American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Grand Teton in Winter

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1973

The Grand Teton in Winter

George H. Lowe III

SINCE Glenn Exum had kindly given permission to use the guides’ hut on the saddle, we spent a companionable evening cooking dinner and discussing with Jock Glidden, Hal Gribble, Dave Lowe and Dave Smith their climb, the Exum Ridge; and ours, the West Face. The hut isolated us from the elements with which we would soon be coping. We could hear the wind whistling outside, but the Coleman lantern gave the inside of the hut a cozy glow.

Morning was harsh; the inside of the hut was dark and cold. As Jeff and I crawled outside to put on our crampons, the wind buffeted us about. It was difficult to walk until we dropped below the saddle toward the Ortenburger traverse. High clouds swirled over the summit of the Grand Teton. It was hard to believe the weather forecast called for relative stability over the next few days.

The traverse was straightforward until we reached the rotten ledge which slants down into the Black Ice Couloir. Jeff was fifty meters ahead when I reached the steep section. I carefully followed his solo lead downward, thinking of the consequences of a slip on the ice-covered rock. It was a relief to reach the bottom of the ledge and the beginning of the serious climbing where we could rope up.

Three leads of mixed ice and hard snow provided a good warmup for the second ramp above. We climbed the ramp until we were just above the cliff over which the upper section of the Black Ice Couloir exists. The climbing was superbly alpine—hard water-ice mixed with snow, alternating with rock steps.

Jeff led the steep rock which begins the traverse westward into the Black Ice Couloir. As I followed, I marveled how he had climbed carrying his pack. The traverse into the gully was easy until the last move. I stood on a small ledge with the termination of the gully at chest height, but could find no hold above. Finally the pick of my axe caught something and I was able to pull up on it—a technique I’ve always thought was reserved for climbing cartoons.

In the winter the Black Ice Couloir does not fill with snow. Apparently the annual accumulation of snow comes later when the weather is warmer. Instead, spindrift avalanches polish and cold hardens the ice until climbing becomes more difficult than one might think for the average angle of the couloir.

Belay was off a Salewa tube. An attempt to drive another screw resulted in a 200-pound chunk of ice splitting off and bouncing down onto the rope. Watching Jeff lead the ice of the next pitch through small spindrift avalanches was unnerving since he had only one intermediate protection point.

By the time I reached Jeff, snow was falling more heavily, increasing the rate and size of spindrift avalanches. Thoughts of the White Spider on the Eiger passed through my mind as we timed moves to avoid the avalanches. Three leads higher we had to move into the center of the gully in order to avoid the cliff bands on the left. Jeff disappeared totally under sprays of snow several times on his lead. Following was like holding onto a water-ski rope behind a fast boat after falling.

Racing darkness, I hurriedly climbed left, towards the rocks on the side of the ice slope. Jeff reached the rocks and it was dark. We climbed third-class to the large ledge beneath the steep rock of the upper West Face, stamping out a tent platform, and got to sleep at midnight. During the night the tent filled with wind-driven spindrift, but in the morning the sky was clear.

As we prepared to climb, we could hear the Exum Ridge group descending and I shouted with my brother on the Upper Saddle. They had bivouacked just below the summit on the way down.

Since the upper rock was not heavily crusted with rime, we were able to climb without crampons. We followed the standard route for the first three pitches, then went up the Great West Chimney, assuming there would be more cracks in it than on the regular route. The last two pitches were difficult and took a long time. Jeff led a hard crack in the main chimney and then I did far more free climbing than I wanted to for lack of cracks in the final chimney.

In the dark we set up the tent. It seemed as if this climb was always happening in the dark. In the morning the tent was again filled with spindrift and the wind was blowing so hard that it was difficult to stand. Both of us were unwilling to give up the summit when we were so close, despite the most marginal weather either of us had ever experienced. We followed the upper part of the Owen-Spaulding route for a while and then cut over onto the east side of the Exum Ridge in order to get out of the wind. Blowing rime made route-finding difficult, as we could barely see. We arrived at the summit and found the snowshoes and gas bottles left by the Exum Ridge party in anticipation of our planned descent down the East Ridge, now obviously out of the question.

Backing off the standard rappel was difficult—the wind rather than the rope held us up until we reached the overhang. Jeff thought it was the worst rappel he had ever done. The rest of the descent was only miserable, graduating to pleasant when we reached our skis in the trees and skied the fresh powder in lower Garnet Canyon.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

First Winter Ascent: West Face of Grand Teton, February 19-22, 1972 (George H. Lowe III, Jeff Lowe).

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