Grand Teton via Upper Exum

Grand Teton via Upper Exum
Overlooking Middle Teton from Central Rib

Labor Day, September 5, 2022:

  • One-day ascent of Grand Teton via Upper Exum, a 5.5 climbing route.
  • Round trip in just over 12 hours, 3:15am to 3:30pm.

Upper Exum is a 5.5 route up Grand Teton that starts midway up Exum Ridge. It involves the same approach as Owen Spalding up to Central Rib (between Lower and Upper Saddle). Owen Spalding is a 5.4, the easiest route up the Grand.

The Picnic triatholon was at the top of my list in summer 2022. It involves biking from Jackson to Jenny Lake, swimming across Jenny, then summiting the Grand via Owen Spalding and reversing the course. (46 miles of biking, 2.6 miles of swimming and 16 miles / 7,000' of hiking, running and climbing.)

After completing the Picnic in mid-August (trip report), I caught a bug for climbing and wanted to try some meatier routes in the Tetons.

One of my Wilderness First Responder classmates ("WFR," pronounced /wo͝ofər/) offered to take me on Upper Exum. He grew up in Jackson, has close ties to Teton County Search and Rescue and works part-time for Exum Guides. In short, the perfect climbing partner for Upper Exum.

Note: I'd recommend a WFR, or at least a Wilderness First Aid course, for anyone spending significant time in the backcountry. I took a hybrid WFR in June 2022. It involved ~forty hours of online instruction and exams, followed by five days in person. One of the instructors was on our local search and rescue team, so we also got some behind-the-scenes access.


We planned a one-day push. I was in decent condition from the Picnic and my partner was in even better shape.

Since Upper Exum is an exposed 5.5, we planned to use ropes. From prep before the Picnic, I knew the rappeling basics and had a small climbing kit. But, I hadn't done any lead climbing. It would be my first alpine climb with protection.


I read some articles and watched YouTube videos on trad climbing to get oriented. Trad, or traditional, climbing involves carrying and placing your own protection (e.g., cams and nuts). On sport routes, by contrast, climbers use permanent anchors bolted into the rock.

Lead climbing involves two climbers connected my rope. One leads, feeding the rope through protection—permanent bolts for sport or placing gear for trad. The second climber belays the leader from the bottom of a pitch, extending slack as needed, but always ready to lock the rope in the event of a fall. The last bolt or piece of gear the rope was fed through would catch the leader. Once they lock the rope, the belayer needs to be able to brace the fall. The belayer should know where and how to catch a fall before the leader starts climbing.

The alternative is top roping, where the rope is suspended from above (e.g., a pulley). The lead climber is belayed by their partner from the bottom, who takes out slack as they climb.

To trad climb safely, you need to understand rope systems and gear placement. That knowledge that takes time to build. Aside from some top roping at the Driggs rock gym and knot practice before Owen Spalding, I was inexperienced. So, I'd rely on my partner's judgement for systems and gear placement.

In terms of the route, Wyoming Whiskey came to the rescue again with their Upper Exum guide. My partner had experience on the route and I knew the approach, so I didn't research as obsessively as I did for my Owen Spalding solo in August.

Wyoming Whiskey's overview of Upper Exum:

Wyoming Whiskey excerpt


I largely used the same gear as for the Picnic and Owen Spalding solo climb. The one exception was my climbing kit. We swapped my ATC belay device for one with assisted braking and my daisy chain for a sling (borrowed both from my partner). I also left my prusik behind. My partner planned to be ready with a fireman's belay from the bottom of the rappel if needed.

We also brought one 70-meter, light rope. I planned to carry the rope. My climbing partner would carry an assortment of nuts and cams. 60 meters is the minimum required for Sargent's rappel, bypassing most of the Owen Spalding downclimb. Since we were bringing a rope, we might as well rappel.

  • 15L REI vest pack
  • Petzl climbing helmet
  • Black Diamond Momentum harness
  • Auto-locking belay device
  • Sling
  • Gloves from ACE Hardware
  • Bear spray
  • Black Diamond LED headlamp
  • Sportiva TX4 approach shoes
  • Blaze orange ball cap (good to be visible)
  • LifeStraw filtered water bottle
  • Food: GU gels, Clif bloks, Goldfish (highly recommend something salty to contrast all the sweet, sugary stuff), RX/Kate's bars, etc.
  • Electrolyte powder
  • Emergency gear: first aid kit, tourniquet, space blankets, Gorilla tape, baby powder, Leatherman multi-tool, lighter, whistle, Ibuprofen, Voile straps, etc.

