Mount Moran, 1922-1962
Leigh N. Ortenburger
With sections written by James P. McCarthy, Pete Sinclair, John Hudson, Don Anderson, Fred Beckey and Ted Vaill
In the forty years which have now passed since the first ascent of Mount Moran, judged by Fryxell to be "the most monumental peak in the Teton Range”,1 the entire gamut so familiar in mountaineering history may be clearly observed. The passage from impossibility to pioneering ascent, from new routes to dozens of ascents every year, from the first technically difficult route to the latest rock climbing extreme, is vividly illustrated by this distinguished American mountain. And it would seem appropriate to these pages to glance backward at those now familiar mountains which have been important in the history of American climbing and which remain even today worthy objectives.
Mount Moran was first distinguished from the collective Teton range, Les Trois Tetons, in 1872 when it was named by members of the Hayden expedition in honor of the outstanding landscape artist, Thomas Moran, who had just received nationwide attention when Congress purchased his painting of "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” for $10,000.2 The original suggestion for the name may have come from R. Watson Guilder, then editor of Scribner’s Monthly, who wrote to F. V. Hayden on May 23, 1872:"…By the way—you ought to call one of the three Tetons Mount Moran!”3 This suggestion was accepted, but another of Guilder’s recommendations, contained in his letter of April 8, 1873, fortunately was not: "…How would Mount Scribner do for the Third Teton!!!!”4 Moran saw his mountain, not from Jackson Hole, but from the west during his only visit to the Tetons in late August of 1879. This brief glimpse through the smoke of numerous nearby forest fires sufficed for him to state: "The Tetons here loomed up grandly against the sky & from this point it is perhaps the finest pictorial range in the United States or even in N. America.”5
Although the base of Mount Moran had been reached as early as November of 1876 by the fantastic winter expedition of Lt. Gustavus C. Doane,6 and the northeast spur of the mountain explored in 1886 by the geologist Joseph P. Iddings,7 it was not until 1915 that the first known attempt to reach the 12,594-foot summit was made. John Shive, rancher in Jackson Hole and veteran of the successful 1898 ascent of the Grand Teton, with his daughter Carrie, Tom Tracy, and Marguerite Clark ascended the northeast side of the peak, apparently past Skillet Glacier before being turned back by lack of time about 600 feet below the summit.8 In the years just before 1920 some excursions were made from "Woodward’s Camp” near the south end of Leigh Lake to the southwest slopes of Moran; on more than one occasion Falling Ice Glacier was examined.9 In the spring of 1918 an account appeared in the Scientific American of a trip to Skillet Glacier by Huntley Childs and a group of writers and photographers ; their purpose seems to have been to explore and photograph the glacier which was by them named "Huntley Glacier”. The future climbing history of the mountain was "forecast” by one sentence of their article: "The summit has never been attained and probably never will, as the last 3000 feet of the mountain are sheer perpendicular walls of rock.”10
Another frequent contributor to this magazine at that time was LeRoy Jeffers, who had already established for himself a reputation as a mountain climber and explorer; he was serving as Secretary of the Associated Mountaineering Clubs of North America and as librarian for the American Alpine Club. It is only reasonable to assume that Jeffers was inspired by the sentence quoted above. On August 11, 1919, he reached the north summit at nine p.m. after a solo climb in a sleet storm, apparently via the northeast ridge. It is safe to assume that he would have continued to the south and higher summit had the hour been earlier or the weather better. It is astonishing to note the number of articles for mountaineering journals and other periodicals that Jeffers wrote describing this one day’s effort. His remarkable climb has proved to be perhaps the most widely publicized ascent in the history of the Tetons, and it served to call public attention to Mount Moran, now commonly considered second in importance only to the Grand Teton.
The first complete ascent of Mount Moran was not made until three years later, when the enterprising Dr. L. H. Hardy came to Jackson Hole specifically for the purpose of making the ascent, "having heard LeRoy Jeffers in New York tell about his ascent”. With Ben C. Rich and Bennet McNulty, Hardy climbed Skillet Glacier including the "Handle” on July 27, 1922; having no ice axes they used "short tough sticks…and two short auto shovels”.12 Apparently none of the participants published an account of their climb. Ten days later, shortly after completing his book, The Call of the Mountains, Jeffers returned to the Tetons and, in the company of Warren Loyster, repeated the ascent.
