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Men first stood on top of the Grand Teton more than a century ago, and climbing the 13,770-foot peak remains a rite of passage for American mountaineers. It’s difficult to get an accurate count of the number of climbers who attempt the Grand each year, but the number is likely in the thousands. The two guide services that have a concession in the park, Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, took about 1,200 people to their respective high camps for the Grand in 2010. Whether or not you’ve climbed it, there are a few things you may not know about Wyoming’s most famous peak.
1 French trappers are responsible for naming the three peaks now known as the South, Middle, and Grand Teton. They called the mountains “Les Trois Tetons,” or “The Three Breasts.” The Grand Teton—the tallest of the three—literally means “the big tit.” The Shoshoni name for the trio of mountains is less crude, translating to “hoary-headed fathers.”
2 The first ascent of the Grand Teton was claimed by Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson, though their success is often doubted. Their climb on July 29, 1872, was apparently aided by a mass migration of grasshoppers. Langford, Yellowstone National Park’s first superintendent, and Stevenson were in the Tetons as part of a team organized by geologist-naturalist-doctor Ferdinand Hayden to survey the area. Hayden wrote in his final report that Langford and Stevenson were able to reach the summit thanks to clouds of cold-numbed grasshoppers that dropped from thousands of feet in the air onto the peak’s snowfields. Their bodies melted divots into the frozen surface that allowed Stevenson and Langford to “cling to the almost vertical sides of the peaks, and complete the ascent.”
3 The debate over whether Langford and Stevenson really summited the Grand in 1872 began in force after the peak was climbed in 1898 by Franklin Spalding, William Owen, Frank Petersen, and John Shive. When the party came down, Owen claimed to have found no evidence that any person had stood on the summit before them. Owen did, however, make sure there was evidence of his own party’s ascent. After first reaching the summit on August 11, three of the men reclimbed the route—now known as the Owen-Spalding—two days later and posed for pictures. Despite the attention given to the controversy, the summit was not visited again for 25 years.
4 The second route up the Grand was climbed in the summer of 1929, when Harvard philosophy professor Robert Underhill climbed the East Ridge (III 5.7) with Kenneth Henderson. Over the next couple of years, Underhill left his mark in the Teton Range, including one 12-day stretch in the summer of 1931 when he blazed through five impressive first ascents, including two routes on the Grand: the formidable and ultra-classic North Ridge (IV 5.8), which he climbed with partner Fritiof Fryxell, and the Underhill Ridge (III 5.8), which he climbed with Phil Smith and Francis Truslow.
5 The first winter ascent of the Grand was in December 1935 by Paul Petzoldt, his brother Eldon, and Fred Brown. The trio climbed the Owen-Spalding during an inversion that kept the temperatures on the peak balmier than in Jackson Hole, where the thermometers measured –20°F. Petzoldt first climbed the Grand when he was 16—in cowboy boots. He cut steps in the ice with a pocket knife, and carried only a few cans of beans and a patchwork quilt. By the time Petzoldt died in 1999, he had climbed the Grand more than 300 times.
6 There are now at least 85 climbs—and probably more—on the flanks of the Grand, if you count the numerous variations to established routes. Other than the Owen-Spalding (II 5.4), the most popular route is the Upper Exum (II 5.5), the first ascent of which was made by Glenn Exum, who climbed the route solo in 1931 at the age of 18 wearing leather-cleated football shoes that were two sizes too big. In recent years, climbers have put up a variety of gnarly climbs, including Golden Pillar (V 5.12), climbed by Greg Collins and Hans Johnstone in 2003, and Squeeze Box (IV M7 A0), climbed by Johnstone and Stephen Koch in 2007.
7 The Tetons are a relatively young 10 million years old. The peaks have been pushed up over time as Jackson Hole has sunk, thanks to the Teton fault, which runs along the eastern edge of the range. Each movement of the fault—which has caused earthquakes in magnitude up to 7.5—has increased the offset between the mountains and the valley floor by five to 10 feet. The last major earthquake in the area was between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, but geologists expect the fault will lurch again, jutting the peaks further into the sky.
8 The Teton Range is largely made up of extremely old Precambrian metamorphic rocks known as gneiss. About two and a half billion years ago, magma cracked through the gneiss, forming intrusions that cooled over time to form granite. Because granite is harder than gneiss, granite caps most of the jagged peaks in the range, including the Grand.
9 Bill Briggs made the first ski descent of the Grand on June 15, 1971, igniting the sport of ski mountaineering in North America. Briggs—whose right hip joint was surgically fused in 1961, locking it into a fixed angle—made turns down the east face before easing into the Stettner Couloir and eventually making one rappel from a chockstone. When Briggs returned to town, locals were dubious of his claims until a photographer from the Jackson Hole News snapped an aerial photo of Briggs’s curving tracks, which were still visible on the Grand’s face. Since Briggs’s descent, the Grand has been skied via at least three different routes. In June 2008, Jimmy Chin skied the South, Middle, and Grand Teton car-to-car in just 10 hours and 55 minutes. Chin did not take a rope, downclimbing any sections that could not be skied.
10 One of the classic climbing achievements in the Teton Range—which stretches north to south for 40 miles—is the Grand Traverse, which links the summits of Teewinot, Mt. Owen, Grand Teton, Middle Teton, South Teton, Cloudveil Dome, and Nez Perce. The total elevation gain over the 14-mile traverse is about 12,000 feet. The first traverse, starting from Nez Perce and heading north, was made by Allen Steck, Dick Long, and John Evans in 1963; now, it’s most commonly climbed from Teewinot heading south. The speed record is held by Rolando Garibotti, who ticked off the feat in six hours and 49 minutes in summer 2000. Four years later, two teams completed the Grand Traverse in winter. Both parties started on the same day, January 17, 2004, but Mark Newcomb and Stephen Koch finished after three days, while Hans Johnstone and Renny Jackson took four days.