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


The second unsubstantiated ascent of the Grand Teton was by Captain Charles Kieffer, Private Logan Newell, and a third man, probably Private John Rhyan, about September 10, 1893. The only evidence for this ascent is a letter from Kieffer to William O. Owen on April 3, 1899, in which Kieffer describes his climb. [10] Kieffer's military records show that he was stationed at Fort Yellowstone during the summer of 1893 and, hence, presumably did have the opportunity to make the ascent. If Kieffer's drawing, which accompanies his letter, is to be taken literally, it shows his route to have been the Exum Ridge! (This technically difficult route was named for Glenn Exum's remarkable solo ascent in 1931.) Kieffer's letter also indicated that he returned in 1895, but failed because "the gradual snow field . . . had fallen and left a steep jump off that we could not climb."

In 1891, William O. Owen made the first of several attempts to climb the Grand Teton. With his wife, Emma Matilda, Mathew B. Dawson, and wife Jennie Dawson, Owen apparently reached a point somewhere between the Lower and Upper Saddles via the couloir from Dartmouth Basin. Owen returned in 1897 with Frank Petersen and made several unsuccessful attempts from different directions, one in the couloir descending to Teepe Glacier from above the Second Tower. He was nearly killed during a glissade on the glacier below, a precursor to the most common type of climbing accident today.

Finally, on August 11, 1898, a party of six sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Club (formerly the Rocky Mountain Climbers Club, or R.M.C.C., established in 1896 in Denver, Colorado) started toward the Grand Teton from a camp in the cirque north of Shadow Peak. At the Lower Saddle, Thomas Cooper, veteran of the 1877 attempt, decided not to continue; and Hugh McDerment elected to go no further at the Upper Saddle. The remaining four, Franklin Spalding, William O. Owen, Frank Petersen, and John Shive continued to the summit with Spalding largely responsible for leading and finding the route.

Shive, Spalding, Petersen on summit
John Shive, Franklin Spalding, and Frank Petersen on the summit of the Grand Teton on the first certain ascent, 1898. William O. Owen

The Rocky Mountain Club climb was the first documented ascent of the Grand Teton. Two days later, Spalding, Petersen, and Shive returned to the summit to build a cairn and leave their names chiseled in the summit boulder while Owen obtained photographs from the Enclosure. The site of Owen's camp in the cirque between Shadow Peak and Nez Perce, along with a cache of 27 very heavy eyebolt "pitons" discarded in 1898, was discovered by Leigh Ortenburger in August 1969. One of these pitons, quite solidly placed, can be found even today in a boulder at this 1898 campsite. On July 6, 1984, the only piton actually placed by Owen on the Grand Teton was found by Rich Perch and Dan Burgette in the lower end of the Stettner Couloir. Others had been found abandoned on the rocks in 1934 on the upper Owen-Spalding Route and in 1948 at the start of the Pownall-Gilkey Route.

The now famous controversy between Owen and Langford broke out immediately after Owen's publication of a full-page article in the New York Herald shortly after the 1898 ascent, in which he claimed to have been part of the first group to ascend the Grand Teton. The outdoor magazine, Forest and Stream, then became the primary forum in which the controversy played out before a national audience. In a series of letters to the editor and in various statements and affidavits, Owen waged verbal war with Langford. The debate continues to the present day, and may be the greatest of all American mountaineering controversies. Since historical "proof" is extremely unlikely to be forthcoming for either side of the argument, it may be best to just say that in 1872 Langford and Stevenson may have climbed the Grand Teton; in 1893 Kieffer, Newell, and Rhyan may have climbed it; and in 1898 Spalding, Owen, Petersen, and Shive definitely did succeed in reaching the summit.

Ten days after the ascent of the Grand Teton in 1898, the Bannon topographic party ascended Buck Mountain and saw the banner left by the Owen party on the summit of the Grand Teton. This topographic party also climbed several of the easy peaks along the divide during their work, which culminated in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Grand Teton quadrangle map. Although the 1898 ascent of the Grand Teton received considerable publicity, it had little influence in attracting other mountaineering visits. During the summer of 1912, Professor Eliot Blackwelder, while studying the geology of the sedimentary strata, mostly on the west slope of the Tetons, made a few ascents of peaks on and west of the divide.

The ascent of the north summit of Mount Moran in 1919 by LeRoy Jeffers was accorded more publicity than perhaps any other single Teton ascent. This ascent was due, in part, to an article that appeared in a 1918 issue of Scientific American containing this challenging statement: "The summit has never been attained and probably never will, as the last 3,000 feet of the mountain are sheer perpendicular walls of rock." [11] The Jeffers climb then provided the competitive motivation for a party of three that included Dr. L. H. Hardy, Ben C. Rich, and Bennet McNulty to make the first ascent of the higher south or main summit. The party beat Jeffers by ten days when he returned to make what he disappointingly discovered to be the second ascent in 1922.

