The history of the mountaineer is part of the history of the Western Frontier; every bit as exciting and romantic as that of other frontier types, though seldom depicted. Even a short review of mountaineer literature shows a pioneering attitude, a craving for adventure and risk, and a need to escape the confines of civilization as characteristic of the mountaineer.
As it was common practice to climb the highest peaks in the neighborhood to get a view of the country, mountaineering was an essential part of the early exploration of the west. The journals of exploration and surveying, such as Captains Fremont and Bonneville, and later Frederick Hayden, contain vivid and gripping accounts of first ascents of the peaks of the West. The first climb of the Grand Teton in 1879, was done by members of the Hayden survey of Yellowstone. Many first ascents in the Greater Yellowstone area were done by artists with the surveying parties, William Henry Holmes and Orestes St. John among them. Their sketches were then turned into engravings and added to the surveying reports. Pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson did the first photos of the Tetons, from the top of Table Mountain. His photos were used by Thomas Moran for reference for some of his Teton paintings. The photos were turned into engravings and published in the survey report with dotted lines showing the route of Langford’s first ascent of the Grand. And they were published in Harper’s Bazaar magazine, along with Langford’s harrowing account of the climb, making him a national sensation.
The journals of mountain men, such as Osborne Russell reveal the habit of the early trappers to climb the peaks, not just for practical reasons of surveying the country or getting into the next drainage. Like the native Americans before them and the mountaineers after them they were drawn by the irresistible lure and wildness of the high peaks. Men like John Muir and Enos Mills have left not only tales of high adventure, but a legacy of conservation.
The climbers of later years tested themselves with harder, technical routes, in the process refining the skills and tools that we associate today with mountaineering. Their adventures became more extreme, as the ‘frontier’ became more remote and more difficult routes. Many of the Teton routes were put up in the 1930’s by such notable climbers as Fritiof Fryxell and Phil Smith, Paul Petzoldt and Glenn Exum, Eleanor Davis and A. R. Ellingwood. Their stories rank up there with the greatest adventurers of the West.
The lure of the high peaks is still as strong as ever. The mountaineer’s view is like no other: vast, wide and epic.
We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features.