American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The West Face of the Grand Teton

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  • Publication Year: 1941

The West Face of the Grand Teton

Henry Coulter

ROBERT UNDERHILL once stated in a lecture that the chim- ney up the West Face of the Grand Teton presented the most obvious and direct route to the summit. When asked if he intended to climb this route, Underhill replied that he would leave it to some of the younger climbers. The matter seemed to end there, until this summer, after having examined the face from every possible angle, Jack Durrance decided that it was time the route was attempted.

Since one party, led by Charles Webb of the D. M. C., had traversed into the upper part of the West Face chimney from the Owen route and had been turned back by icy rocks, it was deemed advisable to wait until better conditions could be expected. Accordingly on August 13th, a party of seven started up Cascade Canyon and established a camp in the basin between the West Ridge of the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen. This basin, I might add, was in the opinion of all the most beautiful and impressive of any high altitude camp in the Tetons, and, since it was unnamed, it was unanimously decided to call it Valhalla Canyon.

The entire West Face of the Grand Teton was visible from our camp, and an examination of the proposed route was made with field-glasses. The first problem obviously was to reach a very pronounced ledge which ran along the base of the summit massif about 1000 ft. below the top, and appeared to lead into the lower part of the West Face chimney. Immediately above this ledge the rock seemed to present no particular difficulties. Higher up, however, in the chimney proper, we could see a long, overhanging pitch which doubtlessly would be the key-point of the climb. Leading to the ledge were three characteristic bands of black rock. The third seemed to lead into the Enclosure ledge. Our plan was to gain the first band, work our way through it to the second, and traverse from the second to the third and hence onto the ledge.

That evening clouds began to drift in from the S. W., but it was decided that Durrance and I should start the next morning, carrying our packs as high as possible, and, if the weather continued unfavorable, leaving them for another attempt the following day.

At 3.30 the next morning the sky was still cloudy, and I was all for staying in bed, but Jack promptly vetoed that idea. By 4.00 we were crossing the scree slope which leads to the couloir coming down from Gunsight Notch. After following the couloir for several hundred feet, we traversed to the right, and climbed a wall onto the lowest isolated rock pinnacle. Here we stopped to build a cairn, and were treated to a beautiful view of the five finger-towers of the West Ridge, caught by the first rays of the sun.

From the cairn the route led up a series of slabs and débris- covered slopes to the bottom of a steep 100-ft. pitch which led to the first band. Roping up, Jack climbed this, and I followed with a little difficulty in the middle where a large loose block threatened to pull out. Throughout this portion of the climb we noticed a great many white spots made by rock falls from above. Both of us were uneasy since the signs were so numerous. We climbed as fast as possible and, fortunately, no rocks came down.

We started the climb straight up the first black band, but luckily found a traverse which led to the right over some broken rock and saved us considerable hard work and time. At one point some ice fell from above, narrowly missing Jack, and flying over my head with a nasty whine. We raced up the last slabs just in time to shelter ourselves in a protected spot from a snow storm which had blown in from the S. W.

The next twenty minutes were spent tied to a piton under the bivouac sack. Needless to say, the accommodations were not very comfortable. When the sky cleared we debated whether it would be wise to continue, and finally decided at least to try to make ledge No. 2 before turning back.

At this point it was necessary to climb a steep pitch to the right in order to gain the second band. This pitch was the most difficult yet encountered, and two pitons were used in climbing it.

Continuing straight up over a series of slabs, scree patches, and an ice field, we made a traverse to the left, and back into a group of large boulders in the upper part of the second black band, where a stop for lunch was made. One more rope length led to the opening of an extremely rotten chimney which turned right to lead to the critical ledge communicating with the West Face chimney. Once up the rotten chimney, in which there was one overhang of very loose red flakes, we traversed along a ledge for about 200 ft.

Our position was then about 500 ft. below the Enclosure, just above the snow field which can be seen by looking straight down the face from the crawl on the Owen route. Here we began to discover how wrong our observations from below had been. This portion which had looked relatively easy was actually a blank wall which seemed to overhang along its entire breadth, rather than laying back as it had appeared to do in the foreshortened view from below. Several minutes’ search produced nothing but a badly battered hat which our friend Charlie Webb had dropped off the Enclosure several weeks before. Finally a crack was found on the extreme right-hand edge of the wall. It was not at all promising for the first 50 ft., and beyond that we could not see, but we decided to give it a try. It was 12 o’clock and about 1000 ft. remained to be climbed. To have to turn back would have meant a retreat through dangerous territory, and many rappels.

