American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

East Face of Thor Peak

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1951

East Face of Thor Peak

Richard Pownall

FEW of the many mountaineers who frequent the Teton Range know or have heard of Thor Peak, a mountain rising to an elevation of 12,018 feet, located at the head of Leigh Canyon and partially hidden by the massive southeast shoulders of Mount Moran (12,594 ft). Were this peak more accessible, it would be one of the major climbs in the range. Because of its remoteness, it has escaped the notice of mountaineers.

During the summer of 1949, Mike Brewer and I, while we were guiding1 on Mount Moran, noticed this handsome peak with an alluring east wall rising very sheer from a small glacier. We were immediately aware that we had found an unnoticed face which looked to be a very challenging climb. On checking the mountaineering files at the headquarters of Grand Teton National Park, we found no official record of an ascent on Thor Peak, though we were certain that the peak had been climbed. We were fairly certain, however, that the massive east wall had not been ascended. Here, we believed, was one of the last major first ascents remaining in this region.

It was not until 18 July 1950 that Mike and I were able to make an attempt on the face. We set out from Mountaineering Headquarters at Jenny Lake at 6.00 A.M., crossed Leigh Lake in Mike’s fold-boat, and started bushwhacking up Leigh Canyon. We were travelling lightly, with a minimum of food and climbing gear. Even so, we did not conquer the approaches to the face until noon, which found us perched on a ridge directly opposite the face and some 200 feet above the glacier at the foot of the face. We decided it would be very foolish to attempt the face at such a late hour. We spent a couple of hours on the ridge photographing the wall and sunbathing. From this position we found the precipice to be even larger and more tempting than we had previously supposed. What we had considered to be a 500- to 700-foot face turned out to be a 1200- to 1500-foot rock wall. The top third appeared to be vertical.

Our observation convinced us that we had found a climb that would equal any in the range in technical difficulty. We decided that to do this ascent safely would require at least a three-man party. Glenn Exum was our obvious first choice to complete the personnel of our party. Glenn has been guiding in the Tetons since 1929 and is active partner, with Paul Petzoldt, of the guiding concession at Grand Teton National Park (Petzoldt-Exum School of American Mountaineering). Glenn’s ability and experience as a mountaineer would definitely strengthen our party. Also, the three of us had never climbed on the same rope and were eager for an opportunity to do so. Glenn was more than ready to join us in our attempt, and we decided that we would make the try at the first possible opportunity.

July 22nd was the day set for our attempt. Late in the afternoon of the 21st we gathered our provisions and climbing equipment and set off via fold-boat across Leigh Lake to base camp.2 We had previously anticipated setting our base camp in a pleasant meadow we had located halfway up Leigh Canyon; but, owing to the lateness of our departure from Jenny Lake (7.30 P.M.), we were able to go no farther than the head of Leigh Canyon before dark. Making camp next to Leigh Creek turned out to be a mistake: our bivouac was a nocturnal rendezvous for porcupines. The first assault was discovered by Glenn at midnight. He was rudely awakened by a porky at the head of his sleeping bag. Mike and I were immediately awakened by Glenn’s bloodcurdling alarm and rose to the occasion armed with rocks, clubs and other primitive implements of the chase. The noisy stream provided excellent cover for the rustling approach of the enemy. We failed to notice several subsequent approaches of the marauders until they were within a foot or two of our sleeping bags. Some half-dozen attacks prevented us from getting more than an hour’s sleep that night. Several quills were discovered in Glenn’s boots, which he had been using for a pillow.

Breakfast completed and camp cached, we started our trudge up Leigh Canyon at 5.30 A.M. After an hour and a half of bushwhack- ing, we reached the foot of the long moraine leading to the small glacier at the foot of the east wall of Thor. Here we took a break, cached our packs, left food for our return, changed to sneakers and, after eating and resting, started ascending the long talus slope.

By 9.10 A.M. we were on the glacier. Here we met our first difficulty: the snow leading up to the face was very hard and much steeper than we had suspected. Glenn and Mike had smooth-soled tennis shoes and were not able to move at all safely on the slope leading to the face. I was wearing cup-soled basketball shoes and was able to move a little more easily. With a piton in each hand I was able to scramble some 300 feet to the bergschrund. Three times I fixed the rope for Mike and Glenn to come up on, hand over hand. Then, while we were on the lip of the bergschrund, wondering where to start up the face, we were given a scare as the section of ice on which we were standing broke loose and fell some six or eight feet before jamming itself. As no damage was done, we hastily left the ice and started directly up the wall.

