By Olivia Dwyer
July 24, 2016. Two women from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, approach the shore of Jenny Lake. They’ve just climbed Open Book, a 5.9 trad route on 11,617-foot Disappointment Peak. Julia Heemstra, 42, led all six pitches while her climbing partner Natalie Connell cheered her on. Next up for Heemstra: swim 1.3 miles across the lake while Connell paddles a kayak alongside. “I’m so excited to get in the kayak and drink my coconut water,” says Connell, while Heemstra worms into her wetsuit.
If it seems like an epic, know that it was just a training day for Heemstra. Four days later, she biked 22 miles from Jackson to Jenny Lake, swam the 1.3 miles again, and then climbed 10 miles and nearly 7,500 vertical feet to bag the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. She returned the same way (complete with the swim), all in just 14 hours, 47 minutes. In so doing, she became the first woman to complete the so-called “Grand Picnic” solo and unsupported. Not only that, but she naturally earned the women’s fastest known time (FKT) for the feat. Less than a month later she marked off another objective, this time for the “Moranic,” a 25-mile bike, 2-mile swim across Leigh Lake, 6-mile hike, and a 1,000-foot climb up the 5.5 CNC Route to summit 12,605-foot Mount Moran. Her time of 16 hours and 13 minutes set an overall FKT.
If the endeavors seem obscure and capricious, they are. Jackson local David Gonzales whimsically schemed up the objectives in 2012, then recruited friends by email. Ski mountaineer Kim Havell got the note. “Some people thought it was a waste of time,” she says. “For others, it was right up their alley.” The climbing and running is a natural fit for Jackson locals. But swimming? “It’s a mountaineering triathlon,” says Hans Johnstone, a former Olympian with a resume of Teton firsts. “And it’s a remarkable athletic feat. I’d be at the bottom of the lake before I was halfway across.”
For Gonzales, the Grand Picnic was about camaraderie, not competition. (See video below.) But Heemstra, a former masters-level swimmer and accomplished climber, turned to it after personal upheaval this spring. And she’s personally survived two serious backcountry incidents, both on the Moranic route. One came early in her climbing career. Then, in 2014, Heemstra and a partner were crossing Leigh Lake on skis when they broke through the ice 400 feet from shore. Others in their party rescued them. Going back, she says, felt like healing.
See more of Julia Heemstra in Equal Footing, a film from Osprey Packs on the festival circuit this year.