“Wouldn’t be Prudent”
In 2008, Alex Honnold scaled the 2,000-foot northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park without the aid of any ropes or equipment, a method of rock climbing known as free soloing. This unprecedented feat, was recognized as one of the greatest athletic accomplishments of all time (as was his later free solo of 3,000-foot El Capitan in 2017). Soon after his ascent, however, he said: “I knew that I gotten away with something.” He was referring to the fact that he didn’t prepare adequately and that, going forward, he “didn’t want to be a lucky climber, [he] wanted to be a great climber.” (See Honnold’s 12 minute Ted Talk.)
Far be it from me to suggest that my comparatively minuscule hiking adventures are anywhere in the realm of Honnold’s immortal exploits. But scaled down to the ordinary dimensions of my reality, 5 members of my family and I experienced a similarly stunning, yet regret-inducing, outing at Grand Teton National Park in July of 2021. This was our trek to Delta Lake, which offers arguably the most staggeringly beautiful view of Grand Teton in the park, and represented the hiking zenith of our 2-week trip to the jaw-dropping landscapes of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah.
Our plan was reasonable and our preparations seemed thorough. We would do this 8-mile hike on the third day of our trip, affording time to acclimatize to our surroundings by lodging at about 6,500 feet of elevation, a good idea after traveling from virtual sea level on the east coast. Delta Lake is situated at 9,000 feet, nestled just under the majestic 13,775 foot peak of Grand Teton, the highest in the park and roughly 3 miles west of the lake. Our start time would be at dawn from the Lupine Meadows trail head, giving us plenty of buffer to account for any unexpected deviations from our route, while still being able to return well before sundown.
We were equipped with bear spray and had become well-educated on the different physical and behavioral nuances of grizzly and black bears, should we have an unlucky encounter with either species. We had done numerous practice hikes back home that were comparable, we all were in a good state of fitness, and we had researched the terrain. Although this hike was rated as “Hard” by AllTrails (see hike information), I personally felt more than comfortable since I had summited Half Dome in 2018 (using the traditional route, not Alex Honnold’s), and couldn’t imagine it being anywhere near as difficult as that.
The one aspect we knew could be a wild card was the final three-quarter-mile approach to Delta Lake. This stretch departs from the conventional trail that continues on to Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes, and covers an unmarked and amorphous route across an expansive and very steep boulder field. Literally thousands of reviews on AllTrails attest to the challenge it presents, both by being very demanding physically and by introducing the significant risk of getting lost. This is especially true on the return, where it’s difficult to locate the main trail from the vast panorama of homogenous rocks. Again, given our careful planning, we believed we had sufficiently allowed for this possibility.
Of course, even the best plans usually don’t materialize as intended. But well-considered plans at least establish a necessary baseline of expectations against which unforeseen problems can be adequately addressed. When the plan is abandoned, however, all bets are off and Alex Honnold’s admonitions about “winging it” come into play.
Unfortunately, 2021 was yet another year of unprecedented wildfire activity that raged for months over much of the U.S. west coast. To be clear, in the grand scheme of things, the only meaningful misfortune was borne by people who lost their lives, homes, and communities because of the fires, not by people who had their vacations disrupted. However, we decided to go ahead with our trip even with this perspective in mind. After all, we had spent over a year in anticipation while being grounded due to the Covid pandemic.
To get a better sense of how the prodigious wildfire smoke blowing across the country could affect our plans, we downloaded the OpenSummit app after learning that it had a useful smoke forecast map. We could quickly see that the smoke’s location and severity changed on a daily, and even hourly, basis. At times it seemed to be traveling almost due north and then east crossing Montana. At other times the winds would shift, carrying it in a more easterly direction over Wyoming and Utah, where we would be spending most of our time.
Upon arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport and embarking on the 5-hour drive to Grand Teton National Park, we were immediately saddened to see the pall hanging low over everything, obscuring the beautiful mountainous terrain. The OpenSummit forecast for the next day or two near Jackson, WY wasn’t encouraging either. We resigned ourselves to rearranging our activities at the park, and absorbed the fact that our bucket-list hike might not happen. When we reached our condo at Teton Village that evening, we felt our spirits briefly rise in the lovely digs and incredible surroundings.
