Climbing the Grand Teton.
"It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them."
- Jon Krakauer, "Into Thin Air"
In July of 2016 my dad and I set off to climb the Grand Teton, the second tallest mountain in Wyoming and the tallest in the Grand Teton National Park. This was my dad's second time climbing The Grand and my first, nestled just outside of Jackson Hole Wyoming. I was a junior in high school, and perhaps a little over eager and very much unprepared for what was to come. On our summit day we encountered a freak lightning storm. Standing on the West face of the Tetons, we watched a dark cloud of massive proportions slowly inch closer and closer towards us, enveloping everything in its path, and yet we continued climbing.
With lightning flashing around us, hail pouring out of nowhere, and our bodies shivering from the cold temperatures, we eventually had to discuss whether or not to keep climbing in such conditions. Hanging from the side of a mountain during a lightning storm while covered in metal climbing equipment perhaps is not the smartest idea, and with our guide's opinion we turned around.
It's not an easy thing to see your end goal right in front of you, but have no way to reach it. To watch everything you had worked for disappear in the rear view mirror as you are forced to turn around. I left that climb three years ago only with more determination to come back and see the view from the summit, and this past summer we did.
This time it was a family affair, with my mom, dad, brother, and myself. I was better prepared, and went in having trained and knowing more or less what to expect. We all ended up arriving at high camp (7 mile hike with 4200+ elevation gain) feeling a certain degree of exhaustion that was overpowered by a sense of accomplishment.
I'm not sure what it is about the human race feeling the need to climb mountains. There's the classic response, "because it's there," which while valid, plays into the hubris of our society in the obsessive need to control and conquer. There are those who climb it for the outdoor experience, to be with nature in a pure and minimalistic fashion. There are those who climb for validation, to take a picture on the summit and post it on social media, waiting for comments along the lines of: "You're amazing!", "WOW that's incredible," and "Omg what a badass," to roll in.
Regardless of why you decide to climb a mountain, I think the old saying remains true.
"It's not about what's at the top, but the journey you take to get there."
At risk of sounding cliche I won't drag on too much about the journey, but in my opinion the best kinds of journeys come from shared experiences. Few families can say they've climbed a mountain together, and we can. Those short few days we spent up there together felt like a different world, where nothing matters except what is directly in front of you. Nothing matters except putting one foot in front of the other.
The mountains provide an escape as they transform the air around you into a place where you don't worry about the million things you need to do, the emails that have to be answered, the errands you have to run, the internships you need to apply for, the plans for the future you need to make. To escape from the world that peels away your privacy and spend a few days in the quiet embrace of nature, it's a gift only a sprinkle of the population receives. Yes, the price to pay is 13,775 ft in elevation gain, but when you think of how few people get to see that view, the freezing temperatures and elevated heart rates feel less like a price and more like a privilege.
My family has always been about experiences. Whether it's to the extreme of running a marathon or traveling the world, or something small like joining a new club at school. My parents have taught me that experiences are what shape your life, especially experiences that push you to your breaking point.
I've learned from my parents that physical endeavors require just as much mental training as they do muscle. When it came to this endeavor, we all had our moments where we had to push ourselves. Whether it was lying awake for hours sleeping on hard rocks, leaning backwards off the side of a mountain trusting in the rope, pulling yourself up a pitch when you can't feel your hands, or simply putting one foot in front of the other to keep moving.
Over these four days spent on the mountain, I questioned my reason for being there. Was it simply engrained in my genetic makeup because of who my parents are? Was I there to prove something to them or myself? It wasn't until I actually reached the summit that I found my answer. There's something so therapeutic about pushing yourself to the edge, and maybe that's borderline masochistic, but to cross the finish line knowing you poured every part of yourself into the race...there's simply no better reward. When we came over the final crest on summit day and reached the top I suddenly felt ten times lighter. There was nothing left to climb, no more steps to take, and a cathartic rush of pleasure raced through my body as I realized we had taken every step possible. It was one of those moments where you're nostalgic for something that isn't even a part of your past yet.
There was nothing around us but open sky, no more mountains towering above us, taunting us with the distances left to go. To be able to climb that high and see beauty like no one else gets to see, "it'd be a crime not to," (Doug Hansen)
Yet, I find comfort in knowing there's always something more, that at the top of every mountain is just the base of a new one.