- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 27, 2018

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - The group huddled together, drinks in hand, and headed to the shed when Bob Baribeau said it was time.

They’d worked for a week for this dusty trek, hauling the 100-pound sign out to Teton Park Road. They took turns, four at a time, carrying the marker that directs climbers and hikers to a small scattering of cabins dotting a field of lupine: the Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch.

The climbers gathered the first week in June for “work week,” a tradition that started in the early 1970s when the American Alpine Club secured the old Double Diamond Dude Ranch as a summer camp for climbers, hikers and adventurers. The ranch is freshened up every year by the handiwork of those who have stayed before or wish to do so now, their hard work rewarded with a month of free board on the ranch’s wooden bunks.

“If you come here once, you’re a member of the family,” said Bill Fetterhoff, who heads the American Alpine Club Climbers’ Ranch Committee.

It’s a place some have been returning to for decades, some who still have peaks to check off the list, others who don’t climb anymore, and some who admit they were never much on climbing but always loved the scenery. They all tout the beauty of the mountains - coming from the East Coast, West Coast, the Midwest, from all over, nothing holds a candle to the Tetons.



But despite the urge to climb, they don’t return for the mountains. At least, not just the mountains. They come back for one another, the culture at the ranch that feels like a family reunion.

“I look forward to coming every year,” said Stuart Ellison, a Chicagoan who has been a regular work weeker since 2011. “It’s special for me as a city person.”

His phone doesn’t work at the ranch. There’s no way to check email. Instead the group spends its days from sunup to sundown side by side, catching up. It’s easy, Ellison said, even though he doesn’t keep in touch with any of these people outside the first week in June.

“When I see Bob it’s 51 weeks later,” he said. “We just reconnect.”

COMING BACK HOME

Ellison - a part of a small team of bunk builders, “the assistant to the assistant,” he joked - left the Sunday after arriving. Some stay only for the work week, wanting to give back to a place they used to come to stay for a few days or weeks. Others, like the Mauldin family, bunk up in Cabin 5 - “the Mauldin bunk” - for an actual family reunion. It’s the second year at camp for 14-month old Cody, who is joined by his parents, aunt and grandpa, the latter who introduced the family to the Climbers’ Ranch.

John Mauldin wanted to “give them the same time that I had,” he said.

He started coming to the Tetons in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Climbers have long been called to the Teton peaks and sometime in the ‘50s had formed an informal camp on the shores of Jenny Lake. The Jenny Lake Climbers’ Camp closed in 1966, Fetterhoff said, though the closure didn’t stop climbers from seeking the peaks of Grand Teton National Park. Two years later Nick Clinch, the namesake of the Climbers’ Ranch historic lodge, became president of the American Alpine Club and soon sparked talk of reopening a place for climbers to congregate. The Double Diamond became home to the Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch in 1970. Its purpose was to serve as a place for a community, and those who come here say it does. Though only 26, John Mauldin’s daughter, Erin, has been staying at the ranch for over a dozen years.

“This is coming back home,” she said. “And coming back to family.”

She’s a recently promoted Captain in the U.S. Army. She doesn’t share that information, but all of the work weekers around her do, pointing out she graduated as valedictorian of her West Point class.

“You would never know,” Joe Genualdi said.

Just as one would never know Genualdi is a concert violinist, something shared by Mitch Micheau, an artist and singer who produced an album about the ranch.

Micheau brags on Erik Fabricius-Olsen, who was shy to play in one of the informal jam sessions in the library, but “ruled that harmonica” when he got the nerve to do it. Fetterhoff recalls a small group of ranch musicians taking a trek to the Dornan’s Hootenanny, where they “absolutely brought down the house,” and when Genualdi brings his violin out, “you can hear a pin drop.”

They all remember Al Sanchez, a long-time work weeker and climber who could run circles around his younger counterparts, even as an “elderly white-haired man,” Micheau said. He remembers Sanchez literally jogging with logs, saying, “I used to carry two of these at a time, but now that I’m older I can only carry one, so I have to carry them twice as fast.”

They’re proud to be in one another’s presence; they’re proud to know one another. Sean O’Rourke, who holds the speed record for all the California 14’ers, will still climb with Gina and Adam Freund, who admit they’re a bit slower.

O’Rourke doesn’t really come out to climb anymore, actually. He comes out to be with his friends.

“It’s all about the experience out here,” Gina Freund said. “They’re not the type of people who will brag about what they do.”

“I’m going to come to the mountains no matter what,” Genualdi said. “But I just feel so called here. This is a family. It’s really important to reconnect.”