As we awoke the next morning and checked the smoke forecast, we were astonished to find that a bubble of clear air, not unlike the eye of a hurricane, was going to open up above our vicinity. There would be great air quality starting at noon, lasting until about sundown at 9:45, when dense smoke would return. Excitedly and unanimously, we agreed to grab this fortuitous opportunity. We would do our food shopping quickly and then hightail it over to Lupine Meadows by noon to get on the trail to Delta Lake. Our plan to hike on day 3 was out the window. With the weather being perfect and bear spray hanging from our belts, we convinced ourselves that all our collective hiking experience would make the measly 8 miles and 2,300 feet of elevation gain easily attainable in 9+ hours .
At 12:45 (not noon) we finally found a parking spot at the Lupine Meadows lot among the sea of cars, and set off for the iconic view of Grand Teton from Delta Lake. Joining me on the hike were my five fellow travelers: wife Janet, older son Jeremy, younger son Alex and his fiancée Paulina, and brother-in-law Andrew. Most of us were carrying camera gear to memorialize what we were sure would be the image of a lifetime at Delta Lake. This added significant weight for us to accommodate, but again, we thought it would be no big deal.
Much of the first mile-and-a half was a trek through forest, which soon emerged into a steady ascent on mountainous terrain at a relatively manageable grade. Although this was generally uneventful, the photographers frequently stopped to snap landscape photos. Towards the end of this stretch, Paulina and Janet did start to exhibit some discomfort, probably from the thin air, but they took it slow and seemed to cope. Then we hit the switchbacks, 6 in all, totaling about 2 miles in length. The grade increased as did the incredible view as we climbed higher. Paulina was now laboring harder. She and Alex fell further behind, while Janet was able to keep pace with me, Jeremy, and Andrew, even as her headache worsened.
We realized the climb was going slower than expected and that, given our variations in cadence, and the unknowns of the boulder section, we needed to set a realistic turnaround time. Doing so is a foundational tenet of hiking and mountaineering, as well as most other ventures into the wilderness. Soon after we set out, I recall all of us agreeing that 4:00 would be our turn-into-a-pumpkin moment. With sunset at 9:45, and our desire to avoid being in bear country after dark, or even at dusk when they become more active, this seemed reasonable. But as the hike progressed, and Delta Lake’s siren song continued to beckon, our turnaround changed to 4:30 and then 5:00. In fairness to Janet, she was the only one who was getting concerned that we were engaging in a massive folly, or worse. In fairness to me, I did offer several times to turn back. My offer may have been tinged with disappointed half-heartedness, but I was prepared to honor it.
Eventually, at about 4:30 we arrived at the 6th switchback, the jumping off point to the boulder field. It was “fish or cut bait” time. By now, Janet had an intense headache. Alex and Paulina were still lagging us by a half hour. A cell phone call to Alex revealed that he was still fixated on reaching the lake. Jeremy was nearby, testing his ability to negotiate the boulders, but not having much success. By contrast, Andrew was about 100 yards ahead on the rocks, feeling his oats and yelling for us to join him. I was also feeling great physically, but as the “papa bear” of the group, I faced a practical and ethical conundrum.
With people behind and ahead, in varying states of well-being, I couldn’t find a way to come to a group consensus, or to begin throwing my weight around and insisting on calling it a day. I could see that Andrew wasn’t of a mind to return to the pack, so I went into triage mode. I asked Janet and Jeremy whether they would be willing to turn around. I didn’t like the idea of them separating from me, but they could make it back before dark and take shelter in our minivan. They both agreed. At the rate Alex and Paulina were moving, I felt pretty certain they would have no choice but to throw in the towel once they saw the boulders.
That left me and Andrew. For a few minutes, my rational side implored him to turn around. But I soon saw he wasn’t having it. He kept moving further ahead, egging me on to follow him. I began to think, well, it would pretty bad form for me to leave my brother-in-law out there by himself, wouldn’t it? Yes it would. But I can’t deny that there was a proverbial devil whispering in my ear, in addition to the incarnate one upfront, yelling for me to keep going. So keep going I did.
