Wyoming Towers (1990)

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Wolf’s Head (12,200)                 Pingora (11,900)

The Cirque of the Towers

For an hour at the parking we sorted our jumble of climbing gear spread out across the tarmac. On a sunny July afternoon in 1990 Jeff Beyer had met me at the Salt Lake airport in his camping truck. We had yet to shop for food and so it was late when we embarked on the two-hundred mile drive to the gateway of Wyoming’s wild Wind River Range.

We passed Pinedale, Wyoming and by the time we reached gravel and dirt road country—fifty miles to go—night had fallen. The bouncing headlights startled an astonishing number of jack rabbits bounding this way and that as Jeff careened wildly left and right in attempts to avoid them. At Big Sandy Opening at last we stepped out into the quiet under a vast expanse of ebon sky framed by the ghostly tops of lodge pole pines and filled with to the brim with stars.  We set up our tent and tucked in for the night.

Big Sandy (9,000 feet) is the trailhead for access to the Cirque of the Towers, an immense glacial basin in the Wind River Range surrounded by spectacular granite peaks as high as 12,000 feet. The Northeast Ridge of Pingora (11,900) and the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (12,200) are listed in Steck and Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs in North America. We hoped to reach their summits.

90073020_BigSandyAt 10,400 the bowl of the cirque is 1,400 feet above Big Sandy but climbers must labor over Jackass Pass, an additional 400 feet, on the way in. Our acclimatization to altitude from sea level was effectively zero. Thus, with sixty pound packs, we found the gasping, halting slog to the pass almost un-doable. In fact, it was un-doable by sundown. We bivouacked for the night at the height of land by Arrowhead Lake and descended into the cirque just after dawn the next morning.

This cirque is vast—for those of you from New England—the width of about twenty-five of Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravines. We pitched the tent near a huge rock (easy to find—no?) and the next day climbed Pingora, but by an easier way than by the more challenging classic route. We switched leads to the summit from which we had a magnificent view of the first few pitches of Wolf’s Head’s storied East Ridge.

By the time we reached the tent again—it was hard to find—we realized that we had packed in nowhere near enough food to stay on without resupply, and reluctantly agreed that we’d have to hike out the next morning and return. I thought to fix the tent location using two lines of sight from the surrounding peaks and closer landmarks. On the way out, downhill and lightly loaded, we made good time and even detoured to climb close-by Sundance Pinnacle which featured a spectacular overhang on the very end of which to pose—an obligatory photo opp appropriately called the “Diving Board.”

On our return locating camp the next morning was easy. Walk to satisfy the first line of sight and then travel along that until aligning the second. Behold! The tent!

Before dawn the next day we set out for the classic route on Wolf’s Head.  Climbing the steep face to gain the east ridge from above the talus (p0) was unexpectedly strenuous. Following Jeff  I felt shaky and almost gave up at a hard corner, but his encouragement and some tension in the rope got us both safely onto the ridge.  From there its first five-hundred feet curve upward like a suspension bridge cable; spectacular chasms on either side. I led the first and Jeff the next pitch to the end of the narrow edge, up a steep crack system, and into the chaotic jumble of gigantic blocks and gendarmes that comprise the higher reaches of the ridge.

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Wolf’s Head: Pitch 8

Somehow we found the route for which we had no detailed description [1][2]. We just kept venturing, squeezing through crevices between towers, stepping gingerly along narrow ledges, now passing towers on the south and now on the north, by turns in deep shadow and open to the brilliant sky. One long memorable balance traverse (p8) I led on my toes stepping gingerly off at the end with my heart in my mouth. Jeff followed, wisely instead, with his hands on the ledge—nothing for his feet but friction on the steep wall below—and at the end stepped gracefully and safely over to me.

It fell to Jeff to lead the most airy pitch of all on the north side of the final tower.

In the jungle of granite blades the summit was hard to anticipate. We rested for a while at a place that seemed the highest and then turned our attention to getting down. We had no guide book description of the descent, having been assured that the rappel points would be sufficiently evident; collections of pitons and old slings left behind by those before us. And just such a nest of old gear was visible not far below to which we rappelled straightaway without much thought. From there, however, the way ceased to look promising; we could see nothing below to indicate previous passage and so, choosing a likely way, we tossed the rope ends into the air and I went down. At ropes-end I found a small edge on which to stand but there were no fissures or features there with which to anchor the next rappel and so, laboriously, I re-climbed the rope to Jeff. It took forever. We tried another way; this time finding a piton and one weathered sling. It was not really a much better indication of the right route but we backed up the piton and sling anyway, and carried on. By now the light was fading.

Six rappels in all, almost a thousand feet, deposited us at the top of a steep snowfield in the dark—only to confirm what we had begun to suspect for a while—that we were now in the wrong cirque. An exhausting trek clockwise and completely around the massive base of Pingora took many hours of stumbling along over the boulder strewn broken ground.  Thankfully we had packed our headlamps and there were no serious technical obstacles. But, maddeningly, at the end we couldn’t find the tent owing to the invisibility of my daytime lines of sight. Eventually, after another exhausting hour of blind meanderings, we just happened upon it. Then ensued the sleep of the dead.

The Black Hills

We had a climbing date in South Dakota with some friends from Boston and so began a long drive east toward Rapid City. We camped out on BLM land near Ten Sleep Canyon, arriving the next day in Custer. Somewhere on US-16 near Moorecroft we noticed a barely visible speck on the northern horizon: Devil’s Tower.

Along the way we began to be aware of motorcycles. Then, more motorcycles. And farther east they seemed to fill the highway. What’s happening?

