I was looking forward to returning to Grand Teton National Park. It is one of the few National Parks I’ve visited as an adult. Sixteen years ago, in the summer between our first and second years of the MBA program at the NYU Stern School of Business, my good friend Derek Henwood and I decided to take a slightly-longer-than-weeklong vacation out west. While we spent most of our time in Grand Teton National Park we also saw Yellowstone, Devils Tower, and Mount Rushmore. While a bit hurried I think Derek would agree that it was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had.
So I arrived with positive memories of good friends and magnificent scenery. Once again, the Tetons did not disappoint. Through Facebook I reached out to the local trail running club in Jackson – the Teton Trail Runners. David Reus responded that he and his wife Lauren and their son John would be willing to put me up for a few days. While they didn’t have an extra bedroom I could put up the rooftop tent in the yard and have access to the bathroom and kitchen. It worked out spectacularly. This was a gracious offer to which I am very thankful. I made three lifelong friends in David, Lauren and John. We enjoyed dinner together just about every night with conversation never failing to be positive and engaging. David was also able to adjust his work schedule in order to join me for half of my marathon.
As an aside David works for the National Park Service in park administration managing the logistics of the services provided to guests throughout the park. He and his family live in the NPS housing complex near the visitor center. I must admit that they won the view lottery. This is what they see out their front window every single day.
I arrived in Jackson on Tuesday August 2nd. The Teton Trail Runners have a regular group run on Tuesdays and David asked if I would be interested in joining. What he failed to tell me, unintentionally, is that they were going to be running the first four miles of the Rendezvous Mountain Hillclimb, a 6.1 mile race they were holding on Saturday. The first four miles have almost 3,000 feet of climbing from the base of Teton Village ski area. If I knew that ahead of time I might have wimped out since I was going to run my marathon on Thursday August 4th and I had just run a marathon at Wind Cave three days prior on Saturday. Once I was there and got introduced to everyone I had no opportunity to back out. I met a lot of really exceptional people and damn strong runners.
In working with the rangers and David we developed a marathon course that hit many of the highlights of the park but didn’t involve ridiculous climbing. David would join me to do a loop of Jenny Lake and String Lake and then I would continue down the Valley Trail to Teton Village. We woke up early, dropped my car off at Teton Village and drove to the start at the trailhead near the Jenny Lake boat launch. The entire course had over 3,500 feet of elevation gain and over 4,000 feet of descent. We grabbed our bear spray, mine a gracious gift from David, and started a little before 8am.
Within 50 feet of the parking lot David and I encountered a black bear sow and two cubs on the trail. We gave them wide berth (as you should!) and continued. Only short distance after that David noticed that someone had accidentally dropped an apple core on the asphalt path near the trail. He picked it up and took a detour to find a bear-proof trash can. He mentioned that something as simple as an apple core can cause a bear to become more aggressive toward humans and their food. In that case the bear is often put down before it harms someone. Bear safety and livelihood is very important and everyone there takes it seriously.
The trail around Jenny and String Lakes covers some of the most popular sites in the park. Because we started early the area wasn’t too busy with tourists. We breathed in the morning and magnificence with every step. Or, maybe that was just me huffing because almost the entire run would be above 6,700 feet. David got a great photo of a marmot who was posing like it was his job. After our loop of the lake I left David at his car and continued. For close to 20 miles, the Valley Trail presented me with challenging singletrack, invigorating natural beauty and few people. A passing hiker pointed out a black bear in the distance but I saw no other animals besides chipmunkey-munkeys, squirrels and birds. It was a perfect day and place for running.
I took Friday off to rest and do some sightseeing but I had an itching to climb to a 9,000-foot point before I left. When I was at Grand Teton National Park the first time I climbed to Holly Lake (9,416 ft.) and remember it being difficult but fulfilling.
On Saturday afternoon I started from the Lupine Meadows trailhead toward two highlights of the park: Surprise (9,580 ft.) and Amphitheater (9,698 ft.) Lakes. My back was aching a bit from the Tuesday climb and the Thursday marathon but I didn’t feel it was bad enough hold me back. I took my time hiking up and was rewarded. Surprise and Amphitheater are quiet, powerful alpine lakes. From Surprise Lake you get dramatic views of the 13,770-foot peak of Grand Teton and at the smaller Amphitheater Lake you are almost encircled by mountains. There, faced with this imposition, I felt both appreciative and insignificant.
I decided to mostly run on the way back down. At some point I slowed to a walk and was passed by another runner. Since he was the first runner I had seen either during my marathon or that day I decided to drop in behind him for as long as I could. We struck up a conversation. Jake Urban is the co-founder of the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute. He and his team teach avalanche awareness and wilderness medicine to individuals and first responders.
During our conversation we realize we are both from small towns in Pennsylvania not far from each other and we are about the same age. In the not too distant past he made a life decision to step away from a successful career in academia to live somewhere he wanted to live and do something he wanted to do. He is an example of possibility. Possibility to step away, possibility to change, possibility to do meaningful work, possibility make a difference, make a living and enjoy your life all at the same time. He was just coming down from summiting the Grand Teton. He said that I pushed him toward the end. Hell, I was just trying to keep up.
I left Grand Teton National Park with warmth of new friends, examples of possibility and images of mountains pointing up – the only way to go.