Grand Teton
Historic Resource Study
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Park of the Matterhorns
By Reynold G. Jackson

During the years following his 1872 expedition to the remote and wild Yellowstone region of Wyoming, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden presented a series of lectures to organized groups and to the public at large. These lectures were illustrated with stunning slide images by photographer William Henry Jackson. Prominent among the dazzling array of pictures were the first views of the Teton mountain range, now, of course, one of the most recognizable and well-known national park regions in the United States. The American public was amazed by the dramatic scenery and the fact that such landforms existed within the country. Imaginations were stirred by visions of needle-like pinnacles and snow-covered, sharply-defined summits. Images of the Teton Range are now so prevalent that the rugged peaks have almost become the symbolic representation of what mountains should look like. Indeed, when we try to picture in our mind the classic mountain image, the craggy peaks of the Tetons almost immediately appear.

The Tetons have played a pivotal role in the historic development of climbing and mountaineering in this country. Phrases such as "the home of American mountaineering" and "the center of United States alpinism" have long been used to describe the region and its relative importance in the evolution of American climbing. [1] There are several reasons for this. At first, exploration of a previously unknown area of the country was sufficient cause for one to endure the hardships involved in traveling to the isolated Tetons. During the last century this relative isolation has, of course, changed, with highways leading virtually to the foot of the peaks. Once the range became easily accessible, mountaineers from all over began to arrive, pulled by the irresistible draw of the high peaks. Today the summit of the Grand Teton is little more than three horizontal miles from the nearest approach road. Additionally, every peak between Death Canyon on the south and Moran Canyon on the north can be climbed in one day from a campsite at Jenny Lake, which is the center of mountaineering activity. And the climbing challenges are tremendous!

Sooner or later, virtually everyone who has done any mountain climbing in the United States visits the Tetons and ascends one or more of the high peaks. There is perhaps no climbing area in the country that can match the Tetons for general mountaineering of an alpine nature with excellent rock and moderate snow. This combination of characteristics provides an excellent training ground for the novice, as well as the vast majority of climbers who simply seek enjoyable and challenging routes. There are also extremely difficult mixed alpine climbs that provide a testing ground for those who aspire to travel to the other great ranges of the world. From the large Himalayan expeditions of the past, to the modern alpine-style ascents of today, Teton climbers have played a key role in pioneering new routes throughout the world.

The Grand Teton has become one of the most popular peaks in the country, ranking as one of the finest mountaineering objectives in the United States. This reputation is certainly deserved. This complex mountain offers a wide variety of challenging routes on its many faces and ridges. Today one has a choice of some 80 routes and variations to the summit, with 15 more available on the adjacent Enclosure. Enjoyable ridge scrambling, high-angle rock walls, moderate snowfields, glaciers, and steep ice chutes are all to be found on this varied peak. This collection of outstanding alpine routes sets the Grand Teton apart from and above the lesser peaks of the range. The Teton Range has seen more climbing than perhaps any other range of equal size in the entire continent.

From the summit of the Grand, almost every other peak in the range can be seen. The most prominent peak from this viewpoint is Teewinot Mountain, its sharp pinnacles silhouetted against the flat plains of Jackson Hole. The Wind River Range forms the eastern horizon and one can easily pick out flat-topped Gannett Peak, the highest in Wyoming. To the north, one can see well into Yellowstone National Park and beyond, to Pilot, Index, and Granite Peaks. The rolling hills and cultivated fields of Idaho complete the vista to the west.

The climbing history of the Teton Range is lengthy and convoluted, and only a very brief outline can be given within these pages. The goal of this chapter is to provide an overview of Teton mountaineering history as complete as possible, from its origins in the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day. In a broader sense, this history is woven intricately into the more complex evolution of climbing in the United States. By taking a look at some of the climbers who passed through the Tetons over the years, we can see not only how they affected Teton climbing history but how they helped shape mountaineering in this country and throughout the world.

