Tales of the Climbers' Campground


In the late 1950s the planners at Grand Teton Park , reacting to numerous complaints from families camping at Jenny Lake, created a new and isolated campground in an effort to segregate normal humans from the more primal variety of the species devoted to climbing. In the forest at the northern edge of Lupine Meadows a single dirt road was laid, winding among the trees and looping around a clearing containing picnic tables, a water source, and a two-hole outhouse. There was also a small and extinct boiler building made of concrete and a nearby fifteen foot square cement pad, whose function was lost in antiquity but had some purpose in the old CCC Camp that had been there years before. A stay-limit was established and modestly enforced by patrolling rangers.

Thus effectively removed from the civilizing restraints of the larger moral community climbers instantly mistook freedom for license and began a long but entertaining slide into depravity that nine years later resulted in the Park Service "disappearing" the failed project. Now, if you know where to look, you can find the mysterious cement slab, cracked and overgrown among trees planted in 1967 that today look entirely native, indistinguishable from the surrounding woods. Virtually nothing else is identifiable, save for a few boulders that we practiced no-hands climbs on forty years ago. I still see Fred Beckey, Lou Lutz, Yvon Chouinard and Bob Kamps and I waiting our turns to peel off the slick pegmatite. Other images arise, as well . . .

In the evening I would walk over the small moraine behind the blockhouse and take a forbidden plunge in the cold waters of Jenny Lake.  Swimming was not allowed in any of the numerous lakes dotting the forested landscape immediately below the abrupt mountains, save for String Lake - a shallow, ice-cold pond, crystal clear with sandy beaches. I once met the actor Nehemiah Persoff  there as he and his children took time off from filming a Rosalind Russell movie. Jenny Lake was cold and clear, but quite deep and also a source of potable water for the campgrounds. Many years later the swimming restriction was lifted, as was the onerous ban on soloing in the Park. When coming down from a climb in Cascade Canyon I would stoop down on the boat dock and scoop up a cup of drinking water. I wouldn't advise it these days.  Actually, I lost my inclination to do so when I saw a character called "pig-pen" (I called him "Piltdown") , who never washed, take off his socks and rinse them out while waiting for the boat ride across the lake. This incident, and many, many others are described in an excellent and  lengthy essay on the Teton climbing scene in those times by Pete Sinclair in his book: "We Aspired: The Last Innocent Americans".


The party scene, which grew to disastrous proportions eventually, began with innocent teepee parties hosted by a former president of the American Alpine Club and lawyer, Orrin Bonney, and his wife. From the chill of the evening we would crawl into a large teepee that had a small fire at its center, above which was perched a large pot containing water, tea, frozen raspberries, and wine. With enough people crowded along the interior circumference of the tent, the envelope of temperature would soar to almost unbearable heights while stories were told or songs were sung. I remember exiting the teepee to relieve myself and gasping in the welcome frigid mountain air under a canopy of brilliant stars in a deep black velvet sky.

One summer Herb and Jan Conn - the founding climbing couple of the Black Hills Needles - were in the campground preparing for a Life-magazine sponsored ascent of the north face of the Grand. I believe Howard Friedman was the photographer. (Jan is a wonderful musician, and regaled us all with ballad after ballad while accompanying herself on the guitar. She and Herb may actually have been the motivating force behind "Teton Tea").  As a practice climb, they were to do the north face of Teewinot. By the time they reached the shoulder beneath the north ridge, they were so exhausted they merely climbed the Sore Thumb, a blocky spire overhanging Cascade Canyon. Several years later, Yvon and Bob Kamps would make an attempt on the rotten and severely exposed overhanging north face of the Thumb, and be turned back when Chouinard took a screamer of a fall - executed in perfect swan-dive style - when a pin pulled out.  Kamps hardly felt the rope pull; it was going through several pieces of protection. Pete Cleveland would finish the climb, later. But I digress! Back to the CC and the teepee parties.

