Alpinist, climbing ranger, guidebook author, historian, father; Kelly, Wyoming
For 38 years, Renny Jackson, 57 has climbed nonstop, from Alaska to the Himalaya, from desert sandstone, to Yosemite, to the Tetons. His name is near synonymous with his current theater of operations, Grand Teton National Park, where he’s the Jenny Lake subdistrict ranger, managing an elite team of mountain search-and-rescue rangers. Jackson is also coauthor of the classic A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, with the late Leigh N. Ortenburger, has served on the Board of Directors of the American Alpine Club, and wrote a definitive history of Teton climbing. In the climber arena, Jackson has more than a few bona fides: the North Face of Cholatse (21,128 feet) — alpine style in 1984 — with Catherine Freer, Todd Bibler, and Sandy Stewart; and in 2004, the Grand Traverse (10 peaks in the Tetons totaling 25,000 vertical feet of climbing and descending) in winter, with Hans Johnstone, Stephen Koch, and Mark Newcomb. While Jackson’s never one to talk about pushing the grades, consider that when Alex Lowe climbed in the Tetons, he often made it a point to hook up with Jackson.
How did you get into climbing?
I grew up in Salt Lake City in the 1960s. My family would go on picnics up Big Cottonwood and I’d see these guys climbing around on quartzite. I became quite fascinated with what they were doing. So in 1969, I took a beginne’rs climbing course with the Wasatch Mountain Club. I think I was 18, and that set me on this path. I first climbed the Grand with the club in 1970 via the Exum Ridge. I had no idea what I was doing.
What path led to your current job as a climbing ranger?
I gravitated toward this job because it seemed like the perfect deal. I mean,, they paid you to go climbing [laughs]. At first, I had no aspirations to become a permanent NPS ranger. But then it just happened. My foot-in-the-door was trail crew in 1974-1975. I climbed on my days off and hung out with the rangers, letting them know of my interest. At the time, there were six or seven climbing rangers. We now have 11, with four permanents, including myself. Anyway, I applied for the job in 1976 and somehow I got it. I worked seasonally from ’76 to ’89, was hired ful-time in Denali in ’90, spent two seasons there, then came back down here to Jenny Lake. Been here ever since.
Is there a spiritual aspect to your climbing?
Boy, I don’t know about that. I was raised Catholic, but I don’t go to church. I guess if there is a spiritual aspect, it would relate to the feeling of renewal I get from being in the mountains, from climbing them. I’m not sure I’d call it spiritual, but I value it highly. I’ve always been attracted to just being, simply being in the mountains. All the various aspects of climbing feed off that desire to be in the mountains. It’s very instinctive to me.
Have you ever “quit” climbing?
No. There has never been a period in my life — except prior to age 18 — when I haven’t climbed. I’m definitely climbing less now, but I still have a blast. A long time ago, I found something I should be doing. That’s climbing.
What role does humility play in your climbing?
I don’t think a climber can be too humble. One of the most humble climbers I’ve ever known was Alex Lowe. Alex would sooner talk about your latest project than what he was doing. I think it’s a very necessary trait when you go into the mountains. It helps you steer your way through the decision-making process.
As both an alpinist and a ranger, you’ve watched climbers of all sorts head into the mountains. Most times these trips end well. But not always. Is anyone capable of serious mountaineering, or are there folks who would be wise to refrain?
Because it’s such a personal decision to be out there, I really hesitate to judge people. Who am I to say who and who shouldn’t go into the mountains? I was, way back when, doing things perhaps I shouldn’t have. If you learn the basics really well, and you are fortunate enough to have someone a little more along the path than you to take you under their wing, that’s the best scenario. There are certain things you need to learn to prevent death. Some of them can be taught and some can only be learned. But a mentor is huge. I don’t know what people do when they can’t find one. I suppose you could pay someone, but I come from a different place.
How did you learn the basics?
The Wasatch Club in those days was pretty serious about basic training, and I think that sort of thing really pays off. What we did was classic, straight out of Freedom of the Hills. I still have that book somewhere over there [points to the shelf]. We weren’t just reading what to do, we got out there and practiced it hard — the whole team-arrest thing, boot-axe belay, self-arrest from every conceivable position, body rappels, you name it. Practicing self-arrest, we’d find the slickest [ski] suits we could so we’d slide as fast as possible head-first down the hill. If it was dangerous, they’d put us on belay. We practiced this a lot. I remember one time dropping weights out of trees to see how much we could hold with a standard hip belay — I watched a guy get picked up, turned upside down, and have his head bashed on the rocks. He was wearing a helmet, of course, and he caught the fall with just a hip belay. There was nothing theoretical about those lessons.
