The Tetons are considered some of the premier mountaineering country in the nation, with solid rock, good access, and a wide range of climbing conditions. Hundreds of climbing routes have been described for the main peaks, but the goal of many climbers is Grand Teton, better known as “the Grand.” At 13,772 feet, this is Wyoming’s second-highest summit, exceeded only by 13,804-foot Gannett Peak in the Wind River Mountains.
First to the Top
In the climbing trade, first ascents always rate highly, but the identity of the first climbers to have scaled Grand Teton has long been a matter of debate. The official record belongs to the party of William Owen (as in nearby Mt. Owen), Bishop Spalding (as in nearby Spalding Peak), John Shive, and Frank Petersen, who reached the summit in 1898.
Today, however, it appears that they were preceded by two members of the 1872 Hayden Expedition: Nathaniel P. Langford (first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park) and John Stevenson. In addition, another party apparently made it to the top in 1893.
Owen made a big deal out of his climb and spent 30 years trying to work himself into the record books by claiming the Langford party never reached the top. The whole thing got quite nasty, with Owen even accusing Langford of bribing the author of a history book to gain top honors. In 1929, Owen convinced the Wyoming Legislature to declare his group the first on top. Few people believe it today, and the whole thing looks pretty foolish because even seven-year-old kids have made it up the Grand.
Several thousand people climb the mountain each summer, many with no previous climbing experience (but with excellent guides and a couple of days of training). The record time is an unbelievable three hours, six minutes, and 25 seconds, for Bryce Thatcher in 1983. This time includes starting from—and returning to—the parking lot at the foot of the mountain! And just to prove that it could be done, in 1971 one fanatic actually skied the Grand (he’s the ski-school director at Snow King Resort), followed in 1989 by a snowboarder. Both lived to tell the tale.
Getting to the Top
Most climbing takes place after the snow has melted back (mid-July) and before conditions again deteriorate (late Sept.). Overnight mountain climbing or off-trail hiking requires a special permit available from the Jenny Lake Ranger Station (307/739-3343, daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. late May-late Sept.). There’s no need to register if you’re climbing or doing off-trail hiking for the day only, just for overnight trips. (Still, it’s a good idea to leave a detailed trip itinerary with a responsible person in case of an emergency.) Winter climbers should register at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center.
The climbing rangers—one of the most prestigious and hazardous jobs in the park—are all highly experienced mountaineers and can provide specific route information for the various summits. Call 307/739-3604 for recorded climbing information, or talk to staff at the ranger station for weather conditions, route information, and permits.
Many climbers who scale Grand Teton follow the Amphitheater Lake Trail from Lupine Meadows to its junction with the Garnet Canyon Trail. This leads to the Lower Saddle, which separates Grand Teton and Middle Teton. Exum and the Park Service have base-camp huts and steel storage boxes here. There are outhouses at Lower Saddle, and climbers are required to use high-tech carry-out bags for human waste—complete with a system that breaks down feces (www.whennaturecalls.com).
Other folks pitch tents behind boulders in the extraordinarily windy mountain gap at Lower Saddle. See Park Service handouts for camping restrictions and recommendations in this fragile alpine area, where heavy use by 4,000 climbers each year has caused considerable damage. The final assault on the summit of Grand Teton requires technical equipment and expertise. No motorized drills are allowed for placing climbing bolts.
Mountaineers who have registered to climb the Grand can stay at Climbers’ Ranch ($20 per night, early June-mid-Sept.), near Taggart Lake. Lodging is in small log cabins with 4-8 bunks; hot showers and a cooking shelter are close by, but you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag and food. Call 307/733-7271 after June 1 for reservation information, or visit the American Alpine Club’s website (www.americanalpineclub.org) for details and reservations. The ranch has space for 65, but 45 of these spaces are kept open for walk-ins. It’s a good idea to reserve in April for July and August.
Jackson Hole is blessed with two of the finest climbing schools in North America: Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (165 N. Glenwood St., 307/733-4979 or 800/239-7642, www.jhmg.com) and Exum Mountain Guides (307/733-2297, www.exumguides.com); Exum has a summertime office at the south end of Jenny Lake near the boat dock. Both are authorized concessions of the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service and offer a wide range of classes, snow training, and climbs in the Tetons and elsewhere—even as far away as Alaska and the Himalayas.
Exum has been around since 1931, when Glenn Exum pioneered the first solo climb of what has become the most popular route to the top of the Grand, the Exum Route. It’s the only company permitted to guide all Teton peaks and routes throughout the year. Exum’s base camp is in the busy Lower Saddle area, while Jackson Hole Mountain Guides’ base camp is 450 feet lower in elevation in a more secluded location (it takes an extra hour of climbing on the day of your ascent). Exum has some of the most experienced guides in the world, and they take up to four clients in a group, while Jackson Hole limits its Grand Teton ascent parties to three clients.
During midsummer, you’ll pay $1,000-1,500 per person (depending on the number of people in the group) for a Grand Teton ascent; this includes two days of basic and intermediate training followed by a two-day climb up the Grand and back. Food, gear, and shelter are also included. If you’re planning to climb the Grand during the peak summer season, make reservations several months in advance to be assured of a spot. For July and August, try to make Grand Teton climbing reservations in the spring.
Reservations generally are not needed for the companies’ single-day climbing schools. Also available are climbs of other faces, such as Baxter’s Pinnacle, Symmetry Spire, and Cube Point, along with more advanced classes and climbs in the Wind River Mountains and up Devils Tower and other precipices throughout the Western states. In addition, both companies offer a multitude of winter classes and expeditions, such as avalanche safety, ski mountaineering, and ice climbing. Jackson Hole Mountain Guides has additional climbing operations in Cody, Lander, Red Rocks, and Moab. Exum also operates from City of Rocks, Devils Tower, and the Wind River Mountains.
On Your Own
If you already have the experience and want to do your own climbing, the most accessible local spot is Blacktail Butte, just north of Moose near Ditch Creek. The parking lot here fills on warm summer afternoons as hang-dogging enthusiasts try their moves on the rock face. Get climbing supplies at Moosely Seconds Mountaineering (307/739-1801) in Moose, or in Jackson at Teton Mountaineering (170 N. Cache Dr., 307/733-3595 or 800/850-3595, www.tetonmtn.com). Both stores rent climbing shoes and other gear. Enclosure Indoor Climbing Center (670 Deer Lane, 307/734-9590, www.enclosureclimbing.com) has challenging indoor climbing walls where you can practice your moves.
For complete details on local climbing, see Reynold Jackson’s A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range (The Mountaineers Books, www.mountaineersbooks.org), the smaller Teton Classics: 50 Selected Climbs in Grand Teton National Park by Richard Rossiter (Globe Pequot Press), or Teton Rock Climbs by Aaron Gams (www.tetonrockclimbs.com), a digital guidebook of routes. Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous, and even the best climbers have accidents on The Grand. Over the years, many people have died in the Tetons, and in 2008, George Gardner—an Exum guide with 28 years of experience—died in a fall while solo climbing.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton, 5th Edition