Upper Exum

We settled on Labor Day for the climb. I was scheduled to fly back from the east coast the day before. The forecast looked clear.

I landed in Jackson at 9pm. We approached from the north, so the plane descended alongside the Tetons. It was a mild, clear night. I was stoked to be summiting that big rock in 12 or so hours.

I scrambled to load up on calories and organize gear. By 11pm, I slipped into bed, again using the Olly sleep gummies that worked well ahead of the Picnic.


At 1:45am, my alarm jolted me out of bed. By 2am, I headed (once again) for Lupine Meadows trailhead. I've gotten in the habit of leaving a cold brew in my truck the night before, sipping on it as I drove north.

Visibility was low and it was noticeably darker than when I landed at 9pm. A dense fog seemed to form overnight.

At 2:30am, I pulled into Lupine Meadows and got organized, waiting for my partner to pull in. When he arrived, we swapped part of my climbing kit for loaners from his stock. Lupine Meadows was far less busy than on my last few late night visits. I guess we were finally past peak climbing season.

It was 50-60F, so running shorts, a sun hoodie and a vest did the trick.

By 3:15am, we hit the trail, headlamps guiding our way. We gave one climber beta on Owen Spalding near the trailhead. While I was out of town, it snowed a bit in the alpine, so my partner tipped him off to potential for ice. It had been warm the past few days, so we weren't too concerned.

We only passed a few groups on the way up. By 4:30am, we reached the boulder fields at the start of Garnet Canyon and forked right for the Lower Saddle.

First light was 5:30am. At that point, we realized that fog was actually smoke. It must have blown in overnight from a wildlife in Idaho.

We approached Fixed Rope at ~6am, running into some friends of my partner. (A native and Exum regular, he seemed to know everyone on the mountain.)

At 6:20am, we stopped at the spring to refill water bottles and eat breakfast. Wildfire haze hid the valley floor below, making for a spooky dawn. The Tetons were islands of rocks in a sea of smoke.

We continued past Exum's camp (my climbing partner checked in, of course) and up to the Needle. The approach to Upper Exum is the same as Owen Spalding up to the start of the Central Rib, between the Lower and Upper Saddle.

We passed left of the Needle and traversed Briggs' Slab to bypass Chockstone Chimney. I climbed Chockstone on my prior two Owen Spalding trips.

For more highlights on the approach, check out the Owen Spalding dry run section of my Picnic trip report. For a more comprehensive breakdown, I highly recommend the Wyoming Whiskey guide.

Wall Street to Golden Staircase

Wall Street is a 5-10' ledge leading from Wall Street Couloir (aka Exum Gully) to Exum Ridge. If you know where to look, it's easy to spot from the Lower Saddle. The ledge is on the west side of the ridge, so it's shaded in the morning.

At 7:15am, we reached the top of Central Rib near the Lower Crossover. The sun lit up Middle and South Teton to our south. Smoke on the valley floor glowed orange. After crossing Central Rib, we downclimbed to the base of the gully closest to the bottom of Wall Street ledge. A quick upclimb deposited us on Wall Street. There was some loose rock, but otherwise the climbing was easy.

We walked up Wall Street toward the gateway to Upper Exum: Step Across. Legend has it, Glenn Exum lept over the exposed gap during his 1931 first ascent.

At Step Across, the ledge narrows to 6" without good handholds above. I planned to apply upward leverage to an overhanging rock to increase friction from my shoes and side-step across. There's also a lower variation.

We roped up as a group ahead cleared the gap. We each slipped into harnesses, tied into the rope with figure 8 knots and clipped on some gear. In the shade and not moving, it got chilly. We added windbreakers and gloves.

The group ahead finished at around 8am and my partner started. He placed a cam just before Step Across, as I belayed him from the bottom. Once he had a stable position to belay me from the top, I followed and removed, or cleared, the protection he placed for reuse. I was protected by gear placed above the problem and/or his belay position.

I found the problem very awkward. Crouched down, feet on a narrow ledge, my butt hung over 2,000' of air. I hoped that upward leverage would lend enough friction to my approach shoes. (It did.) According to Wyoming Whiskey, it's a bit easier (and safer) to take the lower ledge variation.

