The craft of movement in the mountains is fascinating. I’ve dedicated my life to it. It has brought me immense joy, but has also brought fear and sometimes sadness. Learning and practicing this craft fills my soul and motivates me to be my best self. I have spent hundreds of hours learning the craft from multiple aspects, climbing, running, skiing, rescue, and medicine. It is my pursuit. Occasionally, a line in the mountains comes along that elevates the craft. A few lines that, for me, have done this in the past are the Idaho 12ers, Nolan’s 14 and the WURL. They are elegant, logical connections of peaks and ridges, that require a deep understanding of movement in the alpine, on rock, over scree, and endurance to cover the distance. Those lines started as a vision by someone with the creativity see the connections, and the audacity to try to link it together.
A few years ago, Kelly Halpin and Fred Most put together one of these lines. It started as an idea that was manifest as a line on a map. Pieces of the route were explored, and in 2019, Kelly and Fred painted an elegant line through the center of the Tetons in a forty three hour push. They called the line the Teton Center Punch. It begins on the far northern edge of the Tetons, just outside of Flag Ranch, and, once gaining the ridge, follows the hydrologic divide of the range. The middle of the route follows a technical ridge over more than 16 summits, at times it is very exposed, and often composed of loose rock. The technical section builds to the crux of the route, and is much more alpine and rock climbing than running. It is dangerous, exposed and has a significant amount of risk associated with it. The middle portion is bookended by roughly 20 mile long sections of trail, that in total brings the route to well over 60 miles.
I first learned of the route via Instagram. Kelly shared about her and Fred’s experience. It sounded very hard and very scary. They experienced bad weather, during night, and on the most technical section. This resulted in an unplanned shiver bivy waiting for the sun to help them unlock the path forward. As I read about their experience and saw their photos, I was drawn to the line and their experience. I decided it was a route I wanted to try.
As often happens, life got busy and other opportunities and adventures presented themselves, the Teton Center Punch faded to the background. A year later, Kelly posted again about her and Fred once again completing the route. They cut off significant time and cleaned up a couple sections of the route as they figured out how to navigate the very complex terrain. I reached out to the one person I knew that would be psyched on attempting to repeat what Kelly and Fred had done, Jared Campbell.
Jared and I discussed the route, stared at maps, reviewed Kelly’s posts and scoured the internet for beta. We committed to give the route an attempt the following summer. Both Jared and I spent significant time scouring the internet for additional beta, staring at Google Earth images, and working on piecing together as much beta as possible. We spoke with and texted Kelly asking for details and descriptions of the sections her and Fred struggled on, what went well and everything in between. We did our homework diligently as we prepared for our attempt on the route.
In August 2021, the stars aligned for Jared and I to give the route a go. We both had a small gap between family and work obligations, other adventures, and a decent weather window. We met at Kelly’s house in Jackson late on a Thursday night and camped in our vehicles. On Friday morning we slept in, then sorted gear and food. The day seemed to pass quite slowly with a planned start sometime later that night. As Jared worked and reworked his math on the master spreadsheet we opted for a 10:30 pm start optimum for the route. This would allow, if things went smoothly, for all the technical sections to be done in the daylight. Kelly graciously offered to drive us out to the start, over 90 minutes away, and after some shenanigans and photos at the trailhead, she drove off a little after 9:45 pm. We laid down in the dirt, enjoyed the stars, and let the remaining time before our planned start pass.
Promptly at 10:30 pm Jared and I clicked on our headlamps, started watches and trotted off in to the night. That first section, roughly 20 miles of running, had me on edge. The northern Tetons are notorious for grizzly bear activity. I had my head on a swivel running out front, expecting to see a bear around every bend. Despite my paranoia, there were no bears, though we did see some cool bear tracks in a recent mudslide just passed a ranger cabin.
After many hours of running we finally gained the ridge line and started in to the easiest of the technical terrain. The exposure started to ramp up at about the same time the sun rose above the eastern horizon. I had never been in this part of the range, and the familiar landmarks that, to me, had defined the Tetons were nowhere to be seen. This did not mean it wasn’t beautiful, it was actually some of the more picturesque terrain I had seen in the Tetons. We worked at moving efficiently, though the terrain and exposure forced the pace and was often quite slow. At one point Jared commented, “I would like to get out of terrain that I feel bad for moving 2 miles an hour and in to terrain that I am proud to move 1.” Movement in the alpine, on loose exposed scree, is notoriously difficult, this section of the Tetons proved to be as challenging as anything I had done before.
To be completely honest, many of the finest details have already faded from memory, but the overall trend for the first six to seven hours of the day was gradual increase of exposure and difficulty of the movement. We tried very hard to stay true to the ridge, and were able to unlock the sections of the ridge that Kelly and Fred had gotten stumped by. By doing so, it kept us away from water sources for an extended period of time. We were hoping our pre trip recon via google earth would paid off. During our pre trip research we had found what looked like a decent size lake, just off the edge of the ridge in a critically long section without water. It was on a section that Fred and Kelly had gone around, so it was uncertain whether it would exist in real life or just in satellite images. Without the lake we would have to bail off of the ridge, and travel a significant vertical distance to get water. Fortunately, it was there. We spent quite some time at the lake, we took a quick swim, refilled bottles and recouped for the remaining challenge ahead.
