No matter how much water I chugged from the streams, I just couldn’t quench my thirst. I was salt deficient despite my careful planning. The switchbacks heading up to Static Divide from Death Canyon were full south-facing and it was one of the hottest days on record that summer. I should have reversed the loop, but that would have meant backtracking on miles I had just run. I had already been up and down the Grand Teton that morning and was committed to the route, but I couldn’t stop asking myself, as many do in these situations, “Why on earth was I doing this?”
I first heard of the Teton Bullseye a few years ago from my friend Ryan Burke. Almost 50 miles long, the route takes you up and down the Grand Teton and then around the massif of the mountain on the Circumnavigation Route. It has trail and off trail travel, scrambling, soloing, exposure, and over 15,000 feet of elevation gain. Luke Nelson created the route over a decade before and had called it ‘The Up and Around’. Luke, Mike Foote, and Ty Draney made an attempt in July 2012 but became stuck on the lower Owen Spalding route when they were unable to pass multiple roped-up parties. They were forced to bail before summiting. They returned to Lupin Meadows, then set off to run and complete the Circumnavigation. Ryan Burke completed the route on September 17th, 2020 in 14 hours and 39 minutes in a supported style. He nicknamed it the ‘Bullseye’.
The Bullseye sat on my goal back burner for over a year before I finally made up my mind to attempt it. It was certainly the kind of adventure I loved pursuing, but I couldn’t help being daunted by the milage on top of running the Grand Teton. In addition, I wanted to do it in my favorite style – solo and unsupported – which added yet another layer of intimidation. But facing our fears is how we grow as human beings, and by midsummer I was just as excited as I was nervous to give it hell.
I started at Lupine Meadows Trailhead at 6:50 am on August 1st. Leaving too early meant bottlenecking with guided parties on the Grand, so I aimed to hit a more open window on the climb mid-morning. I summited in 3 hrs 34 minutes – not super quick, but efficient enough to move fast and keep gas in the tank for the long circumnavigation around. I really began to feel the heat of the day as I descended in elevation and began the loop towards Death Canyon. I knew the day would be warm but had also hoped the rain in the forecast would keep the sun off my back. Unfortunately, the clouds never came and I was left to grapple with the summer heat.
The relentless switchbacks climbing up to Static Divide were where I hit my lowest point. Although I had been consistently drinking water, I had lost too much salt and could not for the life of me quench my thirst. Despite downing salt pills, I became nauseated and had to stop several times to keep myself in check. I kept berating myself for choosing a southbound route rather than reversing the loop, which would have given me the advantage of climbing north-facing switchbacks rather than south-facing ones. Multiple times I wanted to throw in the towel, but I figured the discomfort would fade once I hit Static Divide. Highs and lows almost always come in waves and usually no feeling persists for too long, so I held out. And everything did ease up once I crested the divide and curved along the route northwest towards Hurricane Pass.
I took on the descent into Cascade Canyon as fast as possible, knowing animals were going to be out and about at dusk and would be much harder to see once the sun fully set. And boy was I right about that. Almost as soon as the light disappeared, I ran into a mule deer, a moose, and a black bear back-to-back-to-back. I made the aggravating decision that it would be far safer for me to walk the dense forested sections in Cascade than to run it and risk slamming into a big furry creature. Keeping my head on a swivel and making as much noise as possible, I plotted along the trail until the trees opened up and I felt safe enough to run again. I finished back at Lupine Meadows 15 hours, 38 minutes and 29 seconds after I began that morning.
When I think back on the Bullseye, I hardly remember the struggle with heat or the fear of bears in the dark. What I do remember is having one of the most incredible days on the Grand – tee-shirt weather with no wind. Snacks on the summit with the amazing views below. I remember the saturated wildflowers behind Static Divide and the orange sunset lighting up the west side of the Tetons. I remember how good it felt to sprint through the parking lot at the end to tag the mileage sign. To open and chug a can of disgustingly warm La Croix back at my jeep and laugh as it spilled all over my shirt. I remember a beautiful day in the mountains.
Kelly Halpin is an American mountain athlete and adventurer, with several Fastest Known Times (FKTs) to her name, including numerous solo and unsupported runs. She grew up next to the Grand Teton National Park and spent her earlier years climbing, hiking, and snowboarding the Teton range.