Climbing The Tetons

Climbing with fear-based confidence


Morris Brown, 71, never thought he would get the chance to climb the Grand Tetons after a 1996 trip was cut short. A chance encounter with a world renowned guide in the Gallapagos Islands landed Brown back on Wyoming’s second highest peak in August.

Morris Brown, 71, never thought he would get the chance to climb the Grand Tetons after a 1996 trip was cut short. A chance encounter with a world renowned guide in the Gallapagos Islands landed Brown back on Wyoming’s second highest peak in August.

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Gripping the knife-like edge tightly some 13,000 feet above the valley of Jackson Hole, Morris Brown was in a predicament he had promised himself 15 years earlier he would never be in again.

His slick shoes scraping at the sheer face, Morris knew any misstep would likely cause him to plummet to his death.

The words “a moderate, enjoyable climb on largely excellent rock” from a Grand Teton guidebook he had picked up sometime earlier rang through his mind — what did they know?

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Courtesy photo

Morris and Phyllis Brown stand below the Grand Tetons.

Then came the slight tug on the rope, the same friendly reminder guide Jim Williams had given Brown throughout their daylong journey up Wyoming’s second highest peak. Brown remembered Williams was just a few feet away, belaying him every teetering step of the way and he took another step.

What a difference a rope and one of the country’s most accomplished guides can make.

What led Brown to Williams and the Tetons after a near fatal attempt in 1996 is a bizarre tale that features the Galapagos Islands, sailing and a few leaps of faith.

When Brown first set his eyes on the Tetons in 1980 during a backpacking trip with his teenage sons, he knew he would have to climb it one day.

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Courtesy photo

Phyllis accompanied Morris up the first few miles before heading back to camp.

While most of us can gaze appreciatively at a mountain from the base, Brown has never been one to settle for lower elevations or expectations.

At 71, Brown has climbed Mount Rainier, Kilimanjaro, Pico de Orizaba, Mount Humphreys twice and crisscrossed across the Grand Canyon more times than he can remember.

After his first glimpse of the Tetons, Brown returned in 1996, his mind full of travel guide wisdom that made it sound all too easy.

“It sounded just like a hike,” he said.

This “hike,” however, tuned into a treacherous climb. With no rope, limited food and water and no clear idea what he was doing, Brown quickly got off route.

At one point, Brown found himself clinging to a boulder, his feet hanging over a 100-foot drop.

“I have never been more afraid in my life,” he said.

But the view was amazing.

From the east, Brown looked down some 6,000 feet to the valley and to the west, he could see Idaho. The Tetons rise out of the plains of Wyoming in one grand sweep, unlike foothills, which gradually increase in elevation.

For a person from North Carolina, these hills trumped anything he had seen in the Appalachians.

The altitude must have done something to Brown’s mind because he was dead set on trying it again.

A few years later, he climbed Mount Whitney despite battling a bout of altitude sickness.

Through the years, he climbed many more mountains and canyons with his wife and children.

After moving to the Rim Country, Brown eventually joined Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, a group of volunteers that rescues injured and lost hikers.

Brown asked to train with the ropes group, which uses rigs and pulleys to rescue people from cliff sides or canyons.

More challenging and dangerous, the group trains monthly and attends a rigorous training course in Sedona annually.

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Morris and Exum Mountain Guide Jim Williams continued on, climbing the Grand Tetons in 16 hours. It was Brown’s first time on the peak.

After passing the Sedona class, which included rappelling into a 100-foot mining tunnel, Brown finally felt comfortable with ropes and cliff sides and knew given the chance, he could probably make it up the Tetons.

But that dream was long gone until Brown took a trip with his wife to the Galapagos Islands in March.

While sailing through the Pacific Ocean, Brown met Williams and the two quickly struck up a conversation on hiking.

Brown learned Williams was a guide with Exum Mountain Guides out of Wyoming, guiding clients up the Tetons on a weekly basis.

Williams had also summited Everest five times and was the first person to successfully guide the highest summits on all seven continents in less than a year.

Williams said he would personally guide Brown up the Tetons and gave him his card.

With his ropes training with TRSAR and Williams’ help, it looked like Brown’s dream would finally happen.

In August, Brown flew to Wyoming and met with Williams for two days of intense training.

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Guide Jim Williams (left) and Payson’s Morris Brown sit atop the Grand Tetons after a long climb up the Exum Ridge route.

The two then set out on the strenuous eight-mile, six-hour trek from the trailhead to the lower saddle, climbing some 11,600 feet.

The men scrambled up loose rock, switchbacks and glaciers to reach that point and Brown was happy to rest.

Brown laid out his sleeping bag in a crowded shack with 16 other climbers, but could barely close his eyes. The adrenaline and anxious anticipation was too much. At 3 a.m., Brown and Williams were the first group out of the camp, starting their final approach.

It was Williams’ 300-plus time up the mountain and he knew every handhold, foothold or usable crack, Brown said.

Even when belaying from above, Williams told Brown where to find the next hold.

When it came time to decide choosing the final route to the top, Brown opted for the Exum Ridge, the most difficult, but sunnier route.

The ridge rises 1,800 feet up to the summit.

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Courtesy photo

Morris Brown had never gone rock climbing prior to the Tetons. As a volunteer with Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, he knew how to get down a rope quickly, but it took some time to learn how to climb up. Brown’s guide, Jim Williams, took this photograph of Brown near the peak.

In one area, Williams instructed Brown to step over a large ravine by simply pushing off with his left foot. Brown later learned this area nearly stopped premier mountaineer Glenn Exum from completing the first ascent of the route due to the sheer drop off.

Williams’ confidence, however, rubbed off on Brown and he never once questioned his guide’s advice.

“I call it fear with confidence climbing,” he said. “This time I knew I had a rope and a guide.”

After a few more pitches, Brown reached the 13,770-foot-high summit. After pictures, the men started down. By 9 p.m., 16 hours after starting from the trailhead, Brown could finally cross one more mountain off his list.

But Brown isn’t done yet. Williams said he would happily guide Brown and his son up Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the Americas.

And time is of the essence for Brown.

“I need to do this as soon as possible,” he said. “I need to squeeze everything I can in.”

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