Grand Teton summit

The team at the 13,000 foot summit of the Grand Teton Enclosure, August 27 2006. From left to right are (top) Ngawang Sangdrol, Tenzin Jigme, Jimmy Chin and Nate Emerson. (Bottom) Marsha Ralls, Kim Kaston, Nathan Ralls and Tom Sun. (Tom Sun)

At three AM on Sunday morning [August 27 2006], at the Grand Teton high camp, twelve climbers of different ages and vastly different backgrounds scrambled to get ready to climb to the summit of the 13,788 foot Grand Teton. Different though we were, that morning we were all focused on the daunting task that lay ahead of us. The goal for each one of us was to push our self to the top of the mountain, but we also all knew that we were a team, working to bring resources to Tibetans in India, Nepal and Tibet.

Among the group was Ngawang Sangdrol, a 29 year old former political prisoner who was imprisoned at the tender age of 13 and spent 11 years in Chinese prisons. She was an inspiration to everyone, not only for her tremendous courage in the face of overwhelming hardships but also for her enduring strength and spirit. We also had two boys with us, 11 and 13 years old, adored by everyone as they scurried up the steep hill alongside famous mountaineers David Breashears and Jimmy Chin.

The first day was a practice climb near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Working with our guides from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, we got comfortable handling ropes and belaying techniques, as well learning a few essential safety protocols for the hiking and climbing for the next two days. It was also a good way to get to know the rest of the group. The next day was a day of enjoyable hiking, though just before reaching our high camp the route became quite steep. At the same time the alpine scenery and views became even more spectacular the higher we got. The high camp was located at an altitude of 11,000 feet, where we feasted on a gourmet dinner and the guides briefed us about the next day’s ascent – and descent.

On Sunday morning at 3:30 AM we began to ascend. We each had a headlamp on our head, while above us the sky seemed nearby, as magnificent glittering stars lit the clear sky that was absent of both moon and clouds. We negotiated through rocks and boulders, right behind one another in a winding line. At around 4:30, we roped up for a few hundred feet, then proceeded in a slow yet steady pace toward the upper saddle. At the break of dawn we were on the last leg of our journey and we could see the almost vertical rock that lay ahead of us. The temperatures still hovered around freezing and patches of snow that fell the day before had not yet melted. More problematic was the verglass – a thin, nearly invisible layer of ice on some parts of the cliff. Encouraged by our guides and willed by our desire, we pressed to the upper saddle, at around 13,000 feet. The weather was still unstable and after a group discussion, we opted to climb the second highest peak, the south summit called “the Enclosure.” I was a bit disappointed not to make the full summit, but I think some of the group was relieved as the particular tough conditions had made it a much harder climb than expected.

The view was spectacular from the top of such a high peak. On the summit there was a man-made enclosure, and legend has it that Native Americans constructed this to receive visions. We felt like we were on top of the world on the summit at a height of 13,400 feet, and it was an experience that we will cherish for a lifetime.

As prepared as we were, it was a difficult undertaking. Whenever we were facing a particularly difficult hike, Ngawang Sangdrol talked about the arduous and grueling journey many Tibetans must make to reach exile in Nepal and India. There is no way for me to comprehend the danger and hardship of border crossing, but at least it made our journey easier as it put our seemingly difficult trek into perspective. It was also inspiring to know that this climb was for the Rowell Fund for Tibet, and the money raised would fund small grant projects for Tibetans.

This year’s team was: Charlotte Bonilla, Tenzin Jigme, Kim Kaston, Marsha, Jake and Nathan Ralls, Ngawang Sangdrol and Thomas Sun. The guest guides were David Breashears, Jimmy Chin and John Ackerly. The Jackson Hole Mountain Guides were Evan Howe, Trevor Deighton and Nate Emerson. The group raised nearly $40,000. Many thanks for additional donations from the James Wolfensohn Foundation, April Bodman, Ann Down, Steve Johnson and Bruce Rich. Thanks also to The North Face for providing fleece jackets and to Mountain Light Photography for hats to all the climbers.