The Grand Question: Who climbed it first?
The following article was first published in the Summer 2002 issue of Teton Valley: Top to Bottom and is reprinted here with permission from Powdermountain Press.
The Grand Question
Towering starkly pearl-blue a mile above the sagebrush flats of Jackson Hole, a massive mile high Brobdingnagian blade of granite, The Grand Teton, thrusts like a knife into the crystalline Wyoming sky. It is doubtful anyone has ever viewed this American Matterhorn without wondering what it must be like to stand on the summit of the highest peak in the range, The Grand.
William Owen wondered. Seven times during the 1890’s, he tried to climb The Grand. Seven times he failed. Eight summers passed. Once, he and his wife, Emma Matilda, with the help of friends, hauled huge iron pegs to within a few hundred feet of the top in an attempt to drive a stairway into the vertical granite cliffs baring the way. It didn’t work. Fueling his frustration was the knowledge that two men, Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson, reported reaching the summit 25 years earlier. If he couldn’t do it, how could they, he reasoned. Owen was convinced they had lied.
Finally, late in the afternoon of August 11, 1898, the wiry, tough little scrapper of a man, known locally as “Uncle Billy,” stepped onto the 13,770 ft. summit declaring himself the first human to ever stand there. His claim fired up an enigmatic question that has swirled around the Tetons like a tenacious summer thunderstorm for over a hundred years. Who climbed it first?
The written history of Teton climbing began in 1872 when the seeds of controversy, sown by the Snake River Division of Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden’s U.S. Geological Expedition, were left for Uncle Billy to reap.
Captained by thirty-two year old James Stevenson, fourteen men rode horses up Teton Canyon, turned up the South Fork of Teton Creek, setting up camp in Alaska Basin. At 4:30 a.m., they tossed bacon sandwiches into backpacks and set off to climb “the topmost summit of the loftiest Teton.” As the day wore on, the men wore out. All but two of the men gave up. After seventeen hours of thrashing through snow, clambering over boulders, fording streams, and pulling themselves up “by clinging to the points and angles of projecting rocks,” Stevenson and Langford wearily plopped down by the campfire announcing they had “stood on the highest point of the Grand Teton.” Overcoming talus-choked ravines, gullies jackstrawed with fallen trees, and gaining and losing thousands of feet of elevation, forty-year old Nathaniel Langford termed it “the severest labor of my life.”
For a quarter of a century it was settled. The Grand had been climbed. A lengthy account of the feat with dramatic and imaginative illustrations was published by Langford in the June 1873 Scribner’s Monthly, entitled “The Ascent of Mount Hayden,” in honor of the expedition leader. The name didn’t stick. The Grand went right on being The Grand, spending the dwindling years of the nineteenth century watching the surrounding valleys fill up with ranchers, outlaws, cowboys, sheep men, soldiers, farmers, and tourists on their way to Yellowstone Park.
Everyone in Teton country knew the thirty-nine year old diminutive dynamo, William Owen, if not on sight, then by reputation. A Wyoming state auditor and surveyor in the 1890’s, he spent summers in Jackson Hole hiking, climbing, and riding his bicycle. The fresh mountain air offered respite from the strain and stress of pencil pushing as a government desk jockey in Cheyenne. In 1883, he toured Yellowstone Park on his bicycle, an “ordinary” with a five-foot-diameter front wheel, claiming to have been the first person to traverse the park on a bike. Being first was important to him.
But the first Owen craved most, the one that consumed his boundless energy for thirty years was to be named the first person to climb the Grand Teton. Not an easy feat to pull off. Actually climbing it consumed nearly ten years. Discrediting two well-known men with prominent reputations, James Stevenson and Nathaniel Langford took three decades.
Owen’s perseverance deserved success. It came in 1898, when the newly formed Rocky Mountain Club from Denver, hearing of his fruitless attempts, offered help in the person of Rev. Franklin S. Spalding, a thirty-five year old Princeton graduate, who later became Episcopal Missionary Bishop of Utah. Two local ranchers, Frank I. Peterson and John Shive joined the effort.
At five o’clock in the morning, August 11, 1898, the four men left for the summit with 450 feet of rope, ice axes, iron pointed prods, steel drills, and iron pegs. Only the rope would prove to be of any use. Gaining the Upper Saddle easily, they began probing the band of cliffs blocking access to the summit several hundred feet above. Spalding found a narrow ledge dangling over a 3,000-foot precipice just wide enough for a person to wiggle and squeeze along on his stomach. The thin ledge led to a vertical chimney that took him above the cliffs. He could have walked on up to the top, but later said, “I did not wish to go ahead of my party, and so I climbed back down the chimney and hallooed to Owen to come.”
