Famous U.S. Summits: Grand Teton, Wyoming

Rising 7,000 feet from the valley floor with no foothills in the foreground, Wyoming’s Tetons are one of America’s most dramatic mountain ranges. The steep, rocky, jagged peaks that form its skyline are home to alpine climbing routes and ski descents, with almost no easy routes to the top.

The crown jewel in the range is the highest peak, the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, subject of dreams and obsessions of mountaineers, skiers, and photographers. The Grand is a wonder to climb up, ski down or just see in person.

History and Culture

Until the mid-1800s, the Tetons and Jackson Hole valley were the domain of the Shoshone, Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, and Crow tribes, as well as a few fur trappers. The legend of the Grand Teton’s name owes itself to one of the two groups, but no one’s really sure. One likely explanation is that Iroquois or French–Canadian members of a fur-trading expedition in 1818 named the range “Trois Tetons” (French for “three breasts”). Another is that the mountains were named after the Teton Sioux tribe: the native word “tetonwan” means “dwellers of the prairie,” and the Teton Sioux moved west from the Midwest prairie in the 1700s.

After Ferdinand Hayden led a surveying and mapping expedition in the area in 1872, the peak appeared as “Mount Hayden” on maps. Two members of Hayden’s expedition explored the range, and claimed to have been the first to summit the peak.

The First Ascent

In July 1872, Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson, two members of the 14-person Hayden Expedition, say they pulled off the first ascent of the Grand Teton. As far as the men’s writings about the trip go, they definitely climbed to the Upper Saddle (13,160 feet) and the Enclosure, a sub-summit about 500 feet lower than the Grand.

However, in 1898, William Owen, Franklin Spalding, Frank Petersen and John Shive climbed to the summit via their own route (now the 5.4 Owen–Spalding), and looked all over the summit for a sign of a previous ascent, and found nothing—strange, since it was customary for members of Langford and Stevenson’s expedition to build cairns on summits.

After the 1898 summit climb, William Owen wrote a story for the New York Herald claiming the first ascent and refuting Langford and Stevenson’s story. Stevenson had died in 1888, but Langford and Owen wrote letters to the editor arguing back and forth in an outdoor magazine, and neither backed down. More evidence from both sides was found over the years, and while papers, articles and even books were written, nothing definitive was ever settled. In 1929, a plaque (paid for by William Owen and his wife) was made with a profile of Owen (but not Spalding, who led the climb), commemorating the first ascent on August 11, 1898. Three climbers hauled the plaque to the summit and installed it.

In 1977, someone stole the plaque from the summit, and the controversy continues to this day.

Classic Routes

In Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s legendary book, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, the Grand Teton is the only mountain (or rock formation) to have three separate climbs make the list: the Direct Exum (5.6), the North Ridge (5.7), and the North Face (5.8). All the routes on the Grand are serious undertakings, and most are two- to four-day affairs for the majority of climbers. Nevertheless, many people have climbed from the valley floor to the summit in a single day.

In 1931, Glenn Exum borrowed a pair of football cleats from his friend and mentor, mountaineering pioneer Paul Petzoldt (who had first climbed the Grand in 1924 at age 16, wearing cowboy boots), and went exploring, free soloing what’s now a 6-pitch 5.5 route, the Upper Exum Ridge. Petzoldt did the second ascent the next day. Five years later, Jack Durrance and partner Kenneth Henderson added a direct start to the route, the 5.7 six-pitch Lower Exum.

The same year Glenn Exum soloed his namesake route, Fritiof Fryxell and Robert Underhill climbed the now-classic North Ridge, a 12-pitch exposed 5.8 that’s usually at least partly icy or snowy because of its position. In 1936, Jack Durrance, Paul Petzoldt and Eldon Petzoldt first climbed the North Face, a 12-pitch route that earned notoriety as the only true “Nordwand” in America. More classic routes went up over the next few decades, and new routes continue to be discovered even in the 21st Century.

The Birth of American Ski Mountaineering

If you look up from the valley floor and the Grand Teton looks like a challenging climb, skiing it would seem ridiculous, or even insane. Until 1971, it was considered impossible (and it still is, for most of us).

Bill Briggs, already an accomplished skier (with a permanently fused hip since childhood), climbed to the summit of the Grand by himself on June 15, 1971, then turned his skis down the east face and made a couple turns before he punched through the crust. He fell, rolled once, got back up on his skis, and made it down safely, linking 50- to 55-degree couloirs and rappelling once over a chockstone. He ran into a few people on his way down, and when they asked where he’d been skiing that day, he answered, “the Grand.” When he got back to Jackson the next day, he told a few more people, who either didn’t believe him or weren’t impressed.

Briggs drove out to the Jackson Hole Airport; from there he could still see his tracks from the day before. He called the Jackson Hole News, and photographer Ginny Huidekoper got an aerial shot of Briggs’ line down from the summit. The photo became an iconic poster. Although other events marked the beginnings of ski mountaineering in Europe, Briggs’ first descent of the Grand is considered the birth of American ski mountaineering. The line, of course, is still quite serious (it wasn’t guided until 33 years after its first descent, when legendary skier Doug Coombs took a client down it), but within reach for expert ski mountaineers.

Climb it

The two most commonly-climbed routes on the Grand, the Owen–Spalding and Upper Exum, are typically tackled in two, if not three, days, although both are doable in a day for competent, fit parties who can handle 7,000 feet of elevation gain and loss—and get good weather.

A popular strategy is to break the approach up into two days, using the first day to hike camping gear up to one of several bivy sites as low as 9,000 feet or as high as the Lower Saddle at 11,600 feet. Rising early on the second day, climbers then hike the rest of the approach, checking weather at the Lower Saddle before scrambling to the base of the Owen–Spalding and starting the technical climbing. From the summit, climbers descend all the way back to the valley on day two, or descend back to their bivy gear and camp one more night before descending on day three.

The crux of the 5.4 Owen­–Spalding route is either the route-finding or the exposure. The two most famous moves on the route, while at the low end of most climbers’ abilities on a technical level, sit above hundreds of feet of air. The “Belly Roll,” a traverse around a flake, and the “Belly Crawl,” a squeeze through a narrow horizontal slot, are moves that are memorable, if not downright infamous, on the way to the summit on the three-pitch route.

The Upper Exum traverses out on a ledge system called “Wall Street” before climbers rope up. The leader then has to step across a gap onto the first holds, hanging on above hundreds of feet of exposure below. Glenn Exum, on the first ascent, famously jumped across the gap, although most parties don’t find jumping necessary there. From there, the route climbs six or seven pitches along the ridge, never harder than 5.5, but always with great views and often exposed.

Getting there

In Jackson, drive north 12.5 miles on US 191 to a left turn into Grand Teton National Park. Follow signs to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, about 7 miles from the park entrance.

From the town of Jackson or the Jackson Hole Airport, drive north on U.S. 191 and turn left into Grand Teton National Park. Follow signs to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, about 7 miles from the park entrance.

More Information

Grand Teton National Park
A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, by Leigh N. Ortenburger and Reynold G. Jackson 
Jackson Hole Mountain Guides

Photography by ©Scott Rinckenberger