This route up the Middle Teton in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, was recorded on the descent. The ascent, broken by an overnight stay at the base of the South Fork, took just over 8 hours for a marginally fit father-son team (4 hours on each day). The descent was 6 hours. This is a difficult Class 3 climb with lots of scrambling on talus and scree slopes, including extensive use of both hands to make your way through large boulders and up a final narrow couloir (gully or draw) to the summit. A helmet is recommended, especially for the final summit pitch, due to potential rock fall from climbers above. Our team climbed without helmets and never felt threatened despite a half dozen climbers above us in this section. However, we took precautions and this route minimizes threat of rock fall in the lower section of the final summit push.
My take on the meaning of Class 3 climbing is that there is significant need to use both hands to hoist oneself up steep, near-vertical sections. However, these short cruxes are rarely high enough to cause fatal injury if one falls. Most are under body height, before reaching a safe place to rest. Having some rock climbing experience, even if just at a rock gym, is useful. The possibility of serious injury almost anywhere is nonetheless significant, as of course the possibility of death in the high mountains due to weather or extremely poor judgement in route-finding can never be forgotten. You must be adept at boulder hopping on this climb, have strong ankles, and preferably good boots with a solid sole and ankle support. (We did see several successful climbers with just under-ankle sneakers/running shoes, but it really isn't safe or particularly good for the feet.)
The hike up from the Lupine Meadows parking lot into Garnet Canyon is steady but relentless at over 4 miles (7kms). There are several places to refill with water on this section. There are several long switchbacks. The trail here is dirt with minimal trip hazards.
Entering Garnet Canyon is a preview to the trail conditions ahead. A large rock slide has wiped out the trail with over 100 metres of huge boulders strewn across the route. This requires difficult route-finding and scrambling up and down. Finally the dirt trail returns, but never without large boulders and gravel scree intruding from here through to the Meadows camping area.
The Meadows is aptly named as the greenest area of the canyon. Still, large boulders are everywhere, and it seems more arrive every year. Leaving right at the top of the Meadows is a trail through some trees toward the Lower Saddle and the Grand.
A bit farther and numerous smaller trails begin the steep climb up the South Fork in the approach to the normal route up the Middle Teton. All of these routes are similar and require scrambling up talus slopes to the south/left of the South Fork Camping Area at the top of the steepest section. On the right side of this slope is a ready source of water in any conditions and season. A snow field always lies on this side higher up. In general, stay to the left of center as you climb out of Garnet Canyon on this headwall. (On the way down, this would mean stay to the right of center.)
At the top of this headwall and to the left of the main area of camping for the South Fork, another stream and gentle falls are present and the grade relaxes for an instant. From here to the saddle between the South and Middle Tetons is an undulating and punishing scramble up mostly talus boulders and some scree. A well-worn path in dirt exists off and on, but is hardly reliable or more speedy than simply picking one's way up the center of the valley, trying to find the least punishing way through the talus. The presence of snow fields in the early season or after heavy snow years will of course force a different route choice, depending also on the group's equipment. Crampons and ice axes in the early season are recommended, but was not necessary in August 2013.
The saddle is a beautiful place to stop or stay, with breath-taking views to the west and a sobering view down to Icefloe Lake a thousand feet directly below. Do not sit too close to this edge, as it drops precipitously. The views up climbing routes to South and Middle Teton are excellent.
Here is where the true climbing begins. Immediately north/right above the saddle is a scramble, requiring both hands for the first time, to the gentler ridge leading toward an obvious couloir (draw or gully). In some years, a route atop a band of snow on the right side of the ridge affords an easier walk to a shorter climb up onto the flatter ridge. This is also a great route coming down.
This flatter ridge section does not last long, but is a nice breather. Then the climbing becomes steeper.
I recommend bearing east/right up what appears a steeper line to the south side of the main couloir. The rock is more solid here, with larger chunks of talus affording better footing. The direct route is scree-strewn with sloppy footing, and worse: the threat of rock fall from climbers above is far more serious. There are many obvious paths on the right, and all of them intersect with the main couloir just under half-way up. My route here follows one of these, is barely Class 3, and requires almost no use of your hands.
