Words by Makayla Crist
With winter still lingering in the high mountains, we almost made the decision to stay home. All four of us understood that the early trail conditions would have us hiking through a season’s worth of down trees, and glissading down steep, slick snow crossings. Knowing this thru-hike would be another challenging yet satisfying adventure, I was jumping at the chance to check it off my list and intimately experience the Tetons.
Time and warm weather were on our side, but snow still covered a significant portion of the trail. Stoke levels were running high as we awaited our guide’s ‘thumbs up’ signal to green light the 44-mile thru-hike on the Teton Crest Trail. When the time finally came to pick up our permits the Forest Ranger cautioned us about hiking northbound through Hurricane Pass and Paintbrush Divide. Crossing large, steep snow patches was the primary concern, but our optimistic mountain guide, Peter, assured us otherwise. So, through gritted teeth we said, "Let's just hope for the best, and if there is a patch of snow we can’t cross, we can turn around.”
We started our day with breakfast sandwiches and hot coffee before riding the tram to the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Our hike started from Corbet’s Cabin, famous for top of the world waffles, which definitely sent us off on the right foot. We connected onto the Teton Crest Trail via the Tram Trail and hit snow less than half of a mile into the hike. Knowing this would be a common obstacle, we tightened our shoelaces and continued forward.
The pre-hike jitters faded as we got deeper into the trail. With a fairly consistent plan in place, Death Canyon Ridge was our objective for night one- 13 miles today, 15 miles tomorrow, and 14 miles on the third day.
The temp rose to 75 degrees as we ascended 2,000 vertical feet with 45 pounds on our backs. It was day one and the struggle was real. Despite the fatigue setting in, Harriet, one of the group members, had us in light spirits after cracking jokes and giving out trail names. Mine was, First Blood. Regretfully fitting, as I was the first one to fall and cut my leg open.
We finally arrived on the shelf with a spectacular view of The Grand as the sun fell out of sight. Harriet and I set up our tent and started cooking camp quesadillas. The savory combo of chicken and cheese always tastes so good in the backcountry - especially while watching golden light fade off the distant Tetons. Sipping whiskey and sharing stories we whiled away the first few hours of the night before I wiggled into my sleeping bag, excited for the coming day.
Soft light peered through my tent with hints of pink and grey clouds. My brain awoke trying to remember where I packed the instant coffee and breakfast burritos. We packed camp and fueled up for another day on the trail.
While hiking, we all shared stories of who we are and what our lives are like. It reaffirmed my belief that you get to know a person better on the trail than in day to day life.
As our hike got steeper and hotter, we stayed intent on reaching Hurricane Pass by nightfall. The Grand (elev. 13,776 ft) was now towering over us, and we knew we were getting close. The only problem was navigating our way down the snow covered trail to the South Fork camping zone. Harriet and Peter made their way to the edge to see if they could spot a safe path. The first switchback on the trail was impassable, but with a quick re-route we were able to bypass the dangerous snow crossing and make our way down easy breezy.
At around 5 pm, we reached the campsite and began setting up. We settled in, admired the views, ate, drank, and laughed until the sun faded slowly, calmly leaving us with a gentle hint of alpenglow lingering on the Grand. A contagious silence fell over our group as we admired the most amazing view we had seen so far. The light slowly faded into blue hour, as our group found its way into their sleeping bags to read a book, or continue gazing at the mountains. I took my last picture of the day and crept into my sleeping bag. I remembered feeling compelled to write a note about what it was like to witness what I had just experienced-
“It’s something that I could look at again, and again, and again. Without reason, or without knowing what it means. A place where you could just stand, and dream. Admiring this earth for hours without realization. Nothing could compete with this place, moment, and experience. I blame the phenomenal people standing right beside me. So in love - intertwined in the same adventure.”
Harriet and I woke to rain streaming through our tent. With such an amazing view we had opted to forego the rainfly and were now getting soaked. We hurried outside to put the vestibule on then scrambled back into the tent as fast as possible. It was 5:00am, and our tired bodies quickly drifted off for another hour of sleep before waking up to oatmeal and hot coffee.
