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On July 15, 1931, Glenn Exum made the first ascent of one of North America’s most classic mountaineering routes: the Exum Ridge on Wyoming’s 13,770-foot Grand Teton. Fellow Teton guide, Paul Petzoldt, made the second ascent later that afternoon, solo. Petzold was on the third ascent as well, with Theodore and Gustav Koven, and in August of the same summer, Petzoldt–no stranger to publicity–put together an official photographic expedition to climb and document the route.
The climbers–Petzoldt, George L. Waters III, Walcott Watson, H.M. Sherman, Chas. E. Logan and a Mr. Lasky of San Francisco–made the fourth ascent of the ridge and procured some of the earliest North American climbing footage in existence. Five reels of sixteen-millimeter film and a number of still photographs were taken during the climb. The video in this Feature is the unadulterated work of the cinematographer and director of photography on that expedition, George Waters.
The video, and the text below, are courtesy of Tim Waters, George’s son and a third-generation photographer and outdoorsman. Unaware that the reels existed until he rummaged through old boxes in his attic last year, Tim notified Alpinist of the find, and told of his father’s intriguing photographic background.
My father, George L. Waters III, had a great love for the Tetons. As a boy growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, George spent many trips with his father exploring the Wasatch, Uinta, Wind River and Teton ranges. These outings went a long way to foster a passion for climbing, camping, fishing, and the outdoors in general. His father always carried his Kodak 3A folding camera complete with a F.6.3 Zeiss lens on these trips, and George quickly showed interest and aptitude in exploratory photography from an early age.
A young man in the 1920s, George was active in the Boy Scouts. He attained Eagle Scout with forty-seven merit badges, and he spent his summers maintaining trails and creating access to the newly formed national parks and wildernesses. His scouting work, combined with a youth built on time in the wild with his father, led him to the mountains. It was inevitable–because he brought his camera everywhere he went–that he would end up documenting his climbing adventures in the Tetons.
George became a Park Ranger for Grand Teton National Park in the summer of 1931. That summer he grew to know Paul Petzoldt, who at that time was an emerging figure in American mountaineering and is now a Teton climbing legend. In 1924, at the age of sixteen, Petzoldt had completed his first ascent of the Grand Teton; fourteen years later he would become part of the first American expedition to attempt K2. Friendship between Petzoldt and Waters led to their trip together on the Grand Teton’s newly established Exum Ridge, during which George directed the shooting of the film you see here.
As the summer of 1931 headed into late August, Petzoldt mentioned the idea of climbing the Grand with a photographic team. A group of six, including George, was organized to climb the peak on the last weekend of the month: August 30-31.
The September 3 Jackson Hole’s Courier reported on the ascent: “Staying at Petzoldt’s 10,500 foot camp the first night [today known as the Petzoldt Caves –Ed.], the party left [Sunday, August 29] at 8:20 a.m., proceeding across the Hanging Glacier to the lower saddle and up the south ridge of the peak, reaching the summit at 2:00 p.m. Movies proved a big factor in making the turn more difficult.
“Clouds and haze on all sides obscured the view for the party when they first arrived at the top, but this cleared and allowed panoramic views to be taken with the movie camera. The Wind River range to the east [was] plainly visible with the mighty glaciers that shone in the sun. To the west lay the checkerboarded field of Idaho with the Sawtooths obscured by the haze. The party counted twenty-six lakes visible in the afternoon sun from the summit. Some of these lakes have never been visited by climbers.”
This resulting silent film is a testament to the great sense of joy and camaraderie that accompanies any ascent of the Grand Teton. From reaching the tree line, crossing the glacier and assaulting the narrow chimneys to lassoing the knob and taking the summit, my father’s footage offered the climbing community a new way to see the soul of alpinism, which once only lived in memories.