Did you have a mentor?
I’ve learned from many people, but I’d have to say my major mentor was Tom Kimbrough. I met him before I became a ranger. I wasn’t a very good rock climber then and knew I needed to be better. Tom helped me a lot with that learning process. My first trip to Yosemite was with him.
You’ve climbed with some amazing people. What do you have to say about your partners?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I’ve been lucky enough to climb with some really great people — not just great climbers, but great people. I haven’t had that many partners. Maybe the two your readers will definitely recognize are Mugs Stump and Alex Lowe. With Alex, it really happened because we were both attracted to the same routes. We talked about them all the time, and then finally we said, “Let’s go climbing!” So we did. All these people could climb way harder than me.
When Mugs Stump died in 1992, you acted in your capacity as a search-and-rescue professional. Would you mind telling us about that?
I just happened to be up there [Denali] because they were swamped with incidents. In a span of two or there weeks, there were something like eight or nine fatalities, and they had called me up to help out. When the call for Mugs came out, I was in a helicopter doing one thing and we flew directly to the scene. I remember sizing it up [the ramp access to the South Buttress of Denali at 16,000 or 17,000 feet]. The rope disappeared down a slot packed with ice. There was absolutely nothing we could do. It was a feeling of total and complete helplessness. We flew down and picked up his camp. We could do nothing more. Mugs had soloed the Cassin Ridge in a day one year after we climbed on Mount Johnson in the Ruth. The next year, he died.
What ingredients make up the truly great alpinists?
Well, the first thing is the really great climbers — like your Lowes and your Houses — have the total package. They can climb 5.13 or harder at the sport crag and they are pushing equally hard from all the trad angles. I call it the whole alpine package—skiing, bouldering, aerobic, mixed, sport, cracks, snow, ice, et cetera. And of course they have supreme judgment. When you put it all together and you have a genetic anomaly like Alex Lowe, you’ve got this thing that’s kind of hard to believe, really.
Putting aside what we know about Alex Lowe’s remarkable accomplishments, did you enjoy climbing with him?
He was such a motivator. He motivated everyone, not just himself. And he was very alert and attentive to partners. When things got a little dicey, he was often the person to suggest we put a rope on, even though I think he may not have needed it himself. I remember in particular a day he did that on the Valhalla Traverse. Maybe this is unrelated, but we ended up doing a thing called Alberich’s Alley that day. He was leading, out of sight, snow and ice was flying by, and I see one of his ice tools go cartwheeling over my head. So I send him up another. We finish the climb and we are almost back down at the Lower Saddle. Like a good ranger, I proceed to give him shit about littering, told him he had to go clean the axe up. The thing is, it was completely on the other side of the mountain! There was no way it was going to be found. Then I turn around, and I’ll be darned if he hadn’t run off to look. I yelled, “Alex I’m just bullshitting!” [laughing]. He didn’t find it. So yeah, we definitely had fun.
How many lives are you leading?
I’d have to say two. One as the head of the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers, and a second as a family man/father/husband. It can be rough. It has its stresses. We [the Jenny Lake Rangers] are a really tight group, and that has its positives and negatives. It can be really rough on the family because I have this other family — the rangers I’m tight with — and I am sure Catherine [his wife, Catherine Cullinane, the first female Exum Guide] would go on about it. But we — Catherine, my daughter Jane, and I — are a climbing family so that probably makes things more understandable, if not easier. We’ve been dragging our daughter on climbing vacations since she was an infant. The joke is that she’s come to a realization that her parents only vacation in places with rocks. The thing is, it’s true. We love Indian Creek, and we took a bunch of her friends there last time and had a blast. She is 17, mainly interested in being a kid, but she’s probably fated to being something of a climber [laughs].
What do you do other than climb?
My family is sick and tired of hearing how much I love to ski. They are completely over it. Winter is my favorite time of the year, for sure. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve become very interested in the overall history of the Teton Range. Leigh N. Ortenburger was partly responsible for this. At the time of his death [in the Oakland firestorm of 1991], Leigh had written 30 chapters on the history of the Tetons from 1872 to 1898. I am going to finish this history and make it into a book someday, but with everything I have to do it will take awhile.
