When is a climb dependent on a priori reasoning? When you carry a backpack full of philosophy books and leave your warm shell at home. By Cameron M. Burns
My first trip to the Grand Teton in May 1986 was a lesson in mountain preparedness.
Somehow we’d managed to score one of the American Alpine Club’s huts for a long weekend, and five of us zoomed up to Wyoming in two cars: the Bach brothers in their hot red MG, and Jeff O’Defey, Ethan Putterman, and I in Jeff’s sedan, a Sanford and Son–style Ford his dad had offered up, a vehicle with a ridiculous name like the Painful Yoga Position SL or some such (BTW: SL stands for “Short Legs” with all American-made sedans).
We unloaded into the bright and clean wooden cabin and immediately had a lively discussion about particulate matter and methane emissions—Ethan had had baked beans for breakfast.
The plan was to do an acclimatization hike the next day (a Saturday), then climb the regular route (an easy scramble) the following day. We fixed a gourmet-style dinner of Vienna sausages in hot dog rolls and corn chips and called it a night. In the morning, we loaded our packs and set off up the Garnet Canyon trail. After a couple of hours, we stopped for a break. Benny, Kirk, Jeff, and I pulled out water bottles and ate a snack.
Curiously, Ethan—whose 6-foot 4-inch frame earned him the nickname “The Big E” throughout our college careers—sat with his pack on his lap and took in no nutrients or moisture. We eyed him suspiciously.
After 20 minutes, we started up again, plodding methodically up the canyon, taking in the scenery and enjoying a new experience. Although we all lived in the ~5,000-foot high Pretend Left-wingers Ultra Conservative Republic (Boulder) at the time, we thought we needed to acclimatize.
We also wanted to travel across Wyoming to experience the kind of multi-culturalism that we couldn’t experience at home in Boulder—you know, black people, native Americans, Asians, etc. (As Benny, a denizen of Reno often points out, the gay cowboys building electric cars he’s met in Reno are way more Boulder than Boulder. Oops, sorry, Reno, for that slur.)
About two miles up the trail it started to rain and a cold wind blew in from the west. We were in minimalist clothing, but we had sweaters and rain jackets. We opened packs and pulled them out. The Big E just watched and shivered slightly.
“Ethan, aren’t you going to put something warmer on?” I asked.
“Uh, no,” he said.
“Whatcha got in that pack then?” Jeff asked.
Jeff’s observation was spot on. Ethan looked at his overstuffed academically oriented and notably square backpack, gave us a weak smile, then unzipped the main compartment. He pulled out a book. It was Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. He pulled out another book: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. Then Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right.
A floodgate, it seemed, had been opened.
Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics.
Phenomenology of Mind.
Science of Logic.
Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men.
The Principle of Reason.
Identity and Difference.
Discourse On Thinking.
The German Constitution.
A veritable library of philosophy books the rest of us had never heard of were pulled out and shared among Ethan’s small shivering audience.
“You don’t have a shell?” I asked.
Jeff and I looked in his pack, just to make sure. Besides additional philosophy books, there were some pens and a notebook. But certainly nothing that anyone in a Tetons snowstorm would consider useful unless you thought a bonfire built with classic intellectuals’ masterworks might keep you going.
We held a quick meeting.
It was June, and down on the plains it was already scorching hot. Up in the canyon, though, it was blizzarding.
Jeff recently (e.g., nearly 30 years later) recalled via email: “So we sent him back to the cabin with instructions to put the beer in the river to get it cold. And at the end of the day, as we drove across the bridge and looked down, there was Ethan, reading on the bank, beer cans slowly floating away downstream….” (I’d forgotten about the kayaking beer cans. Thanks, Jeff.)
After another dinner choking down as many Vienna sausages as we could without raising bile, we played a nasty game where we threw the sausages as hard as we could at the window screens (I recommend everyone try this because it’s quite strange; huck a Vienna sausage as hard as you can at an insect screen and the sausage will—no kidding—go right through it. It might say a bit about the amount of fiber in Viennese cuisine).
We settled in for another night of the unexpected and delightful noises and smells and vibrations generated by five 20-year-old men while they slumber.
In the morning, Benny, Kirk, Jeff, and I left the Big E lying in bed with his very thoughtful, several-hundred-year-old male friends (“Wait, does The Social Contract really have a centerfold?”) and hoofed it up Garnet Canyon again.
We reached the Lower Saddle, where Benny, Kirk, and Jeff all got altitude sickness—or something along those lines. (Thoughts of sausages and insects, I suspect.)
I continued on by myself.
The standard route up the Grand is called the Owen-Spaulding. There’s a section on it called “The Belly Roll,” which is a straightforward traverse across a ledge with a bit of a drop to the Black Ice Couloir below. The Belly Roll, of course, was coated with ice, so I finger-jammed the inch-wide gap between the rock and the ice and shimmied across—and nearly lost my cookies.
Up on the summit I swore I wouldn’t downclimb that. Nope, I was going to wait for whoever was next up and beg a rappel from them.
Miraculously, a few minutes after I reached the “apex” of Wyoming (a curious term climbing-writers often use (like I just did) to prove their cleverness), there was a light clanking sound and two climbers, armed with enough gear to solo girdle traverse the Great Trango Tower and Everest simultaneously, panted their way to the top of the east ridge, where I was waiting for them.
We swapped loud yodels, as Wyoming climbers do, and agreed to swap my knowledge of the standard descent with use of their rope via a crack-cleaning Dulfer-Sitz.
We got down, shook hands, and I ran down the trail, thoughts of vulnerable sausages dancing through my head.
About 10 pm I met Benny and Jeff hiking up the trail to find me. They congratulated me and shepherded me down with their headlamps.
And, as is suggested in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, “there was much rejoicing.”
The funny thing about that trip is how much I learned about preparedness. Clearly, I wasn’t prepared for the weather, climbing conditions, and descent issues on the mountain, and the rest of the crew weren’t prepared for altitude sickness.
And, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, the Owen-Spaulding is, apparently, an aid route. I didn’t even know how to erect a portaledge at that tender age. (That’ll likely get changed 5 minutes after this article is posted.)
Ethan, on the other hand, was ready all along. He had his books and his thoughts, and could’ve spent several years on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, reading and allowing dozens of cans of Mill-gag-me’s Beast to return to their natural habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Next time I go into the mountains, I’m going prepared—with an armload of books.
Ethan says he has a few I can borrow.
Although he is now in therapy because the above story is completely true, Cam Burns enjoyed every moment of that long (and lost) weekend.