Within Teton Range: Part I
By Fletcher McDonald
I’ve been mountaineering all my life, I tell myself, and I’ve never seen a mountain I couldn’t climb.
The Grand Teton stands in front of me, all 13,775 ft. of it; jagged edges and rocky aretes, the namesake of the Teton Range, a small part of the Rocky Mountains.
My view isn’t a common one; most visitors to Grand Teton National Park are actually traveling through or nearby, to Yellowstone National Park, which holds its own wonders. This view, from the west of the Grand Teton, requires an unsurprisingly western approach.
The backside of the range is actually not in the park; the park ends at the continental divide. To get here required a trip across the mountain range into Idaho before you once again loop back into Wyoming, driving up paved roads into dirt ones bordered by old tree growth and verdant shrubbery, camping at similarly well-forested campsites, traversing the easy ravines and canyons that lead back up towards the highest part of the continent.
Thousands, rather millions of years ago, great tectonic plates collided, forcing these mountains up and out of the earth, and subsequent millions of years of wind and rain and melting snow have done little to soften them. The Rocky Mountains rise out of the earth as sharp as a knife’s edge in many places.
Here it is no different.
There are bears here, they say, and mountain lions. This is unpopulated wilderness, but the trails are well maintained, though the landmarks are poorly-named. I stand on Table Mountain. To the north is Granite Basin, named likely for the granite therein. South of me, Alaska Basin with its accompanying glacier, likely named for the cold. Or something.
Much further south is Granite Canyon, a short hike from the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I imagine the canyon is named thus for significant amounts of granite therein.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Much closer than Granite Canyon, further south than Alaska Basin, lay Death Canyon.
I’ve never been there, but I, also, have never died.
The easiest route for the Grand Teton is rated at a 5.7. I’m not ready for that climb. I’ve summited enough mountains, thus far in my life; the Grand Teton is a bit much for me right now, alone and unprepared, and so I’ve traveled to the backcountry. There are plenty of trails here and I have plenty of time for the Grand Teton, later.
While deciding to postpone such an unprepared foray into the unknown, I slowly settle on nearby Table Mountain, gaining roughly 5,000 feet of elevation over an easy seven miles of trail.
I camp. I cook food over an open fire. I drink copious amounts of whiskey, alone and comfortably quiet. I heat water, toss some in a thermos to be used the next morning for coffee and some in a cup filled with oats and brown sugar for the morning; then I go to sleep.
My dreams are filled with tall pines and green ferns carpeting a forest floor, breaking for small meadows and lakes filled with jumping fish. On the other side of a lake I see a mature buck with a decent rack of antlers, and we make eye contact before he darts into the bush. My feet carry me onward and upward, forest no longer breaking, pine towering above me and pine needle crunching beneath my foot, and I know that I’m dreaming.
And I sleep in, having not set an alarm, having turned my phone off. I wake to rays of light creeping through cracks in my tent’s rainfly and for this and other reasons, I rouse easily, quickly, and surely, drawn upright and out by the lure of coffee and oatmeal and the open air.
I double-check my pack, filled with water bottles and tasty snacks and a box of mixed .357 ammunition, target loads and man-stopping hollowpoints.
I take pictures but pictures don’t do this justice. It’s not just a scenic view, rather a scenic landscape, surrounding me in all directions. To the south, the sheer rock walls of what I can only assume is Death Canyon rise in surprisingly stark contrast to the comparatively gentle slopes of the nearby glacier-carved slopes and runoff-eroded valleys. Great lodgepole pines rise tall above the earth, providing a canopy of sorts that I doubt will protect me from the elements in case of rain.
I do my best to not traipse through the waist high fields of wildflowers I travel through, but the trail is deserted, and if I did. . . on the edge of a clearing, a large rock and copse of trees flank the trail on both sides.
A low level of generally inanimate life, the pine and bush and fern, prehistoric DNA guiding their life and what passes for their love; pushed and pulled and consumed by the various herbivores and omnivores that survive and thrive here.
In their midst I tread, a hairless ape, a world away from the homes of my ancestors, and for the first time in the wilderness, alone and armed with a firearm, ostensibly for protection from bears.
