When I was ten years old I decided to climb every mountain in the world. I made a list, starting with the Appalachians. When I was halfway through the 53 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, I realized that I might be a little unrealistic. But I could make a start. Four years later I signed up for a month of guided climbing in the Tetons. I arrived in July, 1952, just after my 15th birthday. My projected ascents, pencilled into an old notebook, have all the highest peaks, including the Grand Teton by three different routes, two of them Robert Underhill classic ridges, the East and North. I had modestly allowed for an occasional rest day. My technical climbing was limited to a few weekends in the Shawangunks. I had no idea what the big mountains were like.
I was staying at Betty Woolsey's very comfortable Trail Creek Ranch. Recent guests had been the child actor Brandon deWilde, then famous for his film role in The Member of the Wedding, and Dick and Bonnie Hirschland (Prudden), major figures from the Shawangunks. On my first afternoon I scrambled up a hill to a tiny crag. It was bright unfamiliar orange rock, and very dry--it seemed to suck the moisture from my fingers.
Betty had been a champion skier, captain of the American team at the 1936 winter Olympics. She had climbed a great deal, especially with the great Fritz Wiessner. She told me that Fritz disliked guidebooks and preferred to find his own way. He was certain that the North Ridge of the Grand Teton began at the Gunsight Notch, composed of some of the most rotten rock in the range. His unsuccessful attempt culminated in a three-person shoulder stand, with Bill House on the bottom, then Fritz and Betty, the lightest, on top. The party (of six) had no time for the North Ridge, although they did reach the top of the Grandstand, where the proper difficulties begin. To my regret, I never asked Betty about this, nor about her participation in the 1936 first ascent of Mount Waddington, by Wiessner and House in 1936.
August 1952 became a terrible time for Betty. She was visited by Corinne, a 19-year-old cousin from Switzerland. Corinne made an easy climb with a group of women, but chose to descend by a difficult chimney, unroped. She fell to her death. Betty said nothing to me about this, She looked understandably grim and depressed.
Despite its comforts, the ranch was not a good location for a young climber without a driver's license, much less a car. Betty was no longer climbing, nor were any of her guests when I was there. The mountains were an hour north, and I had to take what rides might be offered. One morning I had to leave at 3:30 a.m.for a 7:30 start. Just as I was going, some of the staff returned from Jackson Hole. "Drinking and gambling," I said with head-shaking disapproval.
The guide service, run by Glenn Exum, had a small but enterprising team, many of whom ventured to the Himalaya and environs: Leigh Ortenburger (Makalu); Dick Pownall (Everest); Willi Unsoeld (Makalu and Everest). Willi also climbed in the Karakoram ( Nanda Devi, first ascent of Masherbrum), as did Art Gilkey (K2). Glenn was in his forties and had settled into a modest routine. He often took beginners to the practice rocks, and he guided the Grand Teton at least once a week. I wondered whether he ever felt like Eugene O'Neill's actor father, who played The Count of Monte Cristo more than 6000 times. Glenn had rarely ventured beyond the Tetons in recent years, but his conservatism was matched by a single daring ascent. On July 31, 1931, less than a month past his 20th birthday, alone and wearing football shoes, he found an entirely new route on the Grand. Only two routes had previously been climbed. Glenn's begins on the south side, on an upward angling ledge, "Wall Street." The ledge is very wide at the start, but narrows as you go up. Then it ends in a gap a few feet from a promising ridge. It is here that Glenn took one of the boldest leaps in climbing history. Why he chose to jump this gap is a mystery, as it is possible to climb past it with only moderate difficulty. The place is wildly exposed--Garnet Canyon is more than a thousand feet below, with nothing to stop you. If Glenn had missed...
But he did not miss. Then, still solo, he found his way up the ridge that now bears his name. It is a gorgeous route on solid rock, and not very hard in good weather. For more than 80 years it has been the most popular way up the mountain, much more so than the easier but less aesthetic original ascent line from the late 19th century. [The question of who actually reached the top first, and when, has been heatedly contentious. See Bonney & Bonney, The Grand Controversy, 1992.]
