Photo: Grand Teton summit, Charlie and Steve Markusen, July 2019
Forty feet below the summit of the Grand Teton we paused as a gaggle of Exum guides and clients passed by us on their descent. It was 9:30 in the morning on July 27, 2019. My son Charlie and I had left Petzoldt’s Caves at 3 am, making fast work ascending the two mile, 3000 foot approach, and 1500 feet of technical rock climbing on the Upper Exum Ridge. The morning sun bathed the mountain and the rugged Teton Range in soft light. Stretching out 7000 feet below, was the flat expanse of Jackson Hole. The landmarks on the valley floor were old friends: the braided Snake River, Timbered Island, Blacktail Butte, the Gros Ventre Slide and Jackson Lake. To the southeast, over 50 miles distant, were the snow covered peaks of the Wind River Range and to the West, over 100 miles away, the Pioneer Mountains of Idaho. The air was cool, but light winds allowed the sun to ward us from the chill. We spent a comfortable 30 minutes alone on the summit, unusual for that time of day and year. As Charlie and I soaked in the view and reveled in our accomplishment, my mind wandered to day in the distant past.
Photo: Grand Teton summit, Dave and Steve Markusen, July 1969
It was 9:30 in the morning as I followed Exum guide Herb Swedlund to the summit of the Grand, my father, Dave Markusen, behind me. It was July 1969 and at 15 years old, this was my first alpine climb and summit. It was a glorious day: the views, the weather, the climbing, and the summit with my dad. Herb was special: competent, kind and mischievous. When he complemented me on my climbing, I burst with pride. On the descent, he cut every switchback—there are seven—on the trail from Garnet Canyon to Lupine Meadows—totally illegal.
My father was the first generation of Markusens to develop an interest in mountaineering and rock climbing. In his late 40’s, he met a coworker at Honeywell, a German mountaineer named Hans. My father and Hans climbed Mt. Rainier and Mt Baker. I remember Hans saying in his heavy German accent, “once you start, you just don’t stop.” This became my mantra for climbing. As a teenager, I traveled a risky path hanging out with the wrong crowd. I believe out of concern for me, my father introduced me to climbing. While it didn’t completely change my behavior, it put me on a different path and became a lifelong passion.
We drove out to Jackson in our powder blue 1966 Buick Skylark; no freeways, only two lane roads. It took us three days from Minneapolis. We crossed the Missouri River on the old bridge at Chamberlain, visited the South Dakota Badlands, stopped for gas in dusty Lusk, Wyoming, and drove over Togwotee Pass into that life changing panorama of the Tetons, rising dramatically above the Jackson Hole valley. We stayed at the Bar BC Ranch, a historic dude ranch located on the banks of the Snake River within Grand Teton National Park. I remember exploring along the bank of the river and coming upon an oxbow of crystal clear water filled with dozens of 18 inch trout.
The town of Jackson was sleepy back then. You could make a U-turn at mid-day on North Cache Street, the main road into town, and no one would blink an eye. Teton Mountaineering was in an old house just southeast of the town square. Hidden in an alley around the corner was a single window in a wall. Behind that window was a small elfish man with long hair and braided beard selling wonderful smelling pastries from Bru’s Bunnery.
I was fortunate to do two more climbing trips with my father: to the Wind River Range in 1973 and the Canadian Bugaboo Range in 1974. Tragically, he died in rappelling accident in August 1974. I was there. It took years for that wound to heal. The scar will be with me until I die.
Charlie represents the third generation of climbers. Like all my five kids, he started climbing at the rock gym at an early age. I never pushed climbing on any of my kids. It is a dangerous sport. It killed their grandfather and almost killed me. No parent wants their son or daughter to come home in box or disappear forever into the hall of the mountain king. However, I had a feeling that climbing might be good for Charlie: a positive way to feed an appetite for risk.
Photo: sunrise on Wall Street, Upper Exum Rigde
In 2015, I asked Charlie what he wanted to do for his 18th birthday. He said, “Climb the Grand.” Ten months prior I almost died soloing the Upper Exum Ridge. Perhaps he knew I needed to go back. My son Max joined us in Jackson and the three of us climbed the Upper Exum Ridge to the summit of the Grand in August of 2015. I look back and now see this was a life changing experience for Charlie. Over the next four years, at college at the University of Santa Clara, he grew and matured both as a climber and a man. He is a stronger, faster and a better climber than me. More importantly, he approaches the sport in a thoughtful manner; gaining skill and experience at a measured pace. On the Grand this year he was the leader. I pointed the way, he took the lead. I could not have asked for a better climbing partner.
Photo: Charlie leading the “V-Pitch”, Upper Exum Ridge
Then there is me in the middle, the second generation, the link between Chrome Moly pitons and spring loaded camming devices. I was born in 1954, a year after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norkay became the first men to stand on the summit of Mt Everest, the highest point on Earth. I have watched the sport evolve from fringe to mainstream; from snap shots to gopro. I am proud to have played a small part in the sport over the last 50 years. The memories flood my mind: big walls, expeditions, frozen waterfalls, multi-pitch rock climbs, alpine rock and ice. The sport of climbing has given me so much.
I keep saying I have retired from climbing. Paragliding and backcountry powder skiing are my current passions. Yet, I keep coming back to that golden rock and blue ice. I gave up leading ice in 2011, but with the encouragement of a younger co-worker I was back leading ice climbs in 2017. I retired from difficult (my definition) rock and alpine climbing in 2009, However, last year Charlie and I swapped leads on the Grand Teton Direct Petzoldt/Upper Exum enchainment. This year I am following Charlie on moderately difficult rock climbs in the Tetons and Wind River Ranges.
It’s time to quit with the retirement BS. There are still two generations of Markusens climbing; along with the spirit of a third.