My gaze roams the landscape at random, drawn to an eagle soaring high, the beautiful wildflowers that flank either side of the path.
My pace slows, my hackles, the hairs on the back of my neck rise imperceptibly. Imperceptible, to me. Very imperceptibly.
Then, oh, so slightly.
I hear birds chirp in the distance, fifty yards away. I see the brush, waist-high, sway gently and rhythmically in the wind. My eyes are drawn to a particular bit of greenery, no different from the rest a hundred yards around me, at the base of the massive rock to my front.
My hand moves from easy rest at my side to the rubber handgrip and steel of my revolver, my thumb releasing the snap on the holster and I draw my weapon.
This happens in a half-second, second at the most. My eyes don’t leave the offending flora. A hundred yards around me, every single plant sways rhythmically in the breeze, almost as one, almost like the thousands of leaves, branches, fronds are a single organism, each subtle gust of wind a gentle breath giving life to the surrounding landscape,
Except for one small set of bushes, nestled in the embrace of a curving, half-buried boulder.
This pile of brush moves as well, though much less so, unnaturally so, than its compatriots near and far.
Sheltered from the wind, perhaps, I think, noting the boulder and the trees nearby. I pull a few leaves from a wildflower, maiming this beautiful creation of both nature and God for the probative value of discerning current wind direction.
And so I toss the leaves into the wind, and they scatter, drifting to and fro on the gentle breeze, drifting in the exact direction of the suspicious flora.
No, not sheltered from the wind. My thumb again moves, cocking the hammer on my revolver. I’ve loaded it with manstoppers, 157-grain hollow point ammunition. They would stop anything flesh and blood, really, through exsanguination, blood loss resulting from the kinetic impact and expansion of the ordinance and cell rupture from the accompanying cavitation wave.
They would end anything through exsanguination, eventually, if vital organs were damaged significantly enough. If nerves held, if accuracy was maintained, if round after round from the seven chambers in my S&W 686+ hit their mark.
Likewise, a large enough omnivore could end me easily enough, through similar means using hardware not manufactured, bought, and carried but rather built-in, grown-in, and selected for by millions of years of selection pressure and selective breeding.
I have teeth, but not those kind of teeth. I remember as a boy, my father would take me to museums. The predators of the Rocky Mountain range seemed so large and intimidating to a young child, yet so harmless, stuffed and taxidermied into lifelike but harmless caricatures of their once-dangerous selves.
We had hunted the same predators, a few times, 30.06 rifle and .357 sidearm, tracking big pawprints through the snow and up mountains, my short, stubby little legs carrying me far and wide as they could.
I think the world was different back then, for them and for me.
This is the backcountry, this is the American wilderness, of a sort, and I have never traveled here alone. I edge forward, stooping low to pick up a rock then tossing it in the brush.
And nothing happens. The brush I’ve been eyeing hasn’t moved an inch, and so I decide it must be the wind. I decock my revolver, but don’t holster it yet; and I saunter slowly forward, caution disregarded to the wind but momentarily forgotten.
I don’t make ten steps before coming to the edge of the narrow chokepoint that is a natural junction between the trail, the rock, and the copse of trees. Every step I feel safer and more confident that it was my nerves, that it’s been too long since I’ve been in the wild, that it was just a lee from the wind that stilled the natural movement of the brush.
I don’t make ten steps before something loud crashes through bush and tree, moving with such force that the tall bushes and small trees that have propagated in this narrow and green glacial valley are shaken and torn asunder, pushed aside and their trunks and branches broken for the simple fact of being in the path of something greater.
I jump backwards and pull up my revolver a moment later. It would have been a moment too late; luckily, while the thunder of demolishing brush continues unabated, it does in the opposite direction.
I catch no sight of my quarry. After a moment’s hesitation, my feet move of their own accord and carry me faster than before down the trail and further into the unknown.
The meadow gives way to forest, to upwards rocky terrain and the trail leads to and cuts across a stream. The steady gurgle of water grows louder as I head uphill, and a small waterfall greets me. Tall pines run to the side, rocks stand silent, submerged and as immovable as they’ve ever been. The timberline is in sight. The Grand Teton towers on the horizon and my feet carry me forward.
One step, another, one after another, I carry on – upward and onward and into the unknown.