Mountain Mystique

I am obsessed with mountains. As a kid, the day hikes with my family in the canyon behind
our house were fun, but walking between mountains somehow seemed lacking. The lure of an
actual ascent tugged at me. I began to backpack in the Sierras and summited a handful of
inconsequential peaks over the years. I read numerous accounts of the world’s great
expeditions and made heroes of climbers such as Reinhold Messner, Pete Athans and Sir
Edmund Hillary. I took up rock climbing, joined the Sierra Club and believed one day I’d
sign a significant summit register. But I inevitably let jobs and injuries keep me at sea
level. I feared I would never become a mountaineer. And if I intended eventually to see the
view from Rainier, Kilimanjaro and Denali, why did my plans to climb California’s
far-more-humble Mount Whitney keep falling apart? Then, while headed north on Wyoming’s
U.S. Highway 89, I saw the Teton Range. I found the first turnout and, through my telephoto
lens, captured the jagged spires that tore at the high blue sky. As I shot all 36
exposures, I whispered, “Someday.” On that trip I was seeking out the headwaters of the
Missouri River, and I didn’t even have a few hours to explore the trails on the eastern
flank of that breathtaking combination of geology, ice and time. But the damage had been
done; I knew that if I were ever to add my name to a summit register worth scrawling in, it
had to be the one atop the Grand Teton because that was what a mountain was supposed to
look like. I recently returned to Grand Teton National Park, and this time I was headed
nowhere else. I wouldn’t even pop next door to Yellowstone, the far-more-celebrated
national park, the big sister who not only sings and dances, but also does card tricks.
Grand Teton sits in the corner and is quietly content to be stunningly beautiful.
Certainly, the majority of the millions of annual visitors, coming as they do from all over
the world, flirt with both, but it’s the Tetons they dream about. Perhaps the female
metaphor seems forced, but let’s face it, Grand Teton means “Big Breast.” Sure, in French
it sounds less blue, but it was a couple of bawdy (and very lonely) French trappers who, in
1825, saw the three rounded forms and dubbed them Les Trois Tetons. Apparently, from the
west the mountains seem inviting and could be said, if the viewer is hung over, to have
some anatomical resemblance. But from the east, where they can be seen from practically
everywhere in the park, the numerous peaks appear to be exactly what they are: severe,
sharp and extremely young mountains. Upon first viewing the Tetons with Yellowstone Park
Superintendent Horace Albright in 1926, John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Eastern businessman
philanthropist, declared them to be “quite the grandest and most spectacular mountains I
have ever seen … a picture of ever-changing beauty which is to me beyond compare.” Though
it’s true that erosional forces are constantly shaping the area’s peaks, granite walls and
river-run valleys, Rockefeller prevented developers from changing the postcard-perfect
landscape – no billboards, hot-dog stands or other tourist trappings – forming the Snake
River Land Company. This operation purchased much of the land that eventually would become
Grand Teton National Park, rankling local wranglers with its big-money, East Coast clout,
but ensuring that future generations could become obsessed with these mountains. Visitors
to the valley known as Jackson Hole who couldn’t tell the difference between a rock and
hard place will begin to wonder about the geologic whys and wherefores that created the
range once they watch the sun settle behind that corrugated portrait in granite.
Consequently, the locals who live in the shadows of these peaks are all geologists, at
least by avocation. It seems that every server in the Pioneer Grill Jackson Lake Lodge can
delve into the Precambrian and Cenozoic eras while pouring after-dinner coffee. Tour-bus
drivers will explain how, after the ancient seas retreated, enormous tensional faults
shuffled limestone, dolomite, shale and sandstone, depositing the latter atop Mount Moran,
about 30,000 feet above the sandstone layer from which it sprang. Adrift on the Snake
River’s gentle currents, river guides regale scenery-struck tourists with tectonic tales,
describing upthrown and downthrown fault blocks. Then they’ll point to terminal moraines,
the byproducts of the nowmelted glaciers that sculpted the valleys and chiseled the peaks.
All these employees measure time both by seasons (since most only work in the area from May
through September) and by ages, dropping phrases such as “9 million years ago” as the rest
of us would say, “just last week.” Of course, part of the reason the locals talk about the
mountains as though they were neighbors is because there aren’t many neighbors. Wildlife,
sure; plenty of that. All the employees can tell a moose story for every day of the week.
