possible to summit Grand Teton without spending a night, it’s not easy—relatively speaking of course.

Before the permit process opened, Alyson had a conversation with a park ranger, who suggested we try to get a permit to camp at the Lower Saddle. If we couldn’t, we’d just work our way down the mountain until we secured an available site. Fortunately, we were able to get a permit for two nights at the Lower Saddle, which sits at approximately 11,600 feet. The summit is at 13,776. That means two things—first, we have dates! Our permit is good for July 17-19, giving us two attempts at the summit if we only hike to the Lower Saddle on our first day. Second, we’re less than six months out from the expedition, so it’s time to start training and planning!

Throughout the spring, we’ll have updates about the team making the trip, our training and visits to Duke Children’s Hospital. Somehow, we’ll squeeze all this in between our usually busy schedules with work.

For now, we’ll talk just a little about the route to the summit of Grand Teton. There are several ways to the top, but we’ll be going with the most popular one—the Owen Spalding route. It is named for two of the men credited with pioneering the route—William O. Owen and Franklin Spalding.

According to Mountain Project, a site that provides route information for climbs all over the world, Owen Spalding has a grade of 5.4. That number probably means nothing to you if you haven’t been climbing. There are a few different grading systems. The Yosemite Decimal System has five classes of climbing with the fifth class being technical climbing, which involves certain physical moves and the need for protective equipment in case of a fall. Climbing Grand Teton falls into that fifth category, but a 5.4 rating is pretty easy. I recently climbed a 5.5 route in a gym with my right arm in a sling, rendering it useless. Nonetheless, the challenge of this route won’t be its rating. It will be the elevation and exposure, which refers to the open space around a climber. Climbing a short wall in the corner of a gym lacks exposure. Get higher up or go outside where you can see for miles and a mental challenge can arise. You’re still hooked in and safe, but your brain could be telling you otherwise.

Our summit attempt will start very early in the morning, as we hope to be on our way back down by noon to avoid potential afternoon storms. From our camp at the Lower Saddle, we’ll hike to the Upper Saddle at 13,160 feet. There, we’ll rope up and continue to what is known as the belly crawl. It is, as stated on Mountain Project, “an obvious and well-named feature. It is a ledge not more than 18 (inches) wide with an overhang above. The exposure here is very exciting.”

I haven’t been there yet, but exciting might not be the word I’ll use. To be sure, this entire trip is going to be hard, but the hardest part for Alyson and I might be this portion. It’s a mental challenge. The thought of scooting ourselves across a rock with nothing but air for 2,000 feet below us, is…well, it’s something. See for yourself. There are plenty of videos on YouTube.

After the belly crawl, we’ll climb a series of chimneys, or narrow vertical gaps, and be just a short distance from the summit. To get back down, we have to complete a 120-foot rappel to the Upper Saddle.

Simple as that.

Our permit gives us a maximum of three chances at the summit, and that’s only if we’re feeling ambitious and try to summit the same day we hike in from the parking lot. The likely scenario is that we’ll hike to the Lower Saddle, set up camp and make our first attempt the following day. Should anything prevent us from reaching the summit, we’ll have another chance the next day. We would have to hike all the way back out that day, but if that’s what it takes to complete our goal, so be it.

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