The Gunsight Notch is a deep cleft nestled between Mount Owen and the Grand Teton. I climb out of it carefully, grabbing rounded holds that feel insecure in absence of a rope. It is cold and the rubber on my approach shoes feels slippery. After 120 feet of some of the best climbing the Tetons has to offer, I reach a small ledge where I sit to wait for my companions: Brittany Griffith, Jonathan Thesenga and Jack Tackle. They follow behind taking a slightly more cautious approach, tying into a rope.
From the ledge, I see right below me a clearly diminished Teton Glacier and, just to the south, an unusually dry north face littered with rubble where snow once stood. To the west, in the south fork of Cascade Canyon, I see large patches of beetle-ridden dying pine trees. It is not only in the scenery that I notice significant changes. Seven years ago when I first climbed this section while completing a link-up of 10 peaks called the Teton Grand Traverse – involving more than 12,000 feet of vertical gain – I carried a bit of a burden on my shoulders. An orthopedic surgeon had told me that I had hip arthritis due to dysplasia, and she suggested I quit running and start thinking about having a hip replacement. When you’re 29 these are hard words to hear. Unable to face that reality and contrary to her advice, I embarked on a quest to run as far as my eyes could see.
Months passed, and in spite of severe pain, I ran on. I was angry and sad, but the air below my feet as I climbed, and the terrain I left behind as I ran, liberated me for a time from what sooner or later was to come. The Grand Traverse became my focus and over a period of two weeks I completed it three times. The first time alone, to find the way; the second with a close friend to find the shortcuts; the third in a mad rush, an exhilarating experience that I would not be able to repeat nor would I ever forget. That day I ran most of the way up the 12,325-foot Teewinot, ran and climbed across exposed ridges to Mount Owen from where I tackled the North Ridge of the Grand Teton (13,770 feet), which involved much vertical climbing without a rope. The remaining seven peaks had many difficult sections of climbing linked by running across ridges and talus fields. From the summit of the last peak, Nez Perce (11,901 feet), I ran the entire 5,000-foot descent, ignoring the damage it might cause my hip. That Grand Traverse was the last time I ran.
Scanning the scenery from this small ledge, I am surprised how content I feel just sitting. The air feels light, crisp and clean; the mountains are as beautiful as ever, despite the obvious signs of climate change, and today I perceive them as much more than just a medium in which to push myself physically. I can only cover a small fraction of the terrain I used to – now I walk to peaks and between climbs, and use trekking poles for most descents – but I notice so much more than I did back then. No longer able to push my body to its brink, I have distanced myself from the competitive aspect of sport, embracing instead the concept of play. One door closes, another opens.
Below me I hear gear clinking together, and I see Jack come up. Soon after, between laughter and jokes, Brittany and JT reach our stance. Our shared sweat feels good today.