One hundred and twenty years ago, on August 11, 1898, William O. Owen (federal surveyor and outdoorsman), Reverend Franklin Spencer Spalding, and Jackson Hole ranchers Frank L. Petersen and John S. “Jack” Shive made an ascent of the Grand Teton by way of the route which now bears Owen’s and Spalding’s names.(1) The climb was sponsored by a climbing association, the Rocky Mountain Alpine Club.
Publication of the news in the New York Herald met with an immediate spat between Owen and Nathaniel P. Langford. Langford, together with James Stevenson, claimed to have reached the summit on July 29, 1872. In June, 1873, an account of the climb was published in Scribner’s Magazine.
However, their description and sketches seem to match the summit of the Enclosure (named after a man-made rock palisade of unknown Native American construction), a side peak of Grand Teton.
The debate continues on, as it is not possible to discount or prove Langford’s earlier claim, while Owen’s later one is an established fact.
Somewhat missed in this debate is that another rival claim exists on the part of Captain Charles Kieffer of the U.S. Army. In a letter to Owen dated April 3, 1899, Kieffer claimed that he, Private Logan Newell, and a third man, probably Private John Rhyan, climbed the peak on September 10, 1893.
Kieffer’s military records show that he was stationed at Fort Yellowstone during the summer of 1893 and, hence, presumably did have the opportunity to make the ascent. If Kieffer’s drawing, which accompanies his letter, is to be taken literally, it shows his route to have been the Exum Ridge! (This technically difficult route was named for Glenn Exum’s remarkable solo ascent in 1931.)
Kieffer’s letter also indicated that he returned in 1895, but failed because “the gradual snow field…had fallen and left a steep jump off that we could not climb.”
It’s interesting to note that Owen did not publish or reveal the letter, and it came to light only when it was uncovered in 1959 in the Owen papers at the UW American Heritage Center (then the Western History Research Center).
(1) Much appreciation to Ray Jacquot for correcting the sentence which formerly stated that Owen and the group climbed Mount Owen. Ray’s article about the climb can be found on WyoHistory.org.