Climbing and Contemplating the Teton Range
By Jack Turner
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Jack Turner
All rights reserved.
Snow. Each year it seems winter will never end. Today is May 1, according to the Gregorian calendar, six weeks into spring, but snow lies two feet deep along the road where I am parked and it is snowing lightly, the wet flakes as big as dimes. A snow-filled clearing courses through the forest, all that is left of Cottonwood Creek this time of year. The trees beside the creek are naked—the aspen a study of silver, soft greens, and grays, the cottonwoods a dark charcoal where the trunks are wet. Pale gray alder branches are tinged with pink, and from those branches dangle small russet tassels. Willows add a smear of dull yellow beside the creek bed. To the west, lines of conifers stand cloaked in white at the base of the Teton Range; above them, miles of timbered ridges fade into clouds. East of the creek, tips of sagebrush dot a white plain beneath ghostly patches of forest, the dark green trees bleached by falling snow. Everything is subtle and austere—the lightly adorned landscape of a Wyoming winter.
I've been walking around for half an hour, waiting. A few minutes before eight o'clock a ranger arrives in a Ford Bronco and stops in front of the steel gate that has barred vehicles from the interior of Grand Teton National Park since November 1. He turns off the engine and sits, also waiting. I nod and he nods back, both of us content with silence. At exactly eight o'clock he unlocks the gate and swings it off the road. I drive across Cottonwood Creek and head north, toward the cabin I call home.
Snowplows have sliced walls on both side of the road. In front of me, cloud-capped ridges slope into the valley at the same angle—what geographers call the versant of a range. The ridges are stacked one behind another in many shades of gray—slate, graphite, pearl——until they merge with the snowy sky. Deprived of the sky and their summits, the mountains are magnified, mysterious. Static, Buck, Shadow, Nez Percé, Cloudveil Dome, the South, Middle, and Grand Tetons, Disappointment, Owen, Teewinot, St. John, Rockchuck, Moran, Rolling Thunder, Eagles Rest, Ranger—the heart of the range, rising south to north for eighteen miles. When I am away, I see them in my mind's eye like a sailor sees the reefs of his home waters.
After several miles, I turn off the highway and head toward the mountains. When I first turned this corner forty years ago, a marvelous log building stood on this corner with a grocery store and an old-fashioned soda fountain run by two old women, one of whom was named Kimball. The park bought them out the following year and razed the building, but the cabins they rented still stand, scattered along Cottonwood Creek.
I cross Cottonwood Creek again, now a trickle among quartzite cobbles. The bridge is old, wooden. Beyond it lies Lupine Meadows, just south of Jenny Lake. The meadows are roughly rectangular: a mile long, north to south, and half a mile wide. Their northern edge is a moraine, a mound of debris deposited by the glacier that gouged out Jenny Lake. To the east, they are defined by the course of Cottonwood Creek; to the west, they abut the lower slopes of Teewinot Mountain, a 12,325-foot peak that commands the meadows. A mile south of the bridge, the creek turns west and flows to the base of another moraine at the bottom of Glacier Gulch and Garnet Canyon; this dogleg in the creek marks the south edge of the meadow.
Old glaciers ground these meadows flat, leaving cobbles, gravel, and sand. More recently, a shallow layer of loess—a rich mixture of windblown silt—provides habitat for a hundred species of grasses and flowers. Lupine covers the meadow in late June, and when the last slants of light fall through the peaks, the meadow glows with lavender light against the dark conifers along the mountain's base. Thus its name. Now an undulating plain of snow covers everything. No tips of sagebrush break the surface. Siberian.
After the bridge, the road is dirt, and muddy from the melting snowbanks on either side. For the next couple hundred yards, it skirts scattered lodgepole pine along the meadow's edge. Bowl-shaped depressions in the snow surround the pines. Occasionally a tree has absorbed enough heat to melt a circle of bare ground around its trunk. At the edges of these circles, just beyond where the limbs cast shadows, are clumps of sagebrush buttercups, the first harbingers of spring.
On both sides of the creek are log cabins—the old Kimball cabins—that will soon house the Jenny Lake climbing rangers. Once the cabins were dark brown, but now the paint has blistered with age, exposing bare wood silvered by long winters. The roofs are metal, another dull brown. Some trees stand so close to the cabin wall, they bend outward around the eaves of the roof. One cabin—Mrs. Kimball's home—has a fireplace made of river stone, petrified tree trunks, and cobbles. A small Buddha and an incense holder sit in a niche between the rocks. During the summer, a handful of guides and rangers gather here each morning to meditate in front of this fireplace. Snow blown across the meadows is deeper here at the edge of the trees. It lies level with the windowsills, and the cabins seem to have settled like old folks into deep chairs.