As time passes has your motivation to climb hard changed?
No, not exactly. But there are more limitations now. Like anyone who has been doing this as long as I have, I have overuse injuries. I blew a finger pulley in the gym recently. It is one of the few finger injuries I’ve had. It has put me at a lower level for four and a half months. Things take longer to heal now, but it is still important for me to train hard and push. I have certain climbs that I need to be able to do, and I go back to them regularly to check in with my abilities. There’s a certain level I have to be at. My most recent epic, if you want to call it that, was down in Indian Creek last fall on an of-width on the west face of Bridger Jack. I injured my knee in that thing. We rapped off in the dark, and because of the knee it took some time. It was epic in that the injury is still bugging me.
Have you looked at certain climbs, concluded they are impossible, then gone on to do them?
The North Face of Cholatse looked impossible, or at the very least improbable. As I’m sure many people know, you look at things with different eyes as you gain more experience and become a better climber. I spent the 1980s in the Himalaya. Went there five times. It was my life, to go there as much as possible. Each time I came back, I looked at my home range very differently.
What are your weaknesses and strengths as a climber?
I detest friction. It scares me. I handle cracks pretty well. I’m a decent ice climber, but haven’t done much of the new mixed genre — at least, not intentionally.
Some of your friends and partners have never returned from the mountains. When that happens how do you deal with it?
I go right back up there and get what I need. That’s exactly what they all would have done. Get back up there as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I have lost many friends to the mountains.
Glaciers are receding around the world, with a few notable exceptions. As someone who has walked and climbed for decades around the small glaciers in Grand Teton National Park, what changes have you seen?
The Black Ice Couloir is the most striking example I can think of. I’ve climbed it 15 or 16 times since 1976. The first thing I noticed was that it became hard to clip some of the old fixed-pin placements. It was like, ”Huh? I don’t remember that being reachy. …” It’s because the ice was getting thinner, and now this formerly sizable piece of ice is reduced to a little ribbon of brown stuff a few hundred feet long. We romanticized it as some remnant Pleistocene ice sheet or something. Maybe it is. Or rather was. Noting changes like that in your lifetime is pretty amazing regardless of the exact cause.
Your three all-time-favorite routes?
The Petzoldt/Exum combo on the Grand, the Nose, and the North Face of Castleton Tower. Those are the ones.
What preparation goes into doing something like the Grand Traverse in winter?
How you evolve to be able to do these things, at least for me anyway, is to actually learn by repeated tries. It wasn’t until our third attempt that we succeeded. The three “Ws” have to fall in place: Weather, Work, and Women. That last one would be my wife and daughter. On the night of our successful attempt in 2004, Hans was out partying but I was home thinking about not being gripped. On the last attempt, I had had a close call — a really close call. As we were carefully downclimbing into a sharp notch between Teewinot and the East Prong, I remarked to Hans that the cornice build-up appeared to be exceptionally large and overhung. Unfortunately, we chose a line that was a little too much on the lee side. I was about 10 feet behind Hans when everything gave way, tons of wind-compacted snow collapsing. Somehow I pull off a back flip onto the windward side of the ridge as the weight of the cornice-fall triggered a large avalanche we watched hit the glacier below.
How many rescue or recovery operations have you participated in?
I have no idea — too many, obviously.
As rangers greeting climbers visiting Grand Teton National Park, what is your most important task?
We have to be able to read climbers, to discern where they are coming from. We have many visitors doing their first big thing in the mountains. If we pick up on the fact that their objectives are not suited to them, for whatever reason, we’ll give them information and make sure they are aware of options that might be better. We take the time to talk to them, and that’s really the key. In the ranger station, we do a tremendous amount of what we call “preventative SAR.” Some of our folks are extremely good at this. They are very skilled communicators and they know these mountains as well as anyone. The No. 1 thing we have with the climbing population is credibility. We try to never do anything to damage that and we work hard to earn it.
What gives you this credibility?