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Mt. Rushmore

It wasn’t long before we had the answer: the week-long Fiftieth Anniversary of the Sturgis (SD) Rally [3][4]. By the time we reached Custer Harleys were ubiquitous, filling the streets and parked in endless (carless) rows along the curbs. We heard that there were 250,000 cycles and half a million riders. It was truly amazing. We camped again in isolation at the end of a long dirt road somewhere and all night—and in all of our four days in the area—we were never out of hearing of the proximate or distant roar of the infamous Harley Hog. The rumor was that ice—for the beer—had run out on the third day and was being trucked in by eighteen-wheeler from Denver.

Jeff, in an earlier incarnation, had owned a Moto Guzzi and had been for a while immersed in motorcycle culture. He became my guide to the Rally. Many of the leather jacketed and tattooed beefers were accompanied by their wives and girlfriends. However, there were many sturdy and confident women gunning their own throaty machines. Further, in the vein of the socially incorrect, along I-90 into Sturgis, hordes of bikers lined the sloping grassy banks, some with huge signs making inappropriate suggestions to the passing ladies riding pillion.

Jeff had his eye on a climb (5.8) called “Star Dancer” in back of the Presidential faces of Mount Rushmore. At the parking lot jammed with bikes the ranger estimated 25,000 for the day. We did the climb, a classic, and went on to visit the famous Needles where we encountered legendary climbing local Gene Larson [5]. He suggested “Overexposure” (5.8). I led a scary first pitch: a yard wide “chimney” between two of the “needles”; one foot and a hand on each wall and no protection until the first bolt fifteen feet up.

Devil’s Tower

Ultimately our friends from Boston were unable to join us and so we set off for Devil’s Tower [6] back in Wyoming—a hundred miles away.

90080703_DevilsTowerThe Tower was first climbed in 1893 by two local ranchers using a wooden ladder the rungs of which were stakes driven into the longest continuous crack they could find [7]. The first mountaineering ascent is due to Fritz Wiessner, Bill House, and Lawrence Coveny who established the Wiessner route in 1937. In 1941 a guy parachuted onto the top and had to be rescued. By 1985 some 2,600 climbers had reached the summit, among them our own Henry Barber, Chip Lee, and Ajax Greene via new routes.

When at last we could see the Tower we were accompanied, now as usual, by myriad bikers and upon seeing the huge lineup at the ranger kiosk our fear was that we’d not get a campsite for the night. The creeping line was nearly an hour long; in it were barely a half-dozen cars. Finally and surprisingly, though, there were plenty of tent sites. Bikers are by and large day trippers only; not into roughing it. By dusk all was quiet.

We made a mountaineer’s “alpine” start; up before dawn and well underway before sunrise, hoping to be the first on our route, the Durrance [8], the easiest way to the top. The sun was just rising as we left the visitor center permitting me to get a photo’ of the Tower’s shadow stretching far away across the western desert.

The route was open. The first pitch attains the top of a basaltic column broken off from the main mass of the Tower and leaning against it. I agreed to the first lead and, despite some misgivings, found it easier than I had feared. Jeff took the next, harder pitch.

The columns are largely hexagonal prisms more than a yard across and separated by inches wide cracks inside of which jammed hands and toes can find tenuous grips. This pitch was steep and our longest; maybe one-hundred feet. The uniformity of the column cross sections render each move upward an exact repetition of the one previous. The cracks make it pretty safe because camming devices fit into them but their continuous similarity meant that Jeff wished his varied assortment of cams had been all of the same size.

Eventually from high above I faintly heard “off belay,” disassembled my anchor, and followed the pitch.

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Devil’s Tower Summit: Jeff Beyer & Bill Atkinson

In my recollection we climbed it in three or four pitches. The top of my next pitch had a scary (but very satisfying) “jump” across air and after another scramble pitch, we were at the top. In the center of this tiny elevated patch of desert scrub was a cairn and we sat for a while to enjoy the view and have a bite. The famous Vulgarian sign-post of yore and lore was gone: “No climbing beyond this point.”

I had a moment of difficulty on the first rappel. Near the end of the ropes I could see that I was inconveniently far to the left of the next anchor and that I would need both hands—as well as both feet—to make it over there. I had to think about what I was doing. Tying off the rappel, traversing over, and releasing the knot again to descend a few more feet to the anchor had to be accomplished free of error.

By the time we reached the tourist path around the base of the Tower the Harley hoards had arrived. While making our way back to the car, festooned in ropes and gear as we were, every group we encountered stopped us. And in every case their queries were the same and asked in the same order, over, and over.

“Are you going to climb it?”  We just did.

“How long did it take?” About four hours.

“Did you get to the top?”  Yes.

“What’s up there? A patch of desert about the size of the parking lot.

“How did you get down?”  We rappelled. (Rappelled? What? Etc.)

In the last leather jacketed biker group—with all the same queries—was a tall, stunning blonde in a white shirt open to an overhand knot at the navel, leaving nothing whatsoever to our poor, unwashed imaginations. We were poleaxed.

And so we had topped the “Towers” and gotten safely down and, almost, without pain. The roar and then the muttering of the “Hogs” faded away and we returned, until the next time, to the real and horizontal world.


[1] A wonderful SuperTopo log of the route with beautiful photo’s: http://www.supertopo.com/tr/South-Buttress-of-Pingora-and-East-Ridge-of-Wolfs-Head-Linkup/t12247n.html

[2] First ascent by Fred Becky: Bonney, O.H. & L.G., Field Book the Wind River Range, Bonney & Bonney, 1960, pp. 480-481:
http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12196354802/Field-BookThe-Wind-River-Range-from-Guide-to-the-Wyoming-Mountains-and-Wilderness-Areas-with-Supplement

[3] Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgis_Motorcycle_Rally

[4] New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/11/us/dakota-town-shaken-by-250000-biker-rally.html

[5] Gene Larson: http://sylvanrocks.com/history_custer/photographers_peak/just_another_pretty

[6] Devil’s Tower: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devils_Tower
Also: NPS webpage.

[7] Gardiner, S. and Guilmette, R., Devil’s Tower National Monument; a Climber’s Guide, 1986, The Mountaineers.

[8] The Durrance route with many photo’s: https://www.mountainproject.com/photo/108391740/123-jump
This one is the jump across.


A Week in the Tetons: Moran by the CMC, Owen by the Koven Route (1972)

Mt. Moran (12,600)

Late one morning in July 1972 Eric Engberg and I plodded along the trail skirting the south shore of Leigh Lake in Jackson Hole under blue skies and the weight of oppressive packs.  Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees casting little dancing circular spots on the dusty trail ahead. I scrutinized them closely and, an hour or more from our start at Jenny Lake, began to see, as expected, that they had become tiny crescents like the sickle of the new or dying moon. A partial solar eclipse (July 10th) was by then well under way and the light had dimmed noticeably. I had fun accosting the occasional oncoming hikers—especially those with kids—to point out the little solar images.  Many seemed unaware that an eclipse was in progress and almost none had ever realized that the little circular spots seen on any day in dappled sunlight are crude pinhole camera images of the sun’s disc.

We aspired to climb 12,600 foot Mt. Moran whose summit was more than one vertical mile above where we stood then on the trail.

At dawn the previous morning, after a seventy-five mile drive from Buford in the high country of the White River and after having nearly collided with two deer on the darkened road, I had picked up a grossly sleep-deprived Eric at the Greyhound stop in Craig, Colorado.  The prospect of the adventure ahead excited me and I felt a bit guilty over having left my family behind at the dude ranch where we had been vacationing for a week.

Eric had hoped to climb the Grand Teton; not “counting” a previous guided ascent made earlier in his boyhood.  But, since I had climbed the Grand, I argued for something new to both of us.  We settled on Moran—third highest in the range but not unduly technical. A worthy objective in our muddled state of altitude acclimatization. I had slept for a week above 8,000 feet whereas Eric had just stepped off the bus. I was forty-seven; Eric about twenty.

At the end of the lake the trail branched left, leaving the well trodden path for one gradually much less well-defined, where we hoped to find relatively easy passage to the lakeside base of the Falling Ice Glacier couloir.

Eric at Leigh Lake
Eric at Leigh Lake

The hoped for easy passage rapidly became almost impossibly difficult owing to the awful condition of the trail much of which became hardly discernable in dense underbrush and in an endless hodge-podge of downed trees which barred our path at almost every step.  At many of these we had to remove our packs to crawl under or to struggle over them.  We argued about trying closer to the lakeshore and then, after thrashing through brush and over huge boulders all the while trying to keep our feet dry, we argued again about trying along the higher ground away from the lake.  It must have taken three hours to cover the one and a half miles.  Finally, exhausted, we rested by the lake at the bottom of the couloir.  It rose, a great tan scree and boulder filled gash,straight above us for another horizontal mile.  Our destination was the Guide’s Camp on a ridge west of the glacier at 9,600 feet where climbers had cleared scattered, rock-rimmed tent sites among the trees and had found water nearby.  Only twenty-seven hundred feet to supper and bed.

We started up, forthrightly at first and then more and more slowly and painfully as it became evident that the footing was terrible even on what seemed a worn but erosion-scarred path.  Because only a few hundred years had elapsed since the snout of the glacier had receded from the lake to its present high elevation the newly exposed ground was completely unconsolidated by rain, weather, vegetation, or frost.  At every step our feet slid back in the scree and after having tried to walk instead on the loose boulders we had to give that up too as every rock stepped upon either moved or rolled in some devilishly unpredictable way.  Hour followed hour.  I moved slowly enough but Eric began to feel the effects of the thinning air.  Oh, we thought that couloir would never end!

But gradually, eventually the snout of the glacier seemed closer and we came under a steep and wooded ridge to our left about five-hundred feet above us.  Up this the trail narrowed and zigzagged endlessly but the footing improved; this part of the trail having emerged from under the ice perhaps several thousand years earlier.  At the ridge and after following it upward for another three-hundred yards or so we found a small tent site among the evergreens and located the source of water. We put up the tent and cooked in the fading light.  Eric didn’t feel so well; the sudden change in altitude was taking its toll on his inner man.  Early to bed for an alpine start in the morning.

West Horn
The West Horn From Drizzle Puss

We rose in the dark and made breakfast.  I don’t think Eric slept as well as he might have but he professed to feeling much better and we agreed to go on.

The sun was high as we came under the spire of the West Horn and it must have been late morning when we gained the summit of Drizzle Puss at about 11,500 feet.  Here we had to set a rappel to descend a hundred feet or so into the notch between Drizzle Puss and the summit massif.  Moran’s entire east face was spread before us and the prominent Black (basaltic) Dike thrusting eastward seemed like a gigantic staircase leaning against the mountain’s face.  I recall thinking that the next time I came here I would do the Dike route.  We stood about even with the summit of the West Horn; a slender, golden finger like a window mullion splitting the valley view into two halves.  The Falling Ice and Skillet Glaciers slid away below us and beyond lay Jackson Hole filled to the north with Jackson Lake and the soft green and brown of the prairie. In the purple distance—the Wind River Range.

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Black Dike & Coven Route (Unsoeld’s Needle Outlined)

The thousand foot east face—the CMC (Chicago Mountaineering Club) Route—went well. It was steeper than anything below but the rock seemed good and we progressed rapidly, roped up but moving together, swapping leads, and placing protection from time to time; what climbers call “fourth-classing”. We passed the base of Unsoeld’s Needle, a prominent feature on the face which we hadn’t even noticed before from Drizzle Puss owing to its casting no shadow at noon and blending in perfectly with the rock of the face itself.

We reached the summit in good time—a huge rock-strewn table covered with a jumble of rocks and huge blocks of pinkish hue very different from the granite of the mountain’s main mass.  These remain the last remnants in the Teton Range of an ancient sedimentary over layer pierced and lifted by the uplifting granite later worn away over the aeons.  On the sharper summits of the southern peaks one finds no trace of it.

In descending the face we lost the route that we had followed climbing up.  Unaccountably we traversed too far south, to our right, so that it seems to me that we passed eventually south of the base of Unsoeld’s Needle and followed a difficult and relatively unsafe path back to the notch, which we even had a hard time recognizing.  I remember loose rocks, some scary downsliding, and roped passages where the last (high) man was not enviably positioned.

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Camp @ 9,600ft

Fortunately, at the notch, we found a route up the one-hundred foot precipice that “went free” and within our abilities and so we gained Drizzle Puss again and our campsite in time for dinner.  The next day we packed down but the footing in the couloir and my boots conspired to raise huge blisters on the soles of my feet; blisters almost the size of dollar bills.  While fighting our way back along the lake shore passage, curiously, we found a wisp of smoke rising from a small patch of smoldering pine needles and duff.  We filled our pots at the lake and smothered it.  I swore that if I ever returned to Moran I would come across the lake in a canoe *.

AAC Climbers Ranch
AAC Climbers’ Ranch (Photo by Ritner Walling 1993)

We took a rest day at the American Alpine Club Climber’s Ranch while I saw to my feet.  I drained the blisters and flattened and taped them securely to the inner skin layer in such a way as to prevent any possible lateral slippage.  In Jackson we became tourists, went to the Silver Dollar Bar, shopped for supplies, and walked through the central park: the “only place in the world whose park gates comprise dead animal parts” according to our friend Al Stebbins.  We had a nice dinner and decided to start, the next day, for the second highest in the range, Mt. Owen (12,900).

After a morning of packing at the Ranch we drove to Lupine Meadows and began a three-thousand foot pack-up to Amphitheater Lake.  Five long switch-backs to the Garnet Canyon cutoff and then about ten shorter ones passing Surprise Lake on the way—all together about three hours with a pack if you’re fit.  The first-aid I had given my feet seemed perfect and I had no further discomfort.  At Amphitheater Lake I spent some time looking for a cave we had occupied in 1957 and eventually found it.  We put up the tent and cooked dinner.  At an overlook a little farther on we stood for a while in the fading light studying the Teton Glacier and its moraines, and the south faces and snow slopes of Mt. Owen beyond.  We could see our route in its entirety.

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Mt. Owen

Without a problem we made an early start before dawn; up to the overlook, and then down a steep five-hundred feet or so to the bottom of the glacier’s terminal moraine.  Climbing the moraine to the ice above was a scramble of several hundred feet after which we angled north-westward across the snowless (“dry”) ice toward the bottom of a snowfield leading to the narrow snow couloir descending from Owen’s East Prong.  We found the crevasses all perfectly visible and easy to avoid.  We had each an ice axe and crampons and, together, two ropes; forty meters of 11mm kernmantle and an equal amount of 1/4 inch (light) laid Goldline to permit long rappels.  The morning sparkled crystal clear.

At the base of the one-thousand foot snowfield descending from the East Prong the bergschrund gaped large and deep.  But, as luck would have it there appeared, not far away, a snow bridge spanning the gap.  It seemed marginally safe—pretty thick in depth but narrow, maybe six feet wide.  Eric elected to lead and I took him on the doubled rope.  Gingerly he stepped up to the bridge and started across the ten foot span.  Suddenly I heard (and felt) a “whump”! The bridge had settled a bit but held.  Eric belayed me across.  We started unroped up the steep snow, steep enough so that without self arrest a fall would prove unstoppable.

I had had some ice and snow experience by then but Eric had little and let me know that he felt uncomfortable with the steepness and kicking steps without crampons.  So we roped up and I led the pitches while Eric followed and gained confidence.  It was slow going and after an hour or so we saw another rope of two crossing the glacier far below us.  They moved fast and it became clear that they would soon catch us up.  This they did, at the base of the East Prong.  They hailed, incongruously, from the Florida Mountain Club and obviously had a lot more confidence on steep snow than we did.  After an exchange of pleasantries they passed ahead and out of sight above.

Suddenly, silently, nature sent us a signal.  In the dark clear sky a tenuous banner had silently and surreptitiously formed streaming to the east from the very tip of the peak of the Grand Teton towering over us to the southwest.  We watched.  It grew slowly in size and a minute or two later Eric said “Look”; a banner had formed on Owen’s summit as well.  As we climbed the snow ridge west of the Prong the banners became clouds that poured over the Gunsight and then through the notch itself.  In ten minutes, not far from a short steep couloir leading up to the upper Owen snowfields, a thin fog enshrouded us.

72071405OwenWAWe stopped.  We looked at one another.  It looked bad, I thought.  Eric wanted to keep going and so I acquiesced.  We took a few steps and not long after that we heard voices in the gloom.  The Floridians appeared out of the fog.  “It’s pea soup up there” they said.  “We know from experience that weather that comes in like this will only worsen.  We’re bagging it.  Good luck” and, so saying, they vanished into the mist below us.

I believed them; I felt that we should turn back.  Eric opted for continuing, at least for a while; as long as we could see more or less where to go.  After all it wasn’t really “pea soup” where we stood and there was little wind.  We had a discussion that gradually became more of an argument.  I for bagging; Eric for going on.  It soon became evident to me that this wasn’t really an argument after all; that I faced an ultimatum, a Will of Iron.  And so we continued onward.

The short couloir “went” not so badly, just steep scrambling on wet rock and at the top we came to snow again but not so steep as before.  No need now for the rope.  On the featureless snow the fog didn’t seem to make much difference.  At least we could see our footing. And we knew from having studied the route that the long horizontal Koven snow band angled up and left to a ridge south west of the summit pyramid; we couldn’t miss that.  Suddenly the fog lightened a bit and then a small patch of blue sky swirled by—a “sucker hole” according to the wags.  Then more holes!  And finally the sky cleared and all became brilliant blue and white again, not a cloud in the sky, even to the west.

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Owen Summit- Eric

Upon turning the southwest ridge we could see suddenly and spectacularly beyond and over Table Mountain and into Idaho and, closer, into the great chasm of the South Fork of Cascade canyon 4,400 feet below. The ridge itself looked steep and hard but we knew the key to the route lay somewhere out on the exposed and vertiginous and as yet unseen west face; the route that Ken Henderson found while on a detour from his first ascent party to take a “whiz” in 1930.  We crept up the ridge looking every now and then through a notch in the arete for the key and, eventually, it appeared; a narrow ledge maybe eight inches wide traversing away from the ridge on an absolutely vertical wall above a thousand foot sheer drop.  Wow!  Belayed by Eric I traversed gingerly out, shuffling along, with pretty good hand holds, and after twenty or thirty feet I came to a chimney that seemed to widen above.  In order to eliminate rope drag I brought Eric over and we switched leads.  Eric went up and disappeared into the chimney.  Intermittent movement; a long pause; no rope movement.  Then some more movement and, finally, a faint and distant “On belay, Bill”.  My pack got stuck in the chimney and it took me a while to wriggle free and upward.  I poked my head from under an overhead obstruction there to see Eric silhouetted against the sky with the summit register held triumphantly aloft.  I assume that he still had me on belay.

We perched one at a time on the peak, about as big as a hassock, took some photo’s and had a bite to eat.  It was 2:00pm.

72071418_EERappelOur next objective, the notch of the East Prong, lay eight-hundred feet below down the precipitous east face of the summit pyramid.  After three or four rappels, the last one down the short rocky couloir of the ascent, we had regained the notch of the East Prong above the steep snow slope dropping almost unobstructed to the glacier a thousand feet below.

We roped up and, for a few pitches, reversed the procedure of the ascent.  Eric descending first: belayed, plunge step, planting his axe at the end, and then belaying me down to his position.  After a rope length or two we came under and against the huge vertical west wall of the East Prong itself.  It had cracks and fissures and, a few yards downslope, a rock outcrop protruding into the snow so as to block a direct descent line.

By then Eric had gained some confidence and we agreed that we would make better time on the rest of the descent by alternating leads.  Eric placed a piton, tied in, and took me on belay.

I moved out across the slope to clear the outcrop and then started downward.  The snow had become soft in the afternoon sun and my heels mushed deeply into its corny surface.  I wondered whether a self-arrest would work.  Was the soft surface deeper than the length of my axe pick?  Since I had a solid belay from above I called to Eric to “watch me” and began heeling down almost at a run.  Inevitably I slipped and, rolling over onto my axe head, tried to arrest the slide.  Just as I realized that the arrest was not working, the rope stopped me with a solid jerk.  But immediately, as I turned to regain my feet, I began sliding again. Whoa! What?  A sharp pull stopped me again.  I waited a moment and regained my feet; I looked up.  Eric had vanished!  Nowhere in sight!  I could see the little platform above where he had stood and there his ice axe alone thrust into the snow.  I shouted, “Eric”!  No answer.

I climbed frantically back up until I had arrived just above the rock outcrop and there, wedged in the narrow bergschrund almost upside down and still clutching the rope, was Eric making muffled sounds and trying to extricate himself.  At the first shock of my slide Eric’s piton had pulled out and he catapulted downward with no hope of stopping (without an axe) save his lucky but violent encounter with the outcrop.  He remembers that his hammer had caught somewhere down inside the crevasse and that only its attachment sling had stopped the fall.  Eric had hurt his knee (he found out later had cracked a rib) and lost his piton hammer forever to the crevasse.  Together we got him out, rested, and reviewed options.

The long steep slope below was not benign.  Dotted here and there we saw groups of black rocks potentially fatal to anyone in an uncontrolled slide.  We decided to descend cautiously again, Eric first, belaying every pitch.  His knee bothered him but seemed not unduly incapacitating.  By the time we reached the glacier his knee had swollen a bit.  After a long slog across the glacier and the climb back to Amphitheatre Lake we collapsed at our tent site happy to rest and to make dinner in relative comfort.

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Eric & Bill

The next morning Eric’s knee seemed pretty painful and swollen but he could limp around and with tentative movement the joint improved.  I agreed to take part of his stuff in my pack—not bad on the descent—and we headed slowly down the switchbacks to Lupine Meadows and the car.

I think that night we probably went in to Jackson to celebrate a great week in the mountains.  We had climbed more than two vertical miles in seven days.  The next day, as I left for Buford to rejoin my family, I dropped Eric off for his long, solitary, hitch-hike back to Boston.


* I returned to the base of the Falling Ice Couloir twice more in subsequent years and on neither occasion did it work out to have a canoe!  Learning has its lapses.  Neither did I ever do the Dike Route as I had thought I might.


