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Sharing The Trail


At 3am the guides quietly roused themselves from the tents where they had spent the night and lit the Coleman lantern in our hut. Through the open door of the shelter at 11,500 feet in Grand Teton National Park I could see the stars of the Milky Way blazing across the sky. They seemed close enough to touch. I had slept remarkably well—maybe it was yesterday’s 7-mile hike to the hut that did it. The Garnet Canyon trail began in beautiful meadows of wildflowers—arnica, fireweed, lupine, cinquefoil, and dozens of others—and led upward among towering pines and huge boulders. We splashed through cascades of ice water rushing down from the glacier at the head of the canyon.

It was a relief to see the stars—it meant the weather was perfect. We were here to climb a mountain, and good weather would make the experience much more enjoyable than if it rained or snowed. We sipped steaming cups of tea as we gathered our climbing gear and ropes. This early August morning marked a key moment in our four days with the Exum Mountain Guides: It was time to buckle our helmets, fire up our headlamps, and start out for the summit of the Grand Teton, towering in the darkness nearly half a mile above our heads.

As we picked our way toward the cliffs, I glanced at my sons Reed and Spencer and their friends Will and Jackson to try and gauge how they were taking this whole thing. After all, we were a world away from their Wilmington summer routine of sports and electronics—equal parts lacrosse, texting friends, and video games in the basement. What I saw reassured me: The 14-year-olds moved nimbly up the scree slope toward the first roped pitch with fluid and balanced steps, just as they had been taught earlier in the week in the Exum climbing school.

At 13,770 feet, the Grand Teton is Wyoming’s second-highest peak and one of the most rugged and beautiful mountains in America. But despite the Grand’s intimidating size and dramatic appearance, the climb and descent are of only medium difficulty by rock climbing standards, and the skills you need can be learned in a fairly short time. The only prerequisite for making the Grand Teton climb is to complete Exum’s 2-day rock climbing and mountaineering safety course. The most important thing is simply to arrive in Wyoming in good cardiovascular condition, reasonably strong and flexible.

As we climbed in the dawning light, carefully belaying each other up one pitch after another, I realized how happy I was to be experiencing something so challenging and beautiful with these two young men who mean so much to me. As any father would, I had concerns about bringing them into an environment where success and safety can depend on everything going just right. But I thought that the potential benefits far outweighed the moderate risks.

When you set out to climb a mountain, you rarely can see the summit from the trail’s beginning. As you progress into higher and steeper terrain, you never travel in a straight line. In fact the farther you go, and the closer you come to your objective, the more often the trail seems to double back on itself. It can be discouraging at times, and you have to trust that the switchbacks and changes of direction are a necessary part of reaching your goal. In that sense, mountaineering provides a good metaphor for much else in life. Although we didn’t talk about it in those terms, I hoped that some of this might occur to the boys during our journey.

My own path to this point had had its share of switchbacks and unexpected changes. Receiving early retirement from my employer of 20 years had certainly been one of them. For the last four years, I’ve had much greater freedom and control over my time, and I’ve been able to do things and go places with my family to an extent not possible while I was working in a corporate setting. I’ve tried not to meddle too much in my dear Linda’s well-organized household or hover too closely over my four boys. But I do try to keep my eyes open for meaningful things members of the family can do together.

Climbing the Grand Teton was a perfect opportunity to take the boys and myself out of our comfort zone to share the satisfaction of going for a challenging goal. It isn’t a sure thing that you”ll reach the summit on this expedition: Bad weather, altitude sickness and a host of other difficulties can cut short your trip and derail your plans, and this can be hard to deal with. But the end is worth the perils. I climbed the Grand three years ago with my oldest son, Preston, and some friends, and it is one of the finest of all of our shared memories. I had looked forward to being here again with Reed and Spencer.

As you might imagine, learning to climb was a breeze for the teenagers compared to us dads. In fact, I was worried at first that they might look down on us and send some adolescent attitude our way. But it wasn’t like that at all. As the boys watched us struggle up the trail, or drag ourselves slowly along a cliff they had just scampered up, they peppered us with words of encouragement. It was a pleasant reversal of roles to hear the kids tell us to keep trying—they knew we could do it. Eventually every scab on our elbows or knees became badges of pride for us old guys: We might be sweaty and slow, but we were still in the game!

The Owen-Spalding route took us up the western face of the mountain. It was chilly, and we climbed across occasional patches of snow or ice. The sky slowly brightened, and we took in the breathtaking vistas that opened to the west across Idaho. And then, shortly before 8 o”clock, there were no more handholds to reach for, and we stepped up from the shadows and stood in blazing sunlight on the summit of the Grand Teton. Wherever we looked, cliffs dropped away beneath our feet. To the east, the Snake River was a ribbon of silver in the slanting morning light. Far below us, colorful hot-air balloons looked like M&M’s floating in the calm air above Jackson Hole.

I smiled as I watched the boys exchange high-fives and pose for pictures; the elation in their faces said it all. And they were right to revel in their accomplishment—they had earned every bit of it.

As we rappelled down from the summit, collected our packs from the hut, and started down the long trail to the parking lot, I was glad we had shared this path. We would always remember the beauty and intensity of these days.

I decided that when we returned home I would tell Blaine, my 8-year-old, all about the trip—after all, in just six years it would be his turn to start up that long trail to the summit.

The Exum Mountain Guides are headquartered on the shores of Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole, Wy. Established in the1930s, Exum is the nation’s oldest guide service, and is rated by National Geographic Adventure magazine as one of the Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth. During the summer climbing season, Exum leads up to 16 climbers per day to the summit of the Grand Teton.