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North America, United States, Wyoming—Tetons, Grand Teton, North Face, Direct Variation

Grand Teton, North Face, Direct Variation. In recent years it has been recognized by several climbers that the standard north face route on the Grand Teton is geometrically “direct” only in the upper portion, from the Third Ledge to the summit. The lower portion of the route approaches this plumb line from a considerable distance to the east via the huge First Ledge, the largest single feature of the face. The desirability of a “direct” approach to the Third Ledge was obvious, and it would have to begin from a point about halfway up the Grandstand.

Rick Medrick and I had been independently thinking along these lines and on August 14 joined in the investigation of this direttissima variation. Leaving our camp, which was placed above the icefall of Teton Glacier, we immediately met difficulties in getting started up the Grandstand. A certain amount of aid was used in climbing its first section; the difficulty of the Grandstand seems to depend on the size of the piece of snow above the randkluft. This year it seemed larger than usual. From a point about halfway up the Grandstand, our climb began with a moderate rope- length to a prominent black cave. We could not see around the corner to the left (east) so Medrick led out past some loose, grey blocks and found the beginning of a large shelf which diagonals back to the west. After some 50 feet up this steep shelf a short, F8 vertical wall brought us to the start of the third pitch. An upward traverse for a rope-length on good rock to the right (west) past two F6 or F7 overhanging bulges, allowed a diagonal back to the left on loose blocks and flakes toward an obvious wet chimney. This led to the eastern two of the three very large chimneys which end at the Second Ledge. When we reached it, this wet chimney seemed neither attractive nor feasible, so a short, difficult lead onto the extreme eastern end of a second large diagonal shelf was made. From about 30 feet up this shelf, an A2 crack in the vertical wall directly above the shelf, allowed us to continue our upward progress toward the huge chimneys.

From a point some 50 feet up this crack a decision had to be made as to which of the huge chimneys to select for the finish of the climb. We selected the easternmost chimney, since, even though we could not see into it yet, we believed that it would be less of a problem than the central one. As it turned out, we were very likely mistaken. One more lead up a chimney containing many loose flakes (a considerable threat to the belayer who stands at the bottom) brought me to the beginning of the huge chimney. To my horror I found that the bottom of it was filled with solid water-ice, and we were carrying neither ice axe nor crampons. With either one of these tools the next 100 feet could have been speedily passed. As it was, we had to do a messy job of nailing up the steep, wet rocks left of the ice; the right wall was vertical. Progressing upward I was very much concerned about what we would do at the top, where two great chockstones prevented easy egress from the chimney. But this was to be Medrick’s problem. After he reached my position, he concluded that the chockstones were definitely unattractive and attacked the right wall of the chimney with hammer and piton.

Using three or four A1 pitons, Rick was able to reach an incredible detached flake some ten feet high, six feet wide, and four inches thick which held onto this near vertical wall by pure magic along its uppermost three inches. Medrick tried to kick the flake out of the way, but it did not budge. Concluding that it was there to help and not to hinder, he proceeded to climb up the outside face of the flake and onto the steep rock above. The flake is a good example of the “fragility of the wilderness” about which conservationists speak; it is unlikely to outlast more than the first half-dozen ascents. This fine lead by Rick was the crux of the climb, since we were now out of the confines of the chimney and but one lead below the Second Ledge which we reached in short order. We had joined the old route at this point. The hour was late and darkness was nearly upon us, but since we wanted to renew acquaintance with the two classic pitches of the north face route, the Pendulum Pitch and the Traverse-into-the-V, we elected to bivouac on the Third Ledge rather than traverse out to the Upper Saddle and thence down the mountain. The next morning we completed the climb, renewing our respect for those fine pitches of the old route, reaching the summit about 11 A.M.

In general it may be said that this important variation containing ten pitches, more than doubles the difficult climbing to be found on the north face route. Although having the esthetic advantage of purity of line, it was not as attractive as we had hoped. Although rockfall appears not to be a problem (we witnessed only one during the day and a half of our climb), there is a considerable quantity of loose rock which must be climbed. It does yield, however, when combined with the upper portion of the old north face route above the Second Ledge, one of the two most difficult routes on the Grand Teton; the only route of comparable difficulty is the Northwest Chimney-West Face combination.

Leigh Ortenburger