By Brad Peterson –
“It’s my lucky day”, I thought as I rode my road bike into the Jackson Hole town park around 1:25 am. The band in the Million Dollar Cowboy bar was still jammin’ and the fancy LED accessory lights on several Harley’s were lighting up the street. Apparently nobody else thought that it was the perfect day to piece together the Grand Teton Picnic Triathlon.
By nature, mancations are designed to be a mystical journey requiring very little thought, excessive suffering, a Clif Blok, ibuprofen, PB & banana sandwiches, and Infinit Nutrition based diet, and little or no sleep. More powerful than Prozac and typically less expensive than a nice dinner with your wife, mancations, short for man vacations, are life-altering experiences. The goal is to suffer; to have the ultimate adventure, without becoming an epic; and to complete it within the time constrained pass that you’ve negotiated with your family. And while not limited to males, it is typically the male brain that has the limited capacity to dream up crazy ideas without adequately considering the probability of failure.
As the world economy has transitioned toward the experience economy, so too has the mancation continued to evolve. To create a richer, more satisfying experience, it is becoming more acceptable, and even advised (by other males), to add an OTC (off-the-couch) designation to your adventure. While an OTC designation is often applied to ones lack of adequate training for organized events like LOTOJA, RAGNAR and Leadville, there is a growing movement to simply design your own adventure, then not train sufficiently for all or part of it. The best part about designing your own OTC adventure is that you can cater it to you own abilities, training schedule (or lack thereof) and goals. In most cases PR’ing (personal record) or winning are irrelevant when you’re simply focused on surviving. The Teton Picnic was intended to be an OTC event.
I’d read bits and pieces about David Gonzales Teton Picnic since he first completed it 2012. The basic idea, as I understood it, was to ride your bike from the Jackson Hole town park to Jenny Lake, swim across the lake, climb the Grand (via the Owen Spalding route) and then reverse the entire process. But I also understood that David had designed the picnic for his purposes and I had mine.
For the last 25+ years the Tetons have been my favorite August mancation destination. Having summited the Grand T. almost 50 times, including four times already this year, I’m always eager to explore to new options, routes and ideas.
At 1:30 am I took a photo of my watch and started pedaling toward Moose Junction and the Lupine Meadows trailhead. Instead of riding straight to Jenny Lake and swimming all night I opted to start by climbing the Grand via the Direct Exum route. If speed isn’t part of the equation, then why not redesign the course to include a more challenging ascent that links 6-pitches (5.8) of the lower Exum ridge with the easier and more traditional upper Exum ridge? My climbing partner, Mike Morris, had agreed to meet me at the Lupine Meadows trailhead at 2:30am.
As I crossed the old wooden bridge and rode down the washboard laden dirt road two giant bull elk stood on the side of the road and stared at me. It was 42-degrees and nearly a full moon as I pulled in to meet Mike.
By 3 am I had changed into my running shorts and La Sportiva Bushido approach shoes and was heading toward the summit. Our packs full of a small selection of BlackDiamond ultralite cams, a thin 7.3 mm x 60 m rope, my TC Pro climbing shoes, a Petzl SITTA harness, layers of warm clothes, a couple of ProBars and Infinit Nutrition in my 1-1/2 liters of water. After 50’ish ascents I know exactly what to expect: six switchbacks, 4 miles to the Meadows campground, 8.25 miles to the summit, 3-1/2 hours to the lower Saddle and then it quickly gets windy and cold. The lower Saddle is also where we would be able to refill with water for the summit and descent.
What we hadn’t anticipated was that the wind on the lower saddle was a consistent 40mph and that the spring had virtually dried up. We sat and shivered while the small hose trickled a liter of water into each our hydration bladders. Shivering is always a required part of the experience, with bonus points if it’s too cold to talk or move your fingers.
By 8 am we’re roped up at the bottom of the first pitch and I am heading up into the first chimney. Mike and I continue to swap leads, while the other person froze, up the next 800’ until emerging onto the ledge below the Golden Staircase. This is the section where Wall Street intersects the ridge and distinguishes the upper and lower Exum routes. Two parties were surprised to see us come from nowhere. It’s 10:30 am by the time we coil the rope and start soloing toward the summit via the upper Exum ridge.
As a whole the upper Exum ridge is easy. If it were 15’ off the ground people would never consider a rope a requirement, but it’s windy, your heart rate is racing from climbing at 13,000’, there is a lot of exposure, and everyone around you is roped up. We proceeded to scramble around several parties, then took Ted Wilson’s recommendation to climb the Unsoeld layback thus bypassing the infamous V-pitch. That put us on the summit at 11 am where we proceeded to have our picnic. An Exum guide asked us if we climbed up from the parking lot to which I replied that I’d started in Jackson. “So you’re doing the PICNIC? And you came up the Direct Exum Ridge? I bet that you’ll have the record, because you’re the only one who has probably done it that way.” I wasn’t interested in a record, I was only interested in a new adventure, like doing the Grand Traverse, the WURL or White Rim in a day. I never get tired of the view from the summit.
By 11:30 am we’d finished our picnic and were starting the 7,600’ descent back to the parking lot. I had still completed less than half of my adventure. We down climbed Sergeant’s Chimney then rappelled off the lower anchors by partnering with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. I’m sure that David advocates down climbing the Owen Spalding route, but I happen to be 20’ away from the Exum guide, Gary Falk early this summer, when he fell 2,400’ down the west face to his death. I’m not going to take unnecessary risks today.
Mike and I split up at the moraine when I decided to start jogging back to the car. I wanted to finish before Caldera Pizza closed back in Jackson. Mike was not in a hurry and decided to take his time.
By 3 pm I’d arrived back at the parking lot and was riding towards the Jenny Lake ranger station with my wetsuit in my backpack. This is about as far as I had planned ahead. I had no idea where I was going to swim or any additional logistics. I also hadn’t realized that much of the eastern shore was under construction and that the southern wind was strong enough to blow me significantly off course. Apparently this is where the OTC, lack of planning, and foresight designation was earned.
As the official event organizer I made an executive decision to start at a small rocky beach just past the boat dock where tourists can get shuttled across the lake. As I changed into my wetsuit and waded into the water several Asian tourists decided that I made for a good photo subject. It was windy and waves were quickly crashing into my face as I set out without a definitive plan. Swimming directly across the entire lake was not an option at this point, so I swam out a couple of hundred yards off-shore then started following the shoreline before cutting straight across the southern tip. 45-minutes later I’d reached the southwestern shore and started back. The swim was surprisingly fun and ended up being about 1-1/2 miles.
As I emerged from the water another family from New Jersey was now playing on the small beach. We talked for 10-minutes while I changed out of my wetsuit, before hopping back on my bike for the final 22-mile ride back to Jackson. Completing the picnic seemed incomprehensible to them. I assured them that it wasn’t as challenging as it appeared. They didn’t believe me.
The same southern wind was now a much stiffer headwind. It was a little after 5 pm when I started down the bike path toward Moose Junction. I was on autopilot. I could bike for hours. As I rounded the corner from Moose Junction and headed toward Jackson I started to consider what additional activities I could add to future picnic’esque adventures. At this point I was sure that I’ll finish in the light which leaves me feeling a little unfulfilled. “What if next time I brought my kayak or paddle board and added a section on the river?”
Finally, at 6:39 pm, after 17-hours and 9-minutes I rode through the Jackson Hole traffic and back through the elk antler arch. I was sure that someone could complete it in half the time that I did but for that day I had the winning time and an amazing adventure. It’s amazing what people are capable of completing with a little creativity. Go design your own picnic.