Wanted: Grand Teton plaque that was stolen 42 years ago

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Historic heist sends newspaper hunting for clues.

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Sometime in the opening week of July 1977, somebody scaled the Grand Teton and pilfered a bit more more than a pebble as a remembrance of the 13,775-foot summit.

The thief, or thieves, absconded with a rather controversial plaque.

For 48 years before, a lightning-warped bronze tablet commemorating William “Billy” Owen, Frank Spalding, John Shive and Frank Peterson’s disputed 1898 first ascent of the grandest of the Teton peaks had graced one of the gray granite summit boulders. Then it went missing. Now Owen’s great-great-nephew, Peter Boutin, wants it back.

“If it were returned, I’d be happy to write a check for $500,” Boutin told the News&Guide.

An attorney, Boutin lives in San Francisco.

“Who knows where the plaque went,” he said, “but it always occurred to me that there’s at least some possibility that it got handed down or is in a garage