Prep Time: Two months
Time Off Work: Three days
When to Go: July-August
A singular sawtooth of golden granite and black ice couloirs, the Grand Teton is where generations of America's top alpine climbers have honed their skills. It's a climber's mountain: shapely, jagged, and requiring just enough technical skill to be challenging. In 1931, Glenn Exum pioneered the best route up the 13,770-foot Wyoming peak, and the climbing school he founded has employed elite mountaineers from Willie Unsoeld to Rolando Garibotti. With so much experience at your disposal, climbing the Exum Ridge with an Exum guide is like learning to drive from Mario Andretti. But don't expect them to drag you up the Grand. "It's a huge part of Exum's heritage that clients are not just short-roped up like they are in Europe," says Jack Tackle, an Exum guide since 1982. Exum requires every new client to spend two days learning the ropes with its guides before the climb, which means that almost any fit hiker is a candidate for this trip. The ascent begins at 6,700 feet with an all-day hike to Exum's 16-person hut at the Lower Saddle, an 11,600-foot pass below the peak. Summit day starts before dawn, ascending steep talus by headlamp to reach a sloping catwalk called Wall Street. Above this scary step lie a dozen or so pitches of beautiful rock climbing, never harder than ego-friendly 5.5. Soon the rising sun warms your hands and the Upper Exum Ridge's pleasures are revealed in hallowed pitches such as the Golden Staircase and the Friction Pitch. At the top, your view spans three states and, on cold, clear mornings, you can spot Old Faithful's steam 50 miles to the north.
Start Today: Do all cardio, all the time. "People should realize this is an aerobic event much more than it is a technical one," Tackle says. Hike uphill for an hour, at least twice a week for two months. Flatlanders can substitute stair climbing or running several days a week. Visit the climbing gym. Exum will teach complete newbies all the knots and skills they need to climb the Grand, but a few sessions on a climbing wall will make you more comfortable with donning a harness, tying a figure-eight, and moving in the vertical world.
Don't Leave Home Without: Technical approach shoes. For typical summer conditions, heavy mountaineering boots are overkill, and specialized climbing shoes aren't necessary for the Exum Ridge's moderate moves. The perfect compromise is a comfortable hiking support with sticky rubber for rock climbing.
More Info: Exum Mountain Guides charges from $600 for the Classic Grand Teton Climb, plus $175 per day for mandatory pre-climb instruction (exumguides.com). Jackson Hole Airport lies within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park, which is a 15-minute drive from the trailhead.
MJ Insider: Before your date with Exum, acclimate to Jackson Hole's 6,500-foot elevation with several day hikes in Grand Teton National Park, such as the 4.8-mile trek to Amphitheater Lake, at 9,700 feet. Although the Exum hut is more comfortable than a flapping tent, it's still a flatulence-filled tube in which the alarm goes off at 3:00 a.m. Recover from your climb at the Alpine House, a Jackson B&B run by Exum guide Hans Johnstone and his wife Nancy, both former Olympic skiers.