The Grand: 100 years after first ascent
I was five years old in 1947 when my family moved into the shadow of the Tetons. The Grand Teton watched my boyhood years in all seasons for many years. I didn't know it then, but a quarter of a century later, 1972, just before turning 30 years old, I would climb that mountain. Also, I didn't know it then, but my climb would be almost to the day, 100 years since Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson made the first ascent of The Grand.
Lacking any mountaineering experience whatsoever, I signed up for a climbing school and then joined a guided climb with Herb Swedlund. I didn't know it then, but Swedlund had several first ascents to his credit. What follows here are excerpts from my journal of MY first and only ascent of The Grand.
I'm Gonna Climb The Grand Teton!Monday July 24, 1972
– 5:00am start and drove to Jackson and the Jackson Hole Mountain Guide School. Paid my $15.00 and got on the tram. Off the tram at station #3. Walked down to the base of some low sloping slabs. Walked around on the slabs, friction and un canard
(French for “like a duck”).
climbing gear 1972
Then it was tie on a swami belt and tie onto a rope. We climbed rocks, learning the signals – “on belay”, “belay on”, “climbing”, “climb”, “slack”, “rope”, What a nice feeling to move on the rocks. We belayed one another, fully trusting that the other person was as serious as I was about climbing and doing the job.
Getting to know the rock. Looking, feeling, seeing slight dents and flakes, moving with the rope. Breathless from the excitement of the experience rather than the physical exertion. The time flew by as we climbed up the various stances and then rappelling down. So new and strange, yet so natural.
Climbed back up and the rode the tram down. Hustled over to Exum School at Jenny Lake because I want to climb The Grand and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides are not planning any climbs this week. Exum wants to know if I can climb. They call up Chip, my instructor earlier today.
“Hey, Wayne Moss is standing here and says he wants to climb The Grand.”
“5.6? Can belay? Place nuts?”
“Strong” Moves well? Could by-pass intermediate?”
“Rappels well? You would go with him on the ridge?”
“OK. Cancel his intermediate class.”
Tomorrow I climb The Grand! Will make Mt. Shasta seem a cakewalk. Checked in at the Climber’s Ranch. Assigned the bunkhouse. Not the Ritz. $1.00 a night to sleep on a plywood shelf with eight other guys. Roasted some hot dogs on my stove, took a shower, wrote in my journal until it was time to hit the deck and wait for tomorrow and that first step up The Grand Teton, 13,770 feet.
Tuesday July 25, 1972
– Terrible night of sleep in the barracks. Fifteen men crammed along the walls. Doors banging, lights off and on all night long. Very little sleep and finally got up at 6:00am, fixed breakfast and packed my stuff for the climb. Got to the meeting place way too early. We won’t leave until 9:30am
People trickle in. We look each other over. Ages range from a high school girl to a sixty-something doctor. Elizabeth Pettis, Bill Haman, Georgette Baker, Darrel Morrow, Wayne Nixon, Jerry Kelly, Robert Blizard, John Blizard, Dr. David Mishkin. Exum Guide; Herb Swedlund.
Starting up the trail to Garnet Canyon. The guide’s pace, slow, steady, covers distance efficiently, conserves energy. My thoughts jog with each jolt of the pack, from one thought to another. Breath deep, wipe the sweat from my eyebrows. Up, switchback, up. Contour around into Garnet Canyon, a boulder strewn slash between Disappointment Peak and Nez Perce. The Middle Teton sits at the head of the canyon, a giant gray pyramid with a black dyke running almost straight as an arrow up the middle to the top. The dyke is a strange regular shape, like it was inlaid by human hands on an otherwise jumble of chaotic rocks.
We stop for lunch in the canyon after 2 ½ hours of walking. Maybe halfway to the hut.
Finally puffed up the fixed rope at the short pitch directly below the lower saddle. The rope was wet, but we just used it for mostly balance anyway.
Had supper and watched a thunderstorm rumble and grumble around the valley on the Wyoming side. The saddle is a nice place. 11,500 ft. I spent about two hours check out the route as best I could figure.
Sat up on a rock above the hut watching folks and the marmots and the pikas. Pikas are shaped a lot like a ’48 Ford, they just kinda end at the end. The guides chase us to bed at 8:00pm. Crowded, dark, everyone bumping trying to get set up on the floor. Muffled curses, an incredible amount of gear strewn around the hut: packs, helmets, webbing, ropes, boots, bags, clothing, people. I’m sure we will all get very little sleep tonight. I would like to write in my journal, but everyone has to lie down and sleep now. My last group climb, I hope. Climbing is not a social activity.
Wednesday July 26, 1972
- The day begins at 3:00am in the hut at the Lower Saddle. People stagger around; water is brought to a boil. I have some V8 juice, cheese, bread and hot chocolate. I step outside to a huge round full moon, a floodlight on the landscape. I take a whiz with my back to the wind and watch twinkling lights of upper Snake River Valley towns to the west. The shadows are ink black. By 4:00am we have helmets on, ropes over the neck, and swami belts cinched tight. Off we go over the rock field of the saddle, slowly up at first and then steeper and steeper. Ten minutes of walking and the doctor is too tired to go on. One of the guides helps him back to the hut.
We stop momentarily at the black dyke. Of to the west is Idaho Falls, to the east, Moose. The climb is steep now, lots of heavy breathing as we pick our way among the boulders. Still we climb in the dark, the wind blows but not too cold. Through the “eye of the needle”, a cold dark ice filled hollow under a rock. Out onto our first exposed place, the “belly roll almost.” We clip onto a fixed rope and quickly make the move. It is still too dark to see our position.
