American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Climber's Guide to the Teton Range

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  • Publication Year: 1997

Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range. Leigh N. Ortenburger and Reynold G. Jackson. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1995. 414 pages, $39.00.

There are guidebooks and then there are guidebooks. Some are samplers, leading you into a region and describing a few selected climbs or jaunts, but then leaving you on your own thereafter. Some are comprehensive, but “cold”: strictly business, they impart the necessary route information in few words or (in the case of route guides) no words at all. But then there is the occasional guidebook that is exhaustive but “warm,” deeply evocative of a splendid scene, and striving earnestly to tell us everything. The new Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range is one of these.

Leigh Ortenburger was not just a guidebook writer who happened to write about the Tetons; he was a Teton pioneer who chose to express in guidebook form his love of a place that absorbed him all his life. The quote that hung above his desk as he worked on this book was a line from The Aeneid that captured his attitude poignantly: “All of this I have seen. Part of it I am.”

The road to this third edition was a slow one. The very first version of this guide came out in 1956, the second in 1965—about the right interval, one would think, to keep up with developments. Then years passed. Ten. Twenty. A generation. A series of interim products appeared: offprints from the 1965 version, covering just the most popular routes; then a “red book,” a set of addenda and updates; and finally a mysterious two-volume “pink book,” which looked like a set of bound galleys for Edition #3. That was in 1990, and appetites were whetted for the real thing.

Leigh Ortenburger died, not on some mountain, but incredibly—appallingly—by fire, trapped in the Oakland inferno of 1991. His death, Renny Jackson tells us, was as if “the Second Tower and the Molar Tooth had fallen off the Grand Teton.” It appeared then that the third edition might never materialize. But now, thanks to Jackson’s efforts as co-author and help from Ortenburger’s ex-wife Irene Beardsley, it is here. It proves well worth the wait.

This is a much thicker book than its predecessors and differently (better) organized. Where the earlier versions had one vast, undivided “Routes” chapter, we now see sections corresponding to the obvious intercanyon segments of the range. Routes are now described in spatial sequence, counter-clockwise around each peak from west to south instead of, as before, in chronological order of ascent. There’s an expanded section on climate, but the geology discussion is only slightly updated, which seems a pity. The Tetons, a violent upthrust in the middle of a continent, are a tectonic puzzle, and it would be nice to hear the latest thinking about why they are as they are.

The style of A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range is essentially Ortenburger’s: a little old- fashioned, a little formal, a little wordy. Yet like a good old novel, the book rewards patience. You get onto its wavelength soon, and its tone stops nagging. Rather, its diffident, tireless attention to peaks and places draws you in. And people as deeply knowledgeable as these can be forgiven just a touch of pedantry.

Jackson has preserved some pleasing oddities from the earlier editions. There’s a “vertical ledge.” There’s a courte-échelle, or shoulder stand. There’s risk of “benightment.” There are several rand- klufts—a word I had never encountered; it turns out to be like a bergschrund, but with rock, not ice, on the uphill side. Joe Kelsey, an Ortenburger companion, says that the word was a running joke in the Vulgarian crowd of the 1960s: a split in a fingertip, for instance, became a randkluft.

The inescapable test for a guidebook, of course, is how well it guides, and this one does it superbly. Comparing descriptions with my memories of a few routes, I find it not only accurate but apt: it tells you the things you need to know and that may not be obvious on the ground. There is more craft involved in this than might be supposed. The graphics, photographs and sketches are generous; distinctive drawings from the 1965 edition are preserved as chapter heads. (But why no regional map?)

Given problems of overuse and vanishing mystery in the mountains these days, there’s a question one must ask, I suppose, of any guidebook: does further publicity do more good than harm? I think this book is quite benign, for three reasons. First, this encyclopedic kind of guide, unlike the sampler sort, is not going to produce traffic jams on specific routes. The very wideness of choice works against that. Second, the Tetons could scarcely be more celebrated than they already are; this book makes the range better-known indeed, but in a qualitative, not quantitative, sense. And third, changing styles in climbing have taken pressure off the long alpine routes that used to bear the brunt of our attention, shifting it to shorter, more technical, and more accessible ascents (which receive their due attention in this guide).

In the end, it is easy physical access, more than information, that produces crowding. The book notes that the Park Service, by abandoning certain roads and trails, has rendered parts of Grand Teton National Park harder to get to than they once were. Ortenburger (the voice here is plainly his, not Jackson’s ) deplores this fact. I’d be inclined to say rather, “Three Cheers.” This book may tell us everything imaginable about Mount Moran, but we still have to spend a day on woodland trails, or canoeing across water, before we can touch that rock and ice ourselves.

And that is fair enough.

John Hart

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