American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Grand Controversy

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1993

The Grand Controversy. Orrin and Lorraine Bonney. The AAC Press, New York, 1992. 457 pages. $28.50.

This book is a pleasant surprise. One might expect 457 pages of elaborately documented research into a minor historical issue to be dull, to say the least; but Lorraine Bonney, finishing (after nearly twenty years) the work begun by her late husband Orrin, manages to pull the story together in eminently readable form.

Admittedly, there are those for whom the question “Who first climbed the Grand Teton?” is not a “minor historical issue”; were it not for such people we might be lacking in entertainment. One such individual was William Owen himself, the main protagonist of this book, whose efforts to establish his own claim to the first ascent are at the heart of The Grand Controversy.

I, for one, am impressed and convinced. Endowed with the historical sense of a two-by-four (I have to be reminded by others of routes I had forgotten I had climbed), I have always assumed that many of my ascents on the Grand were on the Owen-Spalding route; now I may have to begin calling it the Langford- Stevenson. Of course, when the Owen-Spalding partisans come out of the woodwork (or the grave, as the case may be) I may have to change my mind again; so it goes with historical debates. Once we have passed beyond the possibility of hard physical evidence, the dialectic of inference, presumption, and ad hominem arguments takes over. Only our stubborn insistence that there is such a thing as objective truth keeps these arguments alive.

For the Teton enthusiast, there is more to recommend this book: accounts of much of the rest of the early history of the range and Jackson Hole itself. Sections of historical black-and-white photographs are interspersed with tales of the pioneer climbers, often first-person accounts. Some inaccuracies in the photo captions can be discerned by the discriminating reader, and indeed lead to the reflection that this is precisely how such controversies maintain themselves; but in general the volume is well edited.

If there is a weakness in The Grand Controversy, it comes in the form of occasional lapses from a tone of objectivity into a more impassioned advocacy. Clearly the emotional nature of the Owen-Langford debate has carried on even to the present. To my mind Owen hoists himself on his own petard when his argument with Langford turns vitriolic; the Bonneys on occasion adopt the same demeaning manner towards William Owen, thus weakening what seems like a good case otherwise.

I would be very surprised if this book turned out to be the last we shall hear on its subject matter, but its thesis will not easily be overturned. Meanwhile those of us with less historic sense will continue to use the same hand- and foot-holds on this magnificent peak, regardless of who might have touched them first; it is some measure of what an exceptional place this is that it both engenders and trivializes this sort of debate.

Ron Matous

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