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Fritiof Melvin Fryxell, 1900-1986


Fritiof M. Fryxell, geologist, professor, writer and mountaineer, died December 19, 1986 at his home in Rock Island, Illinois. He had been a member of the American Alpine Club for 56 years and was elected to honorary membership in 1981. Professor Fryxell’s professional life was rich and varied. Bom April 27, 1900, in Moline, Illinois, he attended Augustana College, Rock Island, earned an MA in English from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Chicago in 1929. His dissertation on the glacial features of Jackson Hole was the first expression of what would become a lifelong passion: the mountains of the west. He interpreted them scientifically, in professional papers and lectures, and poetically, in the descriptions and metaphors of his well-known book The Tetons: Interpretations of a Mountain Landscape (now in its sixth edition). He served as the first Ranger-Naturalist for the Grand Teton National Park (1929-34), later (1935-1939) was a member of the museum planning staff of the National Park Service, and initiated (1946) the cooperative research arrangement between the National Park Service and the US Geological Survey which flourishes today.

In 1923 Fryxell joined the faculty at Augustana College, and during his 50-year tenure created and taught in its nationally recognized department of geology. A museum and endowed chair in the department now bear his name. During World War II Fryxell served as assistant chief of the Military Geology Unit, which was responsible for analyzing the terrain of projected battle sites. In 1948 the death of his professional colleague and friend (and AAC member), François Matthes, redirected his efforts for some seventeen years to the editing and completing five of Matthes’ projected books on Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.

Fryxell initially developed his interest in the west and the Teton range through perusal of railroad guidebooks which his father brought back to Illinois after working in California. One of these, The Pacific Tourist, contains a replica of the early W.H. Jackson photograph of the Grand Teton as well as an illustration from the Langford 1873 article in Scribner’s Magazine, which described the climb (or attempt) on the Grand Teton. This book also contains numerous engravings by Thomas Moran and an article by F.V. Hayden on the Yellowstone. All these topics became subject matter for his prolific writings, in several books and numerous articles.

In the summer of 1924 he hitchhiked from West Yellowstone to Tetonia on the west side of the range, obtaining his first close-up view of the Tetons. That time he got only into the foothills from the west. The summer of 1926 was Fryxell’s first of many summers in the Teton mountains, when he began work on his geological thesis. An impromptu attempt to climb the Grand Teton that first summer failed, but his climbing record began in 1927 with successes on the East Prong of Mount Owen and the Grand. The second high Teton summit, Buck Mountain, he reached the following summer during four additional weeks of geological field work.

But it was the summer of 1929, after the opening of the newly created Grand Teton National Park, that Doc, as he was known to almost all of his younger friends, began his outstanding sequence of pioneering first ascents in the range, commonly with his fellow ranger, Phil Smith. Within a one-month period Doc, sometimes solo but mostly with Phil, climbed Woodring, Grand Teton, Tee- winot, Rockchuck, St. John, Symmetry Spire, Wister, Hunt, and the Middle Teton; seven of these were first ascents! As members of the small ranger staff, Doc and Phil were expected by the park superintendent to be available for duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Great energy and some ingenuity were required to get away for these climbs, making the accomplishments all the more impressive. The next two summers were equally productive, with first ascents of Nez Perce, Bivouac Peak, Mount Owen, Cloudveil Dome, East Horn of Moran, and Storm and Ice Point. After a summer in the Colorado Rockies in 1932, where he climbed a dozen 14,000ers, Doc returned to the Tetons for the following three summers, adding first ascents of Rolling Thunder, Prospectors, and Ranger Peak. It was a glorious period in Teton history and Doc made the most of it.

These climbs, together with extensive canyon hiking and glacier study, were largely exploratory in nature, rather than for the goal of overcoming of sheer difficulties as seems more common now. But three, at least, of Doc Fryxell’s climbs still rank as significant technical achievements. The first ascent of Mount Owen in 1930 with Underhill, Henderson and Smith was a landmark climb, for the peak remains today as perhaps the most difficult of the Teton peaks. His second ascent, in one day, of the east ridge of the Grand Teton in 1934 with Fred Ayres, with little or no information on the route, still seems a remarkable accomplishment.

But truly impressive in imaginative pioneering was his climb of the north ridge of the Grand Teton with brilliant Robert L.M. Underhill. In this climb they were perhaps a generation ahead of their time. It was a clear technical step forward, the most difficult alpine ascent yet completed in the United States. It stands today as the classic among a dozen great Teton alpine climbs. To comprehend fully the accomplishment of Underhill and Fryxell in 1931, let a modem climber try the ascent with their equipment: Underhill used Tricouni nailed boots, while Doc’s smooth-soled work boots had one composition sole and one leather sole. It was an extraordinary climb, and Underhill, in writing of the climb, related that Fryxell “… raced up the rocks of the grandstand in his usual fashion, showing the same dexterity and speed that on our frequent ropeless climbs had regularly left me well in the rear.”

Such stories as these only partially reveal the energy and enthusiasm which carried Doc Fryxell throughout his long life with his love of nature, the mountains, the west, and its history. His particular talent was the ability to convey this enthusiastic sense to students and all who came within his purview. His evening campfire talks in the early Grand Teton National Park days are now legendary. As well described in the American Alpine News, Doc Fryxell was the eloquent interpreter par excellence. This talented and gifted man compounded a profound understanding of geology and the natural scene, with an extraordinary skill in the English language. A reader of his Interpretations of a Mountain Landscape cannot fail to appreciate the careful craftsmanship of his descriptive phrases. Equally remarkable, the same care in the selection of words highlighted his correspondence and even informal conversation.

A complementary and permanent contribution of Doc Fryxell to the Teton scene is found in the numerous creative and mellifluous place names he attached to the mountains and lakes, waterfalls and glaciers. Who else could have produced Cloudveil Dome and Symmetry Spire, Rolling Thunder Mountain and Lake of the Crags?

With the passing of Fritiof Fryxell we have lost one of the last and finest links to the pioneer era of American mountaineering. Fryxell was in the forefront of those who brought the Tetons from their obscurity in the 1920s to the prominent place they now occupy as a primary climbing center in the United States. Yet this was done without a trace of self-promotion. His old-school modesty was as ingrained as his gentlemanly tendency to say only good things about others. Perhaps these words of his convey not only his mountaineering ethic but his approach to life itself: “Each trip into the mountains was sheer delight, however great the labor and whether it led to a peak ascent or not.”

Leigh N. Ortenburger