Middle Teton Attempt - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

August 28, 2015

Written by Paul van Valkenburgh

The Tetons! Quite simply they are some of the most beautiful mountains on the planet! The highest mountains in the range are the famous Cathedral Group with the Grand Teton as the center piece. The Middle Teton is the mountain just South of the Grand... or, in most photos, which are taken from the East, is the Mountain to the left of the Grand. It is the 3rd highest peak in the Tetons at 12808 feet.


The Cathedral Group in Grand Teton National Park


Being new to the sport of mountaineering, attempting the Grand was beyond the scope of my ability. On the Grand, most people use ropes and there is serious climbing involved. However, the Middle Teton can, well, to a degree, be hiked. I say this as making it to the top of the Middle Teton is no walk in the park. In fact it can be quite dangerous. But after reading about folks who had made it to the summit, I targeted the hike (or climb) as my goal for my trip to GTNP.


I ended up making two attempts at the Middle Teton. I learned a lot from my first failed attempt. For one, I had underestimated the power of the sun at such high elevations. Well into the 1st attempt, I was bordering on sun stroke. Secondly, being from the East Coast, and not understanding what hiking up long, steep, glacial boulder fields was like, the first time going into that terrain is intimidating. Thirdly, being by myself the first time was a disadvantage. Not only from the standpoint of having someone to bounce ideas off of and to get feedback from, but also from the pure psychological standpoint of being safe.... what would happen if I suffered an injury? The day I went for the first attempt was a Tuesday, and it wasn't very crowded. So, I was up in this crazy place all alone, burning from the sun, and unfamiliar with the terrain. When a cloud popped over the horizon, turning around was the right choice for me.


Having learned these lessons from my first attempt, and having a sweet girlfriend who allowed us to stay one extra day so I could try again. I had stopped by the American Alpine Climbers Ranch and happened to find a sign of someone looking for a climbing partner for the Friday I was going. We connected by phone and I had a partner, Garrett, a young guy from Oregon.


A trip to KMart to pick up a brimmed hat and some better sunscreen, and the knowledge and comfort of the terrain having gone up and down once all played in together. And the second attempt was much better. I didn't quite make the summit, but Garrett did.... and the report will give you the details. Thanks for reading!! The trip I will describe will be the second attempt.


I met Garrett at the Trailhead at 5:45AM and we were off by 6AM.


The trail leading to the Middle Teton (and the South Teton, Grand Teton, and others) starts at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, just off the main GTNP road. For the 1st 3 miles, you go through Alpine forests...first somewhat flat, and then beginning up several switchbacks to the entrance to Garnet Canyon. On the way up, you are treated to nice views of Bradley and Taggart Lakes.


Bradley (front) and Taggart Lakes as you gain elevation via the switchbacks towards Garnet Canyon


Once you enter the trail into Garnet Canyon, suddenly you see amazing views of Nez Perce and then the Middle Teton. All the way up the canyon, the Middle Teton looms above... and you tell yourself "I got this". Not so quick there whippersnapper.


As you enter Garnet Canyon, sudden amazing views of Nez Perce (left) and Middle Teton


From the Garnet Canyon trail, a nice view of Middle Teton with it's signature lava flow Black Dike


A closer look at Middle Teton from Garnet Canyon - Teh Black Dike is prominent


Walking Into Garnet Canyon - Grand Teton National Park

The trail into Garnet Canyon is not bad... that is.... at first. The trail is easy to follow but make sure to follow the sign to Garnet Canyon. But before you arrive at the top of the canyon, you run into a field of giant boulders....many the size of your average Volkswagen! Scrambling through these boulders was actually lots of fun as they are very stable and it is not steep. It is not dangerous if you take your time.


Suddenly in Garnet Canyon you see the boulder field! Like it or not, you have to go through it!


Boulder field in Garnet Canyon before arriving at the Meadows - FUN!


Boulder Field In Garnet Canyon - Grand Teton National Park

View Of Middle Teton Before Meadows - Grand Teton National Park

Once you pass the boulder field, you arrive at one of prettiest places I think I have ever seen... the Meadows. If you can imagine a gorgeous meadow with a beautiful waterfall above it, a nice creek flowing through it, with the most beautiful canyon walls completely surrounding you, it would be this. If I had to pick a spot on earth that I really think is closest to heaven, it would likely be the Meadows in Garnet Canyon. But this was the beauty before the beast!!