Bill Briggs, a climber and musician, would start the singing in the teepee, playing a guitar or banjo. He would persevere in this manner for many years afterwards, and may still be strumming and crooning in Jackson.

the cave  incinerator Yvon and I would camp together in the Jenny Lake campground until the climbers campground opened. Then we moved over there and he and his climbing partner, Ken Weeks, took up residence in the two small cave-like depressions on either end of the boiler house. Weeks drew and elaborate mural across his "ceiling" showing a climber on an extended overhang. I usually slept in an old Wenzel umbrella tent not too far away.  One evening Ken drank a lot of beer and climbed into his sleeping bag after midnight. In the twilight before dawn he awoke consumed by thirst. He took a long swig from the large water bottle he kept nearby. Later I awoke to a loud shout, "oh shit!", and looked over at Ken's domicile. He was staring at a dead mouse that had drowned in his water jug during the night. (photo Glenn Exum Collection)

Yvon was environmentally aware even in those early days. He kept the same bowl of dishwater for several days running. One day I saw a bird hop up to it and take a drink. It flew to the ground, flopped around for a bit and expired.

Yvon was a competent fisherman. In the early evening he would drive over to Blacktail Ponds – a mosquito infested swamp not fit for humans – and catch enormous trouts for his dinner. Weeks worked for a while as a cook at the prestigious Jenny Lake Lodge (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed in its rustic cabins while touring the US). He would bring all sorts of culinary treats back to the campground, including watermelons whose small hearts had been excised for aristocratic palates. He told us once of a large black bear actually breaking through the outside wall of the kitchen and making off with all the bacon.

Ken joined the marines in the early 1960s, but immediately went AWOL. I was in the campground when the FBI tracked him down and came to take him away in cuffs. I remember saying a few words to him as he sat in the back of a government sedan, sullen and downcast, as the agents politely waited for me to back away. That's the last I saw of Ken. I heard sometime later he had become a successful cook in California. He was a fine climber, and carried the largest piton hammer I've ever seen.

I mentioned Pig-pen, or Piltdown. Here's what Pete Sinclair had to say about him :  "Pig Pen was another warning of what was to come, a transitional figure. Pig Pen was a rock climber but one of the first for whom climbing was secondary to living in the climbers' campground and carrying on with his experiment of an alternative life style. He was of a good family and attended prestigious Reed College in Portland, Oregon. At Reed he found he was allowed to go barefoot year-round. Because Reed regarded itself as a haven for geniuses and because the academic pressuer there was intense, unconventional behavior had long been tolerated. If Einstein could wear sweaters with holes in them and not worry about his hair, Reed students could go barefoot. An inevitable consequence of going barefoot is dirty feet. On Pig Pen the dirt migrated upward. Unremarkable as a climber, Pig Pen was remarkable for his dirt."

He was a math major at Reed College and about as strange a character as I ever saw in the campground. Filthy and unkempt, with a strange tuft of hair on his nostrils, he set new standards of personal hygene for young mathematicians.  I recall one evening when the nightly tea party was over, after midnight, watching him - dressed only in shorts, but no doubt insulated with his layer of dirt - curl up on the cooling embers of a dying campfire and drift off to sleep in the cold of the night. He wasn't drunk, merely unconventional in his value judgments. I suspect he ended up as a respected member of the Academy in his afterlife beyond climbing - which he did scant little of, as far as I could tell.  He did depart the Park under pressing circumstances that I shall now describe:  At Jenny Lake a woman had complained to rangers about the disappearance of items of food from her campsite. She stayed awake one evening and later described to the rangers how "a gnome-like and filthy man, shorter than average, and with a tuft of hair protruding from his nostrils", had poked around in her foodstuffs and had chosen several cans, which he placed in a shoulder bag, then crept away. There was no question of mistaken identity. Piltdown was apprehended and expelled from the Park.