This first pitch started from a large upright flake and continued up a slightly overhanging crack to a small ledge about 50 ft. above. Instead of easier climbing above, the severity increased. Three pitons were used, and it was necessary to pull the rucksacks up on the rope. From here Durrance led up another 80 ft., traversing slightly to the left around an overhang which would have been extremely dangerous to lead. The next pitch also presented an overhanging crack which Jack traversed to the right, this time over a rather smooth plate. Several pitons were used for belays on these pitches, but at no time on the climb was direct aid used for the leader. Above the third vertical pitch the route levelled out slightly. I wasted about half an hour trying to get onto the ledge with the packs, but eventually had to throw them up and climb after. We crossed a large open slope which was covered with fragments knocked down from the Owen route above. Under some protective boulders we ate a second lunch in comparative peace, for we knew if we should need to retreat we could traverse out to the Upper Saddle. On this slope we found two more hats, bringing our collection to three. Unfortunately two of these were lost again a little farther on. The true chimney starts just above this point, and we were greeted at its entrance by a terrific bombardment of stones knocked down from above. Undoubtedly the party climbing overhead on the Owen route was unaware that anyone was down on the West Face below them, but the hail that went up quickly straightened that point out, and no more stones were dropped. As a matter of fact, it is rather surprising that our language didn’t start an avalanche.

Three difficult pitches straight up the left wall of the chimney brought us to a ledge which looked very much like the end of our climb. This was the key point seen from below, and although it was not actually overhanging, it was very steep with no possible piton cracks for at least 100 ft., and there was a regular waterfall cascading down the rocks. By this time the combination of the heavy loads and the afternoon sun had pretty well exhausted me, and Durrance turning to see if I was ready to belay him, heard a loud snore and saw me peacefully sleeping on a 2-foot ledge. I was quickly restored by a tirade of highly abusive language.

Pacing back and forth along this ledge, my companion announced that he would give it another try before preparing for a bivouac. Everything except rope, pitons, and camera were left behind on the ledge, rucksacks having never been intended for the sort of climbing that in all probability lay ahead of us. Jack, after a final search, traversed about 140 ft. out to the left of the chimney, up a 10-ft. overhang, and back to the right on a terrifying smooth slab. He then traversed along the top of this slab to a corner around which he could not see. At this point Bob Bates appeared above us on the Owen route. He could see the traverse that we would have to make to reach the chimney, and, after critical inspection, he decided that it might go. I went up to the top of the plate where Jack was standing and got ready to belay him. The traverse proved to be as delicate as it looked to Bob from above, since it was extremely steep and smooth with only the smallest fingerholds and practically no footholds at all. Several pitons were used on the first part, but the last 20 ft. had no suitable cracks. This proved to be the last difficult pitch on the route.

At 7.30 in the afternoon we were even with the crawl of the Owen route, with only half an hour of daylight left in which we might reach the top. Staying roped, we raced up the final portion of the chimney, remaining on the left hand wall to avoid ice except in one place where it was necessary to traverse around an icy overhang. The summit was reached at five minutes after eight, just as darkness came.

The descent to the D. M. C. camp on the floor of Garnet Canyon was made by moonlight in four hours, making a total of twenty- four hours for the entire trip.

Several notes might be of interest. Complete bivouac equipment was carried on the climb. It consisted of a bivouac sack, two light sleeping-bags, Primus stove, pot, canteen, extra food, and rain capes. In addition, one pair of nailed boots and an ice- axe were carried, but neither were used. The total load including pitons, camera, hammers, etc., weighed about 50 lbs. Luckily most of the equipment was not needed, but I do not believe that it would ever be safe to attempt a climb of such length, where the possibilities of a hasty retreat are non-existent, without being fully prepared for any eventuality which would prevent completion in one day.

The packs which were left on the ledge below the Owen route were collected a week later by Judy Peterson who rappeled down. First the sacks were hauled up, and then Judy climbed straight up the chimney with a direct belay from above.

Durrance rates the West Face as the most difficult climb he has done in the Tetons, its nearest rival being the North Face of the Grand. In comparing the two, he considers that the North Face contains only about one-third as much of the very difficult grade of climbing found on the West Face, although the West is less exposed to rock fall than the North.

I can hardly recommend the West Face as a pleasant trip for those who are planning to climb in the Tetons; however, several of our other “firsts” which are not as yet included in any guidebook might be of interest. The North Face of Nez Perce is a relatively short climb and one of the most enjoyable in the range. The route is very direct with several steep pitches just below the summit made interesting by about 2000 ft. of exposure. The rock is very good, fracturing into excellent holds throughout. Descent via the East Ridge is more difficult than the traditional West Ridge route, presenting one very rotten pitch up the second gendarme.

On the Grand, the true Southwest Ridge to the Enclosure, which we did with Fred Ayres, is a longer and more varied climb than the Exum route. It presents excellent route-finding problems, and many easy lines of retreat in case bad weather should be encountered. Both the Dike and the South Ridge of the Middle are very interesting climbing. The first tower of the South Ridge contains several sixth degree pitches which can be very easily avoided by traversing into the ridge from the gully on the W. The Dike must be climbed very carefully to avoid numerous loose blocks, and can be followed only to the Dike Pinnacle. All of these climbs should prove enjoyable to those who wish to escape from the more frequently travelled Teton routes.

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