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Grand Teton NP: Death Canyon to Alaska Basin

A couple of years back we enjoyed a splendid hike in Yellowstone National Park, so in August of 2000 we set our sites a little further down the road to Grand Teton National Park. Brad found some nice routes in the northern most section of the park where we hoped to avoid some of the crowds but still get nice views of Mt Moran and the Grand Teton on a nice loop hike. It even included a canoe ride across Jackson Lake!

But as sometimes happens, nature had a way of changing our plans.

This year had been a particularly bad year for fires and Grand Teton was no different. Electrical storms had set numerous fires and the valley was pretty much engulfed with a smoky haze. After a little alpine sliding, we all arrived at our camp site on Jackson Lake the afternoon before our hike. From there we could plainly see the smoke and fires up in the hills. Once nighttime fell, we could see the orange glow from the flames shooting 50-100 feet into the air. Brad got back from the back country office and told us that the area we wanted to hike in was closed. No complaints from any of us! We would look for alternatives in the morning and enjoy a beautiful sunset for the time being.

In the morning we went to the back county office and found that the Death Canyon to Alaska Basin areas were open and we could get permits. Not bad considering we might have just been turned away completely!

We drove out some small dirt roads to the trail head near Phelps lake and began a long day of up. Nothing too strenuous, but it was a fairly crowded trail (day hikers) and not much shade in the middle of the day. We ascended from 7000 feet to about 8500 feet and made camp midway up Death Canyon. From there, Davy and David had spotted a “short cut” straight up the side of the canyon. This would save 3 or 4 trail miles but required the steep ascent of the 1000 ft canyon in the span of just a half mile. 20% grade with a pack. Oh well, that was tomorrow.

We broke out the Jamaican BBQ and had supper. As we were eating we spotted a small cub bear and his mom at the top of the basin where we wanted to go in the morning. The bears ran down the canyon in about 2-3 minutes, covering as much ground as we had during the whole day just about! Wow, were they cut out for this work. Impressive.

We had a nice evening and awoke to a bright sunny morning. After downing some oatmeal and hot cocoa, we started up the steep grassy slope. I took it slow and burned some film on wild flowers. The guys went ahead and we fairly quickly reached the Death Canyon Shelf area and picked up the trail again.

As we headed North we passed over Mt Meek Pass. We now could plainly see the Teton range from the south. It was really beautiful. We continued on until we reached a quick decent into Alaska Basin. Alaska Basin is a large open, mostly above treeline area with a number of small creeks and ponds. We made camp in a somewhat sheltered area in time to beat the PM T-storms.

The next day we set out heading north east towards what looked like a very faint trail that cut up and over something called “The Wall”. Once we were over this ridgeline we would drop down to Snowdrift Lake and continue on towards the South Teton for a summit attempt.

The hike went fairly quickly and we enjoyed views all the way. But the weather was looking increasingly iffy. We broke for a quick lunch at Snowdrift lake but continued on quickly. As we approached the climb to the South Teton the weather started to descend on us. Half of our team decided to continue up the Teton as it was only about 1000 ft to the summit. I went with Davy’s son downhill towards Schoolroom Glacier and eventually the trail back over Hurricane Pass towards Alaska Basin. We just did not see how a summit attempt in the rain and possible hail/t-storms was worth the trouble. And where would the view be anyway?

As we descended down towards the glacier, I would look back to see what the weather looked like. It kept looking worse so I felt like we had made a good choice. Later I would find that the guys spent two hours or so hunkered down about 700 feet from the summit using their emergency blankets and all the clothing they brought for the day hike to the summit to keep dry and warm. They were cold and wet and eventually gave up and traveled back the same way we came to get to camp.

For me and Davy’s son, we visited schoolroom glacier (which I wonder if it is even still there today?). Then started working our way up the trail towards Hurricane Pass. I was behind and going slowly as usual. When I came around one bend I saw my partner sitting in the cold rain. I wanted to continue and get back to camp so I asked why he was waiting. He just smiled and told me it was not yet “time” to go over the pass. I asked him if the weather was his deciding factor and he said I should drop my pack and go around the next bend. And so I did only to be greeted by 60-70 mph winds whipping around the next corner. OK, time to take a break and let the weather settle down.

After an hour or so we were able to continue around the bend. The rain had stopped for the most part and the pass was fairly clear. We could see all the way into Idaho and it was perfectly clear to the west. Amazing how it can be so clear and the mountains create so much weather!

We eventually got back to camp and the sun was out and the late afternoon was fairly pleasant. Shortly thereafter, the “summit group” got back and told their tale of their cold, failed attempt. They were bummed about missing the summit but happy to be back and warm.

The next day was our hike out. We headed mostly due east towards Buck Mountain and Static Peak. The trail was one of the most memorable in all of my hiking days. We started up a steady but solid incline that got steeper and steeper with switchbacks all along the way until we hit a pass just below Albright Peak. The view was incredible….the entire Jackson Hole valley was visible on a fairly clear day. What happened to the fires and smoke? Not really sure. But it was the best view we had of the trip. And the trail was sort of “etched” into the side of this mountain. It was just incredible that we could walk there at all. I guess thank the Great Depression for that trail work.

Just after we cleared the pass, the trail descended steeply into a shady forest with a lot of switch backs. Davy kind of ran the descent as I recall…pack and all. The rest of us tried to keep pace. But either way, it was a fast descent that eventually got us back on the trail that we had started on which ran around Phelps lake.

When we got back to the car we knew pizza would be our savior. We got to Jackson Hole and found a good local joint. In the wait for our pie to show up, some folks at the table next to us got up and left, leaving nearly half a pizza behind. I nabbed it and we all had a slice. Appetizers!

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