The Grand Teton Expedition
Yellowstone, Super Volcanoes and a Great American “Hot Spot”
August 21, 2011
The Grand Teton Reprised
I came west to climb the Grand Teton with a bunch of buddies from Maine in ‘88, only to be greeted by the worst fires in 100 years. They shut Teton National Park the day we arrived, so we spent the next few days in idle hooliganism – basically drinking and raising Hell in Jackson – leaving early to escape the reckoning for our mayhem and unpaid bar tabs. After more than 20 years, I figured that the statute of limitations had passed on our prior peccadillos, and it was safe to return and try again. Rather than tempt fate, this time the team included Gary and Jill Rogers, together with Pete Volanakis – with me the only remaining member of the original perps.
The Grand Teton is one of the mountains included in the fifty classic climbs in North America – having three routes of the total of fifty. It is a big mountain, 13, 775 feet, rising up from a dead flat valley floor above the Snake River. The total vertical is over 7, 500 feet and the scenery is absolutely spectacular.
The Grand Teton – an American Classic
Volcanism, Plate Tectonics and a Super Hot Spot
When I was I college, we were taught that The Yellowstone/Teton area was an interesting part of the uplifting event that created the Rocky Mountains (known as an “orogeny event”). While this sounded vaguely salacious, nobody really knew what caused the peculiar volcanic rock formations in the area. There was a very large amount of fairly recent volcanic rock around, but there really wasn’t a volcano that could be identified as the source.
Since 1980, a huge amount of work has been done, tying together information from disparate sources, and relying heavily on satellite imaging, revealing the story of the super volcano underlying Yellowstone. The volcano has repeatedly exploded violently over the last 13 million years, with three spectacular eruptions in the last 2 million years. All of the geysers and related hydrothermal activity in Yellowstone are due to residual heat from the volcano, and lie in a giant volcanic crater or caldera which measures 30 by 45 miles – larger than the State of Rhode Island. The volcano is due to a “Hot Spot” at least 150 miles deep in the earth’s mantle, probably caused by localized radioactive decay and/or pressure relief due to plate tectonics.
The Caldera of the Yellowstone Super Volcano
Lifting up the Tetons
The uplift associated with the Yellowstone super volcano also created the Teton fault in the last 6-8 million years. This fault is a normal fault, meaning that all of the movement is vertical, and the amount of movement is spectacular – over 30,000 vertical feet. The Tetons are ancient rocks – 2.5 billion years old – lifted up from deep in the earth and tower 7,500 feet above the Teton Valley. The valley has filled in with sediments as the mountains eroded into classic V shapes, aided by both continental and local mountain glaciation.
Creation of a fault block mountain range
A Little Training, Then an Expedition to Yellowstone
We did a one day training session to learn the skills and methods preferred by Exum Guides, our guides for the climb, followed by a rest day before we headed up the Grand. The school was pretty basic, and had a very unfortunate outcome, as we lost one of our team, Pete Volanakis, to a sprained ankle. Undeterred, we decided to spend the next day in Yellowstone, surveying the remains of a super volcano and looking for Yogi and Bubu.
Gary practicing rappelling skills for the Grand Teton Climb
Yellowstone is all about explosive heat, and a fundamentally unstable environment. The area is pock marked by over 10,000 hot springs, boiling mud pits and geysers. It virtually all burned in the late ‘80’s, adding to the overall impression of instability, and covering the landscape with fresh young growth and miles of standing dead trees.
What makes Yellowstone dynamic is water, lots of very hot water juxtaposed with very cold water and wilderness. The place is full of minerals associated with hydrothermal activity like sinter, geyserite and travertine that we never get to see back East. The springs are full of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) which are capable of living in water near boiling, and are so plentiful that they actually color the water. These bacteria are so specialized that you can tell the temperature of the pool at a glance by the color of the bacteria that inhabit it.
The Yellowstone River flows through the entire Park, passing over a spectacular set of falls after passing through Hayden Valley. In Hayden Valley we passed by a grizzly bear feeding on a buffalo carcass, with a black wolf hanging around waiting to get his shot at some lunch when the bear was done. Overseeing the entire process were about a thousand tourists all getting too close, trying to get a photograph, but hoping not to end up as dessert.
A hot spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin, with re-grown forest in the background
The Opal Spring
Old Faithful, on a 93 minute cycle
Our day done at this combination high risk petting zoo and water park, we headed back to Jackson, to get ready for the first day of the climb the next day. All the way back I read aloud from Lee H. Whittlesey’s fabulous book, Death in Yellowstone, Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. Most of the stories involved at least two of the following four elements: 1) Bears, 2) Hot water, 3) Stupidity, and/or 4) Bad Luck. It sounds like a peculiar choice for a bunch of 50+ year olds headed up the Grand Teton the next day, but I suppose that we took solace in the fundamentally bad judgment of others, as ours was clearly somewhat suspect.
The fabulous Tetons, heading back to Jackson
Acknowledgements & Sources
1) Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country, William J. Fritz
2) Windows into the Earth, The Geologic Story of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Robert B. Smith & Lee J. Siegel
3) Creation of the Teton Landscape, A Geological Chronicle of Jackson Hole & the Teton Range, J David Love et al
4) The Earth Science Dept. of Dartmouth College, particularly the late, great Dick Stoiber and Half Zantop.