"It’s 9 pm on Saturday, July 25th, 2015 and we are about to embark on an epic adventure in the Tetons. My partner, Bree Buckley, and I decided earlier in the day to push our start time forward by an hour and a half to ensure full daylight on the mountain. But the climb is far and away from where we are sitting now, at the start of the “picnic” on Bree’s front porch, sipping on fresh beet juice and toasting the start of our adventure.
The “Moranic Picnic” is an endurance triathlon of sorts based on the Grand Teton Triathlon or The Grand Teton “Picnic” invented by sufferfest visionary David Gonzales. The GTT is a human powered natural obstacle course that involves biking from the town of Jackson into Grand Teton National Park, swimming across the widest point of Jenny Lake, ascending the Grand Teton, and then doing it all in reverse, finishing back in Jackson at the town square. I did the GTT last summer with my climbing partner Tristan Greszko. We were the first team to do it self-supported and I was the first female to finish the triathlon. I had chosen to do the Picnic to test my limits and conquer my fear of dark lakes. It was a wild ride of mental and physical endurance but also an amazing experience. I was excited for more of the same.
David’s next vision was the “Moranic” which follows the same steps as the GTT, only involving a longer bike ride, a longer swim, and a much longer climb. The legs of the event are as follows - bike 25 miles to String Lake, hike 3 miles to the east shore of Leigh Lake, swim 1.6 miles to the base of the climber’s trail on Mount Moran, ascend the mountain (6367 elevation gain and 1000 ft of technical 5.5 climbing) and then do the entire thing in reverse. I wanted to try it because it was the next big challenge in the world of “Picnics” and wanted to know if my body and mind could handle something harder than the GTT. Bree wanted to try it to see where her own limits were, as she has never attempted such an endurance event before. We have been adventuring and climbing together all summer and both wanted to tick this off our list. We knew we would be good partners for this event and had spent a few weeks training for it. We had decided early on not to do it self-supported, but to have a crew along to help carry gear across the lake and to keep a watchful eye on us. And thank goodness for that decision, as the Moranic would prove to be ten times harder than the GTT.
Bree and I begin biking just as night settles over the valley. The first leg is fast and fun and we actually make it to String Lake before our support crew is ready to go. After a quick snack of hot chocolate and pizza and a change into hiking clothes, we head towards the east shore. Again we beat our support crew and stay warm and awake for 40 minutes by dancing to Sean Paul on the beach. The moment we see our support crew canoeing towards us, we change into our wetsuits and attach glow sticks to our arms and suits so we can find each other in the dark water. I hate this part. Swimming is NOT my thing. I have never been a water person and even after swimming in the dark twice during the GTT, the fear of dark lakes has never disappeared. And it is a LONG swim.
An hour and a half later we emerge from the water at the base of climber’s trail on the far side of Leigh Lake. Exhausted as we are, Bree and I are still laughing and having fun, but it’s 3 am. Already behind schedule. Damn it. The trail up Moran is mostly a loose boulder field. It’s steep and just plain sucks. Brittany Mumma, one of three that make up our support crew, slips and breaks her hand. She is a badass though, and keeps hiking up. They follow us all the way to the last point of the scramble, taking photos and keeping us company. The last point to refill on water is far below us now, but nobody felt the need to restock. Red flag number one. We all should have pounded water and then refilled.
The first part of the climb is a double rappel descent to the notch of Drizzlepuss. There is another team right in front of us so we give them a few minutes to get ahead. Now it’s time to move. Daylight is upon us and we have to onsight the CMC route and descend before it gets too late in the day. Was it a good idea to attempt the Moranic before having done the climb itself? No. But on the two previous attempts to summit, we had to turn around due to weather. Now it was too late in the summer to climb Moran and also do the Picnic. I felt confident about the climb though. I knew the route options and carried a map in my pocket just in case. We climb as fast as possible, staying on the heels of the duo in front of us. Bree runs out of water sometime during the first two pitches and we share my water the rest of the climb. We finally summit Moran around 1pm, about the same time my water runs out. We now have to do the entire descent of the CMC route without water. Better move fast. Bree and I take a 5 minute rest at the summit, down some snickers bars, bacon, and Honey Stinger gels and book it down to the first rappel station.
This is the point where things go from great to terrifying. “Kelly,” Bree says while she is rapping down to me, “I feel super spacey. I think I might black out.” Oh shit. At some point during the third rappel Bree went from hero to zero as the dehydration hits her full on. Now is not the time to think about the Picnic. Now it is time to get off as efficiently and as safe as possible as the water we need is back at the top of Drizzlepuss with the crew. We have to get there and my partner can not black out. Rather than down climbing sections unprotected, I set up multiple anchors and we belay each other down the face. Yes it added on time, but it was the safest thing to do. Bree is doing a great job holding it together. She keeps herself perky by singing and telling me stories.
We finally make it to the traverse that will take us to the notch, when our crew shouts down at us. “You need to take cover NOW! There is a thunder storm approaching!” Again - oh shit. The traverse is quite doable without ropes, but in our present situation of foggy brains and dehydration, we can’t risk that. Bree and I agree on one thing - we are just as exposed hunkering here as we would be racing towards the notch, so we go for it. The last thing we want to do is traverse on exposed wet granite. Rain, hail, and thunder replace the sun and hammer down on us. We make it to the final rappel and get safety in the notch when we see another storm approaching. We have a small window to make it to the top of Drizzle. Awakened by the storm, we book it to the top where we finally get some water in us. Not enough though. Time to run down to the water in the meadows.