Peaks and Historic Mountaineering Sites of the Teton Range

1. The Wall

This relatively minor summit was probably the first Teton peak to be climbed. In 1872, James Stevenson and Nathaniel P. Langford reached the top of a peak on the divide, which may have been this summit. The Bannon topographic party also may have climbed this peak in 1898.

2. Table Mountain

The first ascent of Table Mountain was around July 27, 1872, by William Henry Jackson, Charles Campbell, Philo J. Beveridge, Alexander Sibley and, perhaps, John Coulter. William Henry Jackson took the first photographs of the Teton Range from this peak.

3. Icefloe Lake

Icefloe Lake was the first high alpine lake in the Teton Range to be reached in a documented climb. Several members of the Snake River Division of the Hayden Survey visited the lake on July 29, 1872.

4. Dartmouth Basin

This large alpine basin immediately west of the Lower Saddle received its first documented visit on July 29, 1872, by members of the 1872 Hayden Survey on their way up to the Lower Saddle.

5. Lower Saddle (11,600+ ft.)

Located between the Grand and Middle Tetons, the Lower Saddle is often the scene of ferocious winds that prevail from the west. The first documented climb of the Lower Saddle was on July 29, 1872.

6. The Enclosure

The name "Enclosure" now applies to the entire western spur of the Grand Teton. Originally, this name described only the circular man-made structure on the summit of this subpeak.

7. Grand Teton (13,770 ft.)

The debate over who was the first to climb the Grand Teton may be the greatest American mountaineering controversy. Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson claimed to have climbed the Grand in 1872, but the first documented climb was made in 1898 by William Owen, Frank Petersen, John Shive, and Franklin Spalding.

8. Garnet Canyon

Garnet Canyon is the "epicenter" of Teton mountaineering. Richard "Beaver Dick" Leigh may have explored this canyon as early as 1858.

9. Garnet Canyon, Petzoldt Caves

Paul Petzoldt used this area as a campsite during the early days of mountain guiding in Grand Teton National Park.

10. Garnet Canyon Trail

Glacier Trail and the 1.1 mile spur trail to the "Platforms" area of Garnet Canyon were among the first trails constructed in Grand Teton National Park.

11. Shadow Peak Cirque

From a camp at the eastern edge of this cirque, William Owen and his fellow climbers launched their successful ascent of the Grand Teton in 1898.

12. Glacier Trail

Like Garnet Canyon Trail, the Glacier Trail was one of the first trails constructed in Grand Teton National Park.

13. Amphitheater Lake

This lake served as a base camp for many historic first ascents on the north side of the Grand Teton. A memorial plaque honoring Theodore Teepe, who was killed in 1925 while descending Teepe Glacier, is affixed to a boulder on the eastern shore of the lake.

14. Valhalla Canyon

Jack Durrance and Henry Coulter entered this canyon on their historic first ascent of the west face of the Grand in 1940.

15. Mount Owen

This peak is named for William O. Owen, organizer of the 1898 ascent of the Grand Teton. Robert Underhill, Fritiof Fryxell, Kenneth Henderson, and Phil Smith made the first documented climb of Mount Owen on July 16, 1930.

16. Middle Teton

The first ascent of the Middle Teton, the third highest of the Teton peaks, was made by Albert Russell Ellingwood on August 29, 1923, via the steep southern couloir that now bears his name.

17. Mount Moran

Named for artist Thomas Moran, Mount Moran is the most complex and massive mountain in the range. LeGrand Haven Hardy, Ben C. Rich, and Bennet McNulty made the first ascent on July 27, 1922.

18. South Teton

South Teton is the fifth highest peak in the range. Its first ascent was on August 29, 1923 (the same day as the first ascent of the Middle Teton) by Albert Ellingwood and Eleanor Davis.

19. Buck Mountain

Topographer T M. Bannon and his recorder, George A. Buck, ascended Buck Mountain ten days after the Owen-Spalding party climbed the Grand Teton in 1898. On the summit, they built a large cairn known as "Buck Station."

20. American Alpine Club/Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch

Originally the Double Diamond dude ranch, this ranch has been leased by the American Alpine Club since 1970 and serves as a hostel for mountaineers.

21. Lucas-Fabian Homestead

Homestead of Geraldine Lucas, the first local woman to ascend the Grand Teton. The first woman to climb the Grand was Eleanor Davis.

22. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp

Built by the CCC, the "C-Camp" became home and general hang-out for the numerous climbers who passed through Grand Teton National Park.

23. Jenny Lake Ranger Station

The park's first visitor center, the Jenny Lake Ranger Station has been the focal point of mountain climbing in the Teton Range since the park's establishment.

24. Jenny Lake Boulders

A popular climbing area, these boulders were chronicled in the humorous Guide to the Jenny Lake Boulders, written in 1958 by John Gill and Yvon Chouinard.