Daylight comes as we reach the start of “Wall Street.” I have dreaded this all night. This is the exposed place used to attain Exum Ridge. First girl across freezes badly. The guides have to yell and swear her across. It takes five minutes and makes me all the more nervous. The rope comes tight and it’s my turn. I don’t look down. A childish reaction sure, but it works. I make the big stretch and grab for a handhold. My pants rip out at the back from butt to knees. I wither and kick. I make it, dry mouth and all! Quickly I drop into a belay position and shout for the guy behind me to climb. While pulling in the slack I sneak a peek over my left shoulder at the exposure. I shudder. A few orange specks, tents, mark the lower saddle 1200 feet below us. A stone flipped out would probably hit one of the tents, it seems. I don’t like to look down. Soon a green helmet inches around the corner and Darrel drops gasping in front of me. “Off belay.”
A tug on my rope. Time to move up the “Golden Stairway.” “Climbing,” I yell, and start looking for the first hold. A fairly easy pitch. I drop and belay. Up the ridge the wind whistles, punctuated only by and occasional shout of, “On belay”, “Climb.”
At this point the pace moves well. Each pitch blends into the next. I soon forget how many we have done. It becomes a rhythm. Climb, belay, coil the rope, climb, belay, coil the rope. Soon the sun pokes up and turns the rock rose colored and warm looking. I see we are higher than the Middle Teton. We must be on our last 1,000 feet. Twice we have to move out onto the face to bypass pinnacles. The exposure is fantastic! Between my legs I look down and see the Middle Teton Glacier 2,000 feet below. I don’t look down very often.
Up the “Open Book” a pitch on the edge of the southeast face. Hairy exposure for those who care to look. “Friction pitch” a long pitch requiring use of all the rope. Not much in the way of holds, but lost of funny little nubs about the size of golf balls made out of what looks like mica. I enjoy the beauty despite my position. We are moving much better now that our rope of four has been allowed to pass the slower rope with girls on it.
Below the summit block we unrope and cautiously pick our way to the high point. It’s ten minutes until nine o’clock and we shake hands with Herb. He can take us no further.
Moss, Summit of The Grand
Our stay is short. Huge clouds build to the south. Herb says to eat something, take a picture and prepare to down climb onto the west face to the rappel point. Herb says we leave at 9:00am.
The clouds to the south really start to look bad and seem to be moving closer. We can see so much of the cloud at lightning is continuously shooting around in it. It looks just mean and ugly. I snap a few pictures. Start to eat and apple. Have a guy take a picture of me, and then Herb told us the plan and the reason: “We gotta get off this mountain before that junk to the south zaps our ass.”
Twenty miles of hiking, $100 spent, many days of planning, two sleepless nights, exposure to tremendous exposure…all of this for ten minutes on top of The Grand Teton? 600 seconds, 600 heartbeats, and it’s all over. How did it feel? Was it worth it? Doesabearshitinthewoods!
The view from the summit gives a feeling of dominance, at least visually. No mountains rival our height. Even Gannet to the east, which is higher, is so far away it looks much smaller and lower. I swear I can see a geyser north in Yellowstone Park, but it could just be steam.
Below the Snake River is a twisted braid of water, dark green rimmed by trees that can’t be discerned as trees. Mist rises from the river bouncing silver from the sun. Slashes of roads can be seen, but no cars moving. Perhaps if I peered closer I could make out one. To west is Idaho Falls and beyond into the fields and into haze. And to the south, that ominous black menace with twitching shafts of electricity.
I throw the half eaten apple into my pack and we’re off with Herb leading. Down the west face we pick our way. The Owen-Spaulding Route. We drop fast on the cold rock. Back in the shadows again. The sun is gone. We see our first verglass. Verglass almost three inches thick yet so clear that it just looks like rock there. We test the verglass and that it is just about the slickest stuff we’ve ever felt. I will not forget verglass.
In just a few minutes we reach the rappel point. It’s the scariest thing I’ve seen yet, and I know I have to back off it! Herb checks all the rigging. Sets a nut to belay everyone from. I put on my figure 8 sling and snap the carabineer between my legs. I wobble over to where Herb is. There is just barely room for the two of us to stand and it’s rough to walk with a figure 8 sling dangling between your legs. I would have preferred the diaper seat type. Herb hands me a brake bar which I snap in on my sling ‘binner. He runs the rope through the brake bar, snaps it closed and I lean back. I hate the feel of the rope stretching. I jerk some at first getting used to the friction around my waist. I’m glad I have gloves on as I pick up speed. I have never hung free before, but the last 40-50 feet is obviously free. Soon my legs leave the wall. I’m hanging free, dropping, and slowly rotating. Boy! If the folks back home could see me now. Suspended by a spider web on the side of The Grand with Driggs, Idaho sighted between my knees. It goes all too fast. 120 foot rappel. “Off Rappel.” “Off Belay.”
Herb yells down to over to the side to avoid rock fall. A rock comes down and instead of bouncing it smashes into powder. I set up and take pictures of the others as they zing down. I have a long rest at the bottom of the rappel. It takes probably 45 minutes to get everyone down.
I feel the climb is over now. We are just hiking down the mountain. We eat lunch at the spring below the hut and shuffle on down into Garnet Canyon. It’s a long walk and the morning seems like it was days ago. This is probably the least fun of all aspects of the trip. Plodding along one step at a time. Ten miles to Lupine Meadows. Past the falls, we are given permission to truck out at our own pace if we want to. I do. Several of us break into a trot really starting to move. Herb shows us some shortcuts down the switchbacks. His shortcuts begin and end next signs put up by the park service saying, DO NOT SHORT CUT.
3:45pm I pick up my car in the parking lot, drive over and pick up my Certificate of Ascent, and head for Idaho Falls. It rains and thunders most of the way.
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