August 14, 2020: We are bivying on the Teton Glacier below the North Face of the Grand. Above us are the same stars the Shoshone and other Indigenous people have gazed upon for centuries, long before the arrival of explorers and settlers. The air is calm but cold. Mark Jenkins, who has forgotten his sleeping bag, places his legs into his 50-liter backpack, stuffing our extra clothes around his feet for insulation. He wears my black puffy and wraps his own around his legs. We both lie miserably on the ice, waiting for our 4 a.m. alarm.
To most of us, sleeping before a big climb is a myth, only executed properly by the most experienced. From my snug sleeping bag, I hear Mark snore from time to time in between shivering. When the alarm sounds, my senses are somewhere between a deep state of hallucination and consciousness. I wake to the cold, dark air and remember where I am. Jitters of excitement stir me to action, but soon enough I make a conscious effort to set those emotions aside and focus on immediate tasks.
THREE YEARS AGO, while training in a gym in Jackson Hole for an upcoming expedition to Kyrgyzstan, I often walked down the hallway to examine a photo of a climber atop Teewinot. Just behind him rose the Grand Teton’s magnificent North Face. I began to notice a distinct buttress on the face: a lone, tall pillar of what looked like clean granite. My ardor for this proud feature led me to consult Leigh Ortenburger and Reynold “Renny” Jackson’s guidebook, A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range. Encyclopedic in breadth and depth, this guidebook contains all the known routes and their intriguing stories. To my delight, I discovered that my magnificent 2,000-foot buttress was unmentioned. I began to dream.
The Grand Teton was purportedly first climbed by the Hayden Geological Survey during a cold July in 1872. The explorers presented an enigmatic route description up the mountain’s west face, but the snow and features they told of don’t seem to match up with the actual terrain, which has cast doubt on their ascent. They seemed to take more interest in the rock structure atop the Enclosure, a subpeak on the west spur of the Grand Teton. The summit of the Enclosure was used by Shoshone Native Americans as a place for spiritual purposes. Evidence of prior humans on the Enclosure suggests that the Grand Teton may have been climbed well before white people arrived.
Two decades after the Hayden expedition, William Owen, a man obsessed with being the first at any endeavor, showed up in Wyoming. After eight years of failed attempts, he found the key to the summit in 1898 with Franklin Spalding. Owen claimed the first ascent of the mountain, via what is now known as the Owen-Spalding or OS route. This was the beginning of a century of controversy over who the mountain’s first ascensionists really were.
Mark and I kick our aluminum crampons into the steep neve of the Teton Glacier. The beams of our headlamps sweep right and then left. We’re searching for a snow bridge across the plunging bergschrund. Our opportunity appears at the top of a funnel where a large chunk of snow has fallen from a hanging block directly above our heads. Mark crosses the bridge first, switches from crampons and approach shoes to rock shoes, and sets out. We simulclimb five pitches of fourth- and easy fifth-class along an exposed, west-trending ledge. We have to down climb in several places and make one precarious rappel with our rope wrapped around a shallow undulation in the rock. We’re moving swiftly, but our approach has taken over an hour longer than we anticipated.
At the base of the climb, I rack and head up the first pitch of the unknown. It’s my first rodeo on a new route, but not Mark’s. He has racked up miles of new terrain.
Mark is a Laramie, Wyoming local. He first started climbing in high school when his PE teacher brought the class out to Vedauwoo, an outcropping of granite known for its stout grades, flared offwidths and blood-letting ability. Mark’s first big expedition was a failed attempt on Denali. As a hungry alpinist and professional writer, he began applying for spots on international expeditions. His first Himalayan summit was 8027-meter Shishapangma, in Tibet. This successful ascent in 1984 led him to a life of climbing big new routes all over the world. He also managed to slip in the first crossing of Siberia by bicycle (7,500 miles), the first descent of the Niger River in West Africa, and the first descent of Hang Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, located in central Vietnam. Suffice it to say that Mark has considerable experience being the first to do something. When I started climbing with him this past spring, I knew immediately he was the partner I needed to get up the 2,000-foot north buttress of the Grand Teton. His eyes lit up when I told him about my dream.
ONCE THE EASIER ROUTES on the south, west and east faces of the Grand were established, climbers began looking to the darkest, coldest, largest wall: the north face. In 1933, Paul Petzoldt and Jack Durrance descended 1,000 feet of the north side searching for a possible route. At that same time, famous German-American climber Fritz Wiessner was camped at Amphitheater Lake with his own dreams of a first ascent. The next day, Petzoldt and team tiptoed passed Weissner’s tent in the wee morning hours. By the time Wiessner awoke, Petzoldt was already halfway up the North Face. They’d beat him to the punch.
