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Pioneers climbed Grand Teton on a lark

The Grand Tetons have attracted climbers since the 1800s. (Associated Press)
The Grand Tetons have attracted climbers since the 1800s. (Associated Press)

Sometimes you make it by the seat of your pants. Sometimes, it takes both pant legs.

That’s how a trio of University of Montana students turned the second documented ascent of Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountain into a day hike. It’s a story that’s inspired celebrated mountaineer Rick Reese for years.

“To these guys, it was a lark.” said Reese, who was one of three speakers at a recent UM Global Leadership Initiative lecture “Adventures at Altitude.”

“They didn’t even know what the Grand Teton was. They saw it on a map and thought, ‘We would like to climb that.’ “

On an August day in 1923, it seemed like a good idea for Dave DLap, Quin Blackburn and Andy DePirro, a group of student friends looking for something to do before classes resumed. DLap was a World War I veteran studying mathematics. Blackburn majored in geology. Reese was a little unclear about DePirro’s background, except that he was the one who owned the Ford Model T needed to make the drive.

The Grand Teton had been climbed once for certain, in 1898 (another climber claimed the first ascent in 1872 – more on that in a bit). It had defeated every mountaineering party since.

“Leigh Ortenberger, a Grand Teton historian with a huge climbing reputation, calls it clearly one of the most remarkable American mountaineering achievements of the 20th century,” Reese said. “Because these three guys by any measure didn’t have a chance of pulling this off, and indeed they did.”

The trio had no climbing experience, no ropes, no crampons or ice axes, and no knowledge of the area. When they arrived, they ran into an East Coast team led by the dean of American mountaineering, Albert Ellingwood. Ellingwood had spent days scouting routes up the 13,755-foot-high mountain, hoping to claim the second ascent.

“A rancher told them to go up Bradley Canyon – that was the best way to get into the guts of the mountain,” Reese said. “It’s known as Garnet Canyon today, and there’s an elaborate trail system there now that goes all the way to the saddle at 11,600 feet. But there was no trail then, and they had to go up from the bottom of Bradley Creek, 7,000 vertical feet to reach the top of the mountain and then get off in the dark.”

Blackburn was something of a wizard with a topographic map. He picked a route that got his buddies safely to the base of the mountain’s most dangerous crux, known as the Owen Chimney. It was covered with ice.

“I was a climbing ranger in Teton for seven years,” Reese said. “I would never go into that chimney when it’s iced without a very strong party with crampons and ice tools, and I’ve done it five dozen times. It strikes fear into mountaineers even today.”

And there went DLap, Blackburn and DePirro with nothing but a bag of Montana Grizzly whoop-ass.

Reese interviewed DLap at his home in Bozeman in 1980, when DLap was 89. The retired math teacher had written a 20-page essay detailing the climb in precise detail and still remembered all of it.

“They reach the chimney, and they make a three-person ladder to get Blackburn on top,” Reese said. “Then there’s DePirro wedged in the crack and DLap below. Blackburn says to DePirro, ‘Take off your trousers.’ He was wearing two pairs of cotton trousers. So he lowers one (pant) leg to DLap, and DLap uses that to get over the little overhang.”

Summit underfoot, DLap pulled out a little Kodak camera and shot pictures of the three men holding a pennant placed there by Billy Owen, who claimed credit for the first ascent of Grand Teton. They recorded the names on a register Owen had installed, and left their own on the back of a bank deposit slip.

“Then the Montana boys came down, got in their Model T and went back to Missoula,” Reese said. “They had to get back to school. Two days later, Ellingwood makes (the climb) with Eleanor Davis, who was the first woman to climb Grand Teton.”

At the time, Owen was trying to establish his 1898 claim to the first ascent over one made by Nathanial P. Langford, a member of the Yellowstone Washburn Expedition who declared he’d bagged it in 1872. Owen contacted DLap, who said he found lots of Owen’s traces but nothing of anyone else.

“I have retraced their footsteps,” Reese said. “And I’m of the opinion, and so are a bunch of others, that (Langford’s team) got to the top of the Enclosure, which is immediately west and about 50 feet below the summit, but didn’t gain the summit. In my judgment, the definitive stuff says they did not climb it.”

Reese told his story to the UM audience last month in conjunction with fellow high-altitude specialists Conrad Anker of the North Face Athletic Team and Peter Metcalf, president of Black Diamond equipment company. In addition to years as a political science and public administration professor, Reese ran the Yellowstone Institute. He now lives in Bozeman and still gets out to hike and climb.

“This story was essentially lost until I interviewed DLap in 1980,” Reese said. “It gets at why do people want to climb mountains anyway? Sometimes, if we know too much about the hazards, if we have too much trepidation, we’re probably not going to do great things.”