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Traversing Grand Teton National Park By Its Lakes

The Grand Lake Traverse

Story by Katie Lozancich

There’s a peninsula that juts into Jackson Lake right next to Moran Bay. Looking at a map, it doesn’t seem like much. But for someone who's swimming the lake, it’s an important landmark. When former TGR cinematographer Jill Garreffi spotted it on August 21st, 2018 she had an important decision to make. She could either break to shore or swim the final 1.8 miles of the 11.3-mile-long lake in one go.

Jill kept swimming. Ignoring the exhaustion, she took the final journey one stroke at a time. The morning felt ages ago. Originally when she dove into the murky waters she intended to pull off about halfway through and resume the swim the following day. But then she hit mile 8. Mile 9. The Peninsula. She kept shaving off the distance to the point that she couldn’t turn back. When her feet touched the shoreline of the southern end of the lake, her body felt numb, cold, and shocked at what she had just pulled off. Wrapped in a towel, she celebrated the 11.3-mile feat with her support team and teammate Jovanna "Jo" Hart, who’d be attempting the same swim the next day.

The celebration was short-lived because Jackson Lake wasn’t the end goal for both of them. That was just part one. Next was Leigh, String, Jenny, Bradley, Taggart, and lastly Phelps Lake. It was a seven-part adventure to swim the chain of lakes weaving through Grand Teton National Park, aptly nicknamed the Grand Lake Traverse (GLT). Until now, the 18.82-mile swimming and 17-mile hiking ordeal had never been attempted. 

A Community on the Water

The idea behind the GLT was accidentally sparked from Jill and Jo’s goal of doing longer open water swims in the Grand Tetons, which is much easier said than done. There isn’t a boisterous swimming community in the Tetons, with brisk lakes being your only option for longer swims. Even then, they’re not always accessible to swim in and require patience and a warm wetsuit. Jo wasn’t deterred from the challenges. Having been a competitive swimmer from first grade through college, she wasn’t willing to give up her love of being in the water when she moved to Wyoming. “I was just trying to find ways to keep it in my life,” she explains and began dabbling in triathlon races since they were more common in the area. Lucky for her, one of her co-workers at Teton Gravity Research—Jill Garreffi—expressed interest in joining her at the pool for her training sessions.

Left to right: Danny Holland, Jill Garreffi, and Jo Hart. Together they explored Grand Teton National Park through an adventure challenge called The Grand Lake Traverse. Danny Holland photo. Top photo: Jesse Mitchell.

When the warmer weather came, they left the cramped rec center pool and started doing weekly swims in Phelps Lake. Jill was hooked after the first one. “She ignited the adventure aspect. I was going out to Phelps or Jenny Lake in the mornings and evenings just tooling around for a workout. Then Jill came along and her adventurous spirit took it to the next level,” Jo explains, which is not all that surprising since Jill’s work often whisks her away to film adventures all over the globe. They started looking at maps and scheming ways to connect different bodies of water, and even bought wetsuits together so they could swim even further and longer. “Jo’s swimming ability combined with my love for planning and coming up with crazy missions actually made for a great combination,” Jill laughs.

Their very first mission was something they nicknamed the Fi-fecta. It’s a five-part lake swim tucked into Grand Teton National Park comprising Delta, Surprise, Amphitheater, Bradley, and Taggart lake. It consisted of a lot of hiking and cold water swims, but all they needed was one long day to get it done. “That swim really speaks to Jill’s love for adventure. She gave it a name, and we had such a fun crew for it,” Jo reflects.

Keeping the momentum and enthusiasm going, they looked to the neighboring Wind River Range for more untapped swims. Joined with five of their pals, they crafted a goal to swim and explore the many alpine lakes that can be found on the iconic Glacier Trail. All together they had about 150 pounds of gear—camping equipment, food, swimming essentials—and thankfully a few pack horses that could lend a hand. 10 miles of walking later, they set up basecamp at a beautiful pool of glassy blue water and dove in. Each day they ventured somewhere new with goggles, caps, and wetsuits stowed away in their day pack. Instead of reaching the tops of the Wind’s craggy peaks, they peered beneath waters that seldom see visitors. In that turquoise-tinted world, they found trees piled into abstract sculptures and harmless fish that simply ignored their presence.

