Wyoming Rockies, The Tragedies on the Grand Teton

Publication Year: 1935.

The Tragedies on the Grand Teton

On the afternoon of July 7th, 1934, Chris Duehlmeier called at Jenny Lake Ranger Station to express anxiety concerning the safety of two friends, Fred Ohlendorf and Helmuth Leese, who had not returned from a mountain trip begun the morning previous. His concern grew largely out of Ohlendorf’s tendency to take unwarranted risks, as repeatedly demonstrated earlier on their vacation tour.

Inquiry of Duehlmeier revealed additional reasons for gravest apprehension. The party in question, four men and two women, had arrived in Grand Teton National Park the evening of July 5th and had taken lodging at the Square G Ranch intending to stay over only one day. Ohlendorf and Leese spoke of climbing Gannett Peak but later decided in favor of the Grand Teton. Meeting a local resident somewhat familiar with the peak they received information relative to the traditional route, but remarks made by Ohlendorf indicated that the two had in mind an ascent of the mountain by the near side. Early on July 6th the entire party had set off down the Lakes Trail. Just beyond the crossing of Glacier Creek, at 5.30, Ohlendorf and Leese left the trail and headed west into the range. Halloos were exchanged as long as possible, after which the four non-climbers returned to camp. Ohlendorf and Leese stated they would be back that evening, in time to resume the tour.

Thus it appeared that the missing men, both virtually inexperienced as climbers, had set out to do the Grand Teton in one day, a peak for which seasoned mountaineers even when guided allow the better part of two days. Further, it seemed probable that they had sought to climb it from the east, a formidable side scaled only once before in history.1 Concerning this route they knew nothing. Intending to return by dark, they brought with them no bedding or extra clothing, and for food only a few sandwiches. As for equipment they possessed neither rope nor ice-axe. Leese wore ordinary leather-soled shoes, Ohlendorf leather-soled boots. Finally, they had not registered with park officials, as required by park rules.

With this information as a background, we made inquiry of the parties that came out of the mountains that afternoon, but none had knowledge of the missing men. After dark Allyn Hanks and I drove back and forth along the range for several hours but were unable to distinguish any signal fires. Searching equipment was then assembled for the party of four completed through enlistment of Dudley Hayden, also of the ranger staff, and Whipple Andrews, a neighboring mountaineer.

Start was made at daylight, and we left the Lakes Trail at the point where, according to Duehlmeier, Ohlendorf and Leese had cut off. In ascending Glacier Gulch we found a few traces of climbers but none certainly related to the men sought. At intervals we fired shots, shouted, and with field glasses scanned the east ridge of the Grand Teton, but to no avail. So the base of the peak was reached.

Believing the pair may have sought to ascend the couloir leading from Teepe’s Snowfield up the east ridge (a route that looks attractive but is fearfully dangerous) we turned into the dike couloir, and from its head, reached at 10.30, came into view of all of Teepe’s Snowfield. Well up its north slope lay a sprawled figure, dwarfed by the distance. We climbed to it. The body, afterward identified by its clothing as that of Leese, was lying face up and head downslope, and was greatly mutilated. It might have fallen from the first, that is the easterly, of the two great gendarmes on the east ridge, or from the suspected couloir, in either case a drop of a thousand feet or more. One shoe was missing. Apparently Leese had been dead about twenty-four hours. Boulders on the snow nearby suggested an avalanche as the cause of his fall, and this in turn led us to believe that the body of Ohlendorf might be close.

While Hanks and Hayden sewed the body into canvas, Andrews and I resumed the search. We continued up the snowfield along the route by which the body had slid, and so came on Leese’s missing shoe, not far below the cliffs. Through the violence of his fall the laces had snapped and the shoe been torn off. The cliffs reached we turned up the sidewall of the couloir but, several hundred feet higher, were compelled to turn back by the ice-sheeted rocks. Then we descended diagonally west-ward to the snow and over to the col by Teepe’s Pillar, from which point the first gendarme could be examined. After being gone several hours we returned to Hanks and Hayden, who meanwhile had carried the body off the snow.

There remained the two-mile trip to Amphitheater Lake, nearest point on the trail, accomplished by sliding the body on snow and carrying it over the rocks. The last few hundred yards we received welcome relief through the arrival of another searching party, sent out from the trail crews. Edwin Smith of the ranger staff reached the lake at 8.30 with a pack horse, and brought the body the remaining distance down to the valley. Both parties likewise descended that night, and other searchers were recalled by signal fires.

