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Speed, age barriers broken on Tetons’ Grand Traverse

Nick Elson descends from the summit of the Grand Teton (13,770′) on his record-breaking run.

GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK , WYOMING: Two new records took place on the Grand Traverse this month–a speed record by Nick Elson, of Squamish, British Columbia, and possibly an age record by 70-year-old Lee Sheftel, of Carbondale, Colorado.

The traverse includes 10 summits up to 13,770 feet, technical climbing up to 5.7/5.8, and 12,444 feet of total elevation gain over 17.9 miles. The summits, from north to south, are Teewinot (12,324′), Owen (12,928′), Grand Teton (13,770′), Middle Teton (12,804′), South Teton (12,514′), the Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower and Spalding Peak, Cloudveil Dome (12,026′), and Nez Perce (11,901′).

On August 16, Elson, 32, finished the traverse in 6 hours, 30 minutes, 49 seconds, car-to-car. Renowned alpinist Rolando Garibotti owned the previous record of 6 hours, 49 minutes, in 2000 when he was 29.

This was only Elson’s second visit to the Tetons, and his first time trying the traverse.

Nick Elson walks near the summit of Mt. Owen (12,928′) while doing the Cathedral Traverse (5.7/5.8) a few days before he set a new record on the Grand Traverse (V 5.7/5.8, 17.9 miles, 12,444′).

[Photo] Eric Carter

“For the past few years I’ve generally had the goal of trying to learn to move as efficiently as possible over all types of terrain in the mountains,” Elson wrote in an email. “I have known about the traverse for many years, going back at least to the time when Rolo set the record. However, it was only recently that I gave any serious thought to attempting it. I visited the Tetons for the first time in 2014 with my girlfriend, and between doing some more technical routes, I ran up a number of the peaks on the traverse. After that trip, I talked idly about attempting the traverse but might never have actually tried if my friend Eric Carter hadn’t called my bluff and booked a couple weeks of his time this August specifically to come and support me. The day before I did the traverse, he ran the Grand in less than three-and-a-half hours car-to-car, and then the next morning he ran back to the summit just to cheer me on.

“This was just was my second trip to the Tetons,” Elson continued, “but Eric and I spent the week before my attempt scoping it out, so when I did the traverse I’d done each section at least once.”

He said he was largely inspired to try the traverse because of the previous efforts of Alex Lowe and Garibotti. A mutual friend even put Elson in touch with Garibotti, who shared detailed route information and strategies.

“I was psyched for him,” Garibotti said of Elson in an interview with Jackson Hole News and Guide. “I was also a bit melancholic, missing the time and place in my life, now long passed, when I had set that record. I still remember vividly how good such days used to feel, and was jealous that Nick had just had one. I was also happy to see my record go, it allows me to move on so to speak.”

As the new record holder, Elson maintained a tradition of humility started by Alex Lowe in 1988, after his own record on the traverse, when he said, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.”

“I’m not a totally incompetent climber,” Elson said, “and I may be able to hike uphill pretty well, but I definitely feel like a bit of fraud seeing my name mentioned alongside those guys.”

Age record?

From August 1 to 3, 70-year-old Lee Sheftel of Carbondale, Colorado, completed the traverse with partner Greg Collins of Victor, Idaho. Sheftel may be the oldest person to do the Grand Traverse, though there is no way to know for sure.

“I think that is probably a record–I don’t know of anyone else doing it,” said Renny Jackson, who has been a climbing ranger in Grand Teton and Denali National Parks for 34 years. “Tom Hargis may have the age record for doing it in one day.”

Hargis is an Exum Mountain Guide who turns 69 in October and did the traverse a few years ago.

Lee Sheftel, 70, stands on top of the Grand Teton during his three-day journey on the Grand Traverse.

[Photo] Lee Sheftel

“A 70-year-old doing the Grand Traverse is unusual, for sure,” said Mark Limage, who has been with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides since 1995. “Maybe once or twice a summer we’ll get a 70-something-year-old on top of a peak. There’s not even that many 60-somethings doing a peak, let alone the Grand Traverse.”

Sheftel had two hip replacements in 2007, and suffers from back pain and an arthritic foot.

“Everyone asks me about my hips,” he said. “My hips are not the problem. It’s the other body parts!”

He set the goal in honor of his 70th birthday–June 20–after seeing a film about Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s Fitz Roy Traverse.

“It was harder and more involved than I thought it would be,” said Sheftel, who still redpoints 5.13 sport climbs in Rifle Mountain Park near his home. “It’s so exposed. You’re down climbing on weird terrain with loose rock. I’ve never been so concerned. There are some down climbs that are just treacherous. You can’t rush the moves.”

Originally a marathoner who switched to rock climbing when he was 33 years old, Sheftel trained for a year with the guidance of a physical therapist. He made a point to do a lot of alpine tour skiing in the winter, and hiked as many high peaks as he could before August. A couple times he climbed a 14,000-foot peak in the morning and then sport climbed later that day.

“I wanted to do something different–not just another hard route at Rifle,” he said of his goal.

As most people probably would, Sheftel has a hard time wrapping his head around the 6:30 record time.

“I can’t believe it’s humanly possible to do car-to-car in six-and-a-half hours,” he said. “That would be superhuman! You’d have to run the whole thing.”

Indeed, that is more or less the case.

“This traverse requires an unusual set of skills: good aerobic endurance and solid rock climbing skills,” Garibotti told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. “It is too technical for the vast majority of runners, for the very fit types that run ultra-marathons and the like, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, most climbers don’t run. I believe it is best suited to a climber that runs, such as Nick or myself, rather than a runner that climbs. You need to be able to free solo 5.8 in running shoes, quite fast, so you need to be a pretty solid rock climber to do it safely.”


When Allen Steck, Dick Long and John Evans first completed the traverse in 1963, they went south-to-north. In 1988 Alex Lowe became the first person to do the traverse from north-to-south, setting a record of 8:15. Lowe pointed out that the earlier trio’s time of sub-21 hours was very fast, considering that they were roped together, whereas he was alone and untethered. By going north-to-south, Lowe was able to climb up, rather than down, the Italian Cracks (5.7/5.8) on the Grand Teton, the technical crux of the route, and thus save time. The loop has been done north-to-south ever since. Lowe’s record might have been even better if he hadn’t fallen on his butt and sustained a puncture wound that bled so profusely he nearly bailed two-thirds of the way through.

Garibotti noted the volume of climbers doing the traverse has increased significantly in recent years.

“Before 2000 it was a very rare occurrence, once every few seasons, if that,” he said. “In 2000 you could not see the ‘path’ on the ground in most sections. You could not distinguish where people had walked. I recalled going back in 2009 and being blown away by how most sections had a clear path, where small rocks and lichen had been cleared out as a result of people passing. It is interesting how things change, and the speed at which they do.”