At 4 a.m. on a chilly August morning, as the stars flickered above a jumble of crags and snowfields, four climbers scrambled out of their sleeping bags and set off from the Quonset-shaped hut on the saddle of Wyoming's Grand Teton.
Ropes coiled over their shoulders, they hiked up the steep switchbacks to the Black Dike, a vein of basalt that signals the beginning of the challenging, three hours-plus climb to the mountain's summit.
Their headlamps then zigzagged away, disappearing like a tiny swarm of fireflies.
I watched them go, feeling sheepish. This had not been the plan. As recently as a day ago I'd imagined myself with them — answering a dare I had made myself two years earlier. Although there was no way to paint a happy face on the moment, I'd definitely learned something.
Exactly what that was, I wasn't ready to say.
The whole thing started about five years ago. I'd been standing by the edge of a cold lake in the hills of western Canada, debating whether to wade in.
As I deliberated, a car pulled up. A man who appeared to be in his mid-70s stepped out. He stripped off his clothes and without preamble, leaped into the lake in his underpants.
When he emerged, goose bumped and slightly blue, I asked whether he was a local.
"Never been here before," he said. "I was just driving by."
I nodded in humbled admiration.
"The day will come," he informed me wistfully, "when I see a cold, clear mountain lake and can't jump in. But that day hasn't come yet."
As we get older, we become more risk-averse — and I suspected it could happen to me as well. I'd made a career of travel and had written six books describing my adventures.
But did I still have that capacity for spontaneous madness? Was I still the undaunted adventurer who had circled the world without airplanes, dived with sharks and rescued a snow leopard in Tibet?
Anything seemed possible
The Grand was a strange place to test myself. I'm not a rock climber, and I'd never climbed a mountain. Long, immersive hikes, often at high altitude, have always been my love.
During three decades of visiting Nepal and more than a dozen treks in the Himalaya, I'd never been tempted by Tent and Island peaks — modest summits (at 18,560 feet and 20,305 feet, respectively) long popular with amateur mountaineers — let alone Annapurna and Everest.
So why, at 60, had I challenged myself to climb the highest peak in the Tetons?
I do not know.
What I do know is that when I drove into Jackson Hole (in time to witness the breathtaking total solar eclipse), I looked up at the Grand and was filled with terror.
It looked impossible, diabolical, like something out of Mordor. "That is a real mountain," I thought, "and I am not a mountain climber."
In fact, the Grand is not an especially difficult summit to reach. At 13,770 feet, the peak rises about 7,700 feet above Wyoming's Gros VentreValley. It's one of the most photogenic, accessible and fun mountains to climb in the lower 48.
About a thousand people summit each year, from pre-teens to the high (and fit) 70s.
I arrived in Jackson Hole early to adapt to the altitude. Granted, I hadn't done much prep (a few visits to a local climbing gym), and Grand Teton National Park is filled with challenging trails.
I did my best to get acclimated and hiked with local friends. Our first outing was a strenuous, scree-filled slog up to Timberline Lake, a semi-frozen pool at 10,300 feet.
We gained more than 3,000 vertical feet over only four miles, much of it off-trail — bushwhacking through sharp shrubbery, bouldering and balancing on logs over tumbling streams.
It was taxing but beautiful and wildflowers abounded — pink monkey flower and lupine, columbine, paintbrush and thistle.
One of the group was an indomitable woman named Val, 78 years old. Although not the climber she once was, she was a reliable member of this weekend hiking group. She and her husband brought up the rear, undaunted.
"Enjoy what you can do when you can do it," she said. "And then do something else."
My second hike reached Lupine Meadow, an alpine paradise at about 9,400 feet, cut with cold rivulets and spread beneath the bare peak of the Middle Teton.
This precipitous trek, commanding a tremendous view of the Gros Ventre and Taggart Lake, took us halfway to the Saddle, Exum Mountain Guides' staging area for the ascent of the Grand, three rough hours onward.
As I looked up the trail toward that distant goal, anything seemed possible.
What can I do?
Climbing the Grand Teton involves considerably more skills than a day hike. Exum requires two intense days of "climbing school" before allowing anyone to attempt the peak.
It's a short but intense course, conducted with a small group of fellow hopeful summiteers.
On the first day we inched up rock faces with our toes and fingertips and rappelled down small cliffs. I was a little slow, but hey, it was my first day.
We also practiced a maddening range of climbing knots. Knots aren't my strong suit, but the incentive to master them was strong: My life would depend on it.
The second day of school took it up a notch. My instructor was a level-headed young Exum guide named Brenton, who led me and a local friend— a cardiologist named Ellen who had summited Mt. Everest three months earlier — through a half-dozen short, challenging climbs.
I couldn't finish them all, and Ellen lost her grip once or twice. Still, the knots came more easily, and the long rappels into empty space were thrilling. Compared with the previous day, I crushed it.
Or not. After our final rappelling session, Brenton sat us down on a boulder. We pulled out our water bottles. There was a brief pause, and he turned to me.
"You're not quite ready," he said. "You're close, but you're not quite there. You need some upper-body training — maybe a few weeks at a climbing gym. And since my job is to mitigate risk, well … I can't take you up the Grand."
No one spoke. I nodded slowly and drained my Klean Kanteen. A hundred thoughts and emotions ran through my head. How do I convey my paradoxical mix of disappointment and relief?
For months, I'd been obsessed with the idea of climbing the Grand — an exercise for which I had neither physically nor mentally prepared. The deflation of my harebrained scheme left me both chastened and humbled.
"Well. … What can I do?" I asked.
"You can hike with us as far as the Saddle," Brenton said. "That's 12,000 feet high — 5,000 vertical feet up the mountain — and involves a bit of roped climbing. It's an achievement in itself."
I wasn't buying it, but this was where I'd landed. The words of a river guide in Idaho came back to me: "We'll take what we get, and make the most of it." He'd been talking about the weather, but the climb was also out of my control, at least in the short term.
This left me with two choices: drop out — or enjoy what I could do, when I could do it.
Two days later, I rose from my sleeping bag as dawn painted the sky over the Saddle. My fellow climbers had left more than two hours ago. Alone in the Exum hut, I made some coffee and oatmeal. Then I hiked to the Black Dike and sat against a rock wall.
Patches of snow lay rimmed with pink watermelon frost along the flanks of the nearby Middle Teton Glacier.
The six-mile, 5,200-foot hike up to the hut had been strenuous and spectacular, with occasional stops at wildflower-lined streams. The altitude wasn't extreme, but I could feel it — and gazing down between the mountain walls toward Taggart Lake and across the distant plains, I could see it as well.
About 9 a.m. foul weather moved in, with high winds and snow enveloping the Grand in swirling clouds. My fellow climbers were up there somewhere testing their skills.
But for the first time in days, I found myself at peace. The place I had reached, with its geologic wonders and vast views, was perfect. And although I'd been humbled by my hubris, it had taken me higher than I'd be without it.
Only two teams summited the Grand that wild morning, my companions among them. Staggering back to the hut just after noon, they embraced me and showed me their photos — selfies taken on a field of bare boulders in the middle of sky.
They looked totally exhausted.
"Congratulations," I said, a pinch of envy in my voice. But Brenton had been right: I wasn't quite ready. And there was no shame in admitting it.
There was more to it than that. That final day at climbing school, after he'd washed me out, Brenton had taken me aside.
"I'll make you a deal," he'd said. "I'll tell you how to train. Do what you need to do, come back next year and I'll personally take you up the Grand Teton. What do you say?"
I didn't commit. But looking at Ellen's photos, I knew my answer: No, thanks. I'm a hiker, not a climber. And I guess I always will be — until I have to do something else.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO JACKSON HOLE, WYO.
From LAX, United offers nonstop service to Jackson Hole; Delta and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfares from $408, including taxes and fees.
Exum Mountain Guides, South Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park; (307) 733-2297. Group climb is $990 per person for four days, including two days of climbing school. Shoe rental is $10 a day. Group Grand Teton price (without climbing school) is $630 per person for two days for a group of two or more. Private rates are $950 per person for two days for a group of two or more.