Shortly after the climbers' campground opened a contingent of climbers from New York arrived in several vehicles and noisily set up camp. These were the Vulgarians - veterans of many a climb and almost as many societal skirmishes - whose home turf was the Schawangunks, near New Paltz. I can remember having to leave the area a couple of times as this boisterous group held Campground Rallys in their cars, roaring around the dirt road and cloaking the whole surrounding forest in dense dust. I actually liked them as individuals, but as a group their actions were less than admirable. Jim McCarthy, a prestigious trial lawyer and future president of the AAC, would accompany them and would provide a calming influence. As one would suspect there were several outstanding climbers in the group, including Jim.  

Sometimes an itinerant musical group would appear for a few days and provide free entertainment. I remember one three-person jug band that was really good. One guy blew in a jug, a girl strummed a home-made bass (inverted metal wash tub with attached pole and one thick string), and another guy played something else, maybe a washboard. Somehow they made music.  And, of course, the ubiquitous Bill Briggs would appear in the evenings to preside over the tea parties. An occasional guitarist, usually from California, would participate in the evening festivities.

Apart from an eclectic variety of climbers, other unusual characters came and departed. I recall one attractive young lady who insisted on having a dresser, complete with attached mirror, assembled in the nearby forest. She sat at it and applied her make-up with a very serious demeanor. Then there was a retired Sears-Roebuck executive, A. J. Snow, who traveled with a small entourage. There was another older man, Pablo Ruthling, who would spend a week or so at the campground and who travelled around to Indian Resevations in the southwest and traded goods with the natives. He would ordinarily be driving an old station wagon, and carried displays of jewelry with him - he probably made some sales among climbers. He would arise at dawn and drive to String lake, where he would take an icy dip and eat a breakfast of watermelon. He had a daughter named Carmen who wanted to climb the Grand. Glenn Exum guided her and her father on the ascent, which Carmen made barefoot. 

There were two young people very much in love. Each morning they would visit the outhouse together (it was a two-seater), her perched on his back piggy-back style as he hopped across the gravel barefooted, both of them either giggling or singing.

As the years passed, the campground became more and more a gypsy camp for quasi-climber hippies and others who drifted in a psychadelic haze across America. At one picnic table would be Royal Robbins, making notes for a climbing article, his leather briefcase nearby, and his Mercedes parked at his site. At another table would be several long-haired, bearded voyagers divvying up their supply of pot, their colorful and beat-up VW bus sitting with all doors open, airing out.  The evening festivities grew huge, with over a hundred participants. From Pete :  "In this and other ways the camp became a zoological garden displaying human specimens. People from town would drive through the camp, with theie doors locked, to see what the world was coming to. Bearded, dusty, unmarried males and females sleeping in the same tents and doing God-knows-what after dark, cooking utensiles sacttered about the sites because there were not enough tables, two latrines for 130 people, the camp and its inhabitants became one of the sights to see."  

A character named Charlie Brown moved onto the climbing reservation with his teepee and several anemic looking friends. They wore leather and beads and were deep into the lifestyle of the disaffected. Dope was available to those who so desired, and the tea parties became even more raucous. Probably the final straw as far as the Park Service was concerned, was an enormous campfire into which whole, downed  trees were deposited, the flames, amidst the chanting, flaring out over the tops of nearby pines and firs, at least fifty feet into the air.  That evening I pulled out of the campground and spent the night in a thicket a half mile away. The campground was closed in 1966.

In its place the American Alpine Club constructed a "climbers' ranch", some distance to the south of Jenny Lake. You were required to sleep in a bunkhouse, and after one night of listening to ten people snoring and farting, and climbers coming and going at all times during the night and early morning hours, clomping around in their mountaineering boots, I vacated the premises and have never been back.

 [I'm sure there are errors in the above essay. Contact me if you catch one!]

For more stories about the Tetons I recommend the book  Glenn Exum

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