Before I had a chance at the Grand, I made a couple of shorter climbs. First was Symmetry Spire, by a moderate ridge named for Jack Durrance, who pioneered many routes as a Dartmouth climber in the later 1930's. My guide was Bob Merriam, a lanky, lantern-jawed cellular biology graduate student in his late twenties. I was stunned by the way Bob climbed it. He had put me second, perhaps to keep an eye on me, trusting me to belay the third man, C.D. MacDaniel. Most of the time, Bob stationed me carefully at belay stances, but he did not tie me in. I always had a strong position, but I was glad that C.D. did not test me with a fall. I was even more amazed by the way Bob led--completely unbelayed! I soon learned that in the big mountains you have to keep moving. Bob did take a belay, but only on the three hardest pitches.
It didn't feel like the Shawangunks.
Soon I was thought ready for the Grand, Exum Ridge. Our climb was uneventful, but noteworthy for its participants. The leader was Glenn Exum himself. He had seven followers, far more than usual. We were broken into three groups: Glenn led the first, with the least strong followers: Mary Blade and Henry Kritzler, a middle-aged self-described shepherd. (He may have had some additional line of work.) Ellis Blade, Mary's husband, led me on rope two. Last came three members of the Schickele family: Rainier and his two teenage sons, Peter and David. The weather was clear, the climb mostly uneventful. What I most recall is Glenn asking one of the Schickele brothers to hold one end of a rope while Glenn tossed it down to work out its kinks. But the brother didn't grip the end tight enough, and down went the rope, several hundred feet. Glenn descended to retrieve it. "It would have better to hold it tight," he said in his understated but uncompromising way. More than 60 years later I came across Peter in a concert audience. By then he was known to the world as PDQ Bach. "Come clean, Peter," I said "which one of you dropped the rope?" "Dropped what rope?" he said. By then PDQ and I were the only survivors of the party, so the question will never be answered.
Having completed the highest peak in the park, I was ready for the second, Mt. Owen. It was the last of the major peaks to be climbed (1930). There is no easy way up. Here was my introduction to the charismatic Willi Unsoeld, still known as Bill and still beardless. He was guiding three of us, including Ellis Blade, up the East Ridge. Willi woke us promptly at 3:00 a.m.--he never needed an alarm clock. As we crossed the chilly and still dark Teton Glacier. I felt a sudden pang of homesickness. Why wasn't I back in green sunny Connecticut with my parents and their swimming pool? But then the sun rose and I realized that I was where I belonged.
Willi decided to climb right up the final ridge, which had not been previously done. Even he required some direct aid. Ellis followed. We other two prusiked up. Willi's point was that we could behind leave our ice axes, heavy as befitted the times, by avoiding the customary snow slope to the south. On the descent someone kicked loose a stone, which didn't miss Willi by much. "A little quicker warning, please, gentlemen," was all he said, imperturbably.
Bob Merriam had an idea for a new route: the direct east face of Teepe Pillar. He recruited Chris Marshall and me as clients. Chris was a Stanford football player who must have weighed a good 200 pounds--60 more than me. He did not fall, so I did not have to see whether I could hold him. In fact nobody fell on this lovely climb on steep, solid rock. Many years later Fred Beckey asked me whether there had been any excitement, such as leader falls. Perhaps I should have invented something.
Then came the third-highest summit, Mount Moran. Bob Merriam was again my guide. We began our pack-in late afternoon. It was lucky that we had waited no longer: we had been walking an hour along String Lake before Bob realized that we had left the rope in the car. By the time we had retrieved it and reached the idyllic, grassy campsite, it was nearly dark.
Moran by the East Face (CMC) route proved an easy affair, though the farther right you move the harder it becomes. If you go even farther that way you encounter the enormous, improbable black dike that transects the face. The amazing feature is plainly seen from the valley below. On the return, I belayed Bob on Drizzlepuss, an aptly named dripping overhanging rock cleft.
