American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Langford's Grand Teton Diary

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  • Publication Year: 1978

Langford’s Grand Teton Diary

Annotated by William M. Bueler

Introductory note: On July 29, 1872, Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson returned from an attempt on the Grand Teton and claimed they had attained the summit. Their claim was generally accepted until 1898 when William O. Owen and three companions ascended the mountain and found no sign of previous climbers. Owen then contended that the 1872 climbers had not reached the summit and that his own party had made the first ascent. In 1927 the Wyoming legislature attempted to settle the controversy—the greatest in American mountaineering history—by passing a resolution giving credit to Owen. The National Park Service apparently agreed and permitted a plaque awarding Owen the honor of first ascent to be placed on the summit of the Grand Teton, where it resides to this day. The controversy, however, did not die, and many people remain convinced that Langford and Stevenson did reach the summit.

The present editor of the diary is among those who accept the Langford-Stevenson claim. This is based primarily upon (1) an analysis of Langford’s account of the climb in Scribner’s Monthly, June 1873, plus Langford’s other writings; (2) the fact that Langford and Stevenson were, as far as we can know today, honorable men who should not without substantial evidence be presumed to be liars; and (3) the fact that Owen’s arguments against Langford are riddled with inaccuracies and unsupported opinion. (The purpose here is not to give a complete presentation of the case for Langford; for such a discussion see OFF BELAY, June 1976.)

Although there have been tens of thousands of words published on the Langford-Owen controversy (Langford’s name is usually associated with the 1872 party because Stevenson died before the controversy broke out), one important item of evidence has not, to my knowledge, appeared in print. This is the original Langford diary of the climb, written while he was still in the field. Most of the public debate has focused on Langford’s Scribner’s account, which is an embellishment of his original diary. This is unfortunate because the field diary gives a more spontaneous, less dramatized version than the one rewritten for popular consumption.

The diary, in Langford’s own hand, reposes in the historical files of Yellowstone National Park at Mammoth Hot Springs. Included below are those portions which relate most directly to issues raised by Owen and his supporters. Grammatical and other errors have not been corrected.

July 29 … From this point1 the Grand Teton, Mount Hayden2 rose upon our left, a vast pile of granite to the height of 2400 feet, its sides in many places covered with vast fields of snow and ice, which, with a full southern exposure to a July sun still remained unmelted. A line stretched from the saddle to the top of the Teton, would have marked an angle of 60° 3 and the ascent in many places was extremely dangerous.

Capt Stevenson had moved on in advance of all the rest of the party, and was still far up the mountain side, when the writer,4 in company with Messrs. Spencer and Hamp,5 reached “The Saddle.” We had all lost sight of him, and feared but some accident had befallen him, but on arriving at “the saddle” we found his footprints in the debris and we knew that he was ahead of us, and after a short breathing spell, we prepared to follow. Oft times we clambered around projecting ledges of vertical rocks, holding only our fingers inserted in crevices over beyond us, our feet resting upon points jutting out not more than two inches. Occasionally while skirting along sideling places we passed over large banks of snow which had found lodgement upon some projecting granite spur, or in the concave surface of the mountain side, and as its surface sank a little, we had tolerably good footing—yet frequently under the snow was a groundwork of ice, which we found it to be extremely hazardous to step upon. On many places the snow had melted, the water trickling down through it, forming ice on the under surface, and this had in turn melted, leaving wide openings between the snow and side of the mountain, from two to four feet wide, exposing vertical crevices down which we could see oft times to the depth of 100 feet, and great caution was necessary to avoid slipping down into these crevices. The ice wall was held off from the rock by its own tenacity, with the aid of an occasional projection of ice reaching to the rock below, or a rocky spur extending out to the ice.


This accident greatly unnerved him7 but he still pressed forward, until we reached at a point near 600 feet below the summit of the Teton, a recess in the rocks where we halted. While resting here, we heard from far above us the loud shouts of Capt. Stevenson, which we answered, and soon the leader8 joined us, with the information that he had reached a point some 200 feet above where we then were, but that all further progress had been stopped by a vertical wall of rock, just too big for him to scale, above which was a wide sheet of ice with a thin covering of snow. In attempting to reach with his hands the edge of this rocky wall, Capt S had lost his foothold, and his entire weight was suspended upon his hands, his face to the wall until he succeeded in breaking in the edge of the ice, by striking it repeatedly with his boot, and when his strength was nearly exhausted by the tension, he had gained a precarious foothold in the ice and snow, and poising himself, till he could look about he sprang one side to a narrow bench, and was safe. Had he lost his hold, his death must have been certain, for at the foot of the ice sheet down which he would have slipped, the rocks would have afforded him no foothold, and he would have been dashed upon them, one after another for a thousand feet.

Having rested while Capt S was telling us of his adventure, we pushed on, and arrived at the spot reached by him, and when I saw the perilous position in which he had been placed, I realized that his preservation was indeed marvellous.