From this point on the climbing history of Mount Moran parallels that of the rest of the Teton range. Routes such as the entire northeast ridge, the black dike, and the east ridge were worked out by such pioneers as A. R. Ellingwood and Carl Blaurock, Hans Wittich and Otto Stegemaier, and R. L. M. Underhill and Paul Petzoldt. The status of the mighty Moran had fallen to "an easy day for a lady” as early as 1925 when Eleanor Davis (Ehrman) and Ellingwood reached the summit via the northeast ridge; she had also been the first woman to climb the Grand Teton, and had been on the first ascent of the South Teton. Four adventurous climbs of 1935, the west ridge from Thor Peak by Petzoldt and Hartline, the easterly Triple Glacier by Malcolm Smith, the upper south ridge by Phil Smith and Eldon Petzoldt, and the descent of the CMC route by Scoredos and Merhar, all contributed significantly to the knowledge of the other sides of this massive mountain. In 1940 and 1941 before the war brought peace to the mountains, Paul Petzoldt pioneered two routes, the north ridge and the CMC route, both outstanding, if not overly difficult, climbs; route-finding was Paul’s forte. Tragedy in the form of an airplane crash high on the northeast ridge occasioned the dangerous and very difficult climb to the site of the wreck on November 21, 1950, by Petzoldt and party.
After the war climbers seemed content with the normal routes until Richard Emerson decided in 1953 that the south ridge from Leigh Canyon should be examined carefully. His optimism resulted in the now classic Teton climb, the direct south buttress and ridge, which he led on August 29-30, 1953, with Decker and Ortenburger. A new era was signalled by this ascent for it marked the first major climb in the Tetons requiring the use of a considerable amount of direct aid, and at the time it was the most difficult technical climb in the park. Technical rock work was beginning its meteoric rise which has culminated recently in the climbs in Yosemite Valley. Yet four years were to pass before the ascent was repeated by Dornan, Read, and Kamps. That same summer, 1957, investigations of the other southern ridges of Mount Moran were renewed. Dietschy and Cropper climbed the ridge leading to Drizzlepuss from Leigh Canyon, while John Fonda led Dingman and Pfiffner up the long and difficult southwest ridge, requiring two days for the ascent.
During recent years the principal initiative has been that of David Dornan, who on his ascent of the south buttress noticed that several ridges paralleled the south buttress on the east. The first of these, Staircase Arête, Dornan attacked in 1959 with Read; they found a delicate, difficult, and delightful ridge leading toward Drizzlepuss. The second, known now as the Blackfin because of the first black tower on the ridge, he climbed in 1960 with Ortenburger; requiring two days, it proved to be a long and difficult climb which ultimately joined the south ridge near the summit of the mountain. Dornan's third new route, No Escape Buttress Arête, again with Read, involved considerable difficulty on excellent rock. In 1961 Dornan and Swedlund worked out a route of major importance, reaching the top of the south buttress via a completely new route well east of the original 1953 climb. Direct aid, expansion anchors, and a spectacular slab traverse were features of this outstanding climb.
Thus at the beginning of 1962, forty years after the first climbs, Mount Moran had already seen intensive climbing of new routes. Yet six new routes were ascended during the past summer, a new record of activity! Using the analogy applied to rivers by geologists, it would seem safe to say that Moran, although perhaps no longer in her youth, has at forty reached a very trim maturity. Let us hope that old age will not arrive until this grand old mountain celebrates the 80th anniversary of those who came first. Certainly much exploration and difficult climbing remain before she gives up her last secret. A short account of each of the new routes of 1962 follows. The first three were all of a high order of difficulty. But more remarkable in many ways was the discovery of the southwest couloir which led to the summit relatively easily. Only rarely in the history of mountaineering has an easy route on a major peak been overlooked for forty years!
No Escape Buttress by James P. McCarthy
When my wife Diana and I arrived for the annual late summer rendezvous at the Tetons, Yvon Chouinard was one of the first to greet us. He had come south from Canada to escape the appalling weather, anxious to do some interesting climbing. As usual, he was full of plans and asked me to accompany him and Dave Dornan on an attempt on No Escape Buttress on Mount Moran. This is the first buttress encountered when approaching Moran from the south and east, named by Dave Dornan when he had difficulty in descending from it after a climb on an adjoining wall. Dave had attempted the wall twice before this summer but had been turned back both times by severe weather.