The Meadows


Relaxing at the Meadows - note the sun protection! (hat, glasses, sleeves, gloves)


Looking back down toward Garnet Canyon from the top of the Meadows


Arriving At The Meadows - Grand Teton National Park

Hanging Out At The Meadows - Grand Teton National Park

I would imaging most people stop at the Meadows to take a refresher break as we did. It was around 9AM then, and we basically had a mini-lunch break and relaxed for 15 or 20 minutes.


The canyon splits into two forks. The North Fork is where folks go when heading towards the Grand Teton. And to go to the Middle or South Teton, you use the South Fork, which is to the left. It was time to start heading up the South Fork.


If you attempt this hike, do not underestimate the length of this fork. In sections it is very steep, and overall it is probably a mile or more... all walking uphill over rocks of all shapes and sizes. I guess you might call it talus, but the rocks were so mixed I call it more 'variety rock!'.


The Middle Teton can be climbed a number of different ways with varying degrees of difficulty. But the standard route is via the Southwest Couloir. To reach the Southwest Couloir, follow the South Fork until it ends at the saddle between the Middle Teton and the South Teton.


When you begin the trek up the South Fork, note (and this was late August) there is a snow covered area in the gully closest to the Meadows. While there are many different routes, sticking close to the snow area on the left side is probably the easiest way to get past this first section. You could go up the steep wall to the left and then traverse across (which was the way I went the first time) but it is a lot longer that way.


At the Meadows looking up the South Fork, the way to the Middle-South Teton saddle


Approximate direction to go up South Fork of Teton Glacier from the Meadows


The Meadows from the beginning of South Fork - It's steep! And all rocks!


Spalding Falls from the beginning of the South Fork


Middle Teton changes it's appearance as you move into the South Fork


Heading Into The South Fork - Grand Teton National Park

Steepness Of The South Fork Trail - Grand Teton National Park

The whole way up the South Fork, the best way is probably the path of least resistance. But avoiding any late summer snow is a good idea (in my opinion).


The documentation all says to not be fooled by any of the several false saddles and to continue until you see Ice Flow Lake past the saddle (and over the cliff) before beginning to go up the final portion of the Middle Teton. Personally none of the false saddles had me fooled that they were the real saddle.... but then again, I knew I had to see Ice Flow Lake!


Another appearance change of the Middle Teton


Really cool picture of partner Garrett navigating a red rock ledge on the South Fork


Red Rock Slab heading up the South Fork


View up the South Fork - rocks of all sizes!


More rocks in South Fork - looking towards Middle Teton (left) and Jackson Hole Valley (right)


The rock formations constantly change appearance


Having fun! Closer to the saddle but haven't seen Ice Flow Lake Yet!


Looking towards the Middle Teton to the right on the way up South Fork


Looking towards the South Teton (left on way up) from South Fork


Beautiful view looking East towards the Jackson Hole Valley from high up in the fork


The Valley and beyond through Garnet Canyon from the South Fork


Upper Part Of The South Fork - Grand Teton National Park

Reaching the saddle between the Middle Teton and South Teton, which is at the top of the South Fork, is breathtaking. Suddenly you see the beautiful blue Ice Flow Lake a thousand feet below you with gorgeous views out into Idaho. The scenery is so stunning I'm sure everybody who does this hike stops at the saddle for a break to take in the view and snap some photos.


When you reach the saddle, you can finally see Ice Flow Lake over a cliff to the West


At the saddle with the route up the Middle Teton behind me .... excited? Yes!!


Looking beyond Ice Flow Lake to the Southwest into Idaho


Looking to the right of Ice Flow Lake, the beautiful spires make up the Western base of Middle Teton


Looking South up South Teton from the saddle


The remaining route to the summit of Middle Teton via Southwest Couloir as seen from the saddle


Arriving At The Saddle - South Fork - Grand Teton National Park

From the saddle, take a right to head up the Middle Teton. You would go left to go up South Teton. Once on the way, there is another snow field and a steep section before reaching the base of the final mountain block and the Southwest Couloir. Be careful to avoid the snow and the steep section has some nice ledgy switchbacks but still requires caution.


