Featured photo: Buck Mountain in winter. Credit Jinrui Qu
I step out of the pine forest into the meadow, touched by the first light of a new day. After three days of heavy rain, the air smells cool and clean. On a ridge marking the far side of the meadow, the silhouette of two elk. They raise their heads, look at me, turn and bound off into the forest. I hike through grasses, sage and dying flowers. It is August 22, 2021 and it smells like fall. Movement catches my attention: a yearling black bear rummaging through the brush. He turns and rising on his hind legs, looks at me, sniffs the air and ambles away. I turn toward the rising sun smiling. Happy. I wasn’t planning on soloing the East Face of Buck Mountain, but here I am and I am not alone.
Photo: Happy. Solo, but not alone
I had a partner lined up for a two week climbing and hiking trip in the Tetons and Wind River Range of Wyoming. On the first day smoke choked the valley followed by two days of heavy rain and snow on the high peaks. On the third day, my partner bailed and headed back to Colorado.
Alpine climbing, like life, requires flexibility: adapting to changing circumstances, adverse conditions and unpredictable human behavior. In fifty years of climbing, I have learned when things go bad, maintain a positive attitude and have a backup plan; keep moving and stay safe.
Plan B. I call my friend John who spends summers with his wife in Jackson Hole. Retired from a very successful career, he is a volunteer ranger at Grand Teton National Park. Earlier in the week John invited me to go on patrol with him. I am taking his offer.
The next day John and I head up from Lupine meadows to Delta Lake. White and grey clouds screen the high peaks, but blue sky blossoms over the valley; the air clear of smoke from western wildfires. John and I first met at the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch in 1971. Together we climbed many of the classic Teton alpine climbs in the 1970s including the East Ridge of the Grand Teton, Koven Route on Mt. Owen, and CMC route on Mt. Moran. Piercing blue eyes, a stock of unruly hair and legs like young oak trees, John was a force of nature. At 71, his hair is white and long; craggy face lined, but the blue eyes still shine.
Photo: John on the climber’s trail above Delta Lake
Up the switchbacks we hike. I work hard to match his pace. In his faded cap and ranger greens, John frequently stopped to talk with hikers, check a camping permit or to pick up trash. While I would have preferred to not stop, I had to be flexible. I was on patrol. We hike to Delta Lake then make our way up a climbers trail into Glacier Gorge; the pristine wilderness and solitude a welcome respite from the crowds. A steep climb and exposed traverse lead to Amphitheater Lake. We hiked and talked for six hours about the past, our current lives and the future. It was an unexpectedly marvelous day.
Photo: Delta Lake and the East face of the Grand Teton shrouded in cloud.
The next day I found myself in the meadow below Buck Mountain. Buck stands isolated from the main gaggle of Teton summits. Its majestic mass, separated to the north by Avalanche Canyon and south by Death Canyon, rises over a mile above Jackson Hole. In the winter, the East flank of Buck is home to some of the finest backcountry skiing in the U.S. There is no easy access to Buck by maintained trail. You find your way from valley to the base of the 1500 foot East Face on old horse trails and game tracks.
It is a clear morning, but more rain and snow are forecast after 12 noon for the high peaks. I am racing the clock. A fast pace up the old rough horse trail in Stewart’s Draw brings me to the headwall below Timberline Lake. Stepping softly, I carefully traverse an arduous, unstable scree field to a grove of noble Ponderosa pine. Four hours from the trailhead, I step into the open alpine tundra above Timberline Lake. Above me looms the East Face of Buck: a sobering 1500 vertical feet of steep chutes, grassy ledges and rocky cliffs.
Photo: The East face of Buck Mountain. Credit Acroterion
It’s 10:30 am, clouds are already building—decision time. I look at the sky; still patches of blue over the summit. Be flexible I told myself, go for it, but if the summit clouds up, turn back. I head up the faint trail to the steep chute piercing the two hundred foot cliff band protecting the upper face. Labored breathing, slower pace. A misstep could be fatal. Keep moving, be safe.
The summit is cold and windy; patches of new snow huddle between rock outcrops. Fall has come to the high peaks. Wanting to be down below timberline and past the nasty scree field before it rains, I take a few moments to enjoy the view and snap a picture. The descent is tricky and complicated by patches of fresh snow and wet rock.
Photo: New snow on the Grand Teton from the summit of Buck Mountain. Another storm coming.
Dropping below timberline, I pass the scree field to safety. Green grass and a dancing stream offer a place to rest, eat and drink. Serenity. Out of the woods prances a fox, resplendent in dark grey and brown coat. Close on his heels comes another fox, smaller, petite with gorgeous orange, white and brown fur. They stop…look at me and sniff. I am motionless; humbled and filled with awe to be in the presence of such beautiful creatures. They run circles around me, chasing each other bounding effortlessly from boulder to grassy hummock. Silently they vanish back into the woods.
An hour from my car, lightning flashes, thunder rolls and rain falls in torrents. As I approach the meadow the sky lightens. A cinnamon brown bear, oblivious to my presence, roots for food. Not wishing to surprise her, I call out, “Hi honey bear. How are you?” (When by myself I talk to animals.) She turns, rises on her hind legs, fore legs dangling at her chest. She gives me the look. Again, I call out, “Hi honey bear. I’m just passing through.” Deciding I’m no threat, she drops to all fours and shuffles away.
It rains all afternoon and night. The next morning dawns clear in the valley. Clouds circle the high peaks, but sunshine works its way through cracks in the clouds highlighting a foot of new snow above 10,000 feet. I break camp heading for the laundromat in town. Dry out, pack up and head south to the Wind River Range for my next adventure. One more week to stay flexible, keep moving and be safe.
Photo: Storming in the Tetons