Who Climbed the Grand Teton First?

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.

Ascending party

Photo captioned: “The Ascending Party.” Left to right: Frank Petersen, Thomas Cooper, William Owen, Hugh McDerment, and John Shive. Franklin Spaulding not shown. At the Lower Saddle, Thomas Cooper decided not to continue, and Hugh McDerment elected to go no further at the Upper Saddle. William O. Owen papers, Box 4, Folder 3, American Heritage Center Center, University of Wyoming.

Party on summit

William Owen, John Shive and Frank Petersen at the summit. Note Rocky Mountain Alpine Club pennant. William O. Owen papers, Box 4, Folder 2, American Heritage Center Center, University of Wyoming.

Teton route

William O. Owen captioned this photograph showing the party’s path of ascent. William O. Owen papers, Box 4, Folder 1, American Heritage Center Center, University of Wyoming.

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.


Portrait of Nathaniel P. Langford from THE VIGILANTE, THE EXPLORER, THE EXPOUNDER AND FIRST SUPERINTENDENT OF THE YELLOWSTONE PARK. BY OLIN D. WHEELER. (1912) From the text of an presentation given by Wheeler to the Montana Historical Society. Date of portrait is thought to be 1870. Extracted from PDF Public Domain version from the Internet Archive.

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 Enclosure

Photo captioned by William O. Owen of The Enclosure. William O. Owen papers, Box 4, Folder 1, American Heritage Center Center, University of Wyoming.

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.

Owen plaque_ah002987

Photograph of the W.O. Owen plaque that was placed at at the Grand Teton in 1929. The plaque was paid for by Owen and his wife. A person or persons unknown stole the plaque in 1977. It has never been recovered or replaced. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Photofile: Mountaineering – Teton Mountains.

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 letter

Captain Charles Kieffer’s letter to William O. Owen, April 3, 1899. William O. Owen papers, Box 3, Folder 1, American Heritage Center Center, University of Wyoming.

Kieffer excerpt

Excerpt from Captain Kieffer’s letter shown above stating, “I climbed the Grand Teton on or about the 10 day of September 1893…” William O. Owen papers, Box 3, Folder 1, American Heritage Center Center, University of Wyoming.

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 map

Captain Kieffer’s sketch of his ascent. William O. Owen papers, Box 3, Folder 1, American Heritage Center Center, University of Wyoming.

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.

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2 Responses to Who Climbed the Grand Teton First?

  1. Raymond Jacquot says:

    There is a misstatement in the first paragraph of this piece. It sort of undermines the credibility of the rest of the work which is accurate. Owen, Spalding, Shive and Peterson climbed the Grand Teton, not Mt. Owen, which was not climbed until 1930 by Underhill, Henderson, Fryxell and Smith.
    Ray Jacquot

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