The edge of the remaining snow on the way from the saddle to the Southwest Couloir


Once past the snow field, there is an open area before reaching the Southwest Couloir


A view back down to Ice Flow Lake as you near the bottom of the Southwest Couloir


View of South Teton from the entrance to the Southwest Couloir on Middle Teton


Views Out From Southwest Couloir - Middle Teton - Grand Teton National Park

Once reaching the Southwest Couloir, the terrain becomes very steep. And in the Couloir itself there is loose rock and dirt for many parts. There is nice solid rock along the sides of the couloir you can grab to steady yourself. And I have read some reports about people just climbing the rock instead of staying in the couloir proper. But BE VERY CAREFUL up on these mountains! I have read that going off route on the Middle Teton can get you into some very dangerous spots. And two girls died the day before my trip on Teewinot Mountain in GTNP because they went off route and got stuck in a cliff area (and then fell).


About half-way up the couloir, you run into a small Class 4 area. It is probably no big deal for most experienced climbers. But with the exhaustion of having already hiked 7 hours and 6000 feet up, and given the fact that the steepness of the couloir was so new to me, I just did not feel comfortable attempting the Class 4 pitch, and had no other way to continue up. In retrospect, I probably should have asked my partner or one of the other hikers nearby for a spot, but I didn't. In the end though, it is always better to turn around and try another day than to attempt something outside of your comfort zone. If the Class 4 pitch would have been on flat ground, it was no problem as it is only about 8 feet tall. But the fact that it is right in the middle of this steep couloir is what gave me pause.


Looking up the Southwest Couloir on Middle Teton


Looking out of the Southwest Couloir area towards Idaho


8 foot Class 4 section in the Southwest Couloir that spooked me out... so close, but so far


A view looking down the Southwest Couloir. It was very steep but exhilarating to climb!


Looking down the bottom portion of the Southwest Couloir


I made it to here.  Not bad for a Flatlander on the first trip out West.  And I WILL be back to summit this bad boy!


Class 4 Pitch In Southwest Couloir - Grand Teton National Park

My partner Garrett made is past the Class 4 pitch and to the summit. He notes, as other hikers did, that when you get near the top, stay to the left. If you go right you will be looking over a gnarly 1000 foot drop. There is also exposure beyond the summit on the northern side (towards the Grand), but this is to be expected on any summit in the Tetons. Garrett had never been to a summit in the Tetons and he did say it was frightening for him. So, he tagged the survey marker, took a quick picture and headed back down. A lot of the comfort level for something like this most likely comes from experience. So, if you are comfortable with exposure, it is probably no problem. For those of us just learning... well, just take your time and be careful!!


A view from the summit, even though I didn't quite make it there.


The way down the couloir and the South Fork is not as bad as I thought it would be. The sit-down-butt-maneuver seems to come in handy in many spots where it gets a little steeper. It is definitely quicker than the long trek up.


Some Wildlife On The Way Down - Garnet Canyon - Grand Teton National Park

We finally made it back to the Trailhead at about 7PM but we had taken some time to chat with folks on the way down. So, it could have been somewhat shorter if necessary.


In an overall sense, doing this hike is unbelievable. It puts you into an entirely different state of consciousness. Almost as if you have gone to another planet and back. It is long. And if you don't like rocks, you won't like it. And if you plan to try it, do your best to get in really good shape and try some other steep stuff and get used to some exposure if you can. A little climbing training / experience would be helpful as well. You don't need ropes to do this climb, but they might come in handy for the baby Class 4 pitch .... but experienced folks will breeze right through this section. Even if you just make it to the Meadows or even to the saddle, it is just unbelievable gorgeous up there....no pictures tell the real story. Oh!! And we were lucky to be in a stable weather pattern, but be very careful about afternoon T-Storms.


Hope this has been enjoyable and / or helpful to anyone reading it!!


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Posted By: hong son - 1/24/2016
Comment: really enjoyed your story. and pictures! I too attempted the Middle twice. first time, turned around due to motion sickness from flashing headlamp (would you believe that?) and second time, just about where you were below the summit. time was about 3pm and my wife was way below at the saddle. so turned around. perhaps this summer.....

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