I took the first lead, ascending 120 feet up fairly smooth friction slabs to a broad ledge which offered a natural anchor position for belaying. Mike was next up, and Glenn followed immediately after. We were now off the snow, but discovered a new danger: the face showed evidence of many rock falls. There were many fresh white scars on the slabs. We chose the most vertical rock and tried to locate anchor positions which offered overhang protection.

Our order on the rope remained the same as I took out 120 feet of rope. This lead was over friction slabs of the same type. A 20- foot overhanging chimney led to the next protected anchor position. The rock was good but offered no cracks for pitons. The chimney was relatively difficult to lead.

Mike took the next lead up a series of two broken chimneys and slabs to a grassy ledge. Here we found water and were well protected from falling rock. We unroped and spent some 15 minutes eating our lunch and plotting our course.

We again changed leads. Glenn took the next 480 feet with Mike second. The first lead was up a fairly easy 100-foot chimney which began at the lower edge of a snow patch. The next pitch covered a series of blocky ledges climaxed by a 50-foot chimney which was well lubricated by running water. Glenn ascended another 120 feet of friction slabs, traversing toward the right slightly. Glenn’s last lead included a series of vertical faces (seven to ten feet high) and ledges with a slight leftward traverse which brought us to a broad ridge.

Mike now took over the lead with Glenn second. I remained at the end of the rope as recording secretary and chief photographer. The next 120 feet were easy going. We all moved together. We could now see the V-chimney in the middle of the face which we had sighted from below as a possible route up the vertical portion of the face. The next series of leads required an upward traverse to the left toward the bottom of the V-chimney.

Mike’s first lead was up a series of broken, ledgy faces and included a difficult 40-foot vertical friction chimney. Again no pitons could be used. Mike next made a very good lead by ascending a 50-foot chimney, then an upward traverse to the right for 30 feet. He climaxed the lead by ascending a vertical 30-foot chimney before anchoring. The next lead took us up a 15-foot chimney, traversed to the left for some 20 feet, and then went up a ten-foot wall to a beautiful flower-covered grass ledge. Mike then led an upward traverse for 150 feet to the left. This brought us to the base of the V-chimney.

Mike started the ascent of the V-chimney with a full 120-foot lead which brought him to a precarious position—absolutely no place to anchor. He wanted to go higher. To make Mike’s upward progress possible, Glenn made a free climb, without protection by belay, of 60 feet and then anchored. Mike then ascended very difficult rock for some eight feet. Here he stopped for a short time to try to insert a piton. Finding no cracks, he started a traverse on the right wall of the chimney. It almost proved disastrous. With one good foothold and handhold, Mike attempted a long step across a smooth portion of the wall to another foothold. As he started to shift his weight to this foothold, it crumbled out and left him pivoting on a left hand- and foothold. He quickly recovered himself and started descending to Glenn, who was well anchored nearly 100 feet below.

I was then belayed up to the anchor position, and we held a short council of war. It was decided that I would take over the lead for the remainder of the climb, and that Glenn would stay in the middle as my belayer. Dark clouds were starting to gather, and distant thunder could be heard. We knew we should get up the face—but quick!

The V-chimney looked bad, but I wanted to give it a try before turning back from this position. I could see that the upper two-thirds of the chimney appeared easier than the bottom. With a good belay from below, I started up. Reaching approximately Mike’s highest point in the chimney, I found the climbing to be very, very poor. There were no piton cracks, and furthermore the rock was rotten and down-sloping, making hand- and footholds very precarious, if not impossible. It took me only a moment to see that it would be foolhardy to climb any higher on this type of rock. I quickly descended this stretch of the chimney and joined Mike and Glenn for another powwow.

Before we traversed to the bottom of the V-chimney we had noticed an alternate route, a second chimney, steeper but climbable, some 60 feet to the right of the V-chimney. With the weather still more threatening, we made a quick 100-foot descent out of the V-chimney, and I started up our alternate route.