Grand Teton: Structure and Nomenclature

Since much of the mountaineering history of the Teton Range is that of the Grand Teton itself, it is necessary to try and understand the complex structure of this amazing peak. On the south, the Grand Teton is bounded by the Lower Saddle (11,600+), which separates it from the Middle Teton. Ferocious winds howl across this broad saddle from which most of the summit climbs of the Grand Teton are launched. The much sharper Gunsight Notch (12,160+) on the north isolates the Grand from its neighbor, Mount Owen. Teton Glacier lies at the foot of the steep and renowned North Face, which is bounded on the east by the pinnacled East Ridge and on the west by the North Ridge. Glacier Gulch forms the major drainage below Teton Glacier. The slabby southeast face of the mountain harbors both the East Ridge snowfield and the Otterbody Snowfield, named for its remarkable resemblance to the animal. Below the steep rock of the southeast face is Teepe Glacier, technically not an actual glacier but merely a prominent snowfield in Garnet Canyon, just south of the East Ridge.

Teepe Pillar and Glencoe Spire, two major pinnacles towering above the north fork of Garnet Canyon, are separated from the upper portion of the mountain by Black Dike, which cuts across the southern portion of the Grand Teton at about 12,000 feet. The three major ridges on the south—Exum, Petzoldt, and Underhill—named for pioneer Teton mountaineers of the 1930s, all rise above this obvious dike. From the Lower Saddle, two large couloirs or gullies extend upward for 1,500 feet to the Upper Saddle (13,160+), which lies at the base of the cliff band that guards the summit of the peak. The Upper Saddle separates the Enclosure, or western spur (13,280+) of the mountain, from the main summit (13,770). The Enclosure itself is supported by a southwest ridge, which extends down into Dartmouth Basin and a very long northwest ridge, with origins in Cascade Canyon, 5,600 feet below. The impressive northern aspect of the Enclosure rises vertically above the upper south end of Valhalla Canyon and is separated from the Grand Teton by the well-known Black Ice Couloir, which terminates at the Upper Saddle. The west wall of the Grand extends from the Black Ice Couloir north to the north ridge that reaches from the Grandstand, above Gunsight Notch, up to the summit.

Mt. Owen and the Grand Teton
Mt. Owen and the Grand Teton from the west. Photograph taken from near the summit of Table Mountain. William Henry Jackson, U.S. Geological Survey

Trappers, Explorers, and Surveyors

The origin of mountaineering in the United States is linked to the early exploration of the North American continent. As European settlers pushed gradually westward across the low-lying hills and then the Great Plains, they were presented with no real physical barrier until they reached the Rocky Mountains. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike's party, which began its exploratory journey westward near St. Louis in 1806, were the first adventurers to attempt an ascent of a high peak when they reached the area now known as the Front Range of Colorado. They ended up climbing what amounted to a minor summit and, as Pike put it, could see his "Grand Peak [later known as Pike's Peak] at a distance of 15 or 16 miles from us." [2]

The next exploration of this region was led by Major Stephen Long of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, during the summer of 1820. One of the objectives was to ascertain the height of Pike's Peak. Edwin James, the botanist of the expedition, led a climbing party to the summit of the peak, which was the first known major ascent in North America. Captain Benjamin Bonneville's curiosity about the interior of the Wind River Range in Wyoming led to the next stage in the development of mountaineering. In September 1833, rather than detour around the range, Bonneville decided to explore the possibility of a direct route through the mountains from east to west. Finding the way rougher than expected, he climbed one of the highest peaks in order to scan the surroundings and find a possible way through. We may now only speculate as to which peak Bonneville's group climbed, but it could have been one of the high mountains in the vicinity of Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest (13,875). Lieutenant John C. Fremont, led by renowned guide Kit Carson, was the next explorer to visit the Wind River Range in 1842. His group climbed what they believed was the highest peak in the range and, quite possibly the highest in the Rocky Mountains, unfurling the Stars and Stripes on the summit. Again, it is unknown as to which peak was actually climbed, but speculation centers on either Fremont Peak or Mount Woodrow Wilson.