We rowed across the lake and landed near the trail which would start us toward the base of the climb. A pleasant walk over grassy hills still damp with dew and a short scramble brought us to the base of the buttress. Dave’s ropes and hardware still hung on the first pitch where they had been left on his last attempt. As we gazed at the wall above us, Yvon and I could see that Dave had picked the only possibility which would not require a tremendous technical assault. The wall itself was slightly concave. Dave proposed to go up the center, picking a way through the impressive overhangs which appeared to be present on every potential pitch. The first 200 feet were slab-like, dominated by a large overhang which cut across the entire center of the face. Obviously plenty of direct aid would be required to get us over this overhang and most of the succeeding ones.
By a vote of two to one Yvon and I elected Dave to lead the first pitch. After all he had started it on his last attempt. Besides, it looked tricky. Dave soon reached his previous high point. He traversed to the right a few feet and then followed a crack to a good stance just below the first large overhang. Yvon wrapped himself up in his swami belt, a length of one- inch tubular nylon about 30 feet long wound around the waist many times to provide a wide contact surface and cushion in case of a fall, tied in and started off. Yvon moves with such great economy that, while each movement appears slow and deliberate, the end result is one of considerable speed. Part of his secret seems to be that he very seldom stands around looking at a problem. Of course, how he manages to avoid this is the real secret, but in this case he hardly stopped to draw a breath. Since there appeared to be a break in the overhang about 80 feet to the right, Yvon continued past Dave and traversed across to a small ledge.
Now it was my turn. The day was beautiful, the rock was warm, and I remember thinking how much fun this elegant first pitch would be if only the pack were lighter. The holds were small and the combinations kept your interest without requiring a tremendous effort. When I got to Dave’s belay point, I waited while Dave traversed over to Yvon. As I arrived at the belay, I noticed that both Yvon and Dave seemed rather pleased with themselves. Since it was my turn to lead, I put two and two together and asked, "How does it look?” Yvon smiled. I looked up and did not smile. From the corner where the two were tied there stretched upwards about ten feet of blank wall capped by a small curving overhang. There seemed to be a hold about 15 or 20 feet above which would get us over and onto easier rock. Excepting one hairline crack, there was nothing that would take pitons for about 30 feet. I worked my way onto the face on delicate holds which brought me to the hairline crack in the overhang. Trying and failing to place several pitons, I realized that if I used direct aid, I should have to place a RURP. These incredibly small pitons made by Yvon actually hold very well, but it is difficult to make yourself believe it and so before resorting to the RURP, I decided to try it fifth class. Finding a hold under the roof for balance, I was able to use tiny footholds on the face and get up further. Then after a little shift in weight and a stretch, I had a good handhold. The rock became more broken as I went on and was consequently easier. The pitch ended with a layback over a final overhang which led to a large ledge.
Clouds gathering in the west as we ate lunch made it a fair bet that we would be wet before long. Dave led straight up on increasingly steep rock but the difficulties he encountered hardly slowed him down. Yvon followed and decided to complete the next pitch before the storm struck. It was well he did so since this pitch, very hard when dry, was hideously difficult when wet. I could not see him but could hear him yelling to Dave in the rising wind. Since he was taking his time, I knew that he had found a real problem, presumably sixth class, but when I reached Dave, I discovered that the whole lead was fifth class. Yvon had been yelling because he did not have a bong-bong* to fit the crack in which his hand was wedged. Yvon was asking for his cagoule and so I took his rope and started off. The main problem was an awkward jam crack on an overhanging wall, where I had to jam my right arm and shoulder in, using small holds on the left wall with my left foot. Although Yvon had managed to place a small bong-bong at the beginning, it offered little protection. The storm had begun in earnest by the time I struggled up to Yvon. He took his cagoule and carefully placed our hardware off to one side as we settled down to wait out the storm.
