• Heather O’Neal


I saw it coming and by then it was too late. The bump in the road looked like the pavement had melted and slid down the mountain to create a speed bump about a foot tall. Behind the first one there were a few more smaller ripples. I had finally picked up speed. My biking partner was ahead getting the car because earlier I was moving too slowly and we had to be somewhere.

I was terrified to rely on the brakes of the rental bike. But soon after testing them again and again, my overly cautious attitude turned into a somewhat daring one. The brakes worked really well. At no matter what speed, it seemed I would be able to stop. Mind you, I did not predict large bumps would appear in the road.

We were near Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We opted to try Black Canyon, the suggestion of the cool dude who worked at the bike shop. “Yeah, real cool, real great biking. You’ll like it, the best around here,” he told us. I was with Brian, a friend who I did not know had a mean talent for speeding down rocky canyons on bikes. “You can hitchhike to the top,” the bike rental man said.

Brian and I agreed, we better do it right and bike the whole way. However, it was a monstrous climb. Constant up hill pedaling. I was dripping with sweat. We managed to get to the top of Teton Pass, 8,431 feet. Fortunately because we were somewhat in a hurry, we opted not to climb the additional 1,000 feet. I think Brian was disappointed we took the road back and not Black Canyon. But there was no way I would have come out of that mountainous, dirt and scree filled trail on two wheels.

I went right over the top of the first bump. Now airborne, I knew I was in trouble. Images of landing like a stunt girl and sailing down the mountain crossed my mind. However, I hit the second and third bumps with the front tire and maybe the back tire too. My treasured center of gravity left me in the lurch. There was no alternative. At some point I let go of the handle bars and surrendered to the gods of gravity. The next thing I knew I was on the ground catching the front bike tire as it came down on my head. That part was like slow motion.

I was so glad Brian did not see me. I was so glad no one had seen the mangled mess I was now in. Gathering my senses, I scurried to get back on the bike as if nothing in the world had gone wrong, as if nothing at all had happened.

At the bottom of the hill Brian knew. “You fell!” he said. “The helmet is broken!” It seemed the front visor on my helmet was now wrapped around to one side. I had never worn a bike helmet before nor had I ever in my life fallen off a bike. I think the helmet was my savior.

My wounds ranged from a bloody knee to an imprint of the pavement on my hip, to four scrape lines decorating one calf, to an ankle abrasion, to a cut on the elbow surrounded by bruises, to two red scratches on both shoulder blades and three bruises in the shape of a constellation on my bum. I figured I must have tumbled and rolled like a stunt girl at the very least.

The next morning my father and I were in the car at sunrise heading toward the Grand Teton. The plan was to hike eight miles to the saddle, camp over night, and then scale the Exum Ridge to the summit of the Grand at 13,770 feet. This is a technical climb with ropes and the works. My father and I had made the attempt last year and the year before without luck.

I will never forget last year being 50 feet from the summit and watching lightning strike the Middle Teton right next door at eye level and only a few hundred feet away. Not only were the carabiners (metal climbing clips) buzzing, two climbers reported the rocks on the summit were humming. Next the hair would stand on end and soon after: a bolt of lightning? Needless to say, we turned around.

In the 50’s my father climbed in the Rockies with personalities like Willie Unsoeld and Jake Breitenbach. Both later became famous for being in the first American expedition to summit Everest in 1963. A photo of my father was taken on the summit of the Grand back then and has long been the inspiration to climb in recent years. Four years ago another picture was taken of Dad standing on the same rock with my brother. It was now my dream to stand there with him, too.

From the parking lot, it took my father and me six, almost seven hours to get to the lower saddle between the Grand and the Middle Teton. We both must have had at least 30 pounds on our backs, including a tent, sleeping bags, cold and rain gear, harness, food for three days and rock helmets. (Climbers often start rock slides!) Hardly able to move, we set up the tent and ate some dinner while shooing away the begging marmots.

At one point the most persistent marmot disappeared. I was perched with my kn ees up sitting on a rock. As I scanned the other rocks and the gravel landscape around me in search of the little furry body, I realized he was almost inside the bag of food that sat between my legs. My instinct was to let out a murderous scream which frightened the little animal. He shot off in a blur. My father looked concerned. I think I scared him too.