 

The East Ridge of the Grand Teton (1957)

In August 1957 I decided to go west alone to the Tetons. My new climbing friends went generally west in July but I could not arrange my vacation time earlier from Henry Dreyfuss Studio (the celebrated American industrial designer) in New York. Going alone with no high mountain experience seemed daunting at the time but I decided that not to go would be to give up a taste of new adventure for no good reason.

I packed at 21 Jones Street and got Peter Pruyn to drive me to La Guardia. The week before at Camp & Trail on Canal Street, feeling very much the mountaineer I had not yet become, I purchased my first rope, carabiners, and some soft iron pitons. It excited me to heft and to coil and recoil the new laid rope, 120 feet of white 3/8 inch nylon, and to manipulate and to clip the forged iron into various of my brand new Bedayn aluminum ‘biners. I felt on the verge of an experience I could not have imagined even one year earlier upon having stumbled onto the Appalachian Mountain Club climbing training group in the Shawangunk Mountains (the ‘Gunks) the previous September.

In Denver, with an introduction to some friends of friends (the Elrick’s, now long out of mind) I stayed a night. In the morning, in an effort to save money, I found and arranged for a “drive-away” to Utah—the company would even pay for the gas. They gave me a used Rambler station wagon and, with my pack and camping stuff in the back, I headed west toward the looming Rockies for a world of the west I had seen before only on the wild west screen and in National Geographic magazine. The drive-away company gave me twenty-four hours to make it to Ogden, Utah 525 miles away.

What excitement! At Red Rocks, an outdoor theater above Denver, I stopped briefly to admire the wind-eroded sandstone turrets and went on over the Berthoud Pass eventually finding a dirt side road which permitted me more or less to conceal the car, my metal tent, for the night. In the fading light I cooked supper on the little Primus on the tailgate and settled in to sleep feeling uncommonly adventurous.

I did make it in one day to Ogden but it was a long haul without much time available for stopping. Rabbit Ears Pass was, according to the signs, closed and so I rerouted myself via Taponas and Oak Creek to Steamboat Springs. Along the way were mountains whose aspen-covered slopes almost glittered in the sun their silver leaves shivering in the breeze. I passed isolated sentinels of stone wondering the while whether they had been ever climbed and imagining myself, triumphant on their tops, coiling the rope and hurling it in loops and swirls into the void for rappel.

The highway after Steamboat Springs descended gradually from the green of the higher alps to the dusty desert below (most of this area is well above 5,000 feet in elevation). I began to see farther and farther and then to notice cactus by the roadside and to see cottonwoods marking the beds of distant washes. I passed Craig (I was to see Craig again in 1972) and then crossed the Yampa and miles and miles of desert to Vernal, Utah where the Green River crosses from the north. (At the town of Green River itself, 120 miles to the south, John Wesley Powell set out on his epic one-hundred day descent of the Colorado River in 1869.)

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Devil’s Slide

From here it stretched still two-hundred miles to Ogden on the Great Salt Lake but at last in the early evening I began to descend toward the valley, at one point I passed a strange geological feature noted as Devil’s Slide. It comprises two huge walls of harder rock, separated by about ten feet, and left higher by erosion than the surrounding sandstone, rising out of sight over a rolling hill like the parallel rails of an immense prehistoric railroad or roller coaster.

At first the drive-away man in Ogden refused to pay me for the gas but after a prolonged argument over the contract he agreed and I made my way to a hotel where they showed me to a shabby room in back on a high floor overlooking the Wasatch Mountains. I cooked supper on the dresser while watching a spectacular play of lightning over the mountains from a storm receding eastward into the night.

In the morning I caught a bus to Rock Springs, Wyoming and as we climbed out of the valley of the Salt Lake we again passed by Devil’s Slide. As a matter of interest I pointed it out to the little grey-haired lady at the window next to me. She looked for a long moment and then replied, “Oh my, they must have used that in the olden times.”

At Rock Springs I changed to a bus for Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. My seatmate told me his name was Bill Buckingham. We talked some and only months later did I find that he (and his father) were Teton mountaineers of some note. In the darkness at Jenny Lake campground, having seen nothing yet of the spectacular scenery around me, I found a site and set up my little army surplus poplin two-man tent.

Amphitheater Lake Camp

If you have no climbing partner you put a note on the bulletin board at the ranger station and wait until somebody shows up. I spent a beautiful day in awe of the panorama of high peaks to the west and took a boat ride across Jenny Lake. I bought Leigh Ortenburger’s Teton guidebook and set about getting my bearings.

At suppertime “Tink” Thompson appeared—graduated from Yale in June, a former summer ranger with some Teton experience, and with three days of vacation remaining. Tink wanted to do the East Ridge route on the Grand Teton, highest peak in the range. And so, after having exchanged the obligatory half-truths on relative mountaineering experience (of which I had none whatever) we agreed to hike to Amphitheater Lake (9,700 ft) to do a reconnaissance and to see how we would work out as a climbing pair. Tink wanted to view the ridge from the Teewinot summit (12,317 ft).

From the Lupine Meadows trail head (6,800 ft, Tink had a car) we spent the afternoon laboring up seemingly endless switchbacks to the Garnet Canyon cutoff and then northwest to climb to Surprise and on to jewel-like Amphitheater Lake. Tink knew of a cave where we could camp—we had not taken a tent. The cave, rocky and cramped, suffered the serious defect of having no mosquito netting which kept us uncomfortably awake most of the night. Camped near us were members of a major expedition organized to climb the Grand’s north face sponsored, as I recall, by LIFE Magazine. Among the expedition principals I recognized Hans Kraus, a world famous climber known to me from our AMC group at the ‘Gunks. He would barely have acknowledged me, a rank beginner. Surreptitiously though, I took his picture standing at ease in his characteristic blue skullcap. [Years later I came to present him with a copy of this photo as part of remarks I offered at a Kraus testimonial dinner in the ‘Gunks.)