Mr Hamp had in spite of nervous exhaustion resulting from his accident, shown remarkable pluck, but thought it best not to attempt to go farther, and as it was not decreed best to leave him alone on the narrow bench we were then on, Mr Spencer decided to remain with him while Capt S and the writer made one more attempt to scale the rock confronting us. A rope which the writer had brought with him proved of great service now, and throwing it over a slight projection above our heads, the writer supported and steadied as well as hoisted by Capt Stevenson below drew himself up till he could firmly plant his fingers in a crevice in the flat surface of the rock, and then with his feet supported by Capt S’s shoulder clambered to the top. Capt S preferred to trust himself to his staff, rather than the rope. I thrust one end down to him which he with this aide grasped firmly, and climbed to the top.

Here our progress again seemed effectually barred, by a vast field of ice, overlying the smooth shelving rock, which rose at an angle of 70 to 75 degrees. Only at wide intervals of space, did this rock come in contact with this ice covering, and a single misstep would have been instantly fatal hurling us thousands of feet down the jagged sides of the mountain. Hesitating before abandoning the effort, when so near the summit and hesitating alike to hazard our lives, but encouraged by our two young friends at our feet, we made a final attempt to pass this ice barrier. We were standing just at the point of junction of the sheet of ice, with the rocky side of the mountain, and laying fast hold upon the projecting points of rocks upon the sides, we broke with blows of our feet, the edge of the ice for steps and thus rose slowly, step by step, till we passed the ice sheet, a distance of 175 feet. From the top, looking down the crevice between the ice and rocks, the sight, bringing forcibly to our realization our peril, had the ice-sheet given way, was appaling.

(Describe view looking down)9

Little rivulets supplied by the melting snow trickled down the mountain side, and when we became exhausted, we threw ourselves upon the rocks and snow to quench our thirst. Icicles hung from the rocks above us, a foot in diameter, and 12 feet long. The reflection of the sun upon the snow was very painful to the eyes, while making the ascent, producing snowblindness.10 Had a man fallen into the crevice, he might have been saved, if he could have lived long enough to have got ropes to him.

From this point the surface was more broken, and not more difficult to ascend than below the ice, and, clambering over the granite fragments, at 3 p.m., tired and hungry, after 9 hours of hard effort, we reached the summit, the first white men who ever accomplished this oft attempted feat.11

Archaeological curiosities near top. The top of the Teton is made up of several points not distinguishable from the highest point or summit, by a person standing at the base or from the valley, being in reality but a little lower than the extreme summit from which they are separated by depressions or gorges in the granite rocks.12 (The main summit or peak is but about 30 x 40 feet on the top.)13

On one of the adjoining buttresses, which was but a little lower than the very summit, we found a curiosity in the shape of granite slabs piled up on end, in circular form, 6 feet diameter, the space filled in with disintegrated granite, eroded from these vertical slabs, and completely filling the interstices between the rocks at the bottom. This was probably done hundreds of years ago, for hundreds of years must have been required to fill this space with granite fragments small as these.

We were glad to come down from the extreme summit, and find shelter in this enclosure from the freshly blowing breeze, for although we were exposed to the full rays of the sun, and the sky was cloudless, still it was cold enough for us to don our overcoats which we had carried in snug rolls on our backs. In this sheltered spot we ate our luncheon.14 Within 200 feet of the top, we found marks of the mountain sheep, and near the saddle,15 we frequently found flowers in bloom, coming up through the snow.

(Mark Twain, after laboring with you through — chapters of the Ascent of Vesuvius, till you are tired, brings you down again in — minutes. We were longer in descending the Teton.)

Describe view from top. Jacksons and DeSay’s lake below us on the east, while on the South, the broad valley of the Snake with the tortuous river which its name suggests, was visible for a long distance till it was lost in the Canon below. View in other directions. Grand view of Pierre’s Hole. We did not find there, however, as we expected to, S. T. 1860-X.16

The descent required more care than the ascent, lest those farthest up the mountain should tumble loose rock down upon those below, but the most dangerous portion had been accomplished when we reached the spot where we had left Spencer and Hamp.17

1The Lower Saddle, 11,700 feet, which the climbers reached from the west.

2The Hayden Survey, of which Stevenson was a member and Langford a guest, attempted to have the Grand Teton renamed Mt. Hayden, but the name never stuck.

3An exaggeration.

4Langford’s use of “the writer” indicates perhaps that in writing his diary he was thinking of eventual publication.

5Charles Spencer and Sidford Hamp. The party originally consisted of 14 members, but only four climbed above the Lower Saddle.

6Here Langford describes the nearly disastrous slide of Hamp down a snowbank. The account is almost identical to that in Scribner’s.

7I.e., Hamp.

8I.e., Stevenson.

9This is Langford’s note to himself. Perhaps he had to take a break from his writing and made this notation to himself concerning what to write when he next took up his pen.