Finally I made a guideless climb, the non-technical Mt. St. John, with Bill Buckingham. A few weeks earlier I had met Bill at Betty's ranch. He was a year older than I, a native of--but not typical of--Jackson Hole. He had short, sandy hair and wore glasses. Musically gifted, he played a sonata on a keyboard on Betty's porch. He was very smart (future Phi Beta Kappa, Stanford) and went on to a Princeton master's degree in mathematics. I wondered whether he could keep up with me on St. John. By the time we were halfway up he was thirty minutes ahead, and I was puffing. He waited patiently for me on the summit.
Bill was an unspectacular but reliable climber, very modest about his skills. One of his favorite assessments of a forbidding pitch was "It's goable." As Leigh Ortenburger said, "He gets up things." That included many new routes in the Tetons, Canada and Alaska. He disliked crowded regions and often headed for remote places with a partner or two. He died, much too early and not in the mountains, in 1990. As Leigh wrote in his American Alpine Journal obituary, "He maintained an informed and critical enthusiasm and interest in mountain-craft through all his years."
I had completed less than half my schedule of climbs. So I would have to return in 1953. During school term I used my Tetons experience, slightly embellished, as material for my 10th-grade English class essays.
But this time no remote dude ranch for me. I had convinced my parents that I knew what I was doing (partly true) and that I could take care of myself. My small mountain tent and I headed straight for the public campground, just a few hundred yards from Jenny Lake and access to the peaks. The camping limit had been cut in half, to 30 days. That would be just enough for me. Because I was alone, I did not want to appropriate an entire campsite. I chose a small, dusty corner without a fireplace or table: home for the next month.
It wasn't like the Trail Creek Ranch. No acquaintances; meals were up to me. I had a small Primus stove with which I cooked--that is, heated--Dinty Moore beef stew, Chef Boyardee spaghetti or whatever else I could find in a can at the Jenny Lake store, a mile's walk south. There I picked up newspapers from Denver and Salt Lake City. I read the baseball box scores obsessively while waiting for my next climb. A welcome diversion was helping out at Glenn Exum's training rocks, a short walk from the boat landing across Jenny Lake. There he prepared beginners for the Grand. They learned belaying and, above all, rappelling. The descent from the Grand is a mere scramble--except for a sudden airy drop of about 100 feet. The bottom half of the rappel is free--your feet cannot touch the rock. Reader, take note: we had no body slings or harnesses. You straddled the rope, brought it across your chest and over the opposite shoulder. If you did anything wrong, rope burns were an unpleasant possibility.
Evenings were quiet at the campground, except for the occasional bear. [Some years later Leif Patterson, who was sharing a campground tent with me one night, announced that we had company. A very large bear: front paws on the bench, head feasting on a pan of dried apples we had unwisely set out to hydrate. When finished, it walked quietly away.] There were occasional entertainments: the Schickeles arranging classical music for humming, or (later) Willi Unsoeld showing how his expedition had failed on Makalu (5th highest in the world; unclimbed until 1955). After more than 60 years I recall only one detail of Willi's narrative: the local support staff were making tea. They seemed to take a long time about it. That was because, in puzzled irritation, they were tearing open the bags to get at the leaves.
The guides' shack was a short walk from the campground. Glenn's wife Beth managed the concession with serene efficiency. I embarked on another Symmetry Spire route, my third: Templeton's Crack, a prominent gully just right of the Durrance Ridge. It is a mixture of steep chockstones and easy scree-walking. My guide was Mike Brewer, but we were not alone. Just ahead were Bill Unsoeld and his wife Jolene. She was diminutive and looked frail but was a strong climber who had little trouble with the route. I cannot say the same for me. Near the top I tried to follow Mike up an intimidating wall of gray rock. I ventured to the right. "Don't do the right side," Bill called down calmly. "That's suicide." I moved left. Bill said, "Don't do the left side. That's suicide." ... I did get up, eventually.