Soon, I realized that a dwindling number of people were passing us in the opposite direction on their return from Delta Lake. Many of them looked utterly exhausted. Their powers of perception may have also been impaired. We asked some of them how much longer it was to the top, and most said, “only a few more minutes.” Ha! As if. Again, there was no trail, no markers, just a general “they said to go that way” kind of vibe to follow. And there was a fear that a snapped ankle, leg, arm could happen at any minute.
The boulders began to remind me of the time many years before when I rented a power boat to take a spin across the large bay adjacent to Ocean City, MD. After a short time on the water, I looked back to see where our dock had been, and had no idea where it was or how I would retrace my way back. The shore line looked like an undifferentiated blur of trees and dot-like buildings.
In similar fashion, after a while on the rocks, I tried to get an idea of where the 6th switchback was behind us, but I couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, it was fast approaching 5:30 and the sun would soon be dropping behind the Tetons. Andrew was still brimming with energy and chatter, and I, too, was still feeling fine. But mentally, I was not in a good place. I was filled with foreboding, worrying incessantly about the others below, and the diminishing chances of Andrew and me making it off the mountain before dark. For all the progress we were making, I still couldn’t see the ledge we would cross to finally arrive at Delta Lake.
At this point, more than half-way up the boulders, we came upon a group of folks coming down who had stopped momentarily for a rest. Among them were a strapping young man, who I guessed must be in his early 20s, and his parents. In chatting with them, we found that the young man, Joey, seemed to have some experience as a hiking guide and apparently had been through these boulders before. I offered him $50 if he would accompany us to the top and help us find the switchbacks on the descent. He gladly accepted and his parents agreed to wait in their vehicle for us at the trailhead. We later learned that the father was in the military and that Joey aspired to follow in his footsteps. My impression was that they all were pretty comfortable out in the wilderness, and that Joey being on the mountain late in the day was not a particularly big concern for them.
I felt a rush of relief, as well as self-satisfaction. Not only were we going to find our way back, but this kid looked like he could handle a bear without the bear spray. I had also finally gotten through to Janet on her cell phone and heard that she and Jeremy were almost at the parking lot. Around the same time, to my amazement, I could see Alex and Paulina just entering boulder-world way down below. I was chagrined that they hadn’t turned back, but it looked to me like they were struggling mightily, to the degree where I asked Joey to go look after them and wait for Andrew and me to return. It wouldn’t be much longer until he and I reached the top, took a few photos, and then got out of Dodge. Surely Alex and Paulina would find climbing up the steep boulders much too tough, and they would drop before long.
Now, it was only another couple hundred feet to the top. But just as I was feeling a sweet sense of anticipation, my energy supply suddenly shut off and I hit the notorious “wall.” In one moment I had felt tired but still strong, and in the next I was fighting for every step and every breath. It reminded me of ascending Half Dome, where I had to will my body move a few feet ahead and then stop for five minutes to gasp for air.
Finally, I pulled myself up and over the ledge where Delta Lake and Grand Teton were arrayed before me. The scene was, indeed, glorious. It was everything I imagined it would be, but what I noticed most was that the sun was about to fall out of sight behind the mountains. Andrew had been admiring the place for about 10 minutes. We agreed that I would take another 10 to snap some images and then make our way as quickly as possible back to Joey and the others. After my photo op, we gathered ourselves to cross the ledge back onto the boulders. It was about 6:30. We had roughly 3 more hours of dusk and twilight to retrace our steps across the rock field, find the switchbacks, and return to the safety of our cars. With Joey’s knowledge of the terrain, 4 downhill miles to traverse, and just Andrew and me to worry about on the boulders, it would tight but doable.
Ah yes, the miserable naiveté of such thoughts. Literally, at the moment Andrew and I approached the ledge to the boulders, I was horrified to witness Alex crawling over it to the top, with Paulina and Joey right behind. It might be more accurate to say that Joey pushed Alex over the ledge because he couldn’t make it under his own power. Alex looked much worse at the halfway point of this hike than we both did when we had finished our Half Dome trek of 19 miles and almost 5,000 feet, 3 years before. He lay down at the ledge moaning. Paulina had miraculously, or maybe cursedly in this case, gotten a second wind. Joey looked like he had been walking his dog down the street.