The next peaks to attract the attention of mountaineers were the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest. In 1853, Thomas Dryer climbed Mount Saint Helens. Climbing parties reached the crater rim of Mount Rainier in 1852, 1855, and 1857. In 1870, the first documented ascent was made when Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump finally reached the summit. Edmund Coleman, who had climbed Mount Baker in 1868, dropped out during the approach.

After much lobbying by geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney, the California legislature established its Geological Survey in 1860. Whitney became its chief, and his ambitious plan was to accomplish a complete inspection of the state. Among various scientific objectives, Whitney became curious as to which mountain was the highest in the state and if it was, perhaps, the highest in the country. He and his assistant, William Brewer, climbed Mount Shasta in the northern part of the state with this idea in mind. In 1864, a portion of the Geological Survey journeyed to the High Sierra. Among the group was Clarence R. King, who later became the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey. (The race for this highly esteemed directorship was hotly contested between King, Ferdinand Hayden, and Major John Wesley Powell.) Climbing what they believed was the highest peak, which they named Mount Tyndall, King's group observed a yet higher summit to the south, applying the name of their chief: Whitney. The loftiest peak in the continental United States was finally climbed in 1873 by three local men from the Owens Valley.

The Grand Teton was well known to travelers in the early nineteenth century as an important landmark of the headwaters of the Columbia River. The Tetons were a focal point for the fur-trapping business that prospered in the beaver-rich rivers and streams that surrounded the range. Fur trappers were the first Europeans to explore much of the wild area of western America, and their stories and exploits have now become legendary. The Grand, Middle and South Tetons were the famous "Trois Tetons" (roughly translated, three breasts), well-known landmarks to the few individuals who journeyed through this section of the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. There has been much written elsewhere about these hardy mountain men. They were more interested in the abundant game in the valleys, and thus had little time for mountain climbing and exploration. This chapter will, therefore, only deal with those who were directly involved with climbing, and about whom there exists a written record.

One such individual was an expatriate Brit by the name of Richard "Beaver Dick" Leigh who came to the Rockies in 1849, and who made his home in Teton Basin from 1863-1899. Leigh spent most of his time trapping in the canyons on the west side of the range, but there is some indication that his explorations penetrated into the very heart of the mountains. As Leigh noted in a letter to the editor of the Rocky Mountain News:

. . . as I know no liveng man as ever crossed from the East to the west side of the range althow I believe it can be done in one plas only without going to the conant trale north of the Trale creek pass south and that it over the sadle betwene grand teton and the one on the south of it altho myself and John Lunphara of Bitterroad vally tryet in 58 but it was too much for us. . . [3]

This passage places Leigh and his companion in Garnet Canyon, later regarded as the hub of Teton climbing, sometime during the year 1858.

Beaver Dick Leigh is the well-known guide for many of the expeditions to both sides of the Tetons during the latter half of the nineteenth century. This included the 1872 Hayden Survey expedition, during which the first recorded attempt to ascend the Grand Teton occurred. Leigh may have been Nathaniel P. Langford's source for an 1873 article in Scribner's Monthly, in which Langford reported that a mountain man named Michaud had attempted the ascent of the Grand Teton in 1843, 29 years earlier:

About the year 1843 an old trapper named Michaud provided himself with ropes ladders etc. but failed to reach the top, though he made the most strenuous efforts. [4]

The identity of Michaud remains uncertain. He may have been Michaud LeClaire, who served as a messenger for the Hudson's Bay Company, carrying dispatches from Fort Hall (near present-day Pocatello, Idaho) to Montreal, Canada. The ledger books of the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company for 1837 also include a page for a Mitchael LaClair but whether this is the person to whom Langford was referring to may never be known for certain. [5]

Beginning in 1867, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden began a series of exploratory ventures into relatively unknown areas of the American West for the purpose of surveying their natural resources. Hayden was successful in obtaining appropriations from the U.S. Congress for these explorations and his parties were comprised of a number of naturalists, scientists and their assistants. The published annual reports of the surveys met with great popular approval, so much so that the congressional appropriations steadily grew. The 1872 Hayden Survey Expedition (properly the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories) marks the beginning of recorded exploration of the Teton Range. This was the second of the famous "Hayden Surveys," as they have come to be known, to explore the Yellowstone region, and Congress allotted $75,000 for the expedition.