In the early days, there were so many unclimbed summits, climbers could still focus on racing to be the first. Today, big first ascents are still done in the Himalaya, in the Karakoram, the Andes, etc., but long new routes are now rare in the Tetons.
Failing to find anything in A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, I began delving into other books about the human history of the Tetons. I wanted to find a secret story about this route, evidence that it had been climbed–but there was none. The more I educated myself on the Tetons, the more I learned of the physical climbing boundaries that each decade held and the breakthroughs climbers made with innovation and technique. During World War II, nylon ropes replaced deadly hemp lines. Later Vibram rubber replaced leather hobnailed boots, and then sticky rubber replaced Vibram. Clean protection, stoppers and cams, replaced pitons. The golden age of the Tetons was from the 1920s to the 1940s, when climbing gear was still archaic and simple. New routes continued to go up in the Tetons through the ’90s, but the attention of most climbers shifted to the hard walls in Yosemite and other destinations. While elite skiers continued to find opportunities for first descents down steep couloirs, the range was largely forgotten by strong exploratory climbers. And yet, the more I looked through the historical journey of the Tetons, the more potentially unclimbed lines I found. I was thrilled that the heyday of the Tetons might not be over. Maybe there was a second wind for this famous American mountain range.
Mark and I find the first two pitches of the North Buttress Direct to be stellar climbing, following 5.9 hand cracks that tapered down to 5.10 fingers. For a moment, I think we’ve hit the jackpot, a future classic composed of solid rock and beautiful climbing. Then I start leading the third pitch. A perfect fist crack transmogrifies into scary, dirty, hard-to-protect face climbing. (This pitch will turn out to be the crux of the route, 5.10+ R.) My bones are shivering with fear after finishing the pitch. Luckily, the next three pitches provide us with enjoyable, if sometimes loose, moderate climbing.
On the top of Pitch 6, water is running down the rock to our left, fed by a melting snowfield. The closest established route ascends this snow gully. We fill our bottles and simulclimb the next three pitches of easy fifth-class. The buttress again rears up before us and we dispatch a steeping 5.7 corner, followed by an awkward 5.9 roof. Here we take a break in a notch of the buttress, eat a little, drink a lot and briefly allow ourselves to be satisfied by our speed and efficiency thus far.
I don’t say anything to Mark, but I am so incredibly psyched to be here, on a climb I’ve been dreaming about while staring at the photo in the gym all these years.
After no more than five minutes of rest, we begin the last third of the climb: the final tower of the northeast buttress before it connects to the East Ridge high the mountain. I climb up loose “ghost flakes,” 400-pound slabs of rock ready to rip off at any moment. It’s only 5.7, but Mark is below me in the line of fire. I attempt to link this pitch with the next, climbing a right-facing corner, traveling over more ghost flakes. The remaining gear on my harness is dwindling. I have limited options on what to place in the rock, so I run it out before building an anchor right below a large roof. Mark takes the lead up through this short but frustrating 5.9 overhang. The lip of the roof forms a pronounced bottleneck but he can’t fit into the gap with his pack on (ice axe, crampons, puffy, etc.), so he leaves it hanging and easily clears the problem. He hauls up both packs before I climb this awkward corner. Now past the last difficulties, we return to simulclimbing.
Near the top, I can either finish off on easy fifth-class on the eastern face of the buttress, or move right, back to the north face. Without hesitation, I go right, drawn magnetically back to the dark, cold, exposed face where the climbing is harder. I build a belay and wait for Mark to join me. He seems a bit surprised that I veered off the path of least resistance for an unnecessary detour up the north side, but I couldn’t help myself. Mark leads the last pitch to the top of our route.
The North Buttress Direct, done!
We ascend the golden Teton granite and the spine of sun-cupped snow on the East Ridge to the summit of the Grand with alacrity, following in the footsteps of the legends before us.
It’s 6:30 p.m. The summit is empty. After a long first ascent, it feels fitting, if lucky, to have this small bit of rock to ourselves. It will be an exhausting stumble back down to the car, but for now we sit and watch the shadow of the Grand stretch out across the Teton Valley like the history of the mountain itself.
[Regarding the possible new route, Renny Jackson told Alpinist in an email: “I have been deeply immersed in a revision of my guidebook for the past five years or so…. I became aware of Justin and Mark’s route late summer/early fall of 2020. I can tell you that I have looked at that area of the north face of the Grand for some time and that I am not aware of any existing route in that zone. The pair came close to routes that have been done in the winter that are located slightly to the west but, for the most part, the route that these two did was on new terrain. I am including it in the revision of my guidebook as a separate, new route on the Grand Teton’s north face.”–Ed.]