Tossing the rope down to Owen and the others, Spalding hoisted them all up to his perch above the cliffs. The rest of the way to top was a cakewalk. They “followed a snow ridge for 200 feet and then over the sharp, jagged eruptive rocks, so noticeable above timberline, clambering with a shout to the top. We made it at 4 o’clock exactly. We had been climbing for eleven hours.”
Immediately, the four men combed the fifteen-by- thirty-foot summit for evidence of the 1872 climbers. They claimed they found none. “The most critical, conscientious and thorough search by our entire party failed to reveal the slightest shadow of evidence of a former ascent. Not a stone was turned over, no cairn or monument erected, nor could we find any bottle or can of any description containing the customary record of ascent,” reported Owen. Was the 1872 climb fraudulent?
Neither Stevenson nor Langford seem likely to be liars, as charged by Owen. But a seething Mr. Owen came boiling off The Grand that day in 1898 and would spend the next thirty years denouncing Stevenson and Langford as frauds, and lobbying for his climbing party – but mostly himself – to be acclaimed the first to have scaled the mountain.
Stevenson, a strong and tireless climber, trained as a naturalist and ethnologist, was a loyal and trusted friend of F.V. Hayden and accompanied him on several pre and post Civil War explorations. Stevenson enlisted and fought with the Union Army. He died in 1888.
Nathaniel Langford was very much alive in Minnesota, working in the insurance business, president of the county welfare department, and ready to indignantly and unwaveringly defend his name.
Langford first journeyed west in 1862, mined for gold in Idaho, settled in Montana and was named governor of the territory by President Andrew Johnson. In Montana, he served on the executive committee of vigilantes that hanged the crooked sheriff Henry Plummer cleaning up the lawlessness rampant at that time. His book, Vigilante Days and Ways, became a regional classic. Even greater respect and fame came from his efforts to make Yellowstone a national park. He played a key role in the establishment of the park, writing in 1905, The Discovery of Yellowstone Park, and earning the unofficial title of “father of Yellowstone Park”. His initials, N. P. were often said to stand for “National Park” Langford. He was selected the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
Armed with his political clout, Owen set out to expose what he perceived to be a lie denying him the honor of first ascent and his rightful place in Teton mountaineering history. The disputant climbers verbally hammered each other in the press for years. Their arguments raged in periodicals and newspapers across the country.
The controversy quickly heated and then it got malicious.
Owen, ignored the premise that gentlemen mountaineers ought to take one another’s word on who makes first ascents. “five minutes would have sufficed to erect a suitable monument, which would have completely set at rest all questions as to the first ascent and yet Stevenson and Langford failed to build it. One stone piled on another would have answered, but even this was not done.” Langford said they had arrived late on the summit, exhausted, pressed for time, eager to get down, and did not have the time to linger and stack rocks. Besides, as veteran government surveyors, they had climbed hundreds of peaks in the course of their work. First ascents were neither a priority nor unique to them.
Langford mentioned climbing an ice sheet between the Upper Saddle and the cliff above that eventually led to the summit. Owen found no such ice shelf and was repeatedly thwarted at this point of the climb until his partner, the Reverend Spalding, found a way get around this barrier. It is not unreasonable to assume that during the intervening twenty years, the ice sheet melted.
Owen found fault with the climbing route and the views from the summit Langford published in Scribner’s Magazine. Careful reading of the 1872 magazine article and Langford’s personal diary shows that Mr. Owen twisted the words to suit his argument. Most readers find Langford’s account amazingly accurate.
Owen produced bogus affidavits from his conies asserting that Langford and Stevenson had admitted not reaching the summit. Owen authored the affidavits.
C.G. Coutant credited Stevenson and Langford with the first ascent in his History of Wyoming. Owen lashed out with the charge that Langford had bribed Coutant with $150. Owen offered no solid evidence, but the damage was done. Today there are still those who believe a bribe may have been paid.
Found hidden among Owen’s papers in 1959 was a letter dated April 3, 1899. It cast a shadow every bit as dark on William Owen as he had cast upon Langford and Stevenson. Dr. Charles Kieffer wrote Owen the details of reaching the top of The Grand on September 10, 1893, six years before Owen. Kieffer and two other men had taken time out while hunting to make the climb. Kieffer’s letter included a map of the route, and, interestingly, marked an ice field at the same location Langford noted in 1872.