The relief I felt only a short time ago disappeared. Aside from a group of people who I believe were from Mexico, and who seemed to be having a party, we would be the last ones to leave Delta Lake that day. A mushrooming sense of dread took over as it dawned on me that not only might we not make it back to parking lot by dark, but that we might not even get off the boulders. I started to hector Alex to get up and for us all to start moving down the mountain posthaste. Alex groaned and curled up in a ball. Paulina whispered encouragement in his ear. Andrew and Joey made small talk. And I began approaching my boiling point.
Somehow, a little before 7:00, Alex got to his feet and staggered onto the rocks with Paulina and Joey assisting him. Andrew and I went briskly ahead, and then stopped for an interminable period while the much slower-moving trio eventually caught up. This frustrating pattern continued for a while. Andrew and I were morphing into a modern version of Laurel and Hardy, him beginning to practice comedy routines, and me becoming more and more agitated.
When we were all together again for a moment, in an attempt to take my mind off our predicament, I asked Joey what he was doing with his life. He said, “I’m a junior in high school.” In my fog of fatigue I couldn’t fathom that I had heard him correctly. If he was in his early twenties, did the school refuse to move him along for some reason? Did he mean to say he was junior in college? “How old are you?” I asked. “Seventeen,” he answered. “But, but, but, you’ve done this hike before, right?” I stammered, my voice rising an octave. “Well, uh, this is actually my first time” Joey said.
My stomach sank through my hiking shoes. I don’t know which felt worse to me: realizing that, in addition to my family, I was now responsible for a minor on a mountain at dusk in the heart of bear country, or that I was such a lousy judge of age. On top of that, I had unwittingly sent Joey the Sherpa down to Alex and Paulina, without whom they probably wouldn’t have gotten very far.
I projected my visceral fear at Alex who, by refusing to turn back and choosing to expend his last reserves of energy to reach the top, had put me in this precarious position of responsibility. He became enraged at me for attacking him when he was down. We each yelled some angry words, huffed and puffed, and probably vowed to disown each other. Then, realizing that we weren’t helping the situation, we settled into a sullen silence and continued on.
At another point, when Andrew and I had again moved ahead, I sat down to tighten my shoe laces and felt the muscles in my lower right leg next to my shin violently constricting. The muscles got tighter and tighter and the pain became excruciating, to the point where all I could do was howl in agony. For the first time that day, in the middle of my anguish, I noticed Andrew becoming rattled. Then after about 10 minutes, inexplicably, my muscles loosened, the pain abated, and we started down again. Andrew resumed his comedy monologue, changing to a baseball sportscaster bit featuring Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, as I recall.
Although Joey turned out to be a novice guide, he did retain a partial memory of the route over the boulders to the switchbacks. In fact, he found a hint of a trail weaving around and through the rocks. Our hope grew as we followed this wisp of dirt down the mountain and began to recognize a familiar lone tree or large monolith we had passed on the way up. Then, as it was closing in on 8:30, with the ambient sunlight fading noticeably, the little dirt trail reached a dead end at an impassable wall of rubble. There was no obvious way to proceed.
I started to think about contingencies should we have to spend the night bivouacking in the Tetons wilderness. If it came down to it, maybe it would be best to head out to the middle of the boulder field until daylight. There, I imagined, it would be difficult for a bear to mount a charge and we would be able to see one coming in the moonlight, better than in the dark forest below. Or, we could just phone Janet and have her call in the rangers. But that was a non-starter; the embarrassment would be much more painful than facing the bears.
As I was ruminating over these scenarios, Joey called out from a rise running parallel to the rocks about 50 feet above. He had found another branch of the trail. I had downloaded the AllTrails map on my phone for reference during the hike, but to check our actual position now, I would need the live version on the app. Verifying this new route was crucial as it would likely be our last chance to get out of there. I prayed I would have a connection as I opened the app on my phone and, sure enough, there was a blue dot showing our location near a red line that represented a trail.
As I zoomed in for better resolution, I could clearly see that where Joey was standing was, indeed, the route leading to the switchbacks. Praise the Lord! Now all we had to do was muster just one more burst of energy to pull ourselves up the 50 foot embankment to reach our yellow brick road. Only, Alex was well beyond drained and wouldn’t make it. Joey may have been a rookie, but thank God for him. He helped push Alex and his gear all the way up the hill to the trail. Without Joey’s assistance, we might still be out there.
