American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Last Unclimbed Peak

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1987

The Last Unclimbed Peak

Leigh N. Ortenburger

CLIMBING HISTORY is not a subject that appeals to everyone. Many mountaineers are content in their climbs of today, without a need to reflect on where such climbs fit into the larger picture defined not only by the important dimensions of difficulty and style, but also by the less tangible scale of time. This brief article quarrels not with their approach, but provides from a broader outlook an overview of climbing in one region.

Every activity, be it science or art or climbing, is necessarily confined to the environment of the time in which it is practiced. Progress is made, but, with rare exceptions, it is achieved incrementally. Bold new strokes, where man has never gone before, are made, but not by most of the practicing artists or scientists or mountaineers. There is a wide variation in how we perceive our individual relation to what has gone before. Some climbers are sure that their knowledge and skills are purely the product of their own capabilities. Others are more appreciative of the contributions that the pioneers have made. These pioneers have advanced in various dimensions of mountaineering, such as simple mental courage to penetrate the unknown, or climbing equipment, or technical climbing skills. But each made his mark within the confines of his time.

Mountaineering evolution may be analyzed and clearly displayed within single regions, such as the Teton range in Wyoming. Here is a compact and spectacular mountain group apparently holding considerable challenge. Two centuries ago such a challenge was probably not perceived by the first passersby, the indigenous Indians of the region. Yet their culture did apparently contribute to the first Teton climb of which there is a record, that of the Enclosure, the western sub-summit of the Grand Teton. One sees this impressive accomplishment not so much as an acceptance of the basic challenge of the high places, but as an esthetic selection of a religious site. Nor did the fur trappers of the first half of the nineteenth century respond to the latent challenge of the Teton peaks. We find no record in this era of any mountaineering in the Tetons beyond the simple crossings of easy passes.

This lack of interest in the high mountains carried over to the first generation of settlers who arrived in the adjacent valleys during the last half of the century. To engage in the foolishness of mountain climbing requires both the opportunity and the right frame of mind. The first groups to satisfy both of these requirements were the government reconnaissance expeditions which penetrated the Teton region as early as 1859. The scientific curiosity brought west by these exploring expeditions culminated in 1872 with the first substantial (and publicized) set of important climbs in the range. The attempted climb—or ascent as the case may be—of the Grand Teton by Langford and Stevenson initiated the era of pioneering exploration, soon to be followed in 1877 and 1878 by subsequent Hayden expeditions whose members reached several of the easy sedimentary peaks along the western slopes.

The attraction of the highest peak in the range was accepted and met in 1898 by the indefatigable William Owen who, after attempts in two previous years and aided by the crucial technical skills of Franklin Spalding, succeeded in reaching the summit of the Grand Teton. This reknowned ascent, curiously enough, failed to encourage other explorations. Almost a quarter century passed before any extensive additional climbing took place.

The need, not of local origin, for mapping of the region led to the arrival of surveyors and their paraphernalia in the 1880s and 1890s; they reached a handful of additional summits, easy peaks in the north and south ends of the range. The single major exception was the climb of Buck Mountain in 1898 by the topographer Bannon and his assistant. With completion of Bannon’s efforts at the start of the twentieth century, full knowledge of the mountains and canyons of the Teton range could be claimed, since a detailed quadrangle map had been produced by application of the instruments of science. What more could be required? There was little or no need for any further efforts by man in the Teton mountains.

But civilization was moving forward. In fifty years from 1875 to 1925 the population of Wyoming and adjacent states was growing, becoming sufficiently large and affluent to contain a small number of enterprising individuals who saw in the mountains not only physical challenges but a splendid region full of beauty and wonder. In 1912 the Colorado Mountain Club was formed by a group of such visionary climbers. Mountain climbing in the American west was finally being done for its own sake and did not have to be scientifically or economically justified. This was an extremely important, but unwitting, conceptual breakthrough, a release from the past bondage of practicality.

Much mountaineering progress was being made in the Colorado Rockies during those years. The early climb by the enthusiast LeRoy Jeffers of the north summit of Mount Moran in 1919 diverted some attention from Colorado to the distant and remote Tetons. The decade from 1922 to 1931 was to be the primary period of magnificent pioneering by the most important Teton explorers and climbers. The main summit of Mount Moran fell in 1922 and the next year the outstanding Colorado mountaineer, A. R. Ellingwood, and his group made the much publicized third ascent of the Grand Teton, reaching the summits of both the South and the Middle Tetons as well. These were watershed climbs that brought awareness of this spectacular region to the American public.