The following day, July 8th, search was resumed. Our party, augmented by a fifth man, Floyd Wilson, ascended Garnet Canyon in the afternoon and at its head established base at “the cave.” Search on the way, involving scrutiny of the Grand Teton with glasses, yielded nothing. The following morning, cold and windy, we continued to the summit of the Grand Teton, reached at 11.30. The register gave proof that Ohlendorf and Leese had never attained their goal, for their names were not among the entries. Hanks and I descended the summit knob to the edge of the snow-fields, thus bringing into view extensive areas on the south face of the main peak and on the second gendarme. Only rock and snow. We rejoined the rest on top. The eastern extremity of the summit offered a perfect view of the upper part of the east ridge, yet here, too, we could find only rock and snow. But finally, on Teton Glacier 3500 ft. beneath us, at the base of the north precipices of the gendarmes, through the glasses I noted an object that looked like a prone figure or a broken tree trunk. So distant it could not certainly be identified, but clearly it was not a rock and the chances were against a broken tree lodging here. That Ohlendorf might be found on the opposite side of the peak from Leese had not been anticipated. A visit to Teton Glacier was decided upon for the next day, also an ascent of Disappointment Peak, from which summit further examination of the east ridge and gendarmes would be possible. We regained Jenny Lake at 8 p.m.

The 10th, the day on which Leese was buried at Jackson, Hanks, Hayden and I rode up to Amphitheater Lake. My partners crossed to the glacier, and I continued up Disappointment Peak. From on top, I could scrutinize almost every square foot of area on the east ridge not previously studied, and after an hour of fruitless use of the glasses I left the summit convinced, by process of elimination, that the object discovered the day before must have been Ohlendorf. So it proved. Back at the lake my partners informed me that they had sewed up the body in canvas and left it where it lay on the glacier. Judging from its condition it had fallen from the vicinity of the east ridge gendarmes. 1500 ft. or more above.

A sister, contacted on the 13th, expressed the wish that Ohlendorf likewise be buried at Jackson, and on the afternoon of this day Hanks returned to the glacier with Edwin Smith, Walcott Watson, and Rudolph Edmund to bring the body over to Amphitheater Lake, whence it was brought down by pack horse. Hanks, Hayden, and I then escorted it to Jackson cemetery and here at dusk, while the sunset colors were still bright behind the Tetons, we laid Ohlendorf to rest beside Leese.

Ohlendorf, who was twenty-nine years old, and Leese, twenty-eight, were both Germans who had emigrated to the United States only a few years before. Neither was married. Ohlendorf had made his home in Salt Lake City, Leese in Milwaukee.

Late in the summer, on August 21st, Fred Ayres and I retraced the route which we believed the ill-fated pair had taken, hoping that we might discover some clues to the tragedy. At several points along the east ridge we found unmistakable footprints between the rocks, undoubtedly theirs as no other climbers had been along here in five years. Beyond the first gendarme no traces that could be related to them were found, and in completing the ascent by the east ridge we became convinced that to have lodged where they did Ohlendorf and Leese must both have fallen from the first gendarme. It was incredible that without rope, ice-axes, and proper shoes they could have gotten past the first gendarme to the couloir beyond. Further, the assumption of two separate accidents, occurring at different times and different places on the gendarme, seemed inescapable. The gendarme is sharp, true, but even so we could not visualize any situation whereby two men might through a common accident fall from it in opposite directions.

We will probably never know just what happened during those tragic hours—or were they only minutes?—that Ohlendorf and Leese spent on the first gendarme, but the events that led up to them can be reconstructed with some assurance. The east ridge of the Grand Teton is seductive, for when viewed from the east its vicious gendarmes merge into the mountain behind and it has every appearance of affording a logical and continuous route to the summit. So it must have seemed to Ohlendorf and Leese, who doubtless sped up Glacier Gulch to the base of the peak and there gained the ridge. From here on (where we found their tracks) the climbing became more difficult but just enough so to prove interesting and lure them on. Presently they found themselves at the east base of the first gendarme, and in its steep face they probably saw nothing to suggest the terrible rock blades and impossible overhangs in which the smooth slabs terminate above. Nor had they knowledge of the repeated attempts to climb this gendarme that in the past without exception had ended in failure, twice in near-tragedy. (The passage of the gendarme in 1929 by Henderson and Underhill was accomplished by resort to a north-face traverse.) So we can believe that Ohlendorf and Leese, pausing only for breath and rest, may have started up without trepidation. How high did they get? Is it possible that, with such miserable footgear, they could have attained the summit of the gendarme before tragedy overtook them?

It may be argued that Ohlendorf, the more aggressive of the two, probably fell first. In his pocket was found a watch, broken by the fall and stopped at 11.29, probably 11.29 a.m. One would expect the gendarme to have been attained at about this time. If Ohlendorf fell first, Leese, described by his companions as a quiet, unquestioning type who would have followed his partner anywhere, would very likely have been unnerved, and might have sought to escape from the gendarme rather than remain on it in some place of security until rescue came. He may even have gone on higher, preferring the unknown ahead to a venture alone down pitches such as they had come up, and thus eventually became involved in a fatal predicament. So early in the season the smooth gendarme must have been treacherously wet and icy. Perhaps through fruitless efforts to get down from the gendarme, or over it, he wore himself out, exhaustion and cold contributing to his fall. But these are only conjectures, and other alternatives suggest themselves.

F. F.

1 By K. A. Henderson and R. L. M. Underhill, on Julv 22nd, 1929. See A.A.J., i, 138.