My first lead was up a fairly vertical 80-foot chimney. Here I was momentarily stopped. The rock in the upper portion of the chimney sloped downward, in contrast to the in-sloping rock of the bottom portion. I drove a piton, the first one we were able to get into the face, and made a slow, touchy traverse to the right on a vertical wall which brought me to some good rock that offered a route upward. I ascended another ten feet to a good anchor ledge and belayed Glenn.

My next lead was up a vertical chimney for some 60 feet. I anchored at a good chockstone while Glenn belayed Mike up to the last ledge, and then Glenn came up to my position. We were now some 200 vertical feet from the top of the face. Our hopes of success were high. The rock above us appeared to be solid and to slope favorably, although it was very steep. The weather was still growing bad, and we knew we must hurry.

The next lead I took was a full 120 feet directly above Glenn. He could watch me all the way. The rock proved to be very fickle. The top 40 feet turned out to be down-sloping and loose, with slight outward-bulging sections that were very annoying. At the end of the lead I was able to get in a good vertical piton on which to anchor. I was perched directly under a yellow band of overhanging rock.

Glenn belayed Mike to the chockstone and then ascended to my position. I remained anchored, took Mike’s rope, and belayed Glenn as he attempted the overhang. The first 30 feet of Glenn’s lead proved to be the toughest climbing on the face. He made a direct ascent of several overhangs in the form of outward bulges. To make the climbing even worse, the rock was still down-sloping and loose. I was well anchored and on the alert to catch Glenn should some of the rock give way under him. None did, and it was only a matter of minutes before he had 120 feet of rope out and yelled down that he was on the summit ridge.

Mike quickly scrambled up to me and anchored on my piton as Glenn brought me up to the ridge. Glenn belayed Mike up as I caught up on my note-making. The weather was clearing, the time was 4.00 P.M., we had made the face. …

After 300 to 400 feet of scrambling up the summit ridge we were on the summit. Time, 4.30—twelve hours from base camp, ten and a half hours from our packs, seven hours of tough face climbing.

We found on the summit a small cairn which disclosed evidence of a previous ascent. Inside the cairn was a tobacco can containing a note left by Paul Petzoldt. Paul had made two ascents of the peak, the second in 1935. He had ascended by the easy slopes on the southeast. We salvaged his record and replaced it with a fresh one describing his ascents and our climb of the east face.

A speedy descent down the southeast side brought us to our packs. We changed to boots and quickly devoured our remaining chocolate bars, a can of corn, apricots and tomato juice. Within an hour we were back at our base camp. We packed up and started across the lake just at sunset.

I would rank this ascent, as a face climb, close to the finest in the range. The best face climb in the range is without question the North Wall of the Grand Teton. The East Face of Thor is a shorter climb by about 600 feet; but there is just as much vertical climbing on it, if not more.

The climb was very enjoyable—which is not characteristic of first ascents. The exposure and loose rock in the upper portions of the wall made the climb interesting and made for a climactic culmination of the difficulties that had to be conquered. Glenn’s last lead was one of the finest I have seen—the highlight of the climb.

This climb should definitely not be judged on the basis of the number of pitons used, etc., etc. We certainly would have used many more had cracks been available. The difficult pitches were absolutely void of suitable cracks. Also, it should be pointed out that all three of us had been guiding actively all summer and were in top climbing condition—able to climb difficult rock to the top of our ability with sureness and safety.

We recommend this climb for experienced climbers who come into this area. Although it is remote and hard to get to, the climb is well worth the effort. It is a real treat to get into a canyon that few people have been in and to climb a peak the summit of which has been touched by only a very few people.

1 Mike Brewer, of Yale University, and Dick Pownall, of Iowa State College, were employed as climbing guides in the Exum-Petzoldt School of American Mountaineering, Grand Teton National Park.

2 Equipment: two cameras and ample film; three sleeping bags; primus stove, food supply, cooking and eating utensils; one bivouac sheet, sneakers, packs, parkas; two 120-ft. lengths of 7/16-inch nylon climbing ropes, two piton hammers, several karabiners, and a good variety of pitons. Mosquito repellent proved to be an essential item. We towed all this equipment across Leigh Lake in a one-man rubber life raft. All three of us rode in Mike’s two-passenger fold-boat.

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