Paintbrush Divide was the pinnacle of day three. Then we would be home free. A thru-hiker from the day prior had mentioned this was the hardest pass he had ever hiked. Having stopped a few miles short of our objective to enjoy the views on day two meant we were still 18 miles from the finish. With nervous feelings about the pass to come and a long day ahead of us we pushed forward down the South Fork into the unknown.
Our group finally made it to Solitude Lake with growling stomachs. As we ate lunch a Park Ranger made his way down from Paintbrush Pass with technical equipment hanging off of his pack. We stopped him and asked whether or not we would be able to make it down the other side safely. He told us the summer trail was impassable, but we could probably slide down the winter trail if we knew how to self-arrest. Peter felt confident attempting a controlled slide and tried to convince us of the same. It seemed achievable to us at the time, but we were still very nervous about the consequences because it would mean extra miles if we had to turn around. With a nervous expression I said, “We made it this far…", and we grabbed our gear to head up the rocky trail.
While hiking this last uphill section I finally had my breaking point. It was 80 degrees and dehydration had me trailing behind the group. Dripping in sweat and not even halfway to the top, we were all struggling to keep our cools about this arduous climb.
Alas, with focused minds through a never-ending struggle, we made it to the top and threw our packs off.
I didn’t see any sort of “normal” hiking trail, but I did see what the ranger was talking about when he mentioned a steep slide. It almost looked similar to a black diamond run you would see in any ski resort - abrupt with some moguls at the bottom. I looked over at Harriet and could tell we were riding the same brain wave: tired, scared, and a little angry about the obstacle in our path. Of course, Noah and Peter thought we should give the slide a go. We hiked to the start of the snowfield when I heard Harriet say she would be turning around. There was no way she would be sliding down this thing, and I understood how she felt. After about 10 minutes of Peter and Harriet going back and forth, we agreed that Harriet would go back down to Solitude Lake and hit Jenny lake via Cascade Canyon. Peter, Noah, and I, on the other hand, decided we would go for the slide.
Slightly terrified and second guessing our decision, Peter asked Noah to slide his pack down the slope to see how fast it would go. It caught speed at a slower rate than we thought and tumbled to a stop about 50 yards before the edge of the snow. Peter looked at us, and within a blink of an eye, went for it, sliding down with his feet in the snow and his arms trying to catch himself if he went too fast.
100ft, 200ft, and finally catching himself at the bottom, he stood up with his arms high in the air smiling and yelling at us that it was all good and actually fun. I saw his excitement burst, like a little kid that just went on his first roller coaster, but still, I was quite nervous.
Hesitantly, I sunk my feet into the snow and started my descent to the bottom. Faster and faster I slid my way down. To my surprise I still had control even though my fingers were slipping out. A sense of relief and hysterical laughter came over me as I got within 100 yards of the bottom. This feeling took me back to when I was a little kid again, getting ready to jump off of the high dive at my local swimming pool- nerves releasing as I successfully came up for air. Now, 20 years later, a feeling so similar. I finally stopped just past Peter. Smiling ear to ear I glanced back up to the start of the slide. It looked like a sheer drop-off from where Noah was still sitting and I couldn’t believe that I made it down safely.
Noah dropped making his way down with both hands in the sky. We watched him slide down the ice while uncontrollably smiling at this crazy yet rewarding adventure. All I could think was, we are safe, with only seven miles to go to the end of the Teton Crest Trail - and only seven miles from beer and burgers.
With that, we continued on our way, cherishing every moment that we had experienced on this journey so far. After 44 long and tiring miles we reached our final destination on the Northside of Jenny Lake. It was sunset and we wondered how much longer Harriet would be. Thirty minutes later we spotted this colorful, yet dirty looking backpacker. Harriet hiked her way to the trailhead with a smile and a sigh of relief saying, “You made it!” We looked at her, and said, “No, you made it!” We were over the moon that our group was back together in one piece.
Our sunburnt skin and sore, smelly feet led us back to the car. We proceeded with giddiness all the way to our favorite restaurant for celebratory IPA’s and mouthwatering bacon burgers.
It was like hiking in an unexplored wilderness that was completely raw and wild. The necessities we carried were limited and we were completely present in where we were. It was loving every jagged mountain and every twisted stream and being completely immersed in it all. It was the true experience of being in the Tetons.