Today’s mountain climbers would call it free soloing, but in August 1923 it was simply three college students who were short on equipment. Brashly, they believed they could summit the Grand Teton.
David DeLap had taken up mountain climbing on a whim while a student at the University of Montana in Missoula. It was there that he met more experienced climbers Quin Blackburn and Andy DePirro. The trio set out in a Ford Model T with failing brakes they had purchased for seventy-five dollars. The goal: Climb to the top of the Grand Teton.
Blackburn had procured an outdated topographical map from the geology department at the university but had no other knowledge of the mountain. They only allotted one day to make the climb, and when they arrived at the base of the mountain, they were equipped with small day packs containing chocolate bars, raisins and bacon sandwiches. DeLap’s climbing shoes were football cleats that had been retrofitted with three quarter inch steel spikes. Blackburn carried a geologist’s hammer which was to serve as an ice axe. None of the climbers carried a rope.
Not long after heading up Bradley Canyon they got drenched by a rainstorm. Soaking wet, they traversed a glacier and then they came across an area of rockslide. They built stone cairns to mark the route of their climb. The group found ledges and crevices and eased themselves along, sometimes crawling across the mountainside.
Soon they came to a boulder eight feet above them. Below them was a canyon more than a thousand feet deep. A slip up would be a disaster. By then, it had begun to snow, and a cold wind was blowing. Blackburn climbed up on the shoulders of DeLap and DePirro, then DeLap boosted DePirro up. Soon DeLap was standing alone on the ledge, with no obvious way up. Improvising, DePirro was persuaded to take off his trousers and lower them down to DeLap as a makeshift rope.
Eventually the group came to a chimney coated in ice. Blackburn, using his geologist’s hammer, chopped footholds going 50 feet up. The three men clambered over each other in a human chain, only to discover another chimney to ascend. They repeated their human chain climbing technique, known in mountaineering circles as a three-man courte-échelle.
At last, they had reached the top, at 13,747 feet. To their surprise there was a large cairn of rocks with a metal banner imprinted with words “The Rocky Mountain Club.” Embedded in the ice at the top of the cairn was a cannister, left there in 1898, with the names of the original party which had ascended the Grand Teton. DeLap, DePirro and Blackburn marveled that they were the first party to summit the mountain in twenty-five years. They took photos at the summit using a Kodak Brownie camera.
DeLap took a blank check from his pack, noted their three names, the date and time and added it to the cannister in the rock cairn. By then it was 6:30pm and the group realized they would have to make their descent in darkness.
Climbing down two ice chimneys and from boulders to narrow ledges was even more hazardous than the ascent, but there was no other way down. Once again, they clambered over each other’s bodies. Thankful for glimpses of moonlight between the clouds and for the rock cairns they had built along the trail, the trio make their way back across the rockslide and the glacier until they reached the tree line. Exhausted, lacking sleeping bags or tents, they built a fire and huddled around it, eventually falling asleep.
DeLap, in reflecting on his experiences during the climb, remarked “there isn’t enough money in the world to take the risk of climbing back up there again.”
You can listen to David DeLap reminisce about his hair-raising 1923 climb of the Grand Teton in the digital collection of the David F. DeLap papers at UW’s American Heritage Center.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington