THE OWEN-SPALDING ROUTE IS A REASONABLE CHOICE FOR ANY FIT MOUNTAINEER, BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN IT'S FREE OF DANGER—AND NOT JUST FROM THE WEATHER
The story of men and the Grand Teton, like the story of men and any iconic peak, is steeped in controversy. William O. Owen, a surveyor and civil engineer, completed the first confirmed ascent of the mountain on Aug. 11, 1898, along with Franklin Spalding, Frank Petersen and John Shive. Yet Owen's account of their achievement in the New York Herald set off a feud, never fully resolved, over who really got to the summit first.
Competing claims ran back to 1877 and 1872. Whomever you believe, however, the Owen-Spalding route (Owen organized the expedition and Spalding led it) endures, and by today's standards it's eminently doable. In fact, if you chat with a local climber/valet at the nearby Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, chances are good he'll tell you that the real challenge of climbing the Grand Teton isn't maneuvering on rock, "it's the exposure"—that is, exposure to dizzying falls.
If you're being guided, this is probably true: As long as you're fit, you can handle the physical effort of summiting the mountain, but you have to screw up your courage for features such as the Belly Roll, a large flake of rock on a ledge that requires you to either go up and over the flake or out and around it, over a deep abyss. It's terrifying or exhilarating—or both.
For those not being guided, the greater challenges of the Grand Teton are finding routes, avoiding rock falls and reading the weather. In his excellent 2000 book, Teewinot, Jack Turner, drawing on more than 40 seasons in the Tetons as a guide and naturalist, notes that he became, over time, an aficionado of thunderstorms.
"I'd watch them coming for hours, trying to predict if they would hit me or pass benignly to the side," he writes. "I never learned to predict them, and I still can't."
The Tetons, Turner goes on to say, taught him to "fear lightning, to love emptiness and silence." The wisest of climbing guides and rangers, he reflects, never pretend to know the weather, but answer naive optimism and rank pessimism the same way: "We'll see...."