10There is no indication that any of the climbers suffered the extreme pain of genuine snowblindness. Perhaps Langford is using the term loosely to emphasize the strong glare from the snow.

11If we assume that Langford is reporting an actual summit climb rather than concocting a fiction, then it is clear from the diary that Hamp and Spencer waited very near the Upper Saddle—the 13,200-foot saddle between the main peak of the Grand and its 13,300-foot western shoulder, the West Spur. This is not made clear in Scribner’s. Langford indicates that the “ice sheet” below which Hamp and Spencer waited was just below the easy climbing found on the last 300 feet-or-so of the west side of the mountain, which can only mean that it was directly above the Upper Saddle. That is, the “ice sheet” covered the steep rock wall which is now visible above the Upper Saddle—and which Owen saw in 1898. It was largely because the Langford “ice sheet” was not there that Owen decided Langford had written “fiction, pure and simple.”

The verity of the entire Langford account rests upon the existence of this “ice sheet,” but we have only Langford’s own word that it existed at all. In July 1872 William H. Jackson, the official photographer of the Hayden Survey, took numerous photographs of the Grand Teton, several of which are in the historical photographs file at the administration building of Grand Teton National Park. These photographs show more snow than is now normally on the Tetons by late July, but, unfortunately, the slopes above the Upper Saddle are not visible in any of them.

Langford’s remark that Hamp and Spencer “encouraged” them from the foot of the “ice sheet” is a note of intimacy that does not appear in the Scribner’s account. Hamp’s own diary, located by Orrin Bonney, states: “We came to a place where the snow had separated from the rock about 2 feet … and the ascent got so dangerous, Spencer and I stopped on a ledge and rested whilst the other two got to the top.” If, as Langford’s diary implies, Hamp was at or very close to the Upper Saddle, he could probably see Langford and Stevenson climb the steep “ice sheet” and disappear over the horizon onto the easy climbing above. If so, there is no reason to doubt that they could reach the summit over the remaining easy ground.

Langford’s comparison of the easy climbing above the “ice sheet” (where now exists the rock wall) to the climbing below the “ice sheet” (i.e., below the Upper Saddle) is very apt. As Bonney has perceptively pointed out, from a distance the mountain above the Upper Saddle looks uniformly steep and difficult, and it is unlikely that Langford would have known that the real difficulties end above the steep 175- to 200-foot section directly above the saddle unless he had actually climbed above the steep section. Furthermore, if Langford was writing a sensational fiction, it seems doubtful that he would dismiss the top several hundred feet of the climb as simply “clambering over granite fragments.” Most fiction writers could make up a better story than this for the top part of the West’s most spectacular mountain.

12This description seems a bit odd, but perhaps Langford is alluding to the fact that from the west, the route of Langford's approach, the West Spur seems almost as high as the main summit.

13Langford originally wrote “30 x 50” but later changed “50” to “40.” It seems unlikely that someone writing a fiction would quibble over “30 x 50” or “30 x 40” in describing a summit he had never seen in the first place. I think Langford’s published estimate of the sumit area as “not more than 30 by 40 feet in diameter” (1872 Hayden Survey report) is a reasonably accurate description, although it seems a little large. My own guess would be about 20 by 30 feet. In any case, Langford’s description seems better than does Owen’s: “The actual summit measured with a steel tape is just 14 by 27 feet—the 14 being the greatest thickness of the comb. Most of it is about 3 ft. wide, and in several places narrows down to a single foot!” Since the summit slopes off at varying angles in all directions, it would be interesting to know the criteria Owen used for deciding where the edges were for purposes of precise measurement by tape. In my opinion, Langford’s description is strong evidence that he did reach the summit; it does not, as Owen argued, “prove beyond the shadow of a doubt” that Langford had “never seen the summit of the Grand Teton.”

14This was in the apparently Indian-built “Enclosure” on the West Spur. Owen argued that the Enclosure was the highest point reached by Langford and Stevenson.

The following sentence of the field diary was lined out; it read: “It had been my original intention taking an American flag to plant upon the summit, but in the hurry of departure, it was forgotten.” This oversight was a misfortune for Langford, because Owen, finding no sign of previous climbs, insisted that anyone who climbed the Grand would surely leave some sign. Since Langford left no mark on top, Owen concluded, he had not climbed the mountain.

15Apparently the Lower Saddle.

16This reference is a mystery. Conceivably it is a joking reference to a wide-ranging contemporary botanist with the initials S.T., for in his manuscript for the Scribner’s article Langford wrote the following two sentences: “Flowers also, of beauteous hue, and delicate fragrance, peeped through the snow, wherever a rocky jut had penetrated the icy surface. These familiar objects— familiar at the height of over 13,000 feet above the ocean, caused us to look —but, alas, we did not find it—for that almost omnipresent legend, ‘S.T. 1860-X.’” The second sentence was cut by the Scribner’s editor.

17 The remainder of the account describes in terms very similar to the Scribner’s account the return to camp late that night.

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