The storm was violently spectacular but ended conveniently several hours before dusk. Dave, who had been sitting below, was faced with the task of climbing the very difficult pitch now thoroughly wet and slippery, but he soon mastered this nightmare. We all looked over the route possibilities. Though to continue straight up was a discouraging prospect as a small waterfall was now cascading down the overhanging rock, Yvon ascended to take a look. It soon became apparent that he would need an aqua-lung to continue, and so he climbed to the left along a diagonal ledge. I passed his stance, still using the ledge which had diminished to a handhold. Coming to a corner, I placed one of Yvon’s smaller angle pitons upside down under a small overhang and after some hesitation climbed on. The tiny incut ledge I had been following was broken by a depression and the only reasonable way out was to step across the depression and lay-back several large blocks to a ledge. Because there were no adequate piton cracks, I put the thought of falling out of mind and started up. Luckily the layback was not unusually difficult. A few moments later I was running out the rope on a wide ledge.
The next pitch was Dave’s as he led diagonally up to the right and then left on beautifully exposed, multi-colored rock. One final pitch over broken rock brought us to the top of the buttress. An hour or so later we found our way back to our trusty rowboat as darkness fell.
North Face by Pete Sinclair and Leigh Ortenburger
"What is the north face of Mount Moran like?”, climbers had often asked Pete Sinclair, climbing ranger at the Grand Teton National Park. He gave them the answer that he had been given, "Hollow like a sick man’s chest.” From a distance it appears like a saucer turned on edge, black, cold, and rotten. In fact very few people had even passed near the base of this concave face, which is too steep to hold ice and snow; the only ledges leading to the summit ridge are high and west of the north summit. That no one had climbed this 2000-foot face was surprising; that another year should pass without its being attempted was unthinkable. Sinclair had little difficulty in persuading Bill Buckingham, Pete Lev, and Leigh Ortenburger to accompany him on an inspection tour. So on June 28 we made the pleasant five-hour approach to a campsite among the last trees on the north shoulder of Moran.
Unlike its action on the north face of the Grand Teton, the evening light softens the aspect of the north face of Moran. We could see that the only flaw in the face was a huge crack extending from the upper snow to within about 300 feet of the summit, halting abruptly at the base of a smooth convex wall. We had neither the hardware nor the inclination to attempt this crack unless it proved to be much friendlier upon closer inspection. It didn’t.
On the 29th with an early start we quickly passed the bergschrund on the easterly Triple Glacier and reached the one diagonal crack in the rock separating the glacier from the upper snow band. Two pitches, one a difficult lead past a waterfall and up wet, slippery rock took us to the upper snow band. Our first closeup view of the face above gave us thought of turning around and coming back with more iron, but we persevered. Moderately easy climbing up and left from the snow band led to the prominent crack or chimney. Bill was in the lead here and, carrying coils, scampered up the rock, first on the right side of the chimney, then on the left for several pitches. The rest of us followed, muttering about the absence of belays, to the lunch spot, where conversation carefully avoided the subject of the problems still above us. Two more pitches up to the right over difficult and somewhat loose rock took us to a point where the natural tendency was to try desperately to go up and left. This was attempted by various members of our party, but after 80 feet the rock became excessively overhanging and we were left where we had started. The only possibility remaining was an unlikely 25-foot traverse to the right, just above the lower right quadrant of the wall which drops in one continuous overhang.
We knew that retreat from the far side of the traverse would be a severe problem, but there was no alternative. Pete Lev made an outstanding lead here which took us onto the upper face above the grand overhang. Another difficult lead up an ill-defined chimney, followed by two more rope lengths diagonalling up to the right following the trend of the rock brought us up against the crux of the climb, late in the afternoon. Not only did no one want to lead the next pitch, but no one wanted to belay the poor soul who did. Some of us were already thinking in terms of a night tied to the rock and a prolonged session of direct aid the next morning. However, Pete Sinclair gathered courage and made this final brilliant lead which took us to the top of the right edge of the face; small bulging overhangs with extremely few piton cracks made the long pitch consistently difficult. In fading light the rest of us followed, occasionally inquiring whether the upper belay was really good. Three more relatively easy rope-lengths took us to the summit ridge connecting the north and south summits of Moran. The weather had by now turned, so our stay on the summit was short but thankful, and we quickly heeled down the Skillet Glacier, which yielded a fast two-hour descent to the comfort of big trees and running water well below the snout of the glacier.
The commitment implied by the traverse and the difficulty of the final pitch make this route a serious proposition for any party. The scarcity of cracks probably makes it impossible to resort to direct aid in order to alleviate the difficulties of the final pitch. Yet this route will undoubtedly be only the first of many, since climbers will not be content with only one route on such a large wall.
