The Teton Triatholon

The Grand Teton Triathlon

By Kelsey Dayton
— July 16, 2013

David Gonzales woke at 2:30 on a morning last July. He hopped on his bike and began peddling the 21 miles from Jackson to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

The sky sparkled with a meteor shower and to the East he could see an electrical storm flash over the Wind River Mountains.

Jenny Lake sat like a diamond of water underneath the mountains when he arrived at the shore. The water was perfectly still.

The sun was rising when he plunged into the clear water and began the 1.3 mile swim across the lake. When he reached the other side he hung his wet suit on a tree and began his 8-mile hike that would take him up almost 7,000-feet in elevation. About six hours later he was on the summit of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. He began his descent down the mountain, followed by his swim back across the lake to his bike that carried him back home to Jackson. And thus the Grand Teton Triathlon was born.

David Gonzales enters Jenny Lake after biking from Jackson last July.  Gonzales created the "Teton Triathlon" to challenge himself. (Photo Courtesy John Douglass)
David Gonzales enters Jenny Lake after biking from Jackson last July. Gonzales created the “Grand Teton Triathlon” to challenge himself. (Photo Courtesy John Douglass)

The first thing you have to understand about the Grand Teton Triathlon is it isn’t a sanctioned race. It isn’t a sanctioned anything.

“It’s a personal challenge,” Gonzales says.

Nor is it any sort of race. He was the only participant last year.

It’s more of picnic, Gonzales says.

Gonzales takes his time and finds a pace that’s comfortable. Last year it took him about 20 hours to complete the whole thing, which included an unanticipated wait at Jenny Lake for friends to canoe alongside him. (They were late).

“It’s a moving picnic among friends that starts with espresso at the Town Square at 2:30 in the morning,” he told friends he’s trying to recruit for this year’s event.

And that is the next thing you need to know. To finish this course you need to eat and drink constantly, he says. It’s a moving picnic where the main courses are sandwiches, bars and GU energy gel.

Gonzales thought of the Grand Teton Triathlon years ago.

“It seemed like kind of a natural thing to do given that triathlons are running, swimming and biking and here you have this great, running, swimming, biking route that’s a little more exciting and scenic than most,” he said.

Well there isn’t actually any running. It’s replaced with hiking and climbing.

Last summer David Gonzales of Jackson biked from Jackson, swam across the lake, climbed the Grand Teton and the swam and biked his way back home. (Photo Courtesy David Gonzales)
David Gonzales’ triathlon includes climbing the Grand Teton without a rope. (Photo Courtesy David Gonzales)

And that is perhaps the next thing you need to know about theGrand  Teton Triathlon. It’s fun, it’s low-key, it’s a picnic, but you have to have some skills. Not only must you be physically fit enough to bike to, and perhaps more worrisome, swim across, Jenny Lake, you have to be a competent climber. To reach the Grand Teton’s summit takes technical climbing. Gonzales free solos it so he doesn’t have to carry climbing gear. Last year he climbed the Owen-Spalding Route, considered the easiest and fastest way to the summit. It still takes many people more than a day to complete a round-trip from the valley floor to the summit. It also offers several sections of fantastic exposure where a slip could mean a fall of 1,000 feet for or more.

So yes, you need to be a technically proficient climber. But it’s more than that.  You need to be comfortable and competent in making decisions in the mountains from assessing your physical condition—especially after the first two legs—to gauging the weather. The Tetons are notorious for afternoon thunderstorms and the last place you want to get caught exposed is on the tallest mountain in the range.

On a first attempt to complete the triathlon in 2011 Gonzales made it up to the lower saddle at 11,600 feet.

“It looked like a giant storm was rolling in and that was that,” Gonzales says.

He retreated.

On the day he successfully finished the triathlon Gonzales spotted puffy clouds building on the horizon. He was about 1,000 feet from the top. He paused. He considered. And then he kept climbing. The clouds dissipated and a clear sky greeted him at the summit.

The Teton Triathlon includes a summit of the Grand Teton. (Photo Courtesy David Gonzales)
Reaching the summit of the Grand Teton marks the halfway point of the Grand Teton Triathlon. (Photo Courtesy David Gonzales)

He was halfway done.

The first time Gonzales attempted the route last year, he came off the Grand and went home. A friend told him it didn’t count unless he did the course both ways. In mountain

eering you don’t just go up, you come back down, too, his friend said.

So a few weeks later Gonzales did it again. This time when he made it off the mountain he headed back to the lake. He passed a bear, and snapped a picture. He drank a Red Bull. It was sunset when he reached his wet suit and walked into the water. A friend met him and kayaked beside him. The sunset was one of those that seems to set the sky on fire. And the water again was perfectly still.

The ride back to town is slightly downhill, a hero ride, back to his door. And it was over.

“It was almost over too fast,” Gonzales says.

He felt better physically than on days he’s just climbed the Grand.

He had finished something he’d dreamed up years ago, something that maybe seemed outlandish, or unique—to put it mildly—to outsiders. It’s a reminder of what is possible.

“I think we can all do so much more than we think,” he says.

He’d done it and he wanted to do it again.

Reaching the summit of the Grand Teton marks the halfway point of the Teton Triathlon. David Gonzales still had to descend the mountain and swim back across Jenny Lake before biking home to Jackson. (Photo Courtesy Wade McCoy)
After descending the Grand Teton, David Gonzales still had to swim back across Jenny Lake before biking home to Jackson. (Photo Courtesy Wade McCoy)

It’s a motivator to stay in shape in the winter. Gonzales is already an avid backcountry skier, but thinking of the triathlon gets him to the pool in the winter and perhaps doing an extra ski lap on Mt. Glory on Teton Pass.

It’s a way to experience the landscape, integrating Gonzales’

favorite sports and in a way that doesn’t use fossil fuels.

“For me, it’s a celebration of human propulsion,” he says.

This year’s he chosen July 22 for his “moving picnic.” It’s the full moon and statistically the warmest day of the year. It’s the warmest Jenny Lake will get- Gonzales is hoping it might reach about 60 degrees. He also hopes to shave a few minutes off his “world record” time.

Gonzales is trying to recruit friends to join him.  A few have said they want to do it, but Gonzales isn’t convinced he won’t be attempting it solo once again.  If some of those invited do show up, Gonzales expects his time record to fall.

“But that’s fine,” he says. ‘Everyone picnics at a different speed.”

If someone wants to try it, this is the year.

Gonzales is already contemplating one day making it self-supported, meaning he’ll tow his gear across the lake. Just in case it isn’t hard enough.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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