Learn more about their Winds adventure here.

Thinking Differently

In climbing, there’s a traverse through the Tetons that links Teewinot, Mount Owen, the Grand Teton, Middle Teton, South Teton, Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, Spalding, Cloudveil Dome, and Nez Perce. By the end of the ordeal, you’ve traversed a whopping 10 summits. Using this adventure as their source of inspiration, they applied it to lakes. Considering that all seven of the major bodies of water in the National Park were in a chain it only seemed natural to link them together. “We were just trying to do things that were a little different,” explains Jo, who first came up with the idea. “I remember Jo telling me that it would be cool if we did all of Jackson Lake first, and I told her she was crazy,” Jill chuckles. “But I think all her swimming experience really lent itself to creating these challenging but doable goals.” After spending two summers dreaming about the challenge, they decided to make it happen. 

Left: Team selfie before jumping in. Right: Jill and Jo savor the sunrise before swimming Lee Lake. Bottom: The challenge wasn't just swimming; Jill and Jo also hiked to each lake. Danny Holland photos.

The summer of 2018 was their window, and training commenced in the spring. All the open sources of water were frozen during this time, so their only option was the 25-yard lap pool at the rec center. For months, every day was spent at the pool. Often, Jill would wake up, swim between two and five miles, head to the office, and work a full day as the assistant editor for TGR’s annual snow film. At 5 p.m. she’d collect her things and either return to the pool for a second session, go hike, or do a strength or pilates workout. Jill had no formal swim training and knew she had to dial in her technique to become more efficient. Thankfully, she found a mentor: triathlete and Olympian Barbara Lindquist. “It got to the point that swimming three miles at the pool felt casual,” Jill explains. “Barb transformed me into a machine.” Before she started training with her, she swam 15.1 miles in May. The next month, now on Barb’s schedule, she upped it 27.2 miles. The next she ramped it up 54.5 miles. In total for training, Jill swam 136.1 miles.

Jo on the other hand was training for an 70.3 Ironman. The triathlon, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and half marathon run, was shortly after the GLT. It wasn’t easy for the triathlete to balance such a long swim with two other disciplines to train for as well. That’s the challenge that comes from pursuing an ironman: it takes balancing all the sports and really addressing your weaknesses. For Jo, she knew her swimming was strong, so the majority of her time and effort went to working on biking and running. “At that point, training just becomes a huge part of your life and you have to make sacrifices to balance everything,” she says. Thankfully, living in a community like Jackson, it’s not all that unusual to have friends dedicating the majority of their time and energy to some big athletic goal. “I think for both of us it forced a much-needed work-life balance,” she reflects. It’s easy to get in an unhealthy grind with a full-time job, and the GLT gave them the excuse to set more boundaries with work and prioritize their health and happiness. It was also a nice reminder that even weekend warriors like themselves can still accomplish big, audacious goals.

Danny makes his way across Bradley Lake. Jill Garreffi photo.

When summer brought warmer temps, it allowed the duo to expand their horizons beyond the rec pool. Friday morning swims were their jam. At the crack of dawn, they’d scurry out to Phelps Lake to do a mile and half swim before heading to work. Then once the other lakes were warm enough, they’d try adding longer open water swims to their training at least once a week. Leigh Lake was Jill’s first big swim. It was a leisurely four-mile adventure until the wind started to pick up on the way back, forcing her to fight through the lake’s choppy waters. It worried her a bit because Leigh Lake wasn’t even the crux of the GLT.

“I remember hiking above Jenny Lake and looking at the lake thinking ‘Oh my God Jenny is huge and tends to get choppy,’” Jill says remembering the many doubts that bounced around in her head before the big swim. But Jenny Lake was really the least of her worries because Jackson lake was about five times bigger. 