This year work weekers stained all the cabins. Some years they stain the trim. They always pick weeds. There’s roof work and plumbing, minor carpentry projects. Cabin 4 and Cabin 6 are nearly 100 years old, having been on the property since the Double Diamond opened its doors in 1924. Like other original structures, they need some love.

Nearly everything on the property needs something or other. Inside the main cabin, volunteers and staff cook on an old ranch stove, a bit of a finicky relic that occasionally burns the brownies. The shower house has been rebuilt, the result of the 1985 Beaver Creek Fire near Taggart Lake. The blaze burned down six or seven structures on the property and cleared out the pines that used to brush up against the cabins. Now the ranch is seated in a meadow, the treeline situated several yards away.

Those who stay at the ranch are not allowed to cook in the cabins. They aren’t even allowed to keep anything that can make a flame inside the bunkhouses - no matches, no lighters. All fires must be made under the roof of the communal dining area.

“Fire is the one thing we’re deadly afraid of,” Baribeau said. “You figure you have a 100-year-old building with oil stain, they would burn in two seconds.”

THE SUMMER BRINGS FRIENDSHIPS

The ranch will be quiet for the remainder of June, at least, if all follows as usual. Climbers start to pack in around Independence Day and keep the 64 bunks full through August. Occupancy starts to wane by the end of August and into September, when Baribeau and his three staff will repeat the steps of work week in reverse, shuttering the cabins for winter.

But regardless of how long someone stays, friends are easy to come by at the ranch.

“I rode in here four days ago not knowing a soul,” said Joan Veilleux, an East Coaster, “and now these people are going to be my friends for life.”

It was her first time at work week, an opportunity she heard of from Baribeau, who she climbed with in Maine. She recently quit her job as a software engineer, sold her home and packed her life into the back of a Tacoma, “the classic climbing bum” vehicle.

“There’s probably three of us living in Tacomas,” she said. “Most people dread the notion of being homeless. Climbers dream of it.”

Two who joined work week for the first time this year, 21-year-olds Colton Linville and Bradly Lenkevich, hail from Pennsylvania - coincidentally from a town close to another work weeker who also lives in Pennsylvania (these coincidences are common at the ranch).

Linville visited the Tetons last summer, missing work week by a few days. He didn’t know what it was, but signed up as soon as he found out. There’s a lot on his climbing to-do list this summer - biggies like the Grand Teton and Disappointment Peak - but the camaraderie is what he pointed to at week’s end.

“It’s a place for climbers to have a place to stay and stay connected,” he said.

SIGN FOR THE SEASON

It’s a little under a quarter mile from the Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch to Teton Park Road. Carrying the sign out to its summer resting place on the east side of the road is a “ceremony as old as time itself,” Baribeau said before asking the team to join him hauling the sign to its place.

Baribeau has been visiting the area since 1974. The Maine resident has made the Tetons his summer home for the past three years, serving as the on-site manager. He knows all the quirks of the cabins (and most of those who have inhabited them), but points to Fetterhoff as keeper of the ranch’s history. He has, after all, written a book on it, “Tales from the Climbers’ Ranch: 1999-2008.”

Alan Nagel, professor emeritus of the Department of English at the University of Iowa, is the keeper of the library, a freshly cataloged and serene space tucked inside the ranch’s historic lodge. Out of respect for the shiny wooden floorboards, those who enter must take off their shoes. It’s been a three-year project in the making (Nagel would say longer even) to get the books, magazines and encyclopedias in order.

The three hold much of the history of the place in their memories. They’re staples of the ranch, staples of work week.

“Work week,” Nagel said, “it’s a tradition.”

Baribeau invited everyone to touch the wood, to connect with those who have carried it before. The group slowed where End Highland Road hits the main drag. A few ran out in the road to slow cars, holding their hands in the air.

Some of the signs at the ranch are still punctuated incorrectly - Climber’s Ranch instead of Climbers’ Ranch - something that irks Fetterhoff, an attorney with an attention to detail. He’s managed to get a few changed, a bit of a bureaucratic process, but the grammar on the roadside sign remains botched.

Baribeau, Fetterhoff and Nagel hang the sign on its hooks and the group cheers. Baribeau thanks the volunteers, the staff and after a few photos, the crew turns around and heads back into the valley. The week is over, but they still have a bit of catching up to do.

“You can pitch a tent anywhere. You can go up to Shadow Mountain and not pay anything,” Fetterhoff said. “You can climb the mountains, you can enjoy the beauty, you can find the serenity. But the community only exists here.”

___

Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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