57080924_WCAThe long summer evening lingered. The floor of Jackson Hole expanded into the distance three-thousand feet below us its flat expanse punctuated by the outcrop of Blacktail Butte. The glacial lakes gleamed in the dark under the fading light of dusk the Wind River range barely outlined far to the east. I suspended belief that I could really be here but not without some apprehension about what might be in store.

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Tink Thompson on Disappointment Peak in view of the Grand Teton

While cooking cereal and making coffee at dawn Tink abandoned his Teewinot plan and opted to do Disappointment Peak (11,600) instead. Disappointment rose directly above us, accessible via the snow filled couloirs in the headwall of the cirque that cradled the lake. (I have no recollection of whether or not I had an ice axe for this climb. Certainly at that time I did not own one.) In a few hours we sat on the summit pinnacle from which the east ridge of the Grand spread out before us in all its detail as though in a great photographic enlargement in place on an easel. Tink sat gazing at the route for the better part of an hour, making notes in his Ortenburger, and naively inviting me into speculation about its possible intricacies and difficulties.

At the cave that evening we decided to attempt the East Ridge route the next day. We would rise and go in the darkness well before dawn—a traditional “alpine start.” The night was muggy, oppressive, and the mosquitoes frightful. Near the hour set we were awakened, not by our alarm, but by a crash of thunder followed by a storm of lightning, torrential rain, and wind that persisted well into the coming of first light thus making our predawn start impossible. Owing to the known length of the route we had to abandon the ascent and, after breakfast in rapidly improving weather, we packed up and headed down. Tink had no more days of vacation. We drove into Jackson and treated ourselves to drinks and a steak dinner.

The next day my notice yielded an Irish professor of physics, Philip Gribbon who had just learned that his wife was pregnant. They were en route to the east coast from Vancouver—where he had enjoyed an exchange professorship for a year—now seeing America and climbing along the way.  He was secretary of the Irish Mountaineering Club and hoped to climb the Grand Teton. Did I know the area? Did I know anything about good routes? Why, yes! I am somewhat familiar (at least from a distance) with the East Ridge. And (my close familiarity such that) I happen to know of a cave we can use to obviate the necessity of carrying a tent. And thus we decided to do the route that Tink had so hoped to have done two days before. We realized that I would need an ice axe and since Margo could not climb (Phil’s orders) I gained the use of hers.

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Another night in “mosquito” cave

The cave was, as before, a trial but we bore its tortures and rose before dawn to a calm, star-filled sky. By the time we had completed the descent into the great couloir between Disappointment and the huge mass of the East Ridge it had become daylight. The granite wall above facing the rising sun glowed orange and gold above us. We climbed the terminal moraine of the Teton glacier to gain the foot of the ridge and from there could clearly see tiny Delta Lake far below—made powder blue by its burden of glacial rock flour. We looked up. The route looked like a “piece of cake” to our unseasoned eyes. We fairly leapt upon the wall.

Roped but moving together, at first we progressed rapidly but slowed somewhat as the guidebook route description seemed less and less to resemble the maze of cracks, slabs, chimneys, and dierdres we saw endlessly before us. The physical scale of these features loomed so huge compared to those we knew and proved so inadequately covered by the few puny phrases in the guidebook that, at first, we felt overwhelmed. In a world without cairns or blazes Phil proved a master route-finder. Through his analysis of the terrain we recovered from more than one inadvertent detour. At one stage Phil led us down and to the left (rather than up and to the right as seemed evident to me) successfully to place us in a rocky couloir capped by the largest chockstone in the Tetons according to my friend Bob Larson. Obviously we had returned to the route having traversed the base of the Molar Tooth, a prominent sentinel on the ridge. There we lost several precious minutes searching unsuccessfully in crevices for the strap to Phil’s axe which had slipped from his axe and wrist.

Having climbed the chimney formed by the right (east) side of the huge boulder (bigger than a large house) we crossed over its upper reaches and confronted our first really “technical” obstacle—a steep wall about ten meters high; class five but only of moderate difficulty. I had the more rock experience (and Phil the more on ice and snow) so the one pitch lead fell to me and we climbed it in a few minutes. There followed more and seemingly endless class four pitches above which loomed the most prominent feature on the ridge—the Second Tower, to be skirted on the right above the precipice, now more than two-thousand feet to the Teton glacier below. Time had passed—it had advanced to 2:30. Getting late. We climbed into the afternoon too naive even to have discussed the possibility of a “turnaround” time.

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Phil Gribbon in Snow

We heard the distant grumble of thunder and looked up, almost for the first time, to note clouds stealing in from Idaho to the west. Only minutes later we knew we faced a major thunderstorm and scrambled to find an overhang or a rock for shelter. The storm came on, fast and booming. Crouching in our quasi-cave we saw the Teewinot summit directly opposite us and at about the same elevation several times struck by multiple bolts of lightning. It rained, we put on our light parkas and managed to stay relatively dry. The clearing of the storm, as such things often prove, was glorious. The sunlit pinnacles emerged from the dark clouds; the thunder faded into the east over the valley; great gray sheets of rain slanting down to the valley floor from the overcast.

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Phil Gribbon

We had lost an hour. But we had gained enough height to see the lower edge of the steep summit snowfield above us. This patch of snow appears plainly visible from the valley. The air had become cooler and noticeably thin and we moved slowly and with great heaving breaths. On the snowfield it became a case of one or two steps (we were woefully unacclimatized), then stop, deep breath, plant axe, and kick another couple of steps in the snow. Phil shivered with cold; he had on only a pair of shorts. I felt better off in long pants. We huffed and puffed slowly upward. The slope seemed steep, exposed, endless. A slip here, as I would learn a few hours later, would have proven fatal.