Mountaineering Map of Grand Teton adapted from the "Shaded Hiking Relief Map," Earthwalk Press. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


Grand Teton
Upper west face of the Grand Teton, showing the Owen-Spalding route, with figure waving the American flag near summit. William O. Owen

The summit of the Grand Teton was not visited again for 25 years. This lack of attention is truly astonishing since wide notice was given to the 1898 ascent, and there was much climbing activity in the United States and Canada during the intervening quarter century. The Teton Range was still relatively isolated, however, from any major population center and, therefore, was left alone and remained largely unexplored. The next phase of activity began on August 25, 1923, when three students from Montana State College made a remarkable climb of the Grand Teton. Quin Blackburn, the leader (who later served in the Antarctic with Byrd), David DeLap, and Andy DePirro made the third documented ascent (the Owen party climbed the peak twice) and descent via the Owen-Spalding Route in a single day without ropes or any technical climbing equipment!

The trio of Montanans had passed an encampment of eight other mountaineers, who were there at the invitation of Horace Albright, then the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Albright had contacted several climbing clubs with the express purpose of attracting the attention of mountaineers to the unlimited climbing potential of the region. This, he hoped, would then generate publicity about the Teton range—an area that Albright passionately felt should be protected and preserved as a national park. The group that was camping in Bradley (Garnet) Canyon included Albert Russell Ellingwood and Eleanor Davis (Ehrman), who were both members of the Colorado Mountain Club. [12] Ellingwood, a professor of political and social science, had learned to rock climb in the English Lake District while attending Oxford University. He was easily one of the strongest climbers of the day and had made the first ascent in 1920 of Lizard Head in Colorado, the most technically difficult climb in the United States at the time.

The group's climb of the Grand Teton on August 27, 1923, completed two days after the group from Montana, marked the first ascent of the peak by a woman. Davis, a physical education instructor at Colorado College, where Ellingwood also taught, was a strong climber and a vice president of the Colorado Mountain Club. This early climb by a woman is very significant. Strong female climbers were rarely seen in the predominantly male-dominated sport of mountaineering. Yet, here we see in the Tetons a tradition that has continued to the present day, namely, noteworthy alpine achievements by women who could hold their own in the sport. It is also interesting to note that, for the first time, mountaineers were traveling to the Tetons from their home ranges, pursuing climbing in their leisure time as a recreational activity and as a component of adventure travel.

Ellingwood climbing
Albert R. Ellingwood on the first ascent of the northeast ridge of Mt. Moran. Carl Blaurock

On August 29, Ellingwood, accompanied once again by Davis and E. W. Harnden, approached Middle Teton by way of the previously unexplored south fork of Bradley (Garnet) Canyon. Intent upon making the mountain's first ascent, Ellingwood did so via the steep couloir that now bears his name. His companions waited a short distance below the summit while a brief storm slammed into the peak. After the storm cleared and, after descending to the high saddle between the Middle and South Tetons, Ellingwood and the indomitable Davis then went on to make the first ascent of the northwest couloir of South Teton. All in all, this was an incredibly productive trip by the visiting Colorado mountaineers. Ellingwood returned the following year with fellow Colorado Mountain Club member Carl Blaurock, climbed the Grand Teton once again, and then pioneered the northeast ridge route to the top of Mount Moran. Photographs taken by Blaurock during the ascent show Ellingwood climbing in his trademark leather gauntlet gloves.


Guided climbing in the Teton Range traces its origins to Paul Petzoldt and the year 1924. Paul Petzoldt began his lengthy career as a world-class climber and professional mountain guide with four ascents of the Grand Teton made in 1924. On one of these climbs, Petzoldt guided some Jackson Hole locals up the Grand, including 59-year-old Geraldine Lucas, a retired schoolteacher and Jackson Hole homesteader, who was the second woman to reach the summit. On another climb, William O. Owen, a day shy of his 65th birthday, got to the summit a second time, thanks to Petzoldt's quickly developing expertise. On August 4, 1925, after the first successful ascent of the Grand Teton that year, the first known mountaineering fatality in the range occurred when Theodore Teepe was killed while descending the large snowfield/glacier on the upper eastern face of the peak. This feature has been referred to as Teepe Glacier ever since. Petzoldt was instrumental in the recovery of Teepe's body.

The summers of 1925 and 1926 saw the first climbs of Phil Smith and Fritiof Fryxell who, during the next decade, made much of the climbing history of the range. Fryxell's excellent account of Teton climbing history up to 1931 appears in his book, The Teton Peaks and Their Ascents. Smith made the first ascents of Disappointment Peak and Mount Wister in 1925 and 1928. Horace Albright's dream of a Grand Teton National Park became reality on February 26, 1929, and Fryxell and Smith became the first members of the ranger staff. Fryxell had this to say about the park's establishment: "The peaks—these are the climax and, after all, the raison de'etre of this park. For the Grand Teton National Park is preeminently the national park of mountain peaks—'the Park of Matterhorns'." [13]

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004