Next came Buck Mountain, a somewhat obscure destination toward the southern end of the range. This was my first time guided by Leigh Ortenburger. He came to be the great historian of the Tetons, about which he wrote many articles and several guidebooks. His own ascents, in the Andes and Himalaya, were challenging and imaginative. But in 1953 most of this was in the future. [Leigh was a guide for many years, but I think that Glenn did not fully appreciate his abilities. He is not pictured or even mentioned in Glenn's book.] My Gunks friend Mary Sylvander joined us on Buck. Mary was a feisty woman in her mid-forties with a husband, "my lord and master, Hjalmar," whom some thought imaginary. He never appeared on Gunks weekends (he was real, however). We packed up to the base of the north face, tenting in well after dark. Mary observed, with characteristic heat, that we could have stopped much sooner. Next day the face went easily; then Leigh led us down the West Ridge, which no one had climbed up. There it is in the guidebook: first descent, Aug. 11, 1953.
Leigh and Mary wondered about the army-surplus helmet I was wearing. Helmets were a rarity in those times. Mine felt heavy and uncomfortable, but it might have protected me from falling rocks. I'll never know, because it soon fell off and found a permanent home in a crevasse in the glacier below. I was past caring about the loss, because I had become horribly nauseated. This was my introduction to mountain sickness. "Unpleasant" doesn't begin to describe it. Yet by the time we reached the valley floor, I was fine. It's true what they say about this affliction:
1) Yes, it's awful;
2) Like sea sickness, it has two low points: when you think you are going to die, and when you realize that you won't;
3) It will go away when you descend.
My most exciting climb that year was the first complete ascent of the Jensen Ridge on Symmetry Spire. In its day, it was one of the hardest routes in the area. Just a moderate now, it must still be taken seriously, particularly because of loose rock in the middle section. My climb was guided by the indomitable Willi (as I can now call him) Unsoeld. I made only two contributions: by discouraging Willi from making a wild leap to a jutting flake near the top, and by thinking of the route in the first place. The previous summer from the Durrance Ridge I had seen four climbers on the ridge to the right. They were Willi, his pal Doc Lee, and a couple of college neophytes. I wondered how they could have reached their improbable, airy stances. They were on the Jensen Ridge, perhaps untouched since its first ascent by Bert Jensen in 1938. But Willi, like Jensen, had by-passed the forbidding first 300 feet of the ridge. My proposal was to start at the very bottom.
So in mid-August Willi and I, with Mary Sylvander, made the two-hour trudge to the start of the ridge. To my immense dismay, Willi revealed that he and Doc Lee had climbed the bottom 300 feet two days earlier. Moreover, the first pitch had been largely direct aid, and he wasn't going to repeat that. So we would just have to start up Templeton's and traverse, as he had done a year before. Unless. "There are some slabs to the right," Willi said doubtfully, "but they looked much too hard." He tried them. To his amazement, they proved easy. After more than 60 years I remember clearly the next few pitches. They were steep, beautiful, solid rock. A right-facing corner required a layback. Here Mary took a fall--the only one of the day. Willi held it from a tiny stance some 60 feet above. "I wondered what would happen," he said, with his customary calm.
The route eases off after those first 300 feet, but the rock is less sound. Then it gets steeper and harder as you approach a scary overhang. I have no idea how Willi managed it the previous year, but this time he stood beneath a jagged flake. I could see his legs flex for a jump. I shouted something--maybe "For God's sake, Willi" or just "Don't!" Anyway, he didn't. Instead he entered a cleft that the guidebook describes as awkward and overhanging. After a few moves the ridge opened onto grassy slopes on which sheep could have grazed. And that was where the hard climbing ended.
The ridge became a Tetons classic for a time; in 1959 Appalachia called it "one of the hardest climbs" in the Park. That's now far from true, but like any other steep rock, it can be dangerous. In late August 1976 my Gunks friend Chuck Loucks took a fatal fall from the easier but less stable middle section of the ridge. Chuck was a strong, careful climber, and a well-loved one. He had apparently thought that the moderate pitch required little protection. There have been other fatalities on the climb. I learned in 2016 that the route had gathered a reputation for hazard.
Symmetry Spire and I were not done with each other. The very next day (according to Exum records, though I doubt it was so soon) I was back on the Southwest Ridge with Leigh. The second client was a swarthy Austrian, Oskar Dorfmann, 49 years old. Oskar was, in the best sense of the word, a character. He was voluble yet modest, and full of European wisdom. One of his many talents was to make humorous water colors of mountains and their climbers. He had a fat book of these, eminently publishable. (You can find two of them in a book about Glenn Exum published by the Grand Teton Natural History Association.) He resembled the leading Gunks climber Hans Kraus, whom he claimed to know. (Right: Oskar's photo of Leigh and me on top of Symmetry.)
By now I had spent more than three weeks in my little dirt patch of campground, preparing my repetitive meals. I repaired to a nearby dude ranch, the El-Bo. My former climbing partner Chris Marshall was working there. It was a lot more nutritious and comfortable than camping out. I admit it.
Leigh Ortenburger asked me to accompany him on an unclimbed pinnacle on the Grand. There were few virgin peaks in the range, and this turned out to be my only chance to climb one. But on the morning of the attempt, Leigh rapped on my window to say he had abandoned the project: Unsoeld had got there first! The pinnacle was accordingly dubbed "Okie's Thorn" because Leigh, who was from Oklahoma, had missed out. As had I. The Unsoeld route is not very hard, 5.4. A year later Bill Buckingham established a harder line. This little peak draws scant attention, and the descent is uninviting. The guidebook: "The narrow, steep, and extremely rotten couloir descending west from the notch should be avoided at all costs. The couloir descending to the east, although not so steep, is very nearly as dangerous and is also not recommended." This description has tempered my regret.
I did have a chance for a guideless technical ascent. Jim McCarthy, the emerging star of the Shawangunks, led a repeat of the previous summer's Teepe Pillar route. With us was Jim's Princeton friend, Tim Mutch. Tim was in military service and had driven overnight all the way from Kansas or some such place. Despite his exhaustion, he was fine on the climb except for one slip. He thought that I did not catch him fast enough and expressed serious displeasure.
On the flight home, I bought newspapers at every stop. They carried a story about Art Gilkey, an Exum guide I had never met. He had been on K2, the 2nd-highest mountain in the world and still unclimbed. The heartbreaking story is familiar to all followers of serious mountaineering. His team were poised for a triumphant ascent, when a fierce storm pummeled them for nearly a week. Gilkey developed life-threatening thrombosis, was lowered in an improvised stretcher, saved by a miraculous belay, but then apparently swept away by an avalanche. As I read on, the Tetons momentarily felt very small.
The next year, 1954, I accepted George Evans' unexpected invitation to join him in the Tetons in early July. George was one of the younger AMC Gunks climbers, but still three years my senior, and an MIT undergraduate. Besides being reprimanded for reckless climbing by his father, I had not had much contact with the Evans family.
The AMC presence that summer was modest. I was guideless now. Our Gunks training had not prepared us for the big mountains, where speed is essential, as we discovered on the East Ridge of Nez Percé, a Robert Underhill classic from 1931. George and I were accompanied by Bill Cropper, another AMC Gunky. Bill was a strong partner, but a third person impeded our already slow progress. The East Ridge is a complicated affair, with rappels from two sub-summits. To make these easier, George had brought a very light rappel line. It was very thin indeed, and when it slid onto my bare neck it left a nasty rope burn. The climb is not technically difficult if you knew where you are going. Because we often didn't know, it was almost sunset when we reached the top. The descent is easy, but you do not wish to fall off. Thus my first mountain bivouac. I had never been so high without sunshine or a sleeping bag; it can get pretty cold at 12,000 feet, even in summer. We paced about for warmth and managed intermittent sleep. At first light we hurried down to the valley to assure the rangers at the check-out station that we were fine, really we were, and they need not send a rescue party.