Rolling with the Punches

Rumbles and cracks startled Jo awake at dawn. The day before, Jill successfully swam Jackson Lake in one go, and Jo couldn’t join due to work constraints. Today, however, was her window to complete it. But driving up to the take-out point, she began to think otherwise. The sky bubbled with dark gray storm clouds, and thunder kept crackling in the distance. When the thunder quieted down, Jo suited up and plunged into the water hoping for some good luck. She didn’t even make it a hundred yards when the water started seizing violently around her. The waves lapping against her grew and grew in size until they had whitecaps. Looking back at her support kayaker, she quickly realized that the situation was heading in a dangerous direction. The boat, not meant for choppy water, was basically bucking out of control like an angry rodeo bull.

“For this whole event, we had rules in place to bail if we ever felt unsafe during these swims. We wanted to make good decisions,” Jo says and made the tough call to pull the plug on the swim. Forced to throw in the towel, they retreated to Jackson Lake Lodge to reevaluate the situation. Soon enough, the weather started to calm down. “I didn’t have hopes of being able to finish it, but I just wanted to get out there and try,” she says. The waves were still huge, but Jo kept pushing ahead. Five hours later at mile seven, with the sun already past the horizon, she finally had to call it. It wasn’t worth risking their safety. Instead, she reconnected with Jill to rest and swim alongside her for the remaining lakes in the traverse. They headed to their campsite to get some rest for the evening, which was much needed for the rest of their mission.

Left: Jo about to take the plunge. Right: Jo and Danny managed to keep their spirits up despite the storm on Jackson Lake. Bottom: The GLT wouldn't have been possible without the many volunteers and support boats that assisted the team. Danny Holland photos.

After the sufferfest that was Jackson Lake, they began whittling down the more manageable lakes in the chain. Leigh was up first. Imitating a waddle of penguins, they moved through the still darkish woods in full wetsuits, caps, and goggles. “There’s just something about hiking in a wetsuit that makes you want to giggle,” Jill says. She can only imagine the weird looks they would have received from other day hikers had they not be up so early on the trail. Jo’s boyfriend Danny joined them for the remaining lakes. String Lake provided an interesting dilemma because a few sections are too shallow to actually swim. Instead, aqua-walking did the trick—to the enjoyment of a few bystanders watching from the shore.

Jenny, which once felt so expansive, was a walk in the park after the ordeal in Jackson Lake. “It was lovely. The sun was out and the views of the mountain from the water are incredible,” Jill says. Then, for once to their advantage, the wind stirred up the waves allowing them to body surf into the shore. Then came the real crux (so they thought). They opted to go sans wetsuits for the Bradley-Taggart combo. It was a rather bold decision. The water was frigid, but they survived. “We both thought since it was August in Jackson the weather would be sunny and awesome. But every swim was cold. We didn’t anticipate that for a four-day stint,” Jo explains. 

Feeling a bit frozen, all they had left was Phelps, which was the last 1.5 miles of their 35.82-mile adventure. Sounds simple, right? But they ended up reaching the lake a bit later in the afternoon than they hoped, and daylight was fading fast. Not wanting to wait till the next day, they picked a spot that didn’t have a headwind and jumped in. A few minutes into the swim, the wind decided to switch directions, pummeling them with small chilly waves. “I decided that I was going to finish this even if it meant swimming the long route along the shore instead of taking the direct route,” Jill says. Jo opted to do it without a wetsuit and charged ahead. Meanwhile, Jill and Danny followed behind her. The waves got pretty choppy towards the end, making it difficult to see what was happening ahead of them. But Jill has a distinct memory of seeing Jo finish. “I just saw Jo running in her bikini on the trail to camp to get her clothes and couldn’t help but laugh and hoot and holler for her,” Jill laughs. When Danny and Jill reconvened with her on Phelp’s shoreline at around 8 p.m., they were finally done. They peeled off their wetsuits and celebrated with champagne and a well-deserved dinner. That day—August 24th, 2018—was their fourth day on their quest, and during that time frame, they swam 18.82 miles and hiked 17 miles. To make the accomplishment that much sweeter, they became the first ones to ever attempt such a feat. Jill was the first to succeed. 

