Exum guide Michael Gardner climbing an exposed pitch on the upper Exum Ridge. Photograph by David Stubbs.
Organic Chemistry at Exum Mountain Guides
“The Snaz” on Cathedral Buttress in Grand Teton National Park is a classic Wyoming mountaineering route. Established by Yvon Chouinard and Mort Hempel in 1964, “The Snaz” is a free climb above Phelps Lake in the southerly part of the park. It slithers nine pitches up a dihedral composed of metamorphic swirls of granitic and intrusive formations—the essence of Teton geology. After 60 years of ascents from climbers and guides of every stripe, it’s become a classic trade route of the Teton Range.
In 1993, Brenton Reagan was 17 years old and on summer vacation, gearing up to follow the late, great Alex Lowe, a world-renowned alpinist and Exum mountain guide. An enviable pied piper, Lowe’s infectious passion for alpine adventure changed the lives of anyone with whom he crossed paths. Like most impressionable 17-year-olds, Reagan had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. “But then I went climbing with Alex,” he says, “and it was like, Oh yeah.”
Fast-forward to this spring. It’s a damp afternoon in Jackson, Wyoming, and I’m drinking coffee on my porch with Reagan. He’s just returned from Alaska, having taken his American Mountain Guides Association ski mountaineering exam, a two-week extended series of tests and competency requirements for working guides looking for international certification.
Photograph by David Stubb
Mentorship in climbing is as old as the sport of climbing itself. It goes hand in hand with learning history, and Reagan is part of a history—the history, long and storied, of Exum climbing guides. Exum was founded in 1929 by two wayward Idahoans—Glenn Exum and Paul Petzoldt—who went to the Tetons in search of some of North America’s greatest climbing challenges. Petzoldt first climbed The Grand at 16 years old in a pair of cowboy boots. The Grand is a serious climb at 13,775 feet requiring both endurance and technical skills. With an entrepreneurial spirit to match his climbing habit, Petzoldt soon figured out that visitors to Grand Teton National Park would pay money for a guide to lead them into the park’s mountains. Soon, he started one of the first guide services in North America. Petzoldt and Exum hooked up a few years later and began what has since become known as one of the premier mountaineering schools in the country.
Glenn Exum earned the respect of the climbing world when he was 18 years old and climbed a new route up The Grand Teton sans rope in a borrowed pair of leather-cleated football shoes that were two sizes too big. While climbing The Grand in shoes that don’t fit and, honestly, don’t belong on the terrain, is notable, the real zinger is that Exum made a first ascent that included a less-than-sane jump across a gap up a ridge that now bears his name.
Petzoldt—who went on to found National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) as a pioneer in the development of outdoor education—and Exum created a mountaineering school where experience, self-reliance, and good sense formed the core of their enterprise. They departed from the European school of mountaineering where the guides “did for” the clients (sometimes tying a rope around them and pulling them up difficult terrain) and instead created a culture where guides offered instruction and the chance to utilize newly learned skills. This approach to guiding set a distinct tone at Exum where mentors have long played a pivotal role. And mentors, according to Reagan, have played an important role in his ascent from climber to guide. “I wasn’t that good of a climber or skier [when I started], but I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.” Now, 26 years later, Reagan is 43, has a wife (herself a guide), two kids, and a thriving career as a full-time guide and marketing manager for Exum Mountain Guides. And while formal education is a good thing, we’re here to mine the intangible value of mentoring and the importance of passing on history.