Beyond the ranger cabins are eleven plywood shacks and a new log cabin belonging to the Exum Guide Service, a park concession and the oldest, most prestigious mountain guide service in the United States. Though the guide service is based in Wyoming, our guides work throughout the world: They guide Aconcagua, Denali, and several Himalayan peaks, including Mount Everest. One of our guides has summited Everest with clients six times.
This cluster of shacks is called Guides Hill, though it is not on a hill at all. I have guided for Exum for twenty-two years and lived in one of the shacks for eighteen summers. I built it myself, and even though I live here only four or five months each year, it is home.
The dirt road ends at a snowbank four feet high. I get out of my truck and look around with binoculars. Two mountain bluebirds dart about the meadow, little streaks of cerulean blue. They have probably been in the meadow since early April, feeding on midges and snow flies. Robins search for worms in the mud along the road. In a white landscape, these common thrushes are miraculous—the robin's golden breast, glamorous; the bluebird's cool blue, shocking.
Flocks of dark-eyed juncos, common sparrow-sized birds, peck nervously on the bare ground, muttering little snit, snit, snit sounds, then flee into the trees with a loud group flutter as I approach. Black-capped and mountain chickadees flit about the tops of lodgepole pine. A male red-shafted flicker drums his mating call on the top of a stovepipe—a sound that lifts you out of your chair if you happen to be inside. There are Brewer's blackbirds with their piercing yellow eyes, three killdeer, and two ruby-crowned kingletsfluttering from perch to perch so fast—I can't get a good view of them. No matter. Their song is loud, clear, and musical—for me, the sound of spring.
Uinta ground squirrels have tunneled up through the snow, leaving piles of dirt and a network of shallow trails leading to the new grasses along the plowed road. Their journey is perilous. A good part of the food chain is concentrated around the plowed road, and being there can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending as much on fate as on one's status in the food chain. Detritus, grasses, and roots feed flies, worms, beetles, ants, aphids, mites, spiders, deer, and elk, which in turn feed birds and mice, shrews, voles, coyotes, hawks, owls, martens, weasels, badgers, cougars, and bears. Life in the meadows is a harmony based on feeding, a harmony of feaster and feast. The presence of one implies the presence of others: If the migratory passerines (perching birds) are here, it means goshawks are about, for like all predators, they move in strict counterpoint to their prey.
I walk a hundred yards over crusted snow to my cabin. I call this crusted snow "coyote snow," good snow for chasing critters, snow so hard that it will support a thousand-pound bull moose. The thermometer near the window reads 29 degrees. Rolling swells of snow stand two to three feet deep on open ground; the drifts in the trees along the creek are five feet deep. I've heard the snow level is 36 percent above normal for this time of year, and I believe it.
I shovel a bit off the front porch, unscrew a sheet of plywood from the front window, and take a deep breath of the cold, slightly metallic air before opening the door. Inside, the air is stale, fetid from dead things in the walls—and not in the walls. The head of a chipmunk lies perfectly preserved on the rug, its delicate cinnamon face and striped head quite at odds with the absence of a body. I take the head outside and place it on the woodpile for our resident pine marten, a member of the weasel family about the size of a house cat, though much more agile, clever, and bold. I light incense—for the cabin and for the chipmunk—open the window, turn on the fan, put water on to boil. The Ashley woodstove is filled with twisted paper and split lodgepole pine. I squirt charcoal lighter on it and toss in a match from a wooden box on top of the stove. It roars. Not quite what the Boy Scout Manual suggests, but it works well at forty below and becomes a habit after a while. While the water heats, I shovel the rest of the snow off the porch and dig a chair out of the drift on the east side of the cabin. Then I sit on my porch and drink tea and celebrate a new year.
This is the beginning of the new year, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. All ways of marking time are arbitrary. January 1 is simply the time Roman consuls entered office, and despite my best efforts, I can find no reason why I should emulate Romans. In contrast, the annual cycles of flowering, melting, and migrating are not at all arbitrary, and their repetition furnishes a precision well suited for people living in the natural world, a repetition that is both reassuring and comforting reassuring in that the cycles are still there, comforting in that we are, too. Why not begin the year with sagebrush buttercups, the arrival of kinglets, coyote snow—study of cycles the old naturalists refer to as phenology? If one's life is tied to the manifest hand of nature, rather than to the hands of markets and clocks, there isn't much choice, for like the kinglet, our presence here, our business—climbing mountains—is indexed to natural cycles.