Seventy years later, in 1968, another fragment of evidence surfaced. Nineteen-year-old Sidford Hamp, a member of the 1872 party, had kept a diary. Hamp and a companion stopped at the vertical cliff at the upper saddle. In his diary was, “Spender and I stoped (sic) on a ledge and rested whilst the other two (Langford and Stevenson) got to the top.”
Both parties overstated the difficulties of climbing The Grand. Each year thousands of people ranging from juniors to geriatrics make the climb via hundreds of different routes and variations. Uncle Billy insisted the route he climbed was the only possible way to the summit. In winter people have skied and snowboarded from the summit. The current record for running from Lupine Meadow trailhead to the summit and back is under three hours!
Spalding, in a letter to Langford, put the difficulty of the climb in perspective. “I think if you will permit me to say so, you are at fault, as is Mr. Owen, in exaggerating the difficulties of the ascent. If you did not reach the top when you started out to do so, you are a mighty poor mountain climber in my humble judgement; and I cannot understand why Mr. Owen failed so many times before he succeeded.” Spalding also said he didn’t care if he was first or thousandth, the climb was worthwhile.
Owen’s thirty-year campaign of vigorous verbal pleading of his case in the press and backroom arm twisting resulted in the state legislature passing a resolution giving William O. Owen and his three climbing companions credit for the first ascent of the Grand Teton. In 1929, a heavy bronze plaque was laboriously carried up the vertical walls of The Grand and bolted to a huge boulder on the summit. The plaque, paid for by Rev. Spalding’s widow, was intended to lay to rest all the ghosts of prior claims to first ascents of the peak. It didn’t.
For nearly fifty years, as the rays of the sun tinted the western horizon at dawn and reached out to touch the highest point of the Tetons, there was a flash of bronze – the summit plaque. It’s gone now. It was reported missing by Park Rangers on July 1, 1977. Unknown persons removed the plaque. The Case Incident Record simply says, “stolen property.” The plaque has never been found.
Paul Petzoldt, arguably the most outspoken pioneer of American climbing, linked the plaque disappearance to person or persons who question the legitimacy of Owen’s first ascent claims. “I just hate to see some people who should know better support Langford and Stevenson.” I suppose there’s somebody who believes that crap, the one who took Billy Owen’s plaque off the top of The Grand. That would be a motivation. I doubt if people who just collect signs and things would go to that much trouble. But then who knows?”
And who cares? And what does it matter? Petzoldt’s comments echo those who have lived around The Grand most of their lives, “Hell, they (Stevenson and Langford) never got up there. They knew Billy was the first one up there.” Many people felt it was a case of underdog, Billy Owen, regional hero, taking on the monolithic bureaucracy of the U.S. Government. The Hayden Expedition of 1872 is a significant chapter in the history of western exploration. For Owen to insinuate that a lie was perpetuated and published in the official report by men assumed to be honest is to make a rather momentous judgment on the survey and its members.
Petzoldt theorizes, “here was the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and the head of what was it, the Geodesic Survey, being called liars by some pipsqueak out in Wyoming that nobody ever heard of, but having the guts to put it in the New York Herald that he was the first to climb the Grand Teton. Well, those guys (Stevenson and Langford) couldn’t back down. It was already in the report.”
Possibly Stevenson and Langford fabricated the story of their success to draw attention to the 1872 survey, thus lending authenticity and prestige to their efforts. Maybe.
Maybe, in the western tradition of embellishing the truth just a mite, they were simply following in the footsteps of Jim Bridger, John Colter, and almost any cowboy who ever lived in Wyoming.
Mountaineering historian, William M. Bueler says,” Owen was right when he claimed that Langford could not prove beyond any doubt that he and Stevenson had climbed the Grand Teton. Nevertheless, when honest persons, with the necessary skills and time, claim to have reached a summit, challengers must provide compelling contrary evidence. William O. Owen and his supporters failed to do so.”
Stored in a locked steel cabinet among the archives of Yellowstone Park at Mammoth Hot Springs is a two-inch thick binder containing nearly all that was said and printed on The Grand Question. The heavyweights of Western history, Coutant, Crittenden, Hayden, Haynes, Betts, and Bonney have sifted through the binder and reached the same conclusion. Stevenson and Langford did what they said they did in 1872.