I stood in front of a small wood building that almost blended into the alpine landscape around it. An overstuffed backpack dangled off my shoulders, full of rented mountaineering gear that I though made me look pretty hardcore, though I had little idea how to use any of it. I wasn’t worried, though. I had been a rock climbing enthusiast for a few years, although living in the Midwest mean that I’d done more reading about climbing than actual climbing. But I had arrived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming a few days ago in order to start my quest for the top of the Grand Teton.
I wasn’t naïve about my complete lack of experience and had signed up for a few lessons with Exum Mountain Guides. On my first day of mountaineering school, I met Ben Gilmore, my guide. An easygoing guy who lived in a tent just minutes away from the Exum building, Ben made mastering the basics easy.
Before I knew it, I was done with the classes and ready for the real climb to begin. I trekked off into the forest, following Ben’s long easy strides. It was a two-day climb, and though the technical part didn’t start until the following day, I quickly realized that the hike to our campsite at the Lower Saddle would be strenuous. We gained 5000 feet of altitude as we traveled up Garnet Canyon. The final face before reaching the campsite was the most difficult: the Headwall. Standing at the foot of the nearly vertical wall of snow, I considered turning back. But Ben had already begun, so I quickly followed, one step at a time. Left, right, axe. Left, right, axe. Soon I became completely absorbed by the rhythm and was surprised to find myself at our campsite. We set up the tents and cooked a dinner of gourmet just-add-boiling-water meals. Though we went to bed early, sleep was frequently interrupted by the howling winds. I was overwhelmed by the sense of solitude I felt in our tiny camp on the hard rock.
I didn’t have much time to philosophize as our day started at three in the morning. After a quick breakfast, we headed off into the eerie early mountain morning. Due to the combination of the altitude and early hour I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. The rhythm I’d found on the Headwall the previous day was elusive. We shimmied along a ledge above a 2,000 foot drop known as the Belly Roll, where I was thankful I hadn’t inherited my parents’ fear of heights. Still, it was enough to test my faith in the thin rope that was my only safety net. Following was a series of narrow vertical cracks. While I’m sure it wasn’t a pretty sight, I managed to pull myself up each one, motivated by the knowledge that I was getting closer and closer. Then I pulled myself on top of a ledge and there was nowhere else to go.
The summit was a small rocky ridge marked only by a small metal circle emblazoned with the altitude: 13,770. Yet it was unmistakable. Mountains that towered above me from the town seemed pathetically small when my feet were planted on the king of them all. I realized how far I had come, not merely in terms of the physical distance. I had followed my dream and refused to surrender, even when I doubted my physical capabilities. Seeing the clouds beneath my feet, I felt like I was on top of the world, and couldn’t wait to be back.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.