From what we could tell, there were still several miles of technical terrain, including the crux of the route, the Wigwams. As we left the lake and quickly regained the ridge we started to catch glimpses of what lay ahead. Mentally, I was starting to get a little fried. I am not as good of a climber as Jared, not even close, and the very technical, exposed travel that lay ahead made me nervous. I had progressively been stepping up during the day and felt like I was working with fear and insecurity pretty well. As we began the Wigwams section, I started to crumble. We pulled a series of moves, each more committing than the prior until a final mantel move that felt especially airy. As I moved on to the ledge and looked at the knife ridge that we would have to cross next, I broke. I sat heaving on the ledge trying to control my breathing as I explained to Jared that I couldn’t reverse the move I had just done, and I didn’t think I could do the one he just did to get across the vertical flake.
From the one trip report I found of someone actually climbing in the Wigwams, was the description of “worst rock in the Tetons, terrible quality big exposure, not worth the effort”. I grimaced a little as I thought of the beta, and as I considered the plight of Kelly and Fred when they shivered through the night, stuck on a ledge not far from where I currently sat. Fortunately Jared is very solid in this type of terrain, and I had considered this moment a possibility when packing for the trip. Jared reminded me that I had a short rope and a harness in my pack. This snapped me out of the spiraling fear and back to the moment. I went to work unloading my pack, pulling out the rope and harness, then reloading my pack without letting any of my precious kit fall off the ledge. Tied in, and with Jared giving me a solid hip belay, I was able to muster the mental fortitude to move across the flake. It really wasn’t a hard move, just terribly exposed and at a point in the day when I lacked the strength to focus my fear into motion.
Mentally still quite fragile, I was disappointed to realize that the very short crux section was just a fraction of the overall crux, and that we still had quite a bit of very technical terrain to get through. We continued to snake across the top of the ridge, occasionally dipping slightly off to one side or the other to bypass exceptionally unstable rock or impassable vertical faces. Near the end of the technical section we had to cross briefly on to the face of the loosest, and steepest terrain of the entire route. Everything was preciously balanced, and any slight pressure would result in medium to large chunks of rock cascading down thousands of feet. Every nerve in my body pulsed with focus and fear. Jared poked around trying to find a route up and through, at times backtracking and chuckling about it not being very good where he had tried. Eventually we did unlock the route, which required Jared belaying me again for a short section as I pulled through forty vertical feet of rocks more precarious than the final round of a game of Jenga.
When we finally sat on the summit of Table Mountain, with ninety nine percent of the technical terrain behind us I was finally able to relax a little. We shared some laughs as the sun touched the western horizon and after emptying our shoes and pulling out headlamps, we set off to meet the trail a at Hurricane Pass. A steep descent and some tricky route finding eventually led is to the well traveled trail, which greeted our weary feet as total darkness settled in.
The second night of movement always come with a price, and the sleep deprivation was brutal. Several times Jared and I laid down in the middle of the trail for 7-10 minute dirt naps. These tend to work pretty well to knock down the haze, at least for an hour or so. The movement was forward, slowed by the duration and difficulty of the effort, but aside from the naps it was pretty constant. Jared and I spoke little, and didn’t need to in order to know that the struggle was real for both of us. The navigation went smoothly, though our pace really slowed when we left the well traveled trail to connect to the top of Glory on Teton Pass. There had been a ton of trees blown down in a storm in September of 2020, and the route finding was very challenging. Our fatigued minds and bodies struggled to do nature’s obstacle course up, over and around constant deadfall and we were both quite grateful to join the hiking trail at the top of Glory that signified the final few thousand feet of descent.
As we neared the road we could make out a black jeep parked on the pass. Tears welled up when I realized it was Kelly, the creator of this incredibly bad ass route, waiting for us on the pass to celebrate us being the first to repeat what her had Fred had dreamt up and then done. She cheered for us as we stumbled across the road, took portraits of our weariness, and shared bubbly water with us as we sat in the parking lot in the early morning. As it often does at the end of huge endurance effort, emotion roiled at the surface as I sat in the parking lot, a mixture of overwhelming joy for having completed the route and being able to sit, and sadness for the end of the experience.
I have held off on sharing this experience for almost two months. Jared and I had discussions about how to share this route and experience with our community. On one hand, it is one of the most beautiful and aesthetic lines I have seen in the mountains, and on the other it is one of the most dangerous. This route has significant hazards including loose rock, exposure, difficult climbing moves, wildlife and it is also very remote. Jared and I, as well as the route creators, Kelly and Fred, have spent our lives in the mountains honing our skills and learning how to decrease the risk as mush as possible. We have spent considerable time learning from mentors and perfecting the craft, yet the danger is clear and present for a significant portion of this line.
While I felt it important to share our experience on the Teton Center Punch, I have serious concern about what this may motivate someone to do. Please, if you are inspired by this route do not consider attempting it without the proper preparation, training, and understanding that you could quite easily die trying it. Find a mentor, take alpine movement courses, learn wilderness medicine, and take a partner. This is a serious alpine route and it demands serious consideration and preparation.
Massive thank you to Kelly for her hospitality before and after our experience on the Center Punch, as well as for her vision and strength in the mountains. She is a master of the craft of mountain movement and we can all learn so much from her. Also, huge thank you to Jared for being the best adventure partner one could ask for and for saving me from myself with your unshakable confidence. I always need to thank my life partner Tanae and our kids, Brynlee, Chloe and Anders, for supporting me on the daily as I prepare for these big adventures, and then leave on them knowing that there is risk and danger. Thank you to my coach Scott Johnston at Uphill Athlete for believing in me and guiding my towards big goals. Finally thank you to the equipment and clothing brands that I work with that allow me to continue to pursue the craft; Patagonia, Petzl, GU Energy Labs, Zeal Optics, LaSportiva, and Sidas.