West Face of the South Buttress by John Hudson
Though the standard South Buttress route of Moran has long been considered enjoyable technical climbing, it was not until 1961 when Dave Dornan and Herb Swedlund climbed the East South Buttress that the possibility for other routes was realized. In late August of 1961 Yvon Chouinard and Art Gran looked over and climbed a few pitches of the west face of the South Buttress of Moran, but a Wind River trip intervened and on their return snow and cold weather prevented an attempt. Again this summer Yvon had to return to California before a try could be made.
With some misgivings I consented to join Art and on August 24 we were rowing across Leigh Lake and wondering if it is really easier than the trail after all. From camp just below the first lake in Leigh canyon, we set out the next morning with food and water for two days, a bivouac sack, down jackets and climbing gear, including forty pitons. From the second prominent inside corner to the left of the ridge crest, perhaps 800 feet above the valley floor, we climbed forty feet free to a stance protected from rockfall and started up. The first two pitches were on the easy but rotten rock which forms the first ledge of the standard route. On better rock the next lead follows a series of small inside corners up to an easy slab which we climbed diagonally to the left. Art next led a beautiful flared chimney, first stemming and then climbing the left wall with one piton for aid until he could exit right to a belay point. A long moderate lead brought us to the large ramp which cuts the west face. After a 50-foot traverse left, we continued up two fairly easy pitches to the base of steeper rock, the beginning of the more difficult portion of the climb. On well-fractured but overhanging rock, Art was forced to lead the 80-foot pitch primarily on direct aid. As I chopped the pitons out, I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to come, but this was the only part I did not really enjoy. A steep slab diagonally to the left brought us to a rather discouraging point. The line above was blocked by huge overhangs and traversing looked difficult. The key turned out to be an interesting direct-aid traverse left for 25 feet to a flake which we climbed to a slab. From here we followed moderate slabs up and to the left to a small ledge. We paused before the next section, which looked difficult.
For the four or five pitches of the steep section we had followed a line of weakness through the overhangs which led diagonally up left from the first nailing pitch. An attempt to rappel straight down over this high-angle rock would lead to the embarrassing position of being suspended free from the rock at the end of the rope. Diagonal rappels or climbing down would have been possible but tricky. After contemplating this idea and fortifying ourselves with more gorp and water, Art tackled the next lead. A short bit of mixed tension and free climbing and a diagonal traverse left between large overhangs, requiring some direct aid, brought us to a small belay ledge. The easier angle of the rock reassured us that we could finish the climb that day. A long climb took us to a large broken ledge where we again stopped to eat and admire the view. A short traverse right and moderate climbing up a buttress took us to an easy chimney, which we followed for two pitches to third-class rock, where we unroped. After climbing over a small spur, we took the standard descent route downward until darkness forced us to bivouac. The night was warm and pleasant; in the morning we finished the water and most of the food and started down. The 1500-foot slog gave us time to meditate on the disadvantages of kletterschuhe, the importance of water, and the recollections of a beautiful climb.
This is the longest technical climb in the Tetons, being 1800 feet long with no pitch below class 4 (5.0). We were ten hours on the face. We placed and removed 42 pitons. The route is a Yosemite Grade 4 with a technical difficulty of 5.7 and 6.7, but if combined with the south ridge, would probably reach Grade 5. Pitons needed: 10 horizontals, 2 knife-blades; angle pitons: 6 ¾-inch, 2 1-inch, 1 ½-inch, 1 2-inch.
Skillet Glacier Headwall by Don Anderson
Larry Scott and I crawled from under our tarp on July 27, pronounced the dense fog outside fit for climbing and started up. We had spent the previous day curled up in our bags listening to the roar of thunder and the thumping descent of rain-loosened rock. Now we eagerly attacked the wall above, leaving the Skillet Glacier at its upper right margin, and beginning on the wall to the left of the prominent gully. Breaking our drill on its first use, we had many occasions for nervousness as pitons bent and folded in very poor cracks. However, this was outweighed by the tremendous variety offered by the climb itself. Difficulty alternated with ease and fog with hai-until just at sunset we climbed into clearing weather atop the north, peak. Our ascent had followed nearly a direct line to the crest just north of the lower summit of Moran. Only the final piton was used for direct aid.
