First Winter Ascent of North Face, Grand Teton
WHEN one’s climbing is limited by such mundane considerations as a lack of time or money because one happens to be a student, the winter Tetons provide excellent substitutes for some of the more glamorous alpine climbs: the first winter ascents of Mount Owen and Mount Moran (A.A.J., 1966 and 1968) were accomplished by different groups of Utah climbers.
During the spring quarter break of 1967 we made our first attempt to climb the north face of the Grand Teton with a party of seventeen. Clouds hid the peak. After various delays we made a quick push to a camp at Delta Lake. Twelve inches of snow had fallen by the next morning; we made a timid start towards the base of the face. Then we realized that the white sheets flowing off the face were the source of the rumbling noises we had been hearing. Some of us were grateful for the good excuse to go home.
Preparations for the next attempt were made with more care. Mike Lowe and I decided to do the climb alpine style—that is, American alpine style—with 3½-pound down sleeping bags, 4500 calories of food per man per day and a tentative schedule of eight days. We felt that a party of four was the ideal number, partly for safety, partly to have three people hauling our huge packs. Greg Lowe was an obvious third man because of his experience on Moran and on some major climbs he did the following summer. Choosing the fourth man was more difficult. No one in our area was both qualified and available. Mike suggested Rick Horn of Jackson. We arranged a back-up party of people who wished to attempt the first winter ascent of Teewinot: Rex Alldredge, Bruce Baker, Denny Becker, and Claude Suhl. This enabled us to satisfy the cumbersome Park Service regulations and still to accomplish our separate objectives. Good weather was an obvious necessity, which in turn necessitated a sliding schedule. We set February 10 as the first reasonable date to begin.
February was consistently stormy. The morning of Sunday the 25 th, however, was relatively clear. Because it was the last day any of us could start and still make it back for final exams, we left for Jackson, despite the bad weather forecast for the following Wednesday. However
the thick smog layer building up in the Salt Lake valley was reassuring.
We checked with the rangers on Monday morning and skied up Glacier Gulch to Delta Lake to camp. Early Tuesday afternoon we reached the bergschrund, where our back-up party dropped its loads and headed back in the direction of Teewinot. Rick and I began digging a snow cave in the back wall of the schrund while Mike and Greg went up in steadily deteriorating weather to fix several pitches for the next day. They were confronted with the worst the face had to offer: high winds, spindrift avalanches and the rounded rotten rock of the face just above the glacier. By night they had fixed two pitches.
As we prepared dinner in our room-sized cave, the predicted front arrived, with higher winds and a sharp drop in temperature. Later Greg noticed a crack in the ceiling. We watched it enlarge and dug frantically in the back wall of the cave, fearing a collapse. Three feet of burrowing revealed a second crevasse behind us. Huddled in a corner and checking the crack constantly with flashlights, we could not sleep. By morning the crack was a foot wide and the roof two feet lower.
What a relief to leave the cave despite clouds boiling over Teewinot and spindrift swirling off the face! Rick and I took the lead. All the rock was rounded and plastered with snow, even under the overhangs. Moments of acute pleasure—12-pointing up hard, steep snow—alternated with the discomfort of overloaded rucksacks. It was particularly difficult to cross the traverse to the low-angle ledges, in winter a delta-shaped snowfield, three leads below Guano Chimney. Above, slabby rock was covered with two inches of unreliable snow. Despite a beautiful traverse by Rick over unstable 70° snow, it was evident that we could not make the base of the chimney by nightfall. We retreated to the snowfield, where after extensive probing we found snow deep enough in two spots to dig small sheltered snow tubes; it was four hours after dark. Greg lost a crampon that afternoon and would not be leading until we reached the wind-cleared rock higher up.
Thursday morning, the ideal weather promised by the Salt Lake smog arrived. We made two slow leads up the gully leading to Guano Chimney. The snow just below the base of the chimney actually overhung. Mike struggled for an hour to tunnel through, but in vain. Thirty feet above his last not-too-solid pin he was not certain he could retreat. Greg belayed me. Leapfrogging the three remaining pins, I spent two hours on the hardest climbing of my life, detouring on the rock to the right of the overhanging snow. From the base of the chimney, I swung a rope to Mike. At three o’clock he stood beside me, nursing frostbitten fingers.
Rick was discouraged and wanted to retreat. We had made less than 400 feet in seven hours. Mike and I decided to attempt the chimney as the First Ledge was just 80 feet away. We hoped that once there Rick would want to go on. I rushed at the chimney, jamming in the guano-filled cracks. At least the stench was significantly reduced by the cold. Higher, the pitch went more easily and I was on the ledge by 3:20. Several leads up the ledge, we dug good snow caves in leisurely fashion.
It was good weather again in the morning. Rick and Greg led to the top of the first Ledge. Mike and I relaxed in warm sunlight while Greg led the relatively dry rock to the Second Ledge. There we formed a rope of four with Rick leading fast, almost hauling us, up the snow to the base of the Pendulum Pitch. Greg and Rick alternated the three leads onto the Fourth Ledge and then hauled packs. Mike and I followed on Jümars, swinging free out over the Grandstand. Another pitch and we were on the west face. The climbing did not get easy as expected. Two-inch rime covered the face.
It was getting late. Rick tried going further south with no luck. Impatiently, I climbed directly up over mixed rock and ice—ice so hard that placing a Salewa tube screw was like driving a bolt, except that it took much longer and produced only a tied-off screw in shattered ice, 120 feet from the belay. Suddenly it was dark. I forced myself to climb a few feet higher and searched, bare-handed, in the snow for a crack, where I placed two reasonably solid pins by feel in order to retreat to the ledge where Mike had been patiently belaying me for two hours. The ledge was just big enough for the four of us. We attempted to brew some liquids, but the butane would barely vaporize and we settled for a quart of snow water.
The next morning I evened my score with the pitch above the ledge. After two more leads, Rick led us to the summit at 10:30.
After an easy two-hour descent via the Owen-Spalding route we reached the lower saddle, where we had cached skis two years before. Double climbing boots, doubtful bindings and two years’ warping of the skis produced some novel downhill ski technique.
Summary of Statistics.
Area: Teton Range, Wyoming.
First Winter Ascent: Grand Teton, North Face, 3½ days on the face, summit reached March 2, 1968 (George Lowe, leader, Mike and Greg Lowe, Rick Horn).
Teewinot, March 1, 1968 (Rex Alldredge, Denny Becker).