The major event in attracting attention of the mountaineers of the United States to these splendid peaks was the establishment of the Grand Teton National Park in 1929. A few years before that political act with unexpected mountaineering consequences, the two great Teton pioneers were already on the scene, having come out of their own inner motivations to see the range. Fritiof Fryxell and Phil Smith had in common the love of the mountain scene, the curiosity to know its secrets, and the energy and ability to reach hitherto unknown places. Between them most of the major Teton summits were attained, including the first-rank peaks of Wister, Nez Perce, Cloudveil Dome, Disappointment, Teewinot, Symmetry Spire, St. John, Rockchuck, Woodring, East Horn, and Bivouac. In all they reached 18 new summits, an extraordinary and unrepeatable accomplishment. The considerable technical skills of Underhill and Henderson were essential in 1930 to the conquest of Mount Owen, the last major summit, and the pinnacle of Teepe’s Pillar. Petzoldt, as professional guide, found two new peaks, while surveyors reached three new high points in the north end.

The next decade leading to World War II, while providing numerous first ascents, did not see much climbing that was both new and difficult. Nearly two dozen new high points were attained in 1934 and 1935 by the surveying team that produced the topographic map of the national park, but these were all technically easy ascents. Fryxell and Smith, still active, found no records on the summits of Prospectors, Veiled, Rolling Thunder, and Eagles Rest. The sharp eye of Fred Ayres sought out such prizes as Icecream Cone, West Horn, Traverse Peak, and several towers above Hanging Canyon including Rock of Ages. The remote and attractive Cleaver Peak was the last new peak ascended before the war reinstated the priority of practicality.

The notion that there was lasting significance associated with first ascents rose to the top of climbers’ minds in the two decades following the war. This led to a rather methodical elimination of all obviously unclimbed peaks and pinnacles, some of which were genuinely difficult and had been either deliberately avoided by pre-war climbers, or had been the subject of failed attempts. This era finally saw the end to unclimbed pinnacles above Hanging Canyon (1954), about Mount Moran (1957), and the Grand Teton (1957). A dozen or more remote but easy sedimentary peaks were also accounted for in this productive period. Of all of these climbs—almost four dozen in all—serious difficulty, for the time, was found only in the pinnacles such as Red Sentinel, Hangover, Baxter’s, Schoolhouse, Okie’s Thom, Second Tower, Rabbit Ears, Camel’s Head, and Unsoeld’s Needle. Teton climbing in the 1960s provided few surprises in new ascents. The last of the unclimbed high points in the south and north ends of the range were visited. Only Matternaught Peak and Fourteen Hour Pinnacle seem important from the current vantage point.

Thus the last two decades were entered with the unspoken belief that the Tetons were finished as a source of first ascents. Certainly the primary thrust of significant climbing had long since been in the search of new routes, not unclimbed peaks. On rare occasions small unclimbed towers were found in the canyons of Granite, Avalanche, and even Cascade; a few were, indeed, of serious difficulty. The last of these, a substantial pinnacle not far from the mouth of Cascade Canyon, was not found and climbed (F9, Al) until September of 1984. But the game appeared to be over.

Not so. This past summer a minor peak was recognized simultaneously by two veteran Teton climbers as probably unclimbed. And so it was. Rising directly above the west shore of Grizzly Bear Lake, not far from the well used trail of Indian Paintbrush Canyon, are cliffs guarding a summit that remained unclimbed until July 29, 1986. It was found to have no easy way to the summit; three pitches, one F7, were required to reach the virgin summit. Some sixty years after Ellingwood’s first visit, the exploration of the Teton range,—“a practically inexhaustible studio for the mountaineer”—was finally completed. The climb of last summer combined with detailed knowledge accumulated through the past century, permits the statement that the end of the first-ascent era is at hand. There are no more.

This historical event for the Tetons raises the intriguing question of where else is there a climbing record sufficiently complete to show that no unclimbed point remains? It seems fair to presume that the Alps passed this threshold many years ago. But can this be said for the other American ranges? Has every point in Colorado now been reached? Have all the peaks and towers of the Cascades been climbed? Has someone stood on top of all the mountains and pinnacles of the Sierra Nevada? What about the ranges of Montana, Idaho, South Dakota, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona? Are there unclimbed points anywhere?

When will the last unclimbed peak be taken? All are fascinating questions, but perhaps of only academic interest. Questions such as these may well be of significance only to those knowledgeable in mountaineering history. As was observed at the beginning, not all climbers have this interest. But for those who still feel driven to find new places, the expanses of Canada and Alaska must surely contain a good supply of summits yet unreached. And the Andes, the Karakoram, the Himalaya should all provide source material well into the next century. The game will surely continue but the court changes.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Teton Range.

First Ascent: Peak 10,080 +, via west face and north ridge, on July 29, 1986

(Tom Kimbrough and Leigh Ortenburger).

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