Ferdinand V. Hayden had the distinct knack of convincing extremely talented individuals to join him on these daring, exploratory ventures. One such individual was William Henry Jackson, who at that time was just beginning his career as a photographer. Through the use of the relatively new medium of photography, Hayden wished to convince others in Washington D.C. that certain choice areas of the West should be established as natural preserves that would be protected from exploitation and preserved for future generations. While the idea that Yellowstone, the world's first national park, did not originate with Hayden, he is now recognized as having been the first to promote the concept in public. [6]

We are mainly concerned here, however, with that segment of the 1872 Hayden expedition known as the Snake River Division, which fell under the capable leadership of James Stevenson, Hayden's right-hand man and long-time friend. The main objectives of the Snake River Division were to explore, map, and report on the Teton Range and the country to the east and west. One of the party's guests was Yellowstone's newly-named first superintendent, Nathaniel Pitt Langford, who had lectured, written articles, and lobbied tirelessly to have the park established. The Snake River Division traveled north from Ogden, Utah, by horseback along the old stagecoach route to Fort Hall. Converting to a pack train at this point, they then ventured east and established a base camp at the mouth of Teton Creek on the west side of the range on July 23, 1872. This base camp was occupied for nine days until August 2.

On July 27, a party of six including William H. Jackson, Charles Campbell, Philo Beveridge, Alexander Sibley, and perhaps John M. Coulter, explored the north fork of Teton Canyon for the first time. They also made the first ascent of Table Mountain, where just below the summit Jackson exposed his now-famous negatives, and gave the world its first glimpse of these mighty peaks. Meanwhile, 14 other members of the expedition attempted an ascent of the Grand Teton, leaving camp on July 28 and establishing a high camp in the south fork of Teton Canyon. Two of the 14, Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson, claimed to have reached the summit via an ice cliff from the Upper Saddle on July 29, 1872. Three other members of the expedition reached the Lower Saddle. Frank Bradley, a geologist, stopped at the saddle to wait for the mercurial barometer carried by Rush Taggart, assistant geologist; while two 17-year-old boys, Sidford Hamp and Charles Spencer, continued some distance above the Lower Saddle but, in all probability, stopped short of the Upper Saddle. There is no question that Langford and Stevenson reached the Upper Saddle and the Enclosure, as they were the first to describe the archeological structure located at that lofty site. Langford mentioned this structure in an article that later appeared in Scribner's Monthly. His first description of the site was given to a reporter from the Helena Herald the day after the expedition was finished, and is probably the most accurate:

The top of the Teton, and for 300 feet below, is composed entirely of blocks of granite, piled up promiscuously, and weighing from 20 to 500 pounds. On the apex these granite slabs have been placed on end, forming a breastwork about three feet high, enclosing a space six or seven feet in diameter; and while on the surrounding rocks there is not a particle of dust or sand, the bottom of the enclosure is covered with a bed of minute particles of granite not larger than the grains of common sand, that the elements have worn off from these vertical blocks until it is nearly a foot in depth. This attrition must have been going on for hundreds and, perhaps, thousands of years, and it is the opinion of Mr. Langford that centuries have elapsed since the granite slabs were placed in the position in which they were found. [7]

The Enclosure
The Enclosure on the summit of the western spur of the Grand Teton. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Hence we see the origin of the name of the "Enclosure," which now refers not just to the structure, but to the entire western spur of the great peak. Who actually built the Enclosure? It is possible, of course, that it was the mysterious Michaud during the course of his attempt. It is more likely, however, that American Indians constructed it long before 1843, possibly as a vision quest site.

