American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Philip Dodd Smith, 1905-1976

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1980

PHILIP DODD SMITH 1905-1979

On November 7, 1979, one of the great pioneers of Teton climbing, Philip Dodd Smith of Twentynine Palms, California, died of a heart attack. Born on March 11, 1905, at Montour, Iowa, Phil Smith, as he was always informally known, spent his early years at Flagler, Colorado, followed by attendance at Cornell College (Iowa) and Colorado School of Mines. In 1925 he found his way to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he spent the next four years working in a variety of positions, keeping his eye on the nearby Tetons. In 1927 he took out a homestead on the side of Blacktail Peak. Starting in 1929 as one of the first seasonal rangers in the new Grand Teton National Park, Phil served with the National Park Service every summer (except 1934) for the next eleven years as a Teton ranger. For several winters he held similar positions with the NPS at Carlsbad Caverns and Muir Woods. In 1930 Phil and Dorothy Gibbs LePage were married; his family included Phil Jr., Rodney, and a step-son Don LePage. In the last years before the war Phil held positions with the CCC camps in Yellowstone National Park, serving as camp superintendent. Beginning in 1940 Phil was also employed by the NPS at Joshua Tree National Monument, and more recently with the recreation department at nearby Twentynine Palms where he made his home for the past 41 years.

Any description of the climbs of Phil Smith over his 37-year climbing career requires much condensation. As a boy of 15 with companions from Flagler, Phil initiated the interest in exploring and climbing which he held throughout his life. From 1920 to 1925 they searched out ridges and faces in the Front Range in Colorado, making a dozen ascents. But the turning point came in 1925 when with his friend, Walter Harvey, Phil was drawn to the almost unknown Tetons where he began the consistently competent pioneering which characterized his mountaineering. Their first climb was the now famous attempt on the Grand Teton from Amphitheater Lake, which resulted in the first ascent and the naming of Disappointment Peak. With a better route five days later the pair made the 14th ascent of the Grand Teton via the Owen-Spalding route, then the only known way to reach the summit of the imposing peak. In what was probably the first serious try for a new route, Phil returned the next summer and led three friends in an attempt from the southeast up onto the east ridge. Their attempt failed but its boldness was remarkable for that time. Never content to follow in the tracks of others, Phil made first ascents of Mount Wister and Shadow Peak, as well as the second ascent of Buck Mountain during the next three years.

It was the decade starting in 1929 with the dedication of the Grand Teton National Park that saw the major contributions of Phil Smith to American mountaineering. He made the first ascents of a total of thirteen major peaks and a dozen important new routes in the Teton range, his favorite mountains. Frequently teamed with fellow ranger F. M. Fryxell, this strong pair first climbed such well known peaks as Nez Perce, Teewinot, St. John, and Symmetry Spire. With Underhill and Henderson, Smith and Fryxell took a much sought prize in 1930, the first ascent of Mount Owen. In 1931 and 1937 Phil achieved two major new routes on the Grand Teton, the Underhill ridge and the Otter Body route.

It was a time never to be seen again, when everything about the Tetons was new and fresh, with a seemingly endless supply of unclimbed peaks and ridges. Yet a ranger’s duties were judged to be on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week so that ingenious schemes were sometimes required to get up onto the peaks. In 1929 a small, very small, wisp of smoke on the flanks of Teewinot served as the excuse for an official ranger investigation of the “fire,” and the first thing Smith and Fryxell knew they were on the unclimbed summit! And there was extensive climbing required to place the 16 bronze register tubes on the major summits; many of these are still in use today. Several of these early Teton climbs are impressive. For example, Smith and Fryxell made the first ascent of Rolling Thunder Mountain starting from Jenny Lake and returning during the course of a single day; a remarkable feat not yet repeated.

In later years Phil Smith made first or second ascents in the Absarokas (Pilot, Index, Abiathar), guided in the Wind Rivers, and pioneered numerous desert rocks and pinnacles in the Joshua Tree region. His final climbs were again in the Tetons in 1951, 1955, and 1956, when he climbed the Grand Teton by the Exum ridge, a route, typically, that he had never done before. Thus the Grand was the scene of his first and last roped climb.

His was a natural climbing ability and the associated knowledge developed rapidly for he became an expert in the use of crampons, ice axe, ropes and knots. His interest along these technical lines resulted in the publication in 1953 of a widely recognized booklet, Knots for Moun-taineering. His climbs spanned the period that began with a few ropes and no pitons to the placement of bolts on blank granite walls. Phil Smith was one of the few in not only witnessing this technical transformation but actually practicing this entire gamut, from the Front Range to Joshua Tree. Phil enjoyed talking about the exploits of his climbing companions and friends, and was a masterly story teller, but he was overly modest in discussing his own climbs, always emphasizing the pleasure of the climb rather than the magnitude of the achievement. And these stories were astonishing in their accurate detail. While information was being gathered for the Teton climbing guidebook, Phil was able to remember with near total recall routes which he had pioneered some thirty years before.

His final and highly significant contribution to mountaineering was a year ago (1978) when his revision of an earlier book (1932) by Fryxell was published: Mountaineering in the Tetons, 1898-1940. This modest volume, typical of the teamwork of the authors, is a splendid, unassuming account of the pioneer period in Teton climbing. Phil Smith exemplified the best in early American mountaineering and he played his role, as an early newspaper account of his 1926 attempt stated, “in most approved mountaineer fashion.” He loved the mountains and in turn everyone who knew him held him in affection and admiration. One who knew Phil intimately for more than fifty years said, “I never knew Phil to act ungraciously or speak unkindly of anyone.”

Leigh N. Ortenburger and Fritiof M. Fryxell

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