And visitors who drive the park’s roads in the predawn darkness or on the edge of night
better be extracautious unless they want to become part of a story that involves a bull
elk, a pronghorn or a mule deer rearranging a fender. Bighorn sheep may bound up the rocky
crags, but large ungulates are not the only wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem,
of course. Black bears and grizzlies lug their way through meadows of balsam root; coyotes
and yellow-bellied marmots scurry among lupine, scarlet gilia and larkspur; and bald eagles
and osprey soar above the Snake River in search of the native cutthroat trout, while
beavers do their industrious best to dam up the various waterways. Spring returns blue
herons to their rookeries, and the summer skies are filled with Canada geese, cinnamon teal
and mallards. Trumpeter swans, North America’s largest waterfowl, preen as they float past
the profusion of late-June wildflower reds, yellows, blues, whites and purples. Considering
the overwhelming beauty of the place(visit in late May, early June or in late September to
avoid the family-vacation onslaught), I could understand why the few park guests I saw
seemed perfectly content to lounge on the balcony of the Jackson Lake Lodge and watch the
sunset, as moose gained sustenance from the expanse of willows that fill out the flats
between the lodge and the mountains. I could understand those visitors who were ambitious
enough to set down their drinks and attempt to capture a regal set of antlers on film. And
I could appreciate even more the motorhomers who settled their rigs into one of the 102
spacious, pine-shaded pull-through sites in Colter Bay Village RV Park and daydreamed,
since they didn’t have to make the short walk to Jackson Lake to find what they were
looking for. Sure, they could have biked, boated, fished or gone horseback riding. They
certainly could have investigated the adjacent Indian Arts Museum and Visitor Center or
strolled to the nearby picnic area and swimming beach. But there’s something about those
mountains in the distance that induces quiet contemplation in people. So RVers who consider
staring a participatory sport can hone their skills like Olympians in Grand Teton. Though I
understand contemplation, if I’m sitting still I’m thinking about moving. I get fidgety. I
begin to worry about what I haven’t accomplished. And that inevitably brings me back to
mountains. So when I heard about the float trip on the Snake that allows visitors to wetly
wander toward those distant snowcapped peaks, I signed on. The 10 ½ 2-mile stretch below
Jackson Lake Dam to Deadman’s Bar provides more ripples than rapids, which disappointed me
at first. But I changed my way of thinking when I realized that the spectacular views
around every bend would have been far less breathtaking if we’d had to worry about paddling
and avoiding holes. No, the guides (Matt House, working the large oar in the back of the
boat known as a sweep, and Mike Mays, in the front, imparting information like an
encyclopedia and dubbing himself “The Mouth”) negotiated the snags in the braided river
with consummate skill. All the rest of us had to do was keep Kodak in business. The large
sweep boats (rafts modeled on the military-bridge pontoons that allow tanks and Jeeps to
cross rivers) provided a stable float, and the mandatory life vests provided peace of mind.
Rigorously trained and enthusiastic about their work, the guides knew the river well enough
to casually note that the water volume had increased since yesterday, while describing and
identifying the area’s flora, fauna, geology, glacial activity and history as we floated
through the bountiful valley. Mike explained that the mountains seem to appear out of
nowhere because there are no foothills, the down-thrown fault block actually having caused
the valley floor to tilt downward toward the base of the range. The story of Deadman’s Bar
sums up the boom-and-bust hustle that once defined this Western frontier, and the
cheeseburgers and the apple cobbler that awaited us at the end of the float seemed to be
perfectly flavored by the view of the mountains. I had gotten close to the base of the
peaks in the boat, but it was now time to lace up the hiking boots and feel the trail under
my feet. I would not be summiting anytime soon, but I could certainly head upward. Locals
consider the Cascade Canyon Trail to be the hike that best captures the grandeur of Grand
Teton. Hikers can skirt the lake or take a boat across it, thereby shortening the trip to
Hidden Falls. The vistas in this Ushape glacier-carved canyon in the shadow of Mount
Teewinot represent the best the park has to offer, and the north fork up to Lake Solitude
presents avid hikers with a legitimate challenge. Pressed for time, I did not enter Cascade
Canyon, but instead headed for the Taggart Lake Trail, intending to visit both Taggart Lake
and Bradley Lake, because the area is said to be one of the park’s under-appreciated gems.
And sparkle it did. Beginning at the Taggart Creek parking lot, two miles north of the
Moose Entrance Station on Teton Park Road, the trail began gently by winding through a
sagebrush flat, then bisected a recently burned moraine. The trail rose through forests of
alpine fir, lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, with the striking Tetons – the South,
Middle and Grand – looming above. When I reached pristine Taggart Lake, formed by a glacier
flowing from Avalanche Canyon, I drank in the view and the sunny, pleasant spring weather,
then tried to imagine how harsh this environment must be in the winter. By the time I made
Bradley Lake, at an elevation of 7,022 feet and only about 2.2 miles from the trailhead, my
breathing was heavier than I would have liked, despite the relatively in-significant
400-foot elevation gain. I looked up and realized that the vaunted summit of the Grand, at
13,770 feet, was more than a vertical mile above me, and it was one wallop of a mile! Over
the last few days, I had admired the paintings and sculptures in the National Museum of
Wildlife Art, across from the National Elk Refuge, then explored Jackson, the town that
somehow manages to combine shameless tourist kitsch with exclusive millionaire chic. I had
eaten a meal so sumptuous in the Jenny Lake Lodge that my tongue will forever thank me. In
the Pioneer Grill, I had chuckled at the endless counter that winds its way through this
must-see diner. And I had been caught up in the frenzy to spot wildlife. But right then, on
the flanks of those granite wonders, I knew that getting into the mountains – feeling
dwarfed by their size, captivated by their beauty and challenged by their terrain – is why
people return, year after year, to Grand Teton. I caught my breath, looked up and
whispered, “Someday.”

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