Mountaineering in the Tetons: The Pioneer Period 1898-1940

Publication Year: 1980.

Mountaineering in the Tetons: The Pioneer Period 1898-1940, by Fritiof M. Fryxell—Edited by Phil D. Smith, Jackson: Teton Bookshop, 1978. 180 pages. Price: Hardback $8.95; Paperback $5.95.

This unique little book by two Teton pioneers whose Teton mountaineering experiences span the years from 1924 to 1935 should be interesting reading for Teton veterans and novices alike. The period covered by the book saw American climbing advance from rock scrambling with occasional use of the rope to extended technical climbing on large faces and ridges with continuous use of the rope, pitons and other technical means imported from Europe. When Grand Teton National Park was founded in 1929, these two writers were appointed as the first ranger-natura'lists at Jenny Lake.

Originally, this revision edited by Smith was intended to be an updated version of the premier Teton guidebook The Teton Peaks and Their Ascents, published by Fryxell in 1932. Publication of this work was scheduled for 1941 but was postponed by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, the manuscript was destroyed by a fire which consumed Smith’s home. The recovery of an early copy of the manuscript which had been given to Joe Hawkes in 1941 did not occur until the 1950’s. In the meantime, the Mountain Climbing Guide to the Grand Tetons by Henry Coulter and Merrill McLane was published in 1947 and A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range by Leigh Ortenburger in 1956, followed by a second edition in 1965. In the early 1970’s, it was decided to publish the original manuscript as a chronicle of early ascents in the Tetons.

Most of the route accounts are anecdotal and collected from personal correspondence between the original climbers and the author and editor. Included is all the early history of the Grand Teton, from the first confirmed ascent in 1898 to the exploits of Underhill, Henderson, Fryxell, Smith, Petzoldt and the early efforts of Durrance. However, Durrance’s last season, 1940, when he pushed the technical standards in the range to new heights, is not included.

The style is charming and reflects the two writers’ deep love for this now popular range of mountains. The style is exemplified by one item taken from Fryxell’s original volume concerning the ascent of Rockchuck Peak, a relatively minor Teton summit.

The lower slopes of the mountain are thickly overgrown with huckleberry bushes, the finest in the Tetons, and higher up are numerous raspberry patches clustered among the boulder fields, nor must one fail to mention the occasional clumps of serviceberry. An ascent of Rockchuck Peak in berry time (which usually spans the month of August) calls for great tenacity of purpose and self-mastery on the part of the mountaineer, lest he lose sight of his lofty goal and give himself up to the lusts of the flesh. The writer knows, since he climbed this mountain (August 16, 1929), both hands and mouth busy all the way to timberline. Let it be known that he did reach the top, though the time consumed in making the ascent must never be disclosed. That this was the first complete ascent on record may perhaps be attributed to the failure of other climbers to get beyond the berry patches.

This book is more than a guidebook in that it is also a history of the exploits of the pioneers of American climbing. It reflects the close-knit climbing community that existed at Jenny Lake from the twenties to the mid-sixties. The accounts remind us that climbers of fifty years ago were also conscious of the style in which climbs were done; for example, the time consumed on many a first ascent is seldom bettered today.

The volume not only gives historic perspective to the routes in the Tetons, but insight into the kind of men who pioneered them.

Raymond G. Jacquot