In 10 minutes we were at the switchbacks. We had about an hour until dark. With the sun now well behind the mountains it was already approaching twilight. We all began moving at a much faster pace. Even Alex was rejuvenated by being on solid ground going downhill in the cooler air. Joey and I were about 50 yards ahead, but we could hear Andrew regaling us with his comedy routine at the top of his lungs. He was now doing impersonations of Jerry Seinfeld. Aside from the much needed levity, he was letting any bears that were not visible to us up ahead, know that we were approaching. Making noise on the trail to avoid surprising a massive, powerful ursine beast, who otherwise would be minding its own business, is a fundamental wilderness practice. His choice of imitating Seinfeld also helped, in that bears are known to become disoriented by sophisticated irony about nothing (or so I’ve heard).
Although we made good time hustling down the switchbacks, I was getting nervous as night continued to approach. I removed my canister of bear spray from its holster to have it ready in my hand. Then darkness came, and I realized that even with our headlamps illuminating the path directly ahead, the spray wasn’t going to be of much use if I ran into a bear I couldn’t see. Gulp. No one else seemed to care. Andrew had moved on to reenacting lost interviews of celebrities from the BBC, Alex and Paulina were singing songs, and Joey was arguing with his father on his cell phone. Blessedly, after about 45 minutes hiking through the mountain forest in the dark we emerged into the open expanse of the Lupine Meadows parking area at 10:30.
Four vehicles remained out of the hundreds that were there when we started earlier that day: our minivan, Joey’s parents’ car, and two that probably belonged to the partiers we left at Delta Lake. My very first deed was to apologize to Joey’s parents for putting him in danger and taking so long to return. I knew his father was angry from hearing Joey speaking with him not long before. To my surprise, his dad said that his beef was with Joey, not me, because Joey should have used better judgement. I wasn’t following his logic; I thought Joey was wise to stay with our group, even if we were somewhat inept. In any event, I made an attempt to plead Joey’s case, pointing out what a fine young man he was (true), and that without him we would have been in big trouble (also true). I slipped Joey the remaining $40 in my wallet.
Then, exhausted, we all piled into our van where Janet and Jeremy had been waiting for hours. They did us a real service by being so patient and not betraying any irritation at our lack of judgement. That would come later. For now, we all rode back to the condo in relative silence and dropped like stones on our beds once inside. Over the next few days we walked on eggshells around each other, except for Andrew, of course, who was now mimicking Dana Carvey mimicking George H. W. Bush. (“Wouldn’t-be-pru-dent.” Yep, that about covers it.)
Things loosened up considerably when we reached Yellowstone and our collective jaws hit the ground upon experiencing the awe-inspiring natural wonders of the place. I also took an opportunity, when Alex and I were alone momentarily, to apologize for my behavior on the boulders. As I explained to him, I wasn’t sorry for holding him to account for his stubbornness. But I was very disappointed in myself for acting out the way I did, and for not establishing clear guidelines with everyone when we changed our plan. The rest of the trip featured a smorgasbord of sensational marvels at every turn, and we became adept at using the smoke forecasts to our advantage. In between, there were some additional squabbles, as is probably to be expected when 6 people are traveling almost 2,000 miles in a van together for 2 weeks.
As of this writing, 4 months after our return to civilization, all is well between us. Alex and Paulina’s wedding is coming and will surely be a joyous occasion. He is sharing his photography work with me on an almost daily basis. Jeremy has taken some killer images of his own and often relives his memories of our trip with us. Janet’s disdain at our foolishness has dissipated. She is going to be my partner on our planned 2-week exploration of southern Utah in 2022. Andrew is working on a Netflix special.
Our travails have been transformed into family stories of legend that only we would truly understand. Their retelling is often sprinkled with comments such as: “can you believe that happened” or “what the hell were we thinking?” This is not to say I haven’t internalized Alex Honnold’s stern warning that relying on luck in the wilderness is a recipe for disaster. Next time, when faced with the temptation of trying a crazy stunt, like squeezing in a late-day hike to a place such as Delta Lake, my response will surely be …
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