American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Wyoming, Teton Range, Grand Teton, The Underhill Ridge of the Grand Teton

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1953

The Underhill Ridge of the Grand Teton. On 7 September 1952, Arnold Guess, Fred Zachariasen, and Leigh Ortenburger made the second ascent of the southeast ridge, better known as the Underhill ridge, of the Grand Teton.* Starting from the lower saddle between Middle Teton and Grand Teton at 6:00 A.M., we reached the highest notch of the black dike which cuts across the south side of the Grand. Above this notch about 200 feet of reddish slabs lead to the first tower of the ridge. After climbing a few feet up from the notch, we traversed to the right to the end of a wide ledge. Here a crack zigzagged up to the left, ending underneath an overhanging slab. We roped up here. Fred used a piton for an anchor while I led the first rope length. One of Underhill’s original pitons was found above this slab. Two easy rope lengths led to the beginning of the ledge which leads around to the left (west) side of the ridge. At the end of this ledge we climbed a 40-foot chimney, using a piton for safety. Once again an old-style, well-rusted piton was found above this pitch. Having read Underhill’s account of his first ascent in 1931, I was looking for the very difficult chimney which he had described. It appeared that the chimney directly above us was the one he had climbed, but it did not look at all inviting, so I applied the climber’s axiom and looked around the corner to the left (north) for an alternate route. A short 10-foot chimney led to the key pitch of the climb—a 60-foot chimney. I had to use two pitons for safety in leading this pitch. The top of the chimney overhung, necessitating a traverse out of it onto the right-hand wall and corner. This was a difficult step since there were no adequate footholds, but by a long stretch I was able to reach the corner handhold and pull myself up to a small, exposed ledge. Above this was a big overhang, but fortunately there was a “Thank God!” handhold out of sight above it. From there a 30-foot traverse back to the right led to the top of the original chimney. By this time the weather had begun to act up—as strong a wind as I have ever experienced in the Tetons struck us as soon as we had scrambled to the top of the ridge again. Two more rope lengths brought us to the face of the last tower on the ridge. The wind was now accompanied by sleet, turning this face into a decidedly interesting climb. We used two pitons for safety here because of the slippery rock. At the top of the face a steeply sloping ledge led around to the left (west), taking us to the knife-edge which is the culmination of the ridge proper. Above was the 1000 feet of friction slabs usually covered by snow during most of the summer. Making a beeline for the summit, we climbed by means of a series of connecting ledges between the slabs. This brought us to the southeast side of the summit block. Rather than make the easy traverse to the Exum ridge, we decided to attack one of the two southeast chimneys. The one on the right (north) was chosen, and soon we were on the summit at 1:00 A.M.

Why this route was completely ignored for 21 years is hard to say. It is readily accessible from the lower saddle and offers an excellent climb. Since the knife-edge is about even with the end of Wall Street on the Exum route, an outstanding combination would consist of climbing the Underhill ridge to the knife-edge and then traversing over to the Exum ridge and finishing the climb by that well-known route. It is interesting to note that the southeast, east, and north ridges—the three routes pioneered by Robert L. M. Underhill in 1929 and 1931—were all climbed that same day, 7 September 1952.

Leigh Ortenburger

*The first ascent of this route was made by Robert L. M. Underhill, Frank Truslow, and Phil Smith, 15 July 1931.

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