First and foremost, our rangers are climbers themselves. Some are extremely accomplished and they’re up there all the time. When a person comes into the ranger station for Beta, they get it from someone who has done the route, usually many times. Often they’ve done it recently, so they can describe current conditions. Three times a pay period [10 days] our folks go on mountain patrols. These are paid climbing days. They can go anywhere and do whatever routes they want, as long as it’s in the park. The idea is to give them as much direct experience as possible so they can advise, and if we’re thrown into a rescue situation it’s a huge advantage if they know the terrain. And then there’s the whole “feeding the rat” thing. We hire highly motivated, highly intelligent people. Someone described us as “a pretty bizarre set of characters.” Certain personal characteristics and skill sets are shared between good climbers and good rescuers, so it only makes sense to create an environment in which these can flourish.
Tell us about your personal reward for participating in search and rescue all these years.
Sometimes, you can sit back as an observer; you can see that you’re actually grabbing someone, taking them out of their turn, their number having come up, and removing them from that situation. There’s no question we’re saving this person’s life, truly changing their fate. And it doesn’t happen that often. But occasionally it does, and it’s really cool. It sticks. It’s hard to describe what it’s like when this is going on. I don’t know if it’s adrenaline, because I’ve had it where it’s a calm feeling. Like the time we airlifted 13 people off and on the Friction Pitch on the Grand. I was in the chopper for three and a half hours. I had a feeling of heightened powers of observation. I could see everything in extreme detail. I’ve tried to take home lessons from the grim, not-so-grim, and even comical situations. While most people are reading Accidents in North American Mountaineering, on some level we are experiencing it. A lot of places on the Grand, and elsewhere in the range, I associate with lost, dead people. And that’s a very sobering thing. It can be graphic. You never forget some of the things you’re presented with. It’s really troubling actually. But if you can turn it into a positive thing and make it into a learning experience, I think that’s the way I’ve tried to deal with it.
How do you operate as a team in rescue situations?
When something pops, we converge on the rescue cache and that’s where plans are hatched. We rely a great deal on a collective mindset. Often, we’ll have four or five folks there with a combined experience well over 150 years. That’s cool, because each person contributes ideas and perspectives that often get combined in a solution that ends up crucial for success. We are pretty tight. And that gets back to our policy of encouraging our people to go climb. They do it together, as partners, and under the stresses of climbing they are seeing each other at their best and worst. It’s the same in a rescue situation. There is a need to take care of each other, a need for trust and to communicate. I think we do it really well. Controlling the tempo of these things is very important for safety and success, and we try to watch that with vigilance as a team. The minute you turn a rotor, things get complicated fast.
Helicopters are an important tool for you — tell me a little about that.
Actually, the mountain stuff [traveling on foot and climbing] seems easy sometimes. We’re used to that as climbers. But when you throw in an aircraft where the pilot is in charge, with a whole different skillset, it opens things up. In short hauling, when people are dangling from a rope under the machine, if anything major happens there is a high probability that someone could die. The pilot doesn’t know exactly what is going on in your head in terms of judging conditions, and you can’t know exactly what the pilot is thinking either. Your situational awareness is a little different in these circumstances. The crux of the matter is communication. Wind, altitude, angle of terrain, weather — it all feeds into these enormously complicated decisions we have to calculate as a group. There is frequently an elevated level of objective hazard. There is a temptation to look to aviation more, because it’s so amazing, so miraculous. Sometimes using the helicopter is the difference between a half hour of flying versus a day or more of very hard and dangerous labor retrieving someone from the mountains. It’s often a complicated matter, determining what’s the best and safest solution.
Do the national media fairly present climbing?
The public at large has the mistaken notion that climbers are out there taking excessive risks, that they’re thrillseekers, and that they are engaging in the activity precisely because it is risky. I suppose it’s possible there are people doing that, but from my personal experience that is absolutely not the case. It can be argued that all activities involve some degree of risk. I think climbers would be very happy if theirs didn’t. But they accept the reality of it, just like many other recreationalists and professionals have to. I’m not sure to what extent the public’s perception has been shaped by media coverage of climbing accidents.
Is there anything climbers visiting the Tetons can do to ensure the Park remains one of the great alpine destinations?
Actually, for the most part climbers are doing a great job. I would just say keep on practicing leave-no-trace principles as well as you possibly can. We’ve gone to carrying human waste out in certain locations. We’re here to protect the resource, but the park service has shifted somewhat over the years in a direction that gives climbers more independence. For example, 15 or so years ago you had to check in with us after your climb, but that was eliminated. When you come to the park, or climb anywhere, just be respectful, careful, and enjoy the mountains.