American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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A Traverse of the Grand Tetons

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  • Publication Year: 1965

A Traverse of the Grand Tetons

Allen P. Steck

Herrliche Berge, Sonnige Höhen. Bergvagabunden sind wir.*

Part 1

It is not so strange to suggest that the failure of a complex mountaineering venture can be an inescapable prerequisite to its subsequent success. Because of the peculiar nature of the Traverse the above statement is perhaps quite valid. Not all mountaineering objectives are brilliantly conceived (and surely the purists will call this no exception) but the Traverse is bizarre and difficult enough to merit special attention. I am not aware of the origins of the insidious schedule, though I do detect a certain Unsoeldian flavor in the following: from the Jenny Lake parking lot ascend Teewinot, traverse in order: Mount Owen — the Grand, Middle and South Tetons — Cloudveil Dome — Nez Perce, and struggle as best you can back to the car. Any route or time of day is acceptable, however, only be sure to finish within 24 hours. Thus is revealed the delight of the Traverse: an improbable time schedule, a fair number of objective dangers, a more than adequate supply of the subjective ones, and the normal "lemming-like” pursuit of the summit common to all mountaineering.

One attempt was made within this arbitrary framework years ago by Willi Unsoeld, Pete Schoening and Dick Pownall. Willi confided that they had gone astray, of all places, on the east slopes of Teewinot and had enjoyed some energetic bushwhacking on 45° grass slopes in the dark. Upon reaching Teewinot after five-hours’ effort, they traversed over to Mount Owen. Pownall was in such good form that he pushed on ahead down the south ridge of Owen with their only rope and so they were all obliged to climb this rather frightening section without belay. The north ridge of the Grand took more time than planned and by the time they had reached the lower saddle, Nez Perce seemed a little too far away to justify continuing. From this attempt came the advice: reverse the order and start with Nez Perce. There were advantages to this; for one, the trail to the Platforms could be negotiated easily at night; another, the joyous rappel down the north ridge would be less complex than its ascent.

Though I am the author of this article, it was unlikely that the Traverse (perhaps too severely described by Ortenburger as the high-school trick of 1963) and I should ever meet. Upon reflection, I can say this about a number of climbs accomplished during the 1963 season, having become involved in them through an unfortunate association with Dick Long, a climbing companion whose motivation, ability and powers of persuasion can only be described as excessive. So there were three of us, Dick, myself and John Evans. During our several climbs together, I had come to know John as having a gentleness that belied his immense strength. He was quiet, generous, good natured and always hungry; and in addition, he was a fair alligator wrestler. In contrast to Dick’s consuming desire for the nobility and glory of the Traverse, which had grown on him over the years, John had said, in an off-hand way, "Sure, it’s all right with me, I guess . . . sounds like a good tour.” As for me, I saw the inevitability of a struggle, and a good struggle now and then is a tonic, for while it taxes the leg and arm muscles, it tends to relax those in the cranial cavity.

We leave the parking lot at the glacier trail shortly after midnight on August 6th . . . a thick cloud cover is spread out over the Tetons and Jackson Hole and a soft rain is falling. Lightning shatters an otherwise gloomy landscape across the valley to the east. In complete darkness we ascend the trail to the Platforms; a depressing start, though a proper part of the struggle, we must admit. We make good time to the Platforms while John, owing to his vastly superior wind, describes the intricacies of rattlesnake handling. The rain stops and the clouds open slightly revealing a full moon and a sky of brilliant clarity. How beautiful the mountains are at such times — for out of the glare of full sun so much is left for the imagination. The sound of running water fills the ears; off to our right a bivouac fire flickers in the darkness of Garnet Canyon. This momentary rapport with the nocturnal beauty of the Tetons is broken upon contemplation of the dark shape of Nez Perce before us. We leave the trail and the footing is instantly more troublesome as we ascend the loose talus. Eventually we reach the summit of Nez Perce. First light can be seen in the east while off to the west a black wall of clouds still inspires anxiety. The wet lichens cause all sorts of anguish as we begin the traverse to Cloudveil Dome, and here we make our first error in finding the route around a gendarme. Once past this obstacle, I am following the others when I notice that Dick has slipped: a large slab slides out from under his feet and as he jumps down to a lower ledge, the slab follows him there and clips him at the ankles. He is about to pitch off onto steep rock and snow some 100 feet below when Evans reaches out and grabs Dick’s outstretched hand at the last moment. Thus is the first disaster avoided.