Much of the controversy that was to later erupt after the 1898 Rocky Mountain Club ascent of Grand Teton centers on whether or not Langford and Stevenson went beyond the Enclosure to the summit of the Grand. An interesting illustration that appears in Langford's article, entitled "Looking off from the summit of Mount Hayden," was made by famed landscape artist Thomas Moran from a sketch by William Henry Jackson. [8] Behind the two figures on the "summit," rises what very well could be the higher, true apex of the Grand Teton. Additionally, in many of the newspaper articles that appeared immediately following the 1872 climb, such as Langford's, the man-made structure (Enclosure) was erroneously reported to be on the actual summit of the peak. These errors subsequently led to confusion and, therefore, considerable doubt as to the validity of the Langford and Stevenson climb.

The question of whether or not Langford and Stevenson actually continued up to the summit from the vicinity of the Upper Saddle remains the basis of the famous and continuing controversy over who made the first ascent of the Grand Teton. In 1898, when William O. Owen and party reached the summit, they found no evidence of prior human passage. No cairn had been erected, and nothing had been left behind. Also, no photographic evidence exists from the 1872 climb. Of course, Langford and Stevenson may not have had enough time to do much of anything except to find their way safely down off the peak. It may be safe to say that we will never know if they actually made the climb, but it is clear to this author that a concise, objective presentation of the facts concerning their attempt has yet to be made.

On August 13, 1872, the two divisions of the Hayden Survey finally reunited in the Lower Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park. On August 16, the entire expedition assembled, listened to remarks by their intrepid leader Hayden, and were immortalized in several photographs taken by Jackson. Nathaniel Langford then came forward with a surprising proposition. He proposed that the great peak that had been climbed by he and Stevenson be known as Mount Hayden. The proposal was met with cheers and Hayden not only accepted, but stated that he considered it the highest honor of his life. However, the name never took hold, and the toponymy reverted back to the trappers' somewhat crude "Grand Teton."

Another attempt of the Grand Teton was made by members of the Hayden Survey party in 1877. In July of that year, Thomas Cooper, Stephen Kubel, Peter Pollack, and Louis McKean reached the Lower Saddle from the west and continued toward the Upper Saddle for several hundred feet. At this point, Pollack and McKean apparently stopped while Cooper and Kubel continued a considerable distance further. The various accounts of this climb differ, and it is not certain whether they reached the Upper Saddle and the Enclosure.

In 1878, sheer chance prevented a successful ascent of the Grand Teton by a third Hayden Survey party. James Eccles, a member of the Alpine Club (London), together with his Chamonix, France guide Michel Payot, accompanied the Hayden expedition to the Teton-Yellowstone region; they were slated to attempt the peak with triangulator A. D. Wilson, and his assistant, Harry Yount, (and perhaps also A. C. Ladd) on August 20. Eccles and Payot were detained at the last minute by a necessary search for two mules that strayed from their camp in the Hoback, and they were unable to join Wilson. If they had, it seems probable that they would have reached the summit since Payot was a professional guide and Eccles an experienced mountaineer. The previous summer, on July 31, 1877, Eccles and Payot had climbed a technically difficult route on the south face of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. That they were now in the Tetons is significant from the standpoint of having a guide-client type of climbing party for the first time planning an ascent of the Grand Teton, a precursor to the thousands of guided parties who now climb the peak each summer. As it was, Wilson's party got as far as the Enclosure, where he took a series of readings with his heavy surveying instruments. By extraordinary chance, 97 years later in 1975, a metal matchbox with "A. D. Wilson," inscribed in his own handwriting, was discovered by Leigh N. Ortenburger in a crack in the rocks at the summit of the Enclosure. Not only was Wilson the most experienced climber in the Survey at that time, but he may well have been the best climber in the United States in the 1870s. He had climbed many of the higher peaks of the United Stares, including Mount Rainier, and was very disappointed at not having reached the summit of the Grand.

In 1880, while passing through Jackson Hole during a hunting expedition, a well-to-do, itinerant Englishman and member of the Alpine Club, William Baillie-Grohman, explored the environs of the Grand Teton and reached the Lower Saddle in a haphazard attempt from a low camp. From his journal entries it seems reasonable to assume that Garnet Canyon had been explored for the second time in recorded history. [9]

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004