SummitMarkAt last we came again to rock and safer going. Soon then signs of the passage of booted feet; then a short steep but easy wall littered at its base with candy wrappers, rusty sardine cans, and cigarette butts. Up this; a few more steps and we reached the top standing on the Geodetic Survey marker (13,770 feet above sea level), the world at our feet, and a vast, yawning view in every direction. It was five-thirty.

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The author at the summit of the Grand Teton (1957)

Sign the register; take a couple of photos and it’s then time to head down. Down the backside, down the Owen Spaulding route at least as far as the Black Dike on the Idaho side. Down as far and as fast as we could in the waning light.

Phil led us unerringly to the first rappel and then to the top of the famous Owen rappel almost by divination. We had two 120 ft ropes so we knew we could reach its bottom even though it was unnervingly out of sight owing to the huge overhang of the wall at our feet. We tied the rope ends together at a mass of old laid rope slings and each of us in turn launched himself over the edge and into the void. About halfway down the wall arched under leaving feet in the air and body slowly twisting in the air until the welcome touchdown at the Upper Saddle just as the rope ran out. Quickly. Recoil the ropes. Onward and downward.

With Phil in the lead we hastened southward seeking the long east-west dike of dark basalt which cuts completely through the Grand to the south of us. It marked the place finally to turn left and east again to find a long chain of snow couloirs descending to Teepe Glacier and beyond into the great chasm between Disappointment and the Grand. Phil came through again and we arrived at a narrow notch in the ridge from which a steep snow-filled gully descended into the depths at an angle of fifty degrees or so.

We roped up. “Do you know how to glissade?” asked Phil. “Do you know how to do self-arrest (with the axe)? No? Well, you roll your shoulder over onto the pick like this and press it into the slope to stop the sliding. As for the glissade watch me,” whereupon he skied off on his boots, dragging his axe point behind him for balance in the snow as I paid out the rope—all 120 feet of it. He vanished downward into the gathering gloom. When the rope took up he stopped and called up for me to come on down. This worried me a little because, if unable to stop a fall, I faced a 240 foot slide.

I started out and, inevitably, I lost it after a few feet. My self-arrest proved ineffectual and I shot off feet first and then head first gathering speed rapidly. I must have rocketed past the horrified Phil at about thirty miles per hour with yet another 120 feet to go. Suddenly the surface changed from corn snow to snow and dirt, to dirt, the dirt to pebbles, and the pebbles to stones and rocks just as the rope took up with a jolt. Immediately ahead I saw jagged, killer boulders. My shirt, pulled from my pants, was completely stuffed with snow, mud, and gravel; I had painful raspberries on both arms; my ribs hurt; I was shaken but thankful that the rope had not been ten feet longer.

Night had come. Darkness fell. The flashlight I pulled from my knapsack was, of course, dead; on all day long in the pack. As Phil had none it was to have served as our only light. In starlight the snow gleamed faintly below us beyond the black of the rocky island of which more protruded from the snow below us at intervals along the route.

The time had come to operate by the rules. On the descent the leader (the most experienced) goes last. I would go first, belayed, followed by Phil whom I then belayed in turn but who had sufficient skill never to have any trouble zipping down on his boots. Then, inexplicably, dawn seemed imminent; there seemed a slight lightening of the snow and then miraculously, beyond a rocky defile, low in the sky, a truly immense and glorious full moon rose to meet us headlong over the Wind River Range! Almost joyfully then, and for hours we played on down the seemingly endless reaches of steep snow until we came under the shadow of the immense wall of Disappointment Peak at the point to re-ascend the steep and rocky trail, now in darkness, to our cave at Amphitheatre Lake. We had moved without rest for seventeen hours; it was half after midnight.

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Bill Atkinson and Phil Gribbon

I wanted only to crawl into the cave and sleep but Phil insisted that we pack up and go on down as he had rashly promised Margo we would have been back by dinnertime. We took some time to cook and eat our remaining food then packed up and headed down bathed in legendary moonlight. It was near dawn and the moon had set below the peaks behind us when we limped into Lupine Meadows to find Phil’s car and return to the campground. In the morning (about 3:00pm) we cleaned up a bit, and had Margo take a victory photograph (shouldered ropes, open guidebook, crossed axes, etc.; really tacky).

People talked of a comet visible in the western sky and by walking and running some distance east out across the prairie we raised it over the mass of the darkening mountains. A beautiful comet suspended, its long tail glowing, in the deepening purple of the evening sky. Comet Mrkos, as I recall. We drove into Jackson for my second round of drinks and steak. We toasted.

In some sense, at least, I had become a mountaineer.


Postscripts:
The East Ridge route, I later learned, is not often done owing to its length and to its route-finding difficulties. Some forty years later Jim (“Bobo”) Burwick, an Exum Guide, showed me a book, “Ascents of the Grand Teton” by Leigh Ortenburger. In it I found that we had made the 47th ascent of the route—the “oneth” having been made by our own Kenneth Henderson, et al, in 1929. Until 1957 at least, it seems to have been done, on average, about once every two years.

Some ten years later (and not having been in any way a JFK conspiracy buff myself) I read a long and detailed article in The New Yorker magazine about the tenacity and dedication of the conspiracy theorists surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. It concerned mainly a new book “Six Seconds in Dallas.” The book’s author: Josiah “Tink” Thompson.

Nov. 2017: I have just received the following link from my daughter who dabbles in such things (re Philip Gribbon): the Polar Medal.