The sky darkens for a second time during our adventure as we make our way down the horribly steep and loose trail towards the lake. We have refilled on water and electrolytes, although I am having a hard time getting any food in me. The steep trail pounds our feet and knees into mush. The hallucinations start kicking in as the dehydration and fatigue have finally started effecting my body. By 12:30 am we make it back to the lake. Bree has perked up enough to attempt the second swim, although is willing to pull out if she feels sick or starts blacking out again. Our team in the canoe sticks close to us. The water is freezing - well maybe not, but it feels cold as my body has started running out of calories to burn. We start swimming. I am immediately nauseous and flip on to my back as that seems to be the only way to continue. I have totally lost my mind. I stare at the sky and try to keep the mountain at my feet and backstroke until I enter a robotic trance where I think about everything in the world but swimming. From my perspective, it feels like I am swimming across the milky way and not some dark, deep lake. I am happy with that feeling. It keeps me going.
At some point about a fourth of the way across the lake, Bree feels she cannot safely carry on and pulls up into the canoe. The moment she is in, her body gives out and she is completely fatigued and happy about her decision to end the event. I don’t know much about this at the moment as I am mentally far away, backstroking and kicking and trying my hardest to stop the shivers and nausea. Once I try flipping over to breast stoke, but immediately get the spins and flip back over again. I make a wish on every shooting star to make it to shore. I promise myself if I can make it to shore, I can puke all I want to my heart’s desire.
Two hours pass and my crew shouts out to me, “Kelly stand up! Stand up!” I try, but the sudden stop of motion sends my head and guts reeling and I start gasping for breath and vomiting in between. I crawl on all fours out on to the beach and start puking again. My crew jumps out of the canoe and strips me from my wetsuit. Someone tosses a sleeping bag over me and starts helping me put shirt back on over my head. I can’t control the shivering. I try downing coconut water and shot blocks, but it’s no use. It all comes right back up again. This is severe dehydration. I am finally dressed and standing and now it’s time to hike the three miles to the trailhead. The air temperature has dipped to a treacherous 40 degrees and I can see my breath. I’m shaking. I have to walk.
Bree continues in the canoe with Savannah Cummins and my boyfriend Rob Kingwill walks beside me, coaxing me to drink water and eat energy chews. I don’t remember much of the hike. It was cold. When we arrive at the trailhead, Savannah and Rob order me to sit in the truck for 20 minutes to try to dry my hair and drink a Nalgene of Nuun before even thinking about getting on my bike. My bike? Can I actually finish this? I puke again out the door of the truck. Savannah comes over and tells me I have severe dehydration and what the consequences could be if I continue. It’s time to be realistic. I could pass out on the bike ride. I could be permanently wrecking my body’s nervous system. “Well,” I think to myself, “I didn’t come this far not to at least sit on my bike. I’ll try one mile and if I have to quit - I quit.” It’s go time. If I wait any longer the fatigue will set in. I pull on every layer I brought, and some extra from Bree, and step into the cold night to get my bike.
My motto during the entire adventure was “If my mind can do it, my body will follow.” I repeat that over and over again as I pass one mile, five miles, and then ten. Rob follows close in the truck in case I fall over or pass out. I keep my breathing slow and try to stay alert. Deer, elk, and moose are all over the roads at this hour. What hour is it? 4:30 am. I exit the park and now only have 10 miles until town. “You can do it, you can do it.” I repeat over and over again. “Keep your breathing under control. Don’t get dizzy.” Five miles to go, three, one. And finally there in front of me are the famous elk arches that mark the corners of the Jackson Town Square. I made it. Somehow. It is 5:37 am and the sun is rising again. 32.5 hours since we started. I am sad that Bree was unable to finish, but also glad for her smart decisions.
A few snaps of the camera and I am back in Rob’s truck headed home. It’s over. Or at least I think so until about 100 yards from my driveway where I have to open the door and puke again.
While Bree is finding the energy to get ready for work, I’m passed out in bed, fighting a terrible headache and trying to get food into my system. It takes until midnight before I finally feel okay again. Now at day three since finishing, we are both finally feeling normal again.
After successfully completely the Moranic Picnic, I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit more about myself than I did during last summer’s GTT. For one, the Moranic is much harder and requires a lot more determination and perseverance than the Grand Picnic. We thought we were going out for a 24 hour mission, not a 33 hour one. We had to deal with unexpected thunderstorms and two cases of severe dehydration, both of which could have gotten us into serious trouble but Bree and I worked together to make the best of the situation and got off the mountain safely. I am incredible glad we chose to have a support crew for this mission or I don’t think I could have finished. As Bree stated before attempting the final swim, “Safety comes before my ego.” That is great mountain sense right there. Looking back, I believe the Moranic Picnic is by far the hardest test of mental and physical endurance I have ever experienced and while I don’t think I’ll be trying the Moranic again, I am excited thinking about the next picnic in the Tetons."
Kelly Halpin is a 29 year old climber and mountain athlete from Jackson, Wyoming. She works as a freelance illustrator and spends as much free time as possible in the outdoors. Kelly has been climbing for 22 years and has recently taken an interest in endurance mountain events. She also enjoys snowboarding, mountain biking, trail running, yoga, surfing, fly fishing, and playing with her dog Scrappy. Kelly still hates swimming in dark lakes.
Kelly Halpin official web site: KellyHalpin.com
Op-Ed © Kelly Halpin
Images courtesy of the designated photographer.
Op-Ed conducted by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
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On the Cover:
An Op-Ed by Kelly Halpin
Cover Date: July 29th, 2015