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Two Teams Complete First Winter Grand Traverse in Tetons


by Kelly Bates

February 08, 2004

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

Two teams of valley climbers grasped the Holy Grail of the Tetons this week as they completed the first continuous winter ascents of the range's 10 core peaks.

The two groups climbed the Grand Traverse, a marathon mountain route that starts on Teewinot and continues over Mount Owen, Grand Teton, Middle Teton and South Teton before finishing, after touching several other peaks and pinnacles, at Nez Perce.

Both teams left on Saturday and Exum guides Stephen Koch and Mark Newcomb returned to the valley floor first on Monday. Grand Teton National Park climbing ranger Renny Jackson and Exum guide Hans Johnstone, who left first and climbed with the others as a team on part of the route, returned to Jackson Hole on Tuesday night. But who deserves credit for the first ascent - a significant issue among mountaineers - remains as foggy as a Teton ridge in full-blizzard conditions.

In the competitive world of sponsored alpinists and first ascents, a dangerous game all four play, small details can mean a lot. And among these climbers, completing the Grand Traverse in winter was becoming personal; Johnstone and Jackson had tried and failed three times. Koch said he set out on four unsuccessful attempts.

It is safe to say that none of the climbers wanted to be second. Thus it was not serendipity that saw all four on the route at the same time when the weather cleared last week and avalanche danger was minimal. Both parties caught wind of the others' plans. "I kind of refuse to believe it was coincidence," Newcomb said.

Jackson and Johnstone left the valley floor first at about 3:30 a.m. on Saturday. Koch and Newcomb followed them by about an hour, using the first pair's ski and boot tracks and catching up later that day. The teams climbed together through the toughest part of the route - up the Italian Cracks on the North Face of the Grand Teton - before splitting up again.

Newcomb and Koch said they are willing to share credit with the two who broke much of the trail the first day, helped lead the crux pitches, provided valuable route-finding and an extra rope for rappels.

"I'm not going to claim anything," Koch said. "It's just a little awkward. Sure, we finished before those guys, but we're still a team." Newcomb also said he believes credit needs to go to all four. "I didn't mean for it to turn into this competitive effort," he said. "I guess I don't feel good about claiming the first winter Grand Traverse. I feel like Hans and Renny should have been there. If they finish it today, it really should be all four of us."

Johnstone and Jackson spent Sunday night and Monday in a tent at the Lower Saddle between the Grand and Middle Tetons, taking advantage of a Park Service cache after one of Jackson's boots got wet. Koch and Newcomb didn't want to use the cache, preferring to climb without that extra aid. So they pushed on, spending a miserable bivouac between the Middle and South Tetons as the wind continuously blew out their stove and pelted them with snow.

As Jackson dried his boot Monday on the Lower Saddle, Newcomb and Koch soldiered on in a storm. Koch said visibility was nearly zero. He said the two climbed Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, Spalding Peak and Cloudveil Dome before completing Nez Perce. "We did the traverse," Koch said.

Jonstone and Jackson took off from their layover on Tuesday. But when they climbed the final series of serrated peaks and towers between Ice Cream Cone and Cloudveil Dome, they said they began to wonder.Two towers looked as if nobody had been up them. Does the Grand Traverse require an ascent of every bump? Some significant sub-peaks earlier in the route are routinely bypassed.

Neither Jackson nor Johnstone is pointing a finger, and Newcomb and Koch couldn't be reached Tuesday evening at deadline. All Jackson would say is "there's more stuff in there than just Gilkey and Spalding." He said he would have to check his guidebook before being sure exactly what the various pinnacles are named.

Regarding style, even Koch and Newcomb's effort left room for improvement. They made cell phone calls from the climb to friends who ferried skis to the base of Nez Perce for the trip back to the parking lot. Johnstone and Jackson had shuttled their own extra skis - necessary because the climbing starts and ends at points far apart - to the mountain's base earlier. "Someone can make a big deal about it if they want," Koch said of the extra support. "Granted, it can be done in better style."

Technical issues about who finished what route first and in what style is a topic climbers may debate for some time, perhaps in the pages of obscure alpine journals and magazines. All agreed that the adventure was one in a lifetime.

"Today was one of the best days ever in the mountains," Johnstone said Tuesday evening. "The weather was perfect, not a breath of wind, my partner was outstanding. We were both giddy."

"I had fun," Jackson said shortly after reaching home. "There were clouds about - they were just kind of floating around. I can't describe it. I'm in a daze."

Newcomb said the route was technically harder than the classic Cassin Ridge on Denali in Alaska. "It was pretty challenging compared to some of the alpine climbs I have done," he said.

He recalls the moment he snuggled into his sleeping bag on the first night, the North Face of the Grand looming above, stars twinkling in the black sky. "This is pretty amazing, a pretty unbelievable setting," he thought.

Koch said the two missed not having Johnstone and Jackson with them at the end of the route after what they had accomplished together. The surrounding environment on the expedition also inspired. "We were all in awe of how beautiful it was up there, how pristine the conditions were, and the environment," Koch said. "We were all friends, sharing this experience climbing in the mountains. Life was simple again. That's the beauty of going into the mountains."

As reported by Angus M. Thuermer Jr. of the Jackson Hole News & Guide

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