It was a series of unfortunate delays that brought us to this point.
My hiking companion Bryan Clark and I had already hiked about 19 miles from the Teton Canyon trailhead east of Driggs to near the top of Rendezvous Peak at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on Saturday, and we were unsure if we would make it to the Bridger Gondola before it shut down for the day and catch a ride down the mountain.
Getting to the gondola was a must. The last thing we wanted to do was hike another 4 or 5 miles down the winding road of the ski hill in our tired condition. We’re wimps like that.
The resort’s online information said it would shut down at 5 p.m.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“4:20,” Bryan said.
“Going to be close,” I said.
We started speed walking, but at this point in the day, our speed walk was a fast hobble.
Up to this point, we had had an awesome day hike. The temps were good (despite a frosty morning), the sky was blue and spirits were stoked.
We started at 7 a.m. — later than we planned because of road work delays near Tetonia. When we arrived at the trailhead, there were dozens of hikers queuing up to hike Table Rock Mountain. We headed down the trail that takes you up to Alaska Basin.
At nearly 3 miles we came upon two young cow moose. They didn’t like our company and disappeared into a large patch of willow bushes. Here, the trail comes to a junction. The right fork goes up Devil’s Stairs and the left continues up to Alaska Basin, following Teton Creek. We paused to go up Devil’s Stairs. A family group of five trucked by toward Alaska Basin saying they were hiking up and over to Jenny Lake.
I like the Devil’s Stairs route because you gain your elevation up to the Teton Shelf quickly and efficiently. The shelf opens up to offer wide expansive views of the west side of the range.
Near the top of Devil’s Stairs we passed a couple. When asked where they were headed, they said, “Up Table Rock.” They were feeling chagrined when I pointed to Table Rock Mountain to the north about 3 miles away. “That’s the mountain over there.”
After 7 miles, we arrived at the junction with the Teton Crest Trail and crossed the border into Grand Teton National Park. If you go north, the trail takes you to Alaska Basin in less than 2 miles. We headed south over Mount Meek Pass and across the Death Canyon Shelf.
Immediately upon entering the national park, we encountered sets of backpackers, about every 5 to 10 minutes. Crazy. I had never seen so many. Of the ones we chatted with, they came from places like Pennsylvania, New York and Florida. One was local, from Jackson, Wyo. This parade of people continued the rest of the day.
The Death Canyon Shelf is a treat. On one side is a massive vertical wall of stone perhaps 500 feet tall or taller and on the east side is a half-mile drop off down into Death Canyon. The south end of the shelf ends at Fox Creek Pass after a few miles.
At Fox Creek Pass, we crossed paths with dozens more backpackers. We took the long plateau trail around Spear Head Peak to Marion Lake. The lake is one of the range’s gems. We paused here for lunch. My peanut butter and jelly sandwich was delicious, though it had mashed into the shape of a baseball.
At Marion Lake we spotted a mountain goat high on the ridge above the lake. As we continued down the trail, there was a young bighorn sheep munching on shrubs next to the lake.
Beyond the lake, the trail goes up and down passing a few more junctions. We’d stop at each junction and take out our map to make sure we were going the right way. At one junction we found a group of Pennsylvanian day hikers sitting on a log and eating family-sized bags of chips. They had hiked 8 miles up Granite Canyon and were deciding which way to go. “Our map isn’t very helpful,” one woman said, holding up the free handout map you get when you drive into the park.
The sign at the junction said it was 3.5 miles to Rendezvous Mountain, our destination. Looking up the trail, I could see that it was going to be a lot of uphill hiking. Bryan’s phone said it was 3:30 p.m. Time to motor, and off we went. Up to this point, we had kept an easy pace of 2 to 3 mph. Feeling the pressure of time, we tried to dial up the pace, but with all the uphill, our speed didn’t increase much.
I felt a hot spot on my heel and knew I should pause and tape it before it turned into a blister. But stopping would mean losing time and possibly missing the last gondola down.
After finally reaching the Rendezvous Mountain ridge, I wrongly figured we had another mile of hiking to find the Bridger Gondola, but the mountain is much bigger than that. After more than a half-mile, we came to the start of the “Cirque Trail.” This trail I knew led to Bridger Gondola. I later learned that it is 1.8 miles winding around and up and down. At one point we saw the gondola tucked into the mountainside off in the distance. Yikes! It was still a long way off.
I willed my tired body to pick up speed and left Bryan behind.
As I approached the facility, I saw workers sweeping the patio next to the “Piste Mountain Bistro.” The gondolas were still moving up and down the mountain. It was 5:15 p.m. A man looked up from his sweeping and said, “You’re welcome to ride the gondola down, but it shuts down soon.”
My heart soared. Despite being later than the advertised time, we made it. I walked up to the gondola operator sitting at the controls reading a book.
“When does the gondola shut down?” I asked.
“About another 15 minutes,” he said, briefly glancing up.
Bryan arrived a couple of minutes later.
As we sat in the gondola effortlessly gliding down the mountainside, a wave of relief swept over me. I looked down at the winding road and trails descending the steep grade.
“No way did I want to walk that,” Bryan said.
Shortly after we arrived at the bottom, my sweetheart and Bryan’s girlfriend picked us up and took us to Cutty’s Bar & Grill in Jackson where we plowed into some Philly steak sandwiches.
It was a great day in the Tetons.