George and I climbed the Exum Ridge without being benighted. Now for something harder. From Jenny Lake, the Grand looks like a stroll: just head west and keep going. But if you do, you will encounter a gap of several thousand feet; you will find yourself not on the Grand at all, but atop the aptly named Disappointment Peak. This would not be the summit you had hoped for.
To make the ascent from this side, you must undertake the challenging East Ridge. Amazingly, this intricate route--only the second to be done on the mountain--by Bob Underhill and Ken Henderson in 1929, two years before Exum's solo. Because of its altitude and tricky route-finding, it remains a serious proposition. George and I hiked up to the base camp at Amphitheater Lake, a gorgeous spot favored by climbers and bears. Bill Cropper was not with us; on an earlier attempt, he had been injured when the edge of a snow gully gave way as he was bridging to adjacent rock. We made the obligatory early morning start from the lake, but as we approached the first technical section, ominous clouds swept in. We retreated to our camp, packed it up and headed down to Jenny Lake. There we met Ellis Blade. "I think you should have kept going," he said. "You would have had a good time." Maybe so: no bad weather ensued. But I remembered these words eight years later, when Ellis led a much too big AMC group on a dangerous route on the Grand. They encountered a storm--a really bad one--and spent two nights out in miserable conditions. One young participant died.
A few days later George and I returned to Amphitheater Lake, determined. The next morning was blue and sunny, and we soon passed our previous high point. The East Ridge is complicated by two great towers, dramatically visible from north and south. How to get around them? We had picked up a lot of what today's climbers call "beta." Beta said pass the first tower on the left (the first ascent party had gone right) , the second on the right. This meant following a snow couloir (cautiously--this is where Bill Cropper had his fall) and striking the ridge above the first tower, known as the Molar Tooth after its two prongs. The snow was kind to us, and soon we had gained the ridge proper. The second tower was intimidating. We had to pass it to the north, in the cooling afternoon shadows. I started up a wide, obvious crack. It was damp and unwelcoming. Once up this pitch, however, we were past the difficulties and only about 1000 feet from the top. But we had again been slow; it was late, we were tired, and the exposure was considerable. We tried to hurry along--the last thing we wanted was another chilly bivouac. My ice axe, one of the ash-shafted ones we used in those days, clattered as it dangled heavily from my wrist. The route, if you picked it right, was little more than scrambling, but we reached the summit only toward evening.
There is a relatively quick way down to Amphitheater Lake, but it follows a steep snow couloir. We chose the long, easy descent into Garnet Canyon, then branched to the trail to the lake. The only drawback is that the last few miles are uphill, disagreeable after 20 hours of climbing. I recall the last hour and a half as my most tedious, ever. When we reached the lake at midnight, we found that a bear had visited our tent, without benign intent.
It was now August, and a number more Appies showed up. First came a strong climber and his surly, non-climbing wife. Several more appeared, and we moved into the couple's campsite. We thought this was AMC camaraderie, but the couple saw it as an intrusion and became very angry indeed.
As soon as we could, we moved to another campsite.
By now I was the more eager for the arrival of my (slightly older) high school climbing partners, Mike Wortis and Steve Mann. They were driving Mike's 1941 wood-bodied Ford station wagon from Spokane, where they had spent a remunerative eight weeks canning peas at a Green Giant factory. Days passed; snow melted; lupine grew in the meadows. At last one day they showed up in a burst of campground dust. In Washington, Mike had taken the first leader fall any of us had incurred. Not serious, but a reminder of our vulnerability.
With only a few weeks remaining of our summer, we hurried up to the peaks. It was Steve and Mike's first time in the range, so I repeated the Exum Ridge with them. On the trail down from Garnet Canyon, we skipped the long switchbacks and roared straight down the grassy slopes. This was a speedy method, but also a destructive one; it caused significant erosion and was soon prohibited. Then we had a go at the enormous and poorly-defined--that is, confusing--south face of Storm Point. Halfway up I led what was for me a hard pitch and embarked on another. I was stopped by an intimidating overhang. Mike took over and solved the problem in fine style. That's one reason I liked to climb with him. I was sure that we had made a new route and reported it accordingly. But the description never went into the guidebook--it was mentioned only as a "subsequent early climb."
The three of us joined Bill Buckingham for Rock of Ages (photo, right). I have only two memories:
--the approach couloir was loose and frightening;
--the key pitch led up and right across a steep face. I tried to lead it but backed off in favor of Bill, who said "It looks goable," and went right up. This was not the last time that Bill took over for me.
All too soon it was time to drive back east. We stopped at Devils Tower, on the far side of Wyoming. I had been entranced and frightened by this strange formation rising a thousand feet above the plain, ever since, at age 8, I had seen it on the cover of Natural History Magazine. We realized we had no chance of climbing it, because the Park Service was known severely to discourage such efforts. Nevertheless we decided to inquire, just in case.
"You want to go up there today?" the ranger asked.
It was 10:00 a.m.
We concealed our amazement and said the next day would be just fine. To our knowledge there were only two routes on the Tower: Fritz Wiessner's in 1937 and Jack Durrance's leaning column, from the following year. Wiessner, a specialist on such terrain, had climbed a difficult crack, placing a single piton a long way up. We headed for Durrance's column instead.
There are two serious pitches on the Durrance: the broken column and a wide crack above. We drew straws for leading. Mike got the column, I the crack. The leaning column looks as though it had been tipped over for climbers. It proved unexpectedly balancey, and I was glad of Mike's top rope. My pitch was much longer, but presented no route-finding problems. Your right foot goes into the (very convenient) off-width gap between the column and the wall, while a serendipitous crack a few feet left accommodates the other foot. The only problem is that the crack gives out near the end, and you must commit yourself to the gap. The pitch is now graded 5.6+, pretty challenging for kids like us. After that it's hardly a scramble to the huge, nearly flat summit.
When we got down, early afternoon, clanking with hardware, a family of tourists took our picture. We felt like heroes, for about ten minutes.
Two years later Mike and I returned with our Harvard partner, Dave Toland. We climbed an aid route several columns right of the Durrance, using flimsy pitons left by army troops who had been practicing there. A bunch of these lay unused at the base of the climb, All Mike remembers is getting his foot stuck in a crack and wondering whether he could ever free it without breaking his ankle.
Afterwards we ran into Jim McCarthy, whose presence was a sign of change. He created a number of routes on the Tower's longer and harder north side. One recent year 4000 people reached the top of the Tower. Our 1954 ascent had been only the 41st.
By 1955 I had graduated from high school and expanded my mountaineering destinations: Wyoming's Wind Rivers and Alberta's Selkirks. But, in between, Mike Wortis and I had a few weeks in the Tetons. We undertook the south face of Symmetry Spire--a new route, we thought until we found the first piton halfway up. Once more we wandered up the south side of Storm Point, with no idea where we were going. We'll never know whether this was a new route, even in part. The guidebook forgoes description of the face; it just quotes Willi Unsoeld: "a real wilderness of broken walls, ridges which disappear and gullies which lead nowhere."
We needed to conclude with something adventurous. I was 15 years old when Bob Merriam told me about the Red Sentinel. "This remarkable chisel-like pinnacle," as the guidebook says. Hans Kraus, the leading Shawangunks climber of his day, had made several attempts from the northwest side but was stymied 30 feet from the top. In 1950 it was one of the few remaining unclimbed points in the range. On a rare collective day off from guiding duties, Dick Pownall, Leigh Ortenburger, Mike Brewer and Bob Merriam reached the summit, starting on the east face, then turning onto the very exposed north. More then 60 years later, when he was in his nineties, Bob sent me a narrative he had written for a publication in North Carolina, where he had been living in retirement. He led the second pitch: "relentlessly vertical.... There is nothing climbable near our corner position. It looks possible, however, to traverse about ten feet onto the face on tiny ledges.... Now irreversibly committed.... Can't release a hold for selecting and driving a piton.... Breathing hard, hug the face and look around.... More than forty feet above Dick now." Finally, to his vast relief, Bob does manage to place a piton. The way to the top remains difficult, but at least he has some protection.
