Photo: Chillin’ on the summit of the South Teton 12, 519 feet with a view of the Grand Teton, Wyoming, July 2019.
I stepped onto the steep snowfield, beginning a traverse to the Northwest Couloir and my goal: the summit of the South Teton. The bright, early morning sun of July 16, 2019 had touched the top of the snowfield inviting me with its warmth and made the snow soft, easy to kick steps. Below my intended route, the snow slope fell away at a steepening angle into the shadow, cold and hard. Fear touched my mind saying, “If you lose your footing, self-arrest may not be possible.” Kick, step, plunge the shaft of my ice axe into the snow and repeat. I committed and now the voice simply said, “Do not fall.”
My first alpine solo was the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboo Range of British Columbia, Canada. I still remember the adrenaline rush climbing the knife-edged ridge soaring above the glacier and the exposed hand traverse to the summit. It was 1974, I was 20 years old and never felt so alive.
From the east faces of the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado to the Upper Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton in Wyoming, I have soloed over a dozen easy routes over the last 45 years. They all have one thing in common—falling is not an option. I have experienced a level of awareness and satisfaction not found in roped climbing. I do it for the reward, knowing full well the risk.
Climbing is dangerous, soloing is dangerous and I am dangerous. If you climb long enough, either roped or unroped, you will make bad decisions. Mark Twain said, “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.” Research suggest that 80% of all climbing accidents are directly attributable to human error. We are all guilty of bad judgement. The other 20%? Shit happens.
On my two day solo of South Teton I met two parties that were unprepared or lacked the experience to safely climb their intended routes. I did not tell them what they should do, rather I spent time talking about their routes, experience, equipment and the importance of making good decisions. What I told them was true, kind, necessary and helpful. I had an impact and that feels good, perhaps even more so than safely soloing the South Teton.