Northeast Slabs by Fred Beckey
After being chased out of the Wind River Range, Dan Davis and I had given up hope of attempting the slabby northeast face of Mount Moran, but while driving toward Jackson Hole, it became apparent that the storm had not dropped whiteness on this face. Accordingly we hiked into the base of Moran on September 9 with the plan of leaving for the Skillet Glacier early in the morning. The long climb up bush and cliffs and then on crampons up the glacier took precious time. We hurried, for we could see that the slabs above seemed almost endless and were just steep enough to force us to climb slowly. Above an ice finger we ascended a steep, short wall and then for about four leads climbed and scrambled up a very prominent rock gully. A headwall blocked progress, and here we elected to climb left. In doing this we crossed a line of pitons. Adding confusion to our route line, we worked further left and then diagonalled right one lead on very small holds. From here we made a thin downhill traverse to the right; to avoid a major headwall that might take too much valuable time, we kept climbing north until we could bypass some overhangs. We then followed a direct line upwards, several times climbing short overhangs onto slabs that roofed toward another overhang. For four leads some of the slab sections required careful climbing and constant use of pitons for safety. Late in the afternoon we reached the upper part of the northeast ridge and hurried to the summit. We managed to get halfway down the northeast ridge before total darkness retarded our pace.
Southwest Couloir by Ted Vaill
The southwest couloir of Mount Moran begins directly west of the south buttress, and follows the cliffs of the south ridge all the way from Leigh Canyon to the summit. Stuart Kearns and I hiked up Leigh Canyon to the small lake and then turned directly north up the talus slopes to the first cliff band. This we passed by a rotten rock chute on the right edge. After scrambling up enjoyable slabs, we found on the left side of the couloir at about 10,000 feet an excellent large cave which provided a perfect bivouac spot. The next morning, August 17, we ascended the grassy slopes to the point where the couloir splits at about 11,000 feet; one branch goes directly north to meet the west ridge, the other heading northeast toward the summit of Moran. We chose the latter route and encountered about 1500 feet of snow climbing with an angle of about 45° at the bottom, 35° in the middle, and as much as 55° near the top. Later in the season or in a dry year much of this snow would disappear.
The couloir ended in a small, steep, icy chimney just below the summit plateau. We first tried to climb a steep, icy, wet tunnel, beneath a large chockstone blocking the chimney; but later I was able to ascend the steep and exposed left wall of the chimney to reach the top of the chockstone. The rock was loose in places, but several good piton cracks were found. We passed two more chockstone overhangs by stemming up between the walls of the chimney and finishing with a chin-up. A short scramble then led to the notch. Although we subsequently concluded that the best route from the notch to the summit would be directly east up the ridge, instead we chose to work diagonally left up over the steep north slopes to the summit. This route would also serve for rapid descent even in bad weather. One rappel from the plateau to the notch and another past the chockstones to the snow led to a fast descent of the snow.
Fritiof Fryxell, The Teton Peaks and Their Ascents (Grand Teton National Park, 1932), p 88
Sixth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories (Washington, D. C., 1873), map opposite p. 255, and p. 816.
National Archives, Record Group 57, "General Letters’’, Volume 4.
National Archives, Record Group 57, "General Letters”, Volume 6.
Fritiof Fryxell, "Thomas Moran’s Journey to the Tetons in 1879 , Augustana Historical Society Publications, 1932, Number 2, p. 9.
Merlin K. Potts, "The Doane Expedition of 1876-77 , Campfire Tales of Jackson Hole (Moose, Wyoming, I960), pp. 28-29.
National Archives, United States Geological Survey Field Notebooks, Number 3946, Joseph Paxon Iddings.
Unpublished manuscript of Frances Judge, granddaughter or John shive.
Personal interview with Frank Bessette.
"The Jackson Hole Country of Wyoming , Scientific American, March 30, 1918, 118:272.
LeRoy Jeffers, The Call of the Mountains (New York, 1922), pp. 11-26.
Fryxell, Teton Peaks, pp. 96-97
*A bong-bong is a large piton with a width of 1½ inches to 4½ inches. They are made by Chouinard of duraluminum. When they strike other metal, they sound like cow bells, hence the name.