Jill and Jo pose for a photo. Danny Holland photo.

It was also fitting to wrap everything up at Phelps Lake, the lake where Jill and Jo first cultivated their love for these adventure swims. “People have home mountains where they grew up going to ski, and Phelps feels that way for me,” Jill says fondly. “Phelps is my home lake, and I think Jo feels the same way. It feels like home.”

Once they were warmed up and dried off, the weight of their accomplishment began to fully sink in. There was more to it than just swimming. The whole ordeal consisted of swimming and included hours of planning campsites, organizing equipment, route finding, and finding friends to run support boats. It took a village, and wouldn’t have been possible without all the help from their friends. But the biggest takeaway? It pushed them to be outside and challenged themselves in ways they could have never imagined. “These bigger adventure swims gave me the venue and the support to push myself,” Jo explains. This kind of structure was part of the reason she loved doing open water swims in the first place. On top of all this, watching Jill and Danny develop passions for the water from pursuing the GLT was equally rewarding. “Between the two of them it was so impressive,” she explains, especially since both started swimming much later in their lives. 

Solitude in Open Water

There’s a cluster of cars gathered in the Stilson transit center. Spotting Jill’s Subaru, I park next to her, grab my wetsuit and goggles, and jump into her car. It’s 5:33 a.m. and the morning fog hangs low over the Moose-Wilson road. Ignoring the urge to fall asleep in the car, I follow her and our party of 10 down the Phelps Lake trail. Last week Jill invited me to join Jo's group’s weekly sunrise swim at Phelps Lake. Having never tried to swim across any of Jackson’s lakes, I was curious what it would be like to dive into a morning ice bath. Trotting through the lush meadow is better than any dose of caffeine. The trail opens to a view of the Tetons painted by the first rays of light. We soak in the view for a moment and then plunge into dark still waters.

Phelps Lake is where everything began for the two of them. Danny Holland photo.

Surprisingly, Jill and Jo’s fever for adventure swimming doesn’t translate to the ocean. They only have eyes for lakes. “I like the lakes because there are no sharks or sea monsters,” Jill teases. At most, hidden in these waters are a few leeches that don’t quite understand personal boundaries. Jill learned this the hard way when one hitched a ride with her on her neck in Jackson Lake. Creepy crawlers aside, you can’t beat the experience of high alpine swimming. The view is worth it alone. Towering peaks, fields of vibrant wildflowers, groves of trees, or a confused tourist that thinks you’re a wild animal—these things are hard to come by along a seashore. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere with no one else around. You’re never going to have a crowded day in the middle of Phelps Lake,” Jo explains. Lake swimming offers a unique chance for solitude in a place as popular as Grand Teton National Park.

We don’t swim the full length of the lake since it's the first open water swim for many of us. Instead, we reconvene at a halfway point and make a giant circle in the water. It’s almost time to hurry back to shore, with work waiting for us back in the real world. But before we go, we take a few minutes to be still in the water. Jo calls it our lake meditation. Gently buoyed by my wetsuit, I float on my back and savor the silence. The chill in the water is no longer biting, but refreshing and relaxing. As I stare out towards the mountains in front of me their passion for lake swimming makes complete sense. It's a whole different world out here.

Jill, Jovanna & Danny would like to thank and acknowledge the many people who supported this mission and the complex logistics associated with it, we couldn’t have done it without you: Jamie Bemis, Jesse Mitchell, Jessica & Jason Moore, Laurie Stern, Julie Dery, Kim Younge, Cara Sengebush, Barb Lindquist, Katie Metzler, Rose & Stephen Scherba, John Corr, John & Janet Garreffi, Jon Riley, Sarah Dziadzio, Jim Sorensed & Jess McMillian

Return to TGR Journal Vol. 3