In 1955, when Mike and I attempted it, the Sentinel had seen almost no subsequent ascents. I led the first pitch (photo, left), so that Mike could have the second, harder one. The first, originally led by Dick Pownall, starts up a jam crack, then goes right to an airy belay. I climbed the crack and clipped the piton at its top, took one look at the traverse, and went back down. I slowly worked up my determination and climbed back up to the piton. Rather than embarrass myself with a second retreat, I made my was across the traverse ("delicate," says the guidebook) and clipped the belay. Then it was Mike's turn. A long time later he still recalls the first intimidating moves onto the north face, as well as manteling upon a jutting crystal farther along. Whatever he encountered did not long impede him. When we reached the top we could not find a sign-in register. But we were there. Really. I have a photo to prove it.
I had already said farewell to high school. And to the Tetons--though not for very long.
I was in college by now and accompanied my Harvard Mountaineering Club friends to Canada and Peru. But the Tetons still drew me on. I did finally climb the North Face of the Grand--on my to-do list from 1952. I would not have made it without the assistance of younger and stronger Harvard climbers. I owe a special debt to Pete Carman for leading me over the top two pitches, the hardest on the route (photo, right). But I never did succeed on the Grand's North Ridge, a prime Underhill route from 1931. I was all prepared. Leigh Ortenburger had told me how to manage the crux chockstone--start by facing out, then swing around past the stone. I never was able to try this. Bob Page, Leif Patterson and I started off for the Grandstand, the huge bluff from which the Ridge (really an edge or corner) begins. Getting there is mostly a scramble, but the line is confusing. And you have to worry about rocks tumbling down from the North Face. By the time we three were atop the Grandstand, it was nearly noon, and clouding up ominously. The ridge looked very forbidding and we retreated. I wondered at the audacity of Underhill and Fritiof Fryxell who pioneered it so many years before, when there were so few other routes on the mountain. These days, the top of the Grandstand is often reached by traversing from the Lower Saddle.
Even bolder was Bob Page's and my attempt on the direct South Buttress of Mt. Moran. Its key pitch took some 7 hours on the 1953 first ascent. It was led by Dick Emerson, a park ranger and one of the best climbers in the vicinity. It required a daring pendulum from a partially-driven wafer piton. When finally freed in 1979, it was rated 5.12-. I doubt that Bob and I could have managed it anyway, but we'll never know, because the easier part of the route took us so long that we had to bivouac. It was a chilly night, aggravated by thirst. Dawn revealed Jackson Lake in all its watery blue, thousands of feet below us. We rushed down and never went near the South Buttress again.
In 2016, after more than 40 years, I returned to the Tetons. I was 79. My intent was to re-climb the Durrance Ridge of Symmetry--my first route in the range, 64 years earlier. Because my frequent partner, Bosley Sidwell, was busy organizing his climbing camp for fictional characters, I hired a guide, just as in 1952. Much had changed. Instead of half a dozen guides, the Exum service had about 40. And there was another service with 20. Fees had exploded; instead of $20, I would pay $575 for a full day. But it would be worth it, for such an end to my Tetons career--and to this memoir. To my surprise, my guide told me that Symmetry had declined in popularity. He had never done the Durrance and was unsure of the route into the approach gully. The path that I recalled from long before had vanished. We started up a rocky bushwhack. Almost immediately I fell backwards and bloodied my arm. I tried to continue, but clearly this was not my day, or my year. The September morning was crisp and sunny. I could see Symmetry, with its enticing routes, as though they were only a few hundred feet away. But they were too far for me. This was not how I had hoped to conclude this account, but sometimes the mountains leave you no choice.
NOTE: A slightly different version of this memoir appeared in Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2020 and Winter/Spring 2021
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