I hardly slept that night though the weather couldn’t have been better. I spun in circular twisting patterns in my sleeping bag trying to find the elusive comfortable spot.

At 3:00 AM our guide, Gary, came to our tent. “It’s now or never,” he instructed. We couldn’t have had a better guide. He is truly an impressive man: a park ranger, a forest fire fighter, an emergency medical technician, a wilderness medicine specialist and rescuer, and the father of two adopted girls from China. Plus, he is a master of technical climbing.

Like most mountains, one must sneak up on the Grand Teton early in the morning before her mood changes and the clouds and hail storms gather above her. That morning by 4, we were heading up the steep and rocky hiking trail toward the Exum Ridge. From there we would rely on ropes to catch any otherwise fatal slip of the toe or hand. We wore headlamps in the darkness of the chilly morning.

Some hours later the sun began to rise and we could at least see where our determined little steps had taken us. The jagged peaks surrounding our gaze posed in the yellow sunlight for our cameras. We were not the only ones on the mountain that day. When the weather is good, some fifty climbers may summit. The weather so far was excellent.

Soon it was time to put on our harnesses and tie into the protection of the rope. The trail turned steeper and steeper until it became an incredible climbing WALL. My mind transformed the mountain into one giant jungle gym.

Handholds and footholds kept us crawling vertically toward the sky, up and up the ridge named after Glenn Exum who scaled it first in 1931. The first length of the rope led us to a precarious spot among rugged rocks. There was just enough room to sit. Exposure was an issue — meaning don’t look down.

A group of seven climbers were behind us pressuring from below to hurry. Waiting for seven to pass would put us an hour or two behind. Meanwhile that group had more climbers below them. I wanted desperately to rest, to take pictures, to stop and sit a while. I felt like an eagle, protective of my time with the mountain.

Other climbing parties with incredible skill forged new routes across seemingly flat vertical surfaces, pinching at microscopic handholds with their fingertips, balancing on their toe nails. They wore skirts of gear, racks they call them, metal biners, camming devices, spring loaded wedges, hexentric chocks — all jingling at their waists. Rope was everywhere. Amazingly no one was tangled up in it. Climbing is a gear intensive sport and all for nothing — that is, as long as no one slips.

I was amazed, proud, elated to ascend somehow clinging spider-like to the granite. My new pants did well, comfortable, and not one thread out of place after intimately dancing with rock.

Then finally after seven or eight lengths of the rope, intense climbing the whole way and a few hours later, we reached a ledge. Any of a million rocks could have dislodged, sending us and other climbers to the bottom in seconds. My father pointed out how precarious the mountain was, one 13,000 foot rock pile, each rock balancing on another.

We walked the length of the ledge and then it was another twenty-five feet up. And then nothing. No more mountain. That was it. Only sky. We had reached the top!

The view was incredible. A description would not do it justice. I heard music. Jazzy, hip, groovy music played in my head a the sight of the surrounding pinnacles of stone, all now lower than where we stood. My father and I had our picture taken here, standing on the exact rock where he stood in 1957 and where he and my brother stood in 1997. For that moment, I was the luckiest girl alive. Not only did I have the world’s most amazing father, a dream had just come true!

Then it occurred to me. We still had to get down. As mountaineers say, “It is optional to climb a mountain, however it is mandatory to come down.” The weather was well disciplined. It was still sunny. Any other day and there would have been a big storm brewing by now.

The thrill of the descent was rappelling twice. The longer of the two was a 180 foot drop. Holding and leaning back on the rope, I climbed out over the edge of the cliff. The fun part was walking backward down the rocky wall like Wonder Woman. Soon the surface tucked under and I was dangling freely like Charlotte spinning her web. The grip of my right hand set the speed and would, if clenched, stop a fall. The kinked rope pinched slowly through the rappel device which raised the temperature of the metal at least 100 degrees.

What a feeling. Finally back at the camp we ate and ate. I don’t think I’ve ever done that much work before in one day. The marmots were hungry too for the opposite reason. They were annoyingly lazy but very cute. As we packed up our camp, tent and all, I found myself thinking about what my father had said, “The world is held together by Velcro and zippers.”

The feeling of triumph is still with me today and so is the feeling of sore muscles five days later! The biking bruises, scratches, scrapes, cuts and imprints are all a deep and lovely purple.

Heather O’Neal

Of Global Interest LLC Adventure Travel

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