After tea, I fetch a mountaineering sled out of the loft. For two hours I haul boxes from my truck to the cabin, boxes of books, climbing gear, a computer, paints, more boxes of books. By mid-morning the crust has softened as the temperature climbs into the high thirties and the sun breaks through the clouds. Even on a cold night, there is only time for the top five or six inches to freeze. The snow below remains wet and mushy, old winter snow with big crystals and a structure as hollow as a honeycomb. The state between spring snow, or "corn snow," as the skiers call it, and summer snow—firn—has no name, but cycles of melting and freezing cause the large granules and air pockets. I call it "junk snow."
When post-holing up to my crotch in this junk drives me nuts, I retreat to the cabin. It is warm but not cozy. A cabin requires time to become cozy after being frozen for months, just as a body takes time to become comfortable after being chilled. The wood must reabsorb heat; the stale air reabsorb the smells of food, incense, and sweat; the space reabsorb a human presence. This takes several days at least. I cook and unpack and shove books back into their summer slots, filled with a happiness known only when I am here. Wherever else I live, I feel like an alien, an exile.
The cabin is a two-by-four frame sided with plywood and painted the usual Park Service brown. It is twelve feet wide and twenty feet long, slightly smaller than Henry Beston's "outermost" house on Cape Cod—sixteen by twenty feet; slightly larger than Henry Thoreau's cabin at Walden—ten by fifteen feet; and more than twice as large as the traditional Asian hermit's hut—ten by ten feet. All my heroes lived in small dwellings.
The cabin is insulated with fiberglass; the interior walls are Sheetrock, most of it unpainted. There is a countertop with a three-burner propane stove and above it three shelves for food and supplies. An old door serves as a desk, a built-in platform supports a mattress. There is a small closet, two floor-to-ceiling bookcases four feet wide, and a waist-high table with shelves underneath. The Ashley stove is on the south wall, next to the door. Two small lofts at each end of the roof provide storage. There are four windows, two next to the bed, a double window over the desk, and one up front near the stove. One window above the bed faces dense conifers; the other offers views of the mountains: Teewinot, Symmetry Spire, St. John, and Moran. At present there is nothing outside the double window but a dark wall of snow.
Next to the bed hangs a watercolor of the Ohio River by my mother; a water lily on a black ground, in pastel, by my father; and a charcoal study of a juniper by Russell Chatham. The other pictures are prints, mostly pages of old calendars: a sketch of Lower Yellowstone Falls by Thomas Moran; a fly fisherman resting on a log beneath a waterfall by Winslow Homer; two Karl Bodmer portraits of the Sioux; one of Cézanne's studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire; a Wolf Kahn landscape.
The porch is small, eight by twelve feet. It faces south toward the round, barren summit of Sleeping Indian, a peak in the Gros Ventre Range east of Jackson Hole that is named more formally on the maps as Sheep Mountain. Outside is a picnic table rescued from a Park Service dump, several chairs, and a hammock. Otherwise, the cabin is rather plain. The Park Service frowns, correctly, on domestic flowers (alien species), gardens (more alien species), and bird feeders (unnatural), especially hummingbird feeders. The sugary liquid attracts bears, and a bear who has feasted on sugary liquid is a dead bear, for it will visit human habitations again and again until it is shot—even in a national park.
We have lived at this Guides Hill in Lupine Meadows since 1981. Before that, Guides Hill was on the moraine at the south end of Jenny Lake, about half a mile upstream. In November of 1974 heavy rains loosened the meager soil covering the glacial till; then strong west winds tore over the mountains and slammed down, flattening the mature trees. Such windstorms are not common, but occasionally they do visit. In 1987 a similar windstorm flattened fifteen thousand acres of trees in the Mink Creek drainage of Teton Wilderness twenty-four miles northwest of here.
With the trees gone, the old Guides Hill was exposed to public view from the Jenny Lake parking lot, so the park moved us to our present location. We built the new Guides Hill in another area of blown-down trees, working for a week with chain saws to clear the debris. Now grown trees separate the cabins. The pine next to the porch was a foot high then; now it rises eighteen feet.
In the evening, after the sun has dropped behind Teewinot, I eat clam chowder on the porch in falling snow. A great gray owl hoots from the cottonwoods along the creek—another welcoming sound. Great grays, fairly rare in the Tetons, sport absurd faces, with two sets of concentric circles around enormous yellow eyes, and a booming voice out of all proportion to their tiny skeleton. I search the trees along the creek with my binoculars, but cannot find it. I leave it to its hunt, probably for mice and voles.
For the next two weeks, I will have the cabins and the meadows more or less to myself. A few skiers will come skating through in the morning when the snow is crusted, but the trails into the mountains are still closed, the snow in the mountains is too weak for climbing, and the weather is nasty. If you want solitude, few places are better than Lupine Meadows in early May. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Teewinot by Jack Turner. Copyright © 2000 Jack Turner. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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