Totality in The Tetons

Words and photos by Angie Payne

In the summer of 1996, my family rented an RV and drove west from Ohio to tour some of the National Parks. I have a vivid memory of wading into Jenny Lake, at 11 years old, and being mesmerized by how clear and cold the water was and, even more, by how big and beautiful the mountains were. I didn’t have aspirations of climbing to the top of them at the time, but more than 20 years later, I was presented with the opportunity to see that pristine lake from above, during one of the rarest and most awe-inspiring events in nature – a total solar eclipse.

The journey began with a 7-mile hike through lovely terrain to Corbett High Camp. The first full day on the mountain was spent climbing on the nearby cliffs. Robert, a Product Line Manager at Mountain Hardwear, and I were taken up a multi-pitch climb named Corkscrew by Mark and Lisa, two of the incredibly patient and skilled guides from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides who were leading the expedition along with Rob, myself and members of the Mountain Gear team. The climbing was moderate and incredibly fun with a stunning view the entire way. The following day, we woke up at 3 am to begin the trek to the summit. As the sun rose, Mark, Robert and I steadily made our way up the Upper Exum Ridge through hundreds of feet of fun, easy climbing speckled with exhilarating sections of exposed ridges and even a few moves that made me test my trust in my approach shoes’ smearing capability.

All along the way, I took photos. As an athlete, I have watched the work of photographers from the other side of the lens for many years. I thought I understood how difficult the job is, but it turns out I underestimated the challenge. I was prepared for the heavy lifting and took the gear that I packed into close consideration, knowing that I would be carrying it a long way. I was less prepared for the active nature of the shooting, and was surprised by how difficult it is to photograph an activity that requires constant upward motion. I learned a ton through this experience and have gained an entirely new appreciation for people who shoot this type of climbing on a regular basis.

After a few thousand feet of hiking, scrambling, and climbing, we made it to the top of the Grand Teton. I have lived in Colorado since 2003, and am slightly ashamed to admit I have yet to climb to the peak of any of its mountains. As I did when I was 11, I have spent my 20’s and early 30’s appreciating the beauty of the tallest peaks from down below. Long’s Peak has been the backdrop to hundreds of days I have spent bouldering in Rocky Mountain National Park over the past 14 years, but I’ve never reversed the perspective. So, needless to say, reaching the summit of a mountain felt like a long-overdue right of passage.

The following day was the highly anticipated 21st of July. I’ll admit that I thought the eclipse was probably going to be just another semi-cool event that was over-hyped by the media. Call me a cynic, but my disdain for crowds and traffic outweighed my cosmic curiosity, so I had refrained from making plans to travel to Wyoming to view totality until the last-minute invitation to join the trip arose.

I set up my camera equipped with a semi-homemade solar filter that I crafted from a Frosted Flakes box and some solar film I had luckily acquired in time for the trip. Everyone gathered with their eclipse glasses and together we watched the big event. There’s nothing I can say about the eclipse that you haven’t already experienced first hand or read about after the fact. But I will add my voice to the choir that is singing the praises of the cosmos for the simply incredible moments that happened leading up to and during totality. The temperature drop on the mountain was very noticeable and the light was surreal. As the mountains and the valley below were blanketed in darkness, I semi-frantically snapped photos. After experiencing both, I can now say that the only time where seconds pass more quickly than they do during a climbing competition is during the totality of an eclipse. The whole thing was quite surreal and far more impressive and exciting than I could have imagined.

After the world around us emerged from darkness, we completed the trip by heading back down to the valley floor. The climbing I did on the Grand Teton was some of the most fun I have had moving over rock in a long time. Despite the added weight of camera gear, there is a freedom that comes with stepping away from the physically and mentally demanding world of bouldering in which I typically reside. The photography was definitely some of the most difficult and rewarding I have done thus far and I learned all sorts of valuable lessons along the way. And the eclipse not only lived up to, but far exceeded the media hype, and was one of the coolest things I have experienced, ever.

Thank you to Paul Fish of Mountain Gear, the crew at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and Mountain Hardwear for making this trip possible.

And last but not least, thanks to the cosmos for reminding us that however small and mortal the mountains might make use feel, the universe is always there to make us feel even smaller. I think my 7-year-old nephew really summed it up best in saying:

“We’re an atom compared to the universe. More like a vibration, really.”

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