We climb over and around the towers beyond Cloudveil Dome, past the skeletal remains of an unusually large animal, perhaps an elk (though the skull is nowhere to be found), and reach the summit of South Teton. The weather is now beautiful. I see old friends to the south: Buck Mountain, Death Canyon Bench, and the limestone cliffs of Jedediah Smith and Bannon. I settle down into my usual "long-duration” rest position only to hear a voice behind me "Ah, old man, (the voice is of course Dick’s), this is no time for sloth. John will sign the register. Let’s go!” We stop just short of the slope leading up the Middle Teton for a 15-minute lunch of candy, sweet rolls and meat bars. A small stream runs along beside us . . . a place to linger and enjoy some other time! Down below the saddle is a small ice-bound lake. We reach Middle Teton in good time, but lose the route down the other side so that it takes us over four hours to gain the summit of the Grand. It is now two P.M. and the thunderheads are sailing by.

Being unacquainted with the north ridge route, we decide to climb down a short way from the summit and then string rappels down the north face to the Grandstand. Using two 150-foot rappel lines, the first rappel takes us free down to fourth ledge; the second, like ants on the end of a thread, down to second ledge. I come last down to second ledge and find myself alone with a jammed line, the others having climbed down without belay over rather difficult rock to scout the next rappel point. The rope clears eventually and I join the others on a small ledge where we are unable to place a piton. Ten minutes of anguished search reveals a shallow crack. In desperation, Dick takes a GI angle piton and drives it no more than an inch into the crack, bending it over flat against the rock: and there it was, the next rappel point, somewhat flexible, but possibly sound. Having thus constructed the rappel point, Dick is obliged to go first and he does so, undoubtedly with a good deal of deep inner turmoil, while John and I amuse ourselves watching the storm move in. Soon he is down and as I get into the rope, I observe John’s ashen expression and remark: "Evans, since you are heaviest it seems only fitting that you go last, for if . . . ah . . . the piton . . . well, we might at least be able to retrieve the rope as you went by and thus salvage two-thirds of the expedition.” Having thus consoled John, I go over the edge, involved with my own thoughts of survival, until I reach the next ledge. In short time John comes into view, his face a hemisphere of joyful expression. "Madre, I live,” is his short greeting.

At the Grandstand at last! We scramble over to the Gunsight and discover an excellent route up the west couloirs of Mount Owen to within 200 feet of the summit. It is now 5:15 P.M. and raining, with the usual electrical display so famous on Mount Owen. It is obvious the game is over and we have failed. We have been out 18 hours and the retreat, the most exhausting part of the trip, is now before us. We decline to make the final ascent of Mount Owen and pull out the rope to belay for the first time across the snowfield leading over to the east ridge. It is dark by the time we reach the col below the East Prong and none of us can recall the route down the couloir to the glacier. I take no part in the route finding as it is difficult enough to follow Dick and John at the speed they are going. I marvel at their endurance for mine seems about gone. As we gain the glacier, the storm weakens and the moon casts a silvery light over the ice and east face of Mount Owen. Another incredible display. You mountains! By yourself you are nothing. Only in our imagination do you become something mysterious that enriches our lives. And so we come to you in the pursuit of beauty and, if you will, kinesthetic pleasure; seeking to penetrate your mystery do we somehow understand our own a little more.

We have avoided the dangers we knew were here and now lie here, exhausted beyond belief, with our retreat still unfinished. Somehow Long finds the trail over to Amphitheater Lake and we start the 25-mile (or so it seems) hike back to the car, occasionally falling asleep and stumbling off the trail. Rest at last at 2:45 A.M., and none too soon.

Part 2

Long was insufferable! "If we had at least climbed Owen, I would feel better” was his comment and he continually reproached himself for this oversight. I nourished a feeling of elation that the Traverse and I had parted for good, for the physical punishment of those 26 hours was still fresh in mind. For Evans, the inscrutable Evans, the tour was over so "let’s move on to Boulder.” We had planned to climb Long’s Peak and were to meet the fourth member of our party in Boulder for final preparations. Long got his family together and we started on down the highway to Jackson Hole and points south.

