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1929. East Ridge of the Grand Teton

1929. East Ridge of the Grand Teton

Chris Jones

Rising dramatically from the surrounding plains, Wyoming’s Tetons are a climber’s paradise: beautiful, accessible, good rock, great climbs. The highest peak in the small range, the 13,767- foot Grand Teton, was climbed in 1898 via a tricky but short and barely fifth-class route. But until the 1920s, the small range was almost unknown to the few serious mountaineers in the United States. With their corps of professional guides, the European Alps and the Canadian Rockies were the place to be.

One of these dedicated climbers, Rhodes Scholar Albert Ellingwood, learned of Wyoming’s great peaks and their climbing potential. He had picked up rock climbing while at England’s Oxford University, and in 1923 he began a series of ascents in the Tetons. Phil Smith and Fritioff Fryxell, newly appointed rangers in the new Grand Teton National Park, were self taught but at least as eager. They climbed many new routes, but in common with others failed to get up Mt. Owen. The next team to make their mark, Eastern climbers Robert Underhill and Kenneth Henderson, were already excellent technicians schooled in the Alps. Climbing with guides, as was then still common, Underhill had been up the Brenva and Peuterey ridges of Mont Blanc, and had made the first ascent, with his future wife Miriam O’Brien and guide Armand Charlet, of the Aiguilles du Diable Ridge. This caliber of alpine climbing was quite unknown in the United States at the time. Henderson likewise had a dazzling resume of ascents in the Alps and Canadian Rockies. It was not until the 1940s that American climbers on their own turf reached comparable standards.

By 1929 the 30-year-old Owen-Spaulding Route was still the only way up the Grand Teton, while the much-longer east ridge had seen some five attempts. What an objective for Underhill and Henderson! After assessing the Molar Tooth, a tower at about mid-height that had foiled prior attempts, they traversed around it and attacked the slabs above. Rated 5.7 today, the east ridge is even today described in the guidebook as “a significant mountaineering objective.” The following year these two teamed with Fryxell and Smith to finally make the first ascent of Mt. Owen. Once on top and ready to rope off, they were astonished to learn that Fryxell and Smith had never even seen or heard of a rappel. The lack of such a key technique illustrates how much a backwater the Tetons then were.

With these climbs the stage was set for a remarkable flowering of talent. The Mt. Owen companions had great climbs yet to come: the north ridge of the Grand and the complete Exum Ridge among them. In 1932 Fryxell would chronicle these climbs in a book, The Teton Peaks and Their Ascents. This compact range was to become, and largely remains to this day, the premier mountaineering range of the lower 48 states. It was where climbers from all over the country would go for alpine climbing. Here they would meet others of the nascent climbing fraternity. Here they would hatch plans for Alaska, the Andes, and the Himalaya. Did Underhill and Henderson have any idea what a great climbing ground the Tetons were to become as they roped up on July 22,1929? With their already extensive knowledge of the Alps, I would like to believe that they did.