While certainly ultra-classic and strikingly beautiful, Teewinot Mountain is also widely considered the deadliest peak in Grand Teton National Park. In early August of 2021 I made my first summer ascent – as I climbed I pondered why the route has claimed so many lives, and by the bottom the picture was crystal clear. What makes this “only fourth class” route so dangerous? Read on for a discussion of the full route, including a personal trip report.
A Perfect Storm
As of a 1997 report compiled by the University of Wyoming, Teewinot Mountain ranks second, surpassed by only by Mount Owen, in climbing incidents (per attempts) amongst major peaks in the central Teton range. Outside the central range, Symmetry Spire and Storm Point also rank comparatively high, but like Owen, these objectives are unanimously considered “technical rock climbing” and are almost always ascended by teams of roped climbers. Teewinot Mountain is different. Rarely climbed with a rope, rated fourth class and usually considered a mere alpine scramble, Teewinot falls into a peer group of less-technical but none less impressive peaks including the Middle and South Tetons, Disappointment Peak, Buck Mountain, Nez Perce and to some extent the Grand Teton, to name only a few. Compared to colleagues of similar stature, Teewinot wears the unequivocal crown of deadliest. Furthermore, considering the East Face sees nearly all of Teewinot’s summit traffic, and Owen, Symmetry Spire and Storm Point are adorned with half a dozen popular climbing routes each, it’s reasonable to assume Teewinot’s East Face is likely the most dangerous route in the entire Teton range.
Teewinot’s close proximity to the road, tendency to hold late season snow, notoriously sandbagged rating, navigational challenges and exceptionally loose rock provide a perfect breeding ground for catastrophe. In a range as “sanitized” as the Tetons, where climber’s trails to popular rock routes often include switchbacks and signage (typically reserved only for maintained trails in other areas), it can be easy to underestimate serious alpine outings. The Tetons are also well acknowledged for a long standing culture of mountaineering nonchalance. Poke anyone over fifty at the Stagecoach Bar and they’ll be happy to tell you of their first trip up the Grand Teton, with ratty tennis shoes or cowboy boots – maybe a sailor’s rope. They’ll almost certainly call it a “long hike”, even though the modern day grade for the “easiest” route sits conclusively at 5.4, boasting technical rock moves with half a mile of clean granite exposure at 13,200 feet.
To the old timer’s credit, the Grand Teton, at least it’s most popular routes, are becoming more and more “casual” by the day. EXUM and JHMG guiding services have erected large aluminum huts to house overnight summitteers, and a piped spring provides a reliable source of water at 11,600 feet. Bolted rappel stations adorn the most popular west face descent route, and sheer foot traffic has carved legitimate trails through once completely virgin talus fields. That said, climbing the Grand Teton is still no Sunday stroll. The Tetons may appear “clean” and well-traveled, but every year the overly confident bite their tongue. The Tetons are far more than an alpine jungle gym, and though route grades and ratings attempt to level the playing field, “fourth class” becomes a lot more involved when the trail dissapears, an unexpected snowfield is encountered, rockfall releases or water sources run dry, the rappel station webbing is dangerously tatterred or the “straightforward descent” becomes a little more convoluted than expected, all whilst the sun is beginning to set. Though Teewinot is far from as wild as they get, there isn’t a seasonal village of trained guides mid-mountain waiting to hear and assist the faintest scream. The summit may only be four miles from the parking lot, but four miles can be a long, long way if fortune turns sour.
After having soloed the Grand Teton’s Exum Ridge a mere two days earlier, my legs were filled with lead as I began the slog up Teewinot’s approach trail, right around 6:30AM. Leaving directly from Lupine Meadows, the well-trodden goat path gains a savage ~4,000 feet of elevation over less than two miles. Luckily, the trail was in phenomenal condition, allowing excellent time to the base of the technical section. In a matter of minutes the path turned abruptly from rocky dirt to scree, and even quicker to technical slab. On climber’s left stands two prominent granite spires rising high over the valley below. The “Worshipper” and the “Idol” mark the beginnings of adventure for most, but unfortunate tragedy for others.
The steep East Face is capable of holding snow as late as August, but lucky for me, I needn’t unsheathe my axe. Right beneath the terraced cliffs marking the obvious beginnings of technical climbing/scrambling, a 40-50 degree snowfield, often quite wide, serves as the first on-route hazard. A few other sections are known to harbor stubborn snow, but can easily be scouted from the parking lot. By mid-August 2021, the small amount of residual snow was trivial, easily bypassed on fourth class slabs to the south.
As I began to quest up the infinitely varied and vast East Face, the infamously convoluted nature of the route became ever apparent. Dozens of faint trails zig-zagged every which way, some just petering out, others halting beneath blatant fifth class terrain. Per Aaron Gams’s “Teton Rock Climbs” and general climber consensus, I stuck solely to the north side of the prominent gully (though I did later notice climbers ascending to the south, as Mark Thomas’s picture above suggests). Slowly I meandered along the face, climbing many short sections of fourth class slab and stopping regularly to study my map. Eventually, just as the guidebook warned, the terrain unmistakably changed, both in steepness and difficulty, marking the “crux” section of the route.
Every range, climber and guidebook has a unique interpretation of “fourth class.” In my humble opinion, as soon as I need to employ any kind of technical rock climbing maneuver, smearing, edging, exposed stemming or god forbid a hand or finger jam, the route has officially received a fifth class stamp. Toss in some critical exposure, and there’s no question asked. Right as the route begins to constrict into an obvious bottleneck, the first crux of the route appears. Just to the north of the main drainage gully, an obvious left lacing corner/di-hedral becomes apparent (pictured above, left). Slabs to the north might possibly provide slightly easier passage (I down-climbed this way), but I chose to stem and jam the short corner because despite the steepness, the movement felt highly secure.
Just above the corner, the second crux becomes obvious and proud. A right facing corner/flake system with three definitive but shallow cracks (shown above, right) provide the unanimously established “best way” to the upper mountain. This “crux” was absolutely not fourth class, and I was absolutely not off route. Though the handholds were positive, a few friction footholds made the movement feel less secure than what I’ve come to expect from Teton fourth class. Hundreds of feet of rolling exposure threatens to fatally devour any slip. The lichen crusted rock doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. I laybacked gently up large flakes in the steep leftmost corner before stepping onto the central slab and continuing upward with delicate grace. As the gradient eases the hands also become thinner, so the climbing never feels entirely secure until you reach a flat ledge maybe 30-35 feet above. In a storm or wet snow-melt conditions, this little pitch could be quite the nightmare. Compared to other low-fifth routes (such as the Owen-Spalding on the Grand Teton), and to the agreeance of many seasoned Teton alpinists, this crux weighs in at a healthy 5.4, not to be underestimated. For the alpine novice or Teton inexperienced, a careful size-up of your party should be in order. A mere 30 meters of rope and a few medium-small pieces of protection could be the difference between a fun and harrowing day in the mountains. I have heard reports of a rappel anchor to bypass these cruxes on the descent (potentially on the south side), but didn’t notice any evidence. As such, some webbing and a rappel ring could prove handy. Many large blocks and boulders canvas the area, but could very well be loose.
Navigation Troubles, a Beautiful Summit and a Shooting Gallery Descent
Beyond the crux, the upper reaches of Teewinot recede to mostly third class, with a few fourth class pinches. Navigation rather than climbing difficulty becomes the primary challenge, as the true summit is never visible from the girth of the route itself. Many prominent spires to the south pose as false summits, while the real deal hides out of sight to the west. Trails of lost climbers spin webs of confusion around the uppermost mountain, but I knew from winter ascents I was best bearing north. From the northernmost summit ridge-line the small and exposed USGS summit is easily gained.
The summit was absolutely stunning. Hardly big enough for one, the 12,326 foot perch provides phenomenal views of the Grand Teton and Mount Owen to the south, Mount Moran to the north, and the entire Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in every direction, as far as the eye can see. In a summer riddled by wildfires and smoke stricken skies, I was blessed to sit upon this alpine throne with only baby blue overhead. Dangers and rating qualms aside, Teewinot is a marvelous and rewarding adventure for the well prepared, but unfortunately, what goes up must go down – and the descent is yet another place Teewinot earns deadly stripes.
As touched on earlier, the rock quality on Teewinot is notoriously poor. Furthermore, the upper East Face forms an enormous natural funnel, with the most difficult climbing situated in the constriction, subject to rockfall from thousands of feet above. A dear friend of mine was hit with a rouge block of ice while climbing this route late one spring (luckily without major injury), and though I have never heard of a rockfall related fatality on Teewiont, the threat is ever present, deadly and eminent. A responsible descent on any route requires mindfulness for the climber’s beneath you, but the need for caution is exponentially magnified in such a dangerous terrain trap. I was the first man to summit that Sunday, and at least a dozen other parties followed my trail. While I down-climbed I was acutely aware of where I stepped, what I pulled on, and where other climbers were beneath me. Especially in technical sections, ascentionists should be given wide birth and the right of way. By the bottom, I was very surprised to have seen only one party with helmets. Though I always endorse a brain bucket while climbing, the precaution makes triple sense on a “loaded gunbarrel” route such as this.
A Final Note – Mountaineering in the Information Era
I rounded out my third Teewinot adventure, first without skis, in the 6-7 hour range, including plenty of breaks and a laissez-faire pace. Sitting on the hood of my car and staring up at Teewee’s unrelenting terraced cliffs and castle-like upper mountain, I was brought to silence. Like no other peak in the Teton Range, Teewinot reserves no secrets. The true breadth and magnitude of the East Face sprawls openly from 12,326 feet to the gravel of the Lupine Meadows parking area. Each of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of annual National Park visitors gapes at it’s commanding presence – some even mistake it for the Grand. Having now ascended in March, May and August, I understand unquestionably why Teewinot is forever enshrined in the legacy of Teton alpinism and holds such a revered place in the hearts of mountaineers near and far. It’s unbelievably rare to find a peak of such magnitude, quality and extreme nature without any flatland approach – heck, the mountain-fit and well-informed can leave by dawn, bag a world-class summit and be sitting at Pearl Street Bagels reading the paper by mid-morning – now that’s saying something. But just like all things good in life, Teewinot mustn’t be abused, nor taken for granted.
It seems every year one or two lifeless bodies are tragically plucked from the East Face of Teewinot. Just yesterday, September 5th, 2021, the route’s most recent causality was discovered. This gentleman’s fate came seemingly at the hands of poor navigation. His body was found at the base of the Black Chimney (5.6, II), a far more difficult variation to the East Face, located notably further to the north. Unfortunately, a map of the traditional East Face climbing route was found in his pocket, suggesting he was almost certainly lost. He was not the first to make this mistake – nor the first to suffer fatal repercussions for it. To discuss and hypothesize about the September 5th incident any further is beyond the scope of this article, as is giving any technical safety recommendations – but I will close with the following.
Decades ago, when climbers were forced to bush-wack into the high country without reliable information, donning ruthlessly heavy equipment to attempt vagabond summits accomplished by few before, mountaineering was better respected and reserved for those who knew, understood and accepted the objective hazards. Today, just about any modestly fit Joe can do a few hasty Google searches, rent the appropriate gear (often without appropriate knowledge) and try their hand at mountain feats best reserved for the highly skilled. Interest in climbing and mountaineering has skyrocketed, equipment has gotten infinitely lighter and modern infrastructure, both roads and wilderness trails, provide unprecedented access. For climbing, this is both a beautiful and dangerous time. Though ultimate responsibility always falls on the user, I think all 2021 guidebook authors, bloggers, mountain guides, climbers and likewise purveyors of the wilderness are faced with the newfound responsibility of translating the vertical world into a more inclusive language, one that is mindful of the mountain virgin, the innocently under-prepared or the social media misguided. On routes such as Teewinot, with ever increasing foot traffic and a massive record of incidents both fatal and not, we as a mountaineering community have the ability to analyze and learn from other’s mistakes, harness the incredible outreach capabilities of the internet, spoken word and modern print, and create a new mountain culture focused on inclusivity and safety, rather than ego, “sand-bagging” and pursuit of the hardcore.
Sources, References and Recommended Climber Resources:
- Resources/Referenced Material
- Aaron Gams’s Teton Rock Climbs (Guidebook)
- Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger’s Blog (Current Conditions, Weather) http://tetonclimbing.blogspot.com/
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