A West Side Story: Solace and Adventure in the Tetons

A West Side Story: Solace and Adventure in the Tetons

A West Side Story: Solace and Adventure in the Tetons

Every mountain runner has a birthplace: a single trail or mountain range that first ignited their desire to travel fast and far through vast and wild landscapes. Much like salmon returning home to spawn, we runners seem to inevitably find our way back to the paths and routes that kindled our deep passion for the sport. 

My running birthplace is in the Tetons. I first dove into the world that is trail and mountain running in the summer of 2021, after moving to Wyoming. In a time when many of us felt adrift during the later stages of the pandemic, I discovered comfort in the untamed wilderness of the nearby mountain ranges.  

Since my introduction to trail running in 2021, I have had the privilege of running in some of the world’s most stunning landscapes. Yet, time and again, I am drawn back to the Tetons. Despite their relatively small size, I find myself fascinated by the contrast between the Tetons’ inviting nature and rugged character. As I navigate the narrow paths weaving through the granite canyon walls, I’m filled with a sense of belonging. Whether the day’s objective is to conquer one of the nearby peaks, embark on a point-to-point run, or take on a simple out-and-back journey, the inspiration seems endless.

The concept of covering long distances in a short period of time appeals to me. So, when I first discovered a few routes in the Tetons that had previously been tackled by other athletes in pursuit of setting the course’s Fastest Known Time (FKT), I was intrigued. Like any eager newbie, I believed throwing down a dedicated effort on the trail was the right place to start. 

All it took was a text to my go-to adventure partners (pictured above), and we were off to run the 34-mile Grand Teton Circumnavigation loop as one of our first trail runs and FKT attempts. We succeeded in setting the FKT in a time of 06 hr 17 min.

Trail runners in mountain landscape

Taking the Path Less Traveled

Fast forward two years, and I find myself once again in this familiar range. This time, my athletic friends, Kelsey, Connor, Sebastian and I are ready to explore a less-traveled route through these familiar peaks.

“Finding new ways to explore familiar places can be a challenge, but I’ve come to appreciate the art of route creation as I dive deeper into mountain sports.”

The conventional entry points into Grand Teton National Park lie on the eastern side of the range, in the bustling, tourist-centric town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. However, the land to the west of the range, while quieter in terms of visitors, offers travelers a diverse and distinct perspective. 

With our home base in Driggs, Idaho, we have made the 90-minute drive over Teton Pass to the terrain on the east side of the range countless times. It was about time we ventured onto the western slopes of the park right at our own doorstep. 

Finding new ways to explore familiar places can be a challenge, but I’ve come to appreciate the art of route creation as I dive deeper into mountain sports. With the recent surge in navigation-oriented apps, the capacity to visualize viable lines is now easier than ever.

Trail runner in mountain landscape

Our Route

After evaluating our route options, we outlined a rough plan consisting of a 40-mile two-day loop. Starting at the base of Teton Canyon, we would begin by running toward Icefloe Lake (a small glacial lake nestled below the South and Middle Tetons). After establishing camp, we would ascend the southwest gullies on the South Teton. Then, on the following day, traverse several lake basins before returning along the shelf, which would ultimately leading us back to the canyon we initially entered.

As I stuffed my 30L pack with camera gear and a full-sized tent, I could not ignore the fact this trip would be a practice in “heavy and fast” travel. Truth be told, given the central role of photography in most of my adventures of late, the “heavy and fast” approach has become the norm. 

Our friend and badass mountain athlete, Sebastian Campos, rendezvoused with us in Driggs, Idaho, with the initial intention of cycling to the trailhead to kickstart our journey. However, we soon realized the practical challenges of this plan when we discovered our bikes—which had not seen the light of day since last summer—were in need of a serious tune-up. A door-to-door adventure, though enticing, would have to be postponed for another day. Instead, we opted for the 10-mile drive to the start of the run.

Female trail runner on top of mountain summit

Curiosity & Joy

What unfolded were two soul-enriching days in which we weaved our way through the park, at last taking the time to venture into locations that had lingered on our radar for the past couple of years. The chance to run alongside friends—both new and old—while marveling at the breathtaking scenery around every bend, evoked emotions reminiscent of childhood: curiosity and unbridled joy. A sense of playfulness emanated from the group as we forged ahead.

I find it interesting how the discomfort of running (especially with the added weight of overnight gear) was so easily masked by these emotions. Is it possible to find this same joy in the more mundane moments in other aspects of our lives?

Twenty miles from our initial starting point in Teton Canyon, we established camp near Icefloe Lake. Our objective for the evening: scramble the southwest side of the South Teton. We could not find much beta on the route but trusted we would find our way using intuition and the route info we managed to collect from maps. I felt a little apprehensive but it looked to be no more challenging than Class 3/4 scrambling, meaning the terrain was steep but not highly technical.

After ascending through the loose scree, we transitioned onto more stable Class 4 terrain. Then, tracing the natural weaknesses in the gully, we gradually made our way toward a notch just below the summit block, taking great care not to dislodge any rocks along the way. I found myself eagerly scrambling ahead in search of interesting perspectives from which to capture photos of my friends. The play of light along the rocky ridge above captivated us all, and as we reached the summit we dispersed, each of us finding our own special spot along the rugged ridgeline.

We departed as the sun dipped below the horizon, retracing our steps to the col and relying on the fading light to scramble down toward our camp. Back on gentler terrain, signs of the predicted weather began to manifest in the form of relentless, gusty winds sweeping in from the west. We retreated to our campsite and cooked dinner by the light of our headlamps before settling in for a night of restless sleep.

When we woke, we quickly packed up and out and proceeded to warm up our legs as we resumed our journey through the park. We ran, completing the loop back to the canyon we had initially entered, while taking time to explore new trails along the way.

Two female trail runners eat their dinner at camp

Why I Return

Such is the rhythm of trail running: wake up, eat, run, run while eating, sleep, and repeat. These days embody simplicity at its finest—a return to a less complicated way of life, a path to being present. 

While racing through the mountains has its place and time, there is something enduring about charging up the trail with an overstuffed pack, sharing laughter with friends and spending sleepless nights under the stars. 

Amidst the hustle and bustle, the relentless pursuit of goals and objectives, and the external pressures that drive our day-to-day, it is undeniably refreshing to carve out moments for pause, to take a deep breath, to simply run.

Female trail runner drinking out of water bottle