Exum Ridge welcomed me with sunshine beneath Golden Staircase. My climbing partner led up the Staircase, placing some cams as he climbed. I followed and cleared the cams. The handholds are small, but very grippy, and the face is exposed. It was my favorite section of the route.

Still warming up in the sun at the top, we reorganized gear. To shorten the rope, my partner coiled ~half around his body, then hitched to his harness.

Wind Tunnel to Friction Pitch

We simul-climbed (aka climbing in unison) up to the aptly named Wind Tunnel. There were a few fun boulder problems in the Tunnel. We ascended up the middle of the gully.

It was 8:25am when we reached the base of Friction Pitch. My partner extended the rope to allow more slack for the climb. A party was ahead of us, so we decided to climb along a crack just to their right.

Friction Pitch is the crux of the route (aka, the part responsible for its 5.5 rating). That said, there are multiple variations, some above/below that 5.5 rating. You can bypass Friction Pitch via a chimney to the right. Even with bypass, Upper Exum is more challenging than Owen Spalding (longer with less obvious moves).

Again, my partner led, placing protection. I followed and cleared. There weren't many handholds and footholds, so I relied on friction. It's important to keep your heel down to maximize surface area, an unnatural movement.

By 8:45am, we reached the top and transitioned back to simul-climbing with a short section of rope connecting us.

Boulder Problem in the Sky to the Summit

After Friction Pitch, we scrambled/climbed through Notch Gully, V-Pitch and then the West-Leaning Chimney. There were a couple tricky moves, but overall easy climbing with less exposure than other parts of the route.

Note: There are many variations on Upper Exum. Check out Wyoming Whiskey for detailed mark-ups covering many of them.

By 9:30am, we tackled Boulder Problem in the Sky, my second favorite part of the route. It involves a few cruxy crack moves that take a minute to solve.

After clearing the Boulder Problem, we scrambled to the summit. At 10am, we looked out on that sea of haze, blanketing Jackson Hole to the east and Teton Valley to the west. Mt. Moran emerged to the north and Middle, South and Buck to the south. We could barely make out Bradley and Taggart Lakes below.

We snapped some photos and settled down for lunch. A few other groups joined us. One climber was struggling, from low blood sugar, dehydration, altitude or some combination. I gave him a GU gel, and 15 minutes later, he started coming back. Turns out, it was the same guy we spoke with near the trailhead that morning. He made it up Owen Spalding, but was pushing his limits.


At 10:45am, we started downclimbing. (Almost everyone descends via Owen Spalding versus Upper Exum.) We climbed down Sargent's Chimney, then started setting up at the Sargent's Rappel.

Parties can skip the Owen Chimney/Catwalk, Double Chimney, Crawl and Belly Roll downclimbs by rappeling. On my last two ascents via Owen Spalding, I saved weight by skipping a rope and thus the rappel.

My climbing partner set up the rappel and dropped in. Once I felt slack in the line, I dropped. It's a 100' overhanging rappel, so you're suspending in the air as you drop down. My first overhang, so it was a bit of a thrill.

When I reached the bottom, we pulled our rope and cleared the rockfall zone. (Another party was rappeling behind us.) A climber at the base was debating whether to continue on Owen Spalding, so we gave him some tips and pointed out the start of the route (Belly Roll).

Then, we made our way back to the Lower Saddle. Again, I packed the rope and my climbing partner the protection. We stopped at the Lower Saddle spring. My knee was sore, so I popped a couple Ibuprofen.

The rest of the hike out was uneventful, a mix of walking and jogging. My climbing partner chatted with a few Exum buddies guiding parties into Garnet Canyon. I didn't feel as confident with foot placement as I did on the Picnic (8.5 hours roundtrip from Lupine Meadows), so we maintained a slower pace.

Funny enough, the smoke largely dissapated by the time we reached the Meadows. That morning was probably the smokiest of the summer, a welcome contrast to 2021, but it lasted less than 12 hours.

At 3:15pm, we stumbled back to the Lupine Meadows trailhead. After breaking down our gear, we headed to Dornan's for some pizza.

Up Next for the Grand

  • Grand Traverse, ascent of multiple summits in the Cathedral Group.
  • Full Exum Ridge, a 5.7 route.