Once in the main couloir, a narrow, maybe 15-foot or 5-metre slot, the scree is always underfoot and moving. It is not so steep that much falls very far, but far enough to cause possible danger below. This section now requires multiple Class 3 rock-climbing moves, mostly stemming and foot jams, but the holds and placements are excellent. Coming down, one will have to turn to face the rock at these sections. However, finding the foot holds on the way down (always a worry) isn't. Self-confidence or a leader to go first and provide beta are required. The main route goes almost directly up, but a few perfectly acceptable variants to the left go easily and may be safer from rock fall. The route here is the main route up the middle.
Near the very top, and few false summit views make it seem closer than it is, the route does shift to the north/left. There are some dicey bouldering moves here very close to the edge, but careful route-finding will preclude taking any serious chances. The summit is marked by a traditional circular brass plaque and is on a narrow and small pile of just 4 or 5 large boulders with large drop-offs on three sides. Big parties will have trouble all being on the summit together, let alone posing for a group picture.
Getting back down the whole route is easier than expected, but caution, especially regarding causing dangerous rock fall, is required as far as the saddle. Do not even think you can follow the same route down as you came up, as there are no defined trails from the saddle to the Meadows Camping Area. It is all one big jumble. Staying to the middle of the valley--or slightly to the descending right (south) in this section makes the most sense, depending of course on snow cover. As always, rock-hopping on the way down offers greater threat to slips and ankle breaks. The knees will also suffer. Take it slowly.
Once in the Meadows, the route down is straightforward and fast except for that short, 100-metre section at the lower mouth of the canyon where rock fall has obliterated the trail.
Start of South Fork Camping Area
DO NOT FOLLOW NEXT SECTION - Route Continues Through Entire South Fork Camping Area as diversion
The final summit climb up a narrow couloir, or draw, directly to the summit is the most technically challenging section of the climb, but still Class 3 with little chance of a fatal fall at any point. Climbing with both hands is often needed and there are a few 2-metre-high near-vertical cruxes, albeit with great hand and foot holds. There are a few route variations diverging no more than 10-30 metres from each other, and the noticeably well-travelled routes looked all doable. This route shown is the most-travelled and/or likely the safest. PLEASE NOTE: Rock fall in this section, mostly from climbers above, can be extremely dangerous. Helmets can be valuable, if not life-saving. Due both to rock fall hazard and considerable loose scree in the lower section of the direct line up the couloir, this route follows an equally well-traveled route to the south/left of the more obvious path. This area has more solid talus rock, almost no risk of rock fall from above, and especially from climbers in the main couloir, and joins the main couloir about half-way up. Section times: 70 minutes up, 30 minutes down. The high altitude (thinner air) will have a noticeable effect on most people.
A very short but welcome respite from the scrambling that precedes and follows on this summit section of the climb, this is a beautiful meadow with alpine flowers and many places for a comfortable break or rallying point.
Climbing up the top edge of the perennial snow field just north of the saddle may be preferable. The normal route is directly up a steep, Class 3 scramble from the saddle up onto a more gradual ridge walk. In some years, a permanent snow field hugging the south aspect of the ridge connecting the saddle to the summit can be climbed safely without crampons. It's top-most section will often slope back into the mountain making any fall trivial. If, however, the route slopes too much, this alternative should be avoided. On a good year, this is a fun and safe way to descend, even without crampons or an ice axe.
Call it relentless. You will. Rock-hopping from boulder to boulder is not for the faint of heart or weak-ankled, both going up and coming down. This is a particularly grueling section.
Start of Talus Slope (pick yr route)
Stream Outwash and Falls - FOLLOW THE CENTER OF THE VALLEY DOWN FROM HERE AND DO NOT TAKE THE TOUR THROUGH THE SOUTH FORK CAMPING AREA.
MAIN ROUTE CONTINUES - SECTION IMMEDIATELY BELOW IS JUST A BUSHWACK TOUR OF SOUTH FORK CAMPGROUND
Start of Talus/Scree Climb
From the top of the snowfield, however thick it is in the month or year of your climb, there will be a short and steep climb up black shale-like rock back to the ridge. This section, no longer than 200 metres, is steep but easily climbed by switchback with little use of the hands.
The Saddle between the Middle and South Teton is not to be confused with the "Lower Saddle" which refers specifically to that between the Middle and Grand Teton. Nonetheless, it is equally beautiful, and reached without any Class 3 climbing (not much if any use of your hands). It is certainly a long, at least 2 hour, climb from the Meadows Camping Area, but the views to the west are impressive, as is the precipitous drop to Icefloe Lake over a thousand feet below.
Start of Semi-flat Open Field