As we neared Jackson Airport, a moment of inspiration caused us to phone our friend in Boulder to see if he indeed was there. Contact was made and we received the startling information that storms had been centered there for over a week and that we might best delay our departure for another three days and enjoy the sunny Tetons. And so the weather again became the arbiter of our alpine intentions. The forces of destiny were at work. We returned to the climbers’ campground and unpacked the car. Dick’s children were overjoyed to have moved camps so quickly. The weather was beautiful. What with the hot springs and the practice cliffs we passed the time admirably without undue exertion.

As we sit in camp debating the objectives of our last day, Long casually sets the fuse . . . "Think it’ll go in 24 hours?”, he inquires, his voice soft and probing. "I’m sure it will; some day,” I reply. Silence. I can see that Evans is amused at the drift of the conversation. Then the bomb: "You know, we’re in top shape with two days of rest . . . weather’s great . . . we know most all the route . . .” Long’s voice trails off, while he assesses the impact of his words. The hook is well baited with the logic of his statement and we rise at once to take it, all of us sensing perhaps that we are in the best possible position for success. Pete Sinclair and Sterling Neale are in the Rangers’ shack when we go to sign out, and I believe they pretty well relegate us to the ranks of the demented as we again outline our program for the Traverse. We down sleeping pills at eight P.M. with the anguished calls of the lovelorn drifting over to our ears from Briggs’ Teton-tea party across the road.

We are up at 10:30 and Betty Long serves up a nutritious plate of hash browns and eggs and we are off at 11:30 p.m. As before, a full moon is virtually hidden by an even thicker layer of clouds and the chances of rain seem about 90%. Again the uncertainty, but we agree to go on until beaten by the rain, which in fact does not materialize.

We are indeed in excellent shape, for we reach the Grand Teton by 10:30 A.M. While coming up to the Owen Chimney we meet a large group just beginning the chimney and to avoid the congestion we climb out to the catwalk, circle around the party and proceed to the summit. On our return, the last member of the aforementioned party, a woman, is in the middle of the chimney. She is carrying a new ice hammer, an item which we sorely need as it would serve much better than the cumbersome ice axe I am carrying. We climb on down and are in the double area above the Crawl when I hear a clatter above me and see that the hammer has fallen from her pack. Evans is safely around the corner, but Long is in stem position with no hope of making a quick move to get out of the way. The hammer spins down, smashes in the rock over my head, shoots by Long and disappears down the west face. The great belayer looks after us today! We have chosen this route on the advice of Barry Corbet, for at this point we are able to traverse out to the second ledge, thus avoiding two long rappels. Moving fast, we reach the bent piton, reinforce it with a special piton brought along for the purpose and finish the descent of the north face without incident. We wait out a thunderstorm near the summit of Mount Owen, reaching the summit eventually, though there is a good deal of electricity about. Lightning has a way of provoking haste and we literally race off the summit to relatively safer ground below. It is a credit to Evans’ courage that he stays behind to sign the register. Descending again to the col, a 175-foot lead on good snow brings us close to the top of the East Prong, where we circle around to the south to gain the summit. It takes us over four hours to reach Teewinot, the major difficulty being the traverse (on the north side) of the prominent buttress that bars easy access to the west shoulder of Teewinot. A portion of this traverse is over mixed ice, snow and steep mud at the head of a twisting dirty couloir that offers a speedy ride for the unwary down to Cascade Canyon 4000 feet below.

It is precisely at six p.m. that we reach the summit of Teewinot and peer over the edge down to Jenny Lake over a mile below. It does not seem possible that we will reach the car before dark, so once past the difficult climbing we move into high gear. We are impressed with the consistently high-angle slopes below tree line and our descent is at times rather like high-speed skiing at the limit of control. Our route is well chosen for we reach the car at 8:00 p.m. with a little twilight to spare. Summary of Statistics.

Area: Grand Teton National Park.

Ascent: Traverse of: Nez Perce, Cloudveil Dome, Spaulding Peak, Gilkey Tower, Ice Cream Cone, South Teton, Middle Teton, Grand Teton, Mount Owen, East Prong, Teewinot. Time: 20½ hours. Total estimated ascent and descent: 26,000 feet. Lineal distance: approx. 9 miles. August 12, 1963.

Personnel: Dick Long, John Evans, Allen Steck.

* Freely translated: Beautiful mountains, sunlit crags

We are vagabonds of the mountains.

— Austrian mountain song

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