Protecting Our Fortress in the Sky

Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Here, a volunteer with the ASC Worldwide Pika Project recounts a climbing trip in Grand Teton National Park.

By Dylan Jones

Clouds materialize from the void, billowing off craggy spires like smoke from a pipe. Late-season snow clings to steep mountainsides, stained from rock and dirt and hard as concrete. Littering the landscape, boulders are strewn about like metamorphic building blocks in some mythological child’s playpen.

Sunrise over the Middle Teton, as seen from the Grand. (Photo by Dylan Jones)

It’s 4:30 a.m., and headlamps give way to an alpine kingdom as first light greets us at 12,000 feet on our ascent of the Grand Teton. The scale dwarfs human perception—it’s as if some cosmic machine scoured the landscape, demolishing any sense of order.

But the landscape is not as chaotic as it appears—in fact, everything is as it should be. Nature follows a strict set of laws, and the elements here are absolute. We reach the Grand’s 13,775-foot summit around noon, awarded with a break from the incessant winds that followed us up the classic Owen-Spalding route.

Belly Crawl
Climbing across the infamous “Belly Crawl” pitch on the Owen Spaulding Route, Grand Teton. In the distance, Mount Moran is visible to the north. (Photo by Dylan Jones)

To the north and south, snow-filled couloirs and alpine lakes in shades of blue reveal themselves, hidden to most visitors behind the peaks. To the east, the Snake River winds through a vast valley before disappearing beneath the 100-mile long Wind River Range. To the west, the Tetons give way to flat agricultural fields, the landscape leveling out like the pen of a seismograph following a powerful quake.

Climbing the Grand represented the culmination of my outings in the Tetons, where I augmented my wilderness adventures by volunteering as a citizen scientist with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation’s Worldwide Pika Project. Notoriously sensitive to temperature fluctuation, the pika (Ochotona princeps) is the premier indicator species for climate change in the alpine. Because they thrive in a narrow thermal band, the pika is considered a living alarm system; a high-elevation canary in the alpine coalmine.

Pika, Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park. The smallest member of the rabbit family, pikas cannot survive in temperatures above 80 F. (Photo by Dylan Jones)

My time in the Tetons produced 15 pika observations, documented seamlessly and backed with photographic evidence using the iNaturalist smartphone app. I logged the majority of these observations on large talus fields in Death and Cascade canyons—glacially carved troughs that drain torrents of snowmelt from the range’s major alpine lake basins.

Diurnal feeders, pikas are most active in the morning hours, and they made their presence well known with distinct vocalizations as we scouted potential climbing routes on the canyons’ towering walls. While the primary objective of my trip was adventure climbing, the sense of purpose I gained from contributing data to a crucial piece of the climate puzzle was beyond rewarding.

As we rappelled down a route in Cascade Canyon near the end of my trip, sunlight danced off the glistening metamorphic walls as if they were great mirrors reflecting the park’s unequivocal beauty. Descending into the palm of geological history, I felt part of something much larger than myself.

Climbing in Cascade Canyon
Climbing in Cascade Canyon. (Photo by Dylan Jones)

We are only visitors to these great cathedrals in the sky, passing through their monolithic gates for but a moment. Mountains serve as a great equalizer, fulfilling their timeless roles as masters of creation and destruction: We need these majestic places to humble us.

As I stood on the summit of the Grand, a sublime sense of insignificance gave way to a sense of purpose. Standing on the shoulders of giants, I couldn’t help but think of the pika—its physical size dwarfed by the scale of its climatological importance. But with the implications of climate change becoming more drastic, it is clear these fortresses are not impenetrable. As adventure scientists, we must come together and form an army to protect their gates, marching in the name of conservation.

PictureASC volunteer Dylan Jones became passionate about conservation as a youngster growing up in West Virginia and exploring the lush Appalachian forests. He is currently a graduate student studying Environmental Policy and Public-Private partnerships at West Virginia University, where in 2010 he earned a degree in Journalism.

Learn more about the Worldwide Pika Project on the ASC website, our Field Notes blog, and by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.

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Meet the Author
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.