The Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton is one of climbing’s classic routes. In standard climbing form using ropes and belay points it makes for a couple long days.
Brody Leven covered the 13.69 miles and 7,169 feet, car-to-summit-to-car, in 5 hours, 16 minutes accompanied by friend Robin Hill for much of the journey. This report is presented in Instagram pictures on that adventure following the same solo style as the first ascent by Glenn Exum in 1931, only faster. —Sean McCoy
In September, 2013. In Labor Day crowds. In perfect weather.
5 Hours, 16 Minutes, car-to-car, 13.69 miles, 7169 ft. up
Presented In Instagram Pictures
By Brody Leven
My pal Robin and I first climbed the Grand Teton’s Exum Ridge in 2009. It took 24 hours. Since then, I have only managed a few other routes in the Tetons. In 2012 I climbed the 13,773’ Grand Teton’s easiest route, the Owen-Spalding, traveling light and fast car-to-summit-to-car. It took me 6 hours.
Robin wanted to share in the run this year and we decided to take a different route. The Exum would involve more technical rock climbing and less easy scrambling. And that’s why we wanted to do it. After deciding which Salomon Running shoes to use (Fellcross), we went to sleep early and awoke to bluebird skies. 8:00 a.m. at the trailhead presented us with only 37 degrees, so we chose to sit in the car long enough to avoid wearing additional layers that we would inevitably shed quickly. By 8:30, we were running the well-maintained, popular, and very runnable trail.
Trudging toward the Grand Teton, Robin ran ahead to get this picture during one of our prolonged speedwalking fits. Pretty tired at this point (2 hours deep), I endlessly pushed down on my legs with arm muscles. Sharing the workout with my upper body provided a needed rest. With my fingers pointed toward my knees, I keep my hands flat on my legs, using my wrists to hold my shorts up. Since I have abnormally short arms or a freakishly long torso or something, my hands naturally rest atop my shorts when going uphill, and they slip when pushing down on the smooth material rather than sticky skin, causing me to push my shorts to my knees instead of my legs to the ground.
In the committing decision spot above the lower saddle, we didn’t even discuss it, and just started heading toward the route.
We chose to climb the Upper Exum. While we’d both done the full Direct Exum our memories of the route were rusty and we were in for a first-time-every-time kind of day. The speed with which we crossed the fabled “Wall Street,” an exposed ledge traverse that serves as the entrance to the 5.7 route above, was awesome. At the narrow end of the ledge we got our first taste of exposure and hurriedly stepped around the corner, the ledge disappearing from beneath our feet. Committing to our decision, Robin rounded the footless corner where actual rock climbing loomed above.
Rounding the corner, Robin and I passed our first roped climbing party of the day. As the foursome was putting one another on belay, we quickly said hello and jumped onto the first pitch. We instantly faced the vertical world of rock climbing. It was pleasurable, with solid hand jams and foot holds sufficient to hold our running shoes to the wall. The sky was still clear and I caught a strong second wind.
Snow loomed 3,000 feet below Robin on the Grand Teton’s Exum Ridge. At 13,000 feet, we had to continue moving quickly and sure-footedly, even in the face of exhaustion, timelines and route finding. We could not allow such exposure to sneak between us, the summit and the difficult descent ahead.
Nearing the summit, my Suunto Ambit2 read 3:27, which was 3 minutes short of my 3.5-hour goal to the summit. Given the slow nature of the route and my unfamiliarity with it – having climbed it years ago – I found this a lofty, yet attainable and soft goal.
After topping out on the Boulder Problem In The Sky, an easy V0 at 13,600 feet, I moved as fast as I could, completely out of breath, panting and running past descending climbing parties and trying not to make any steps that would leave me falling to the glacier thousands of feet below.
Breathing as if trying to blow up a hot air balloon with my lungs, I hit the Grand Teton summit via the Exum Ridge at 3:30:06. That’s 6 seconds slower than my completely arbitrary goal, and 18 hours faster than my previous time up the same route. Without any more mountain to climb, we hung out for a minute before starting down the easier Owen-Spalding route faster than I could have ever imagined down-climbing.
The fun was not over.
Behind Robin dropped thousands of vertical feet as he traversed a standard Grand Teton sequence of ultimate-consequence moves in a matter of seconds.
We absolutely ran off the top of the mountain. It was a super thrilling, fun, and proud descent for me. Once off the steep rock, we sprinted our way down loose rock, meeting a crew of skiers heading to climb what I assume was the Middle Teton’s Glacier Route. I soon hit the dirt trail leading back to the trailhead and was, once again, reenergized.
Then, with only a few miles separating me from my car, I watched my last chance for a sub-5-hour Exum run drain away. My last hope, however, didn’t disappear until my Suunto Ambit2 actually rolled past 5 hours, and I was barely past the switchbacks.
16 minutes later I reached my car, drank some warm water, and said hello to a group of seven girls heading up to climb the same mountain, ladened with huge backpacks.
While I didn’t beat my arbitrary goal of 5 hours, car-to-car, I set a personal precedent that I’m already psyched to challenge next year. I also shaved nearly an hour off my previous time, set on an easier route in better conditions.
I was once cheering on a runner somewhere high on the Grand Teton while burdened by a backpack. He told me his elapsed time on the run, and followed it with, “It’s no record, but it’s mine.” Now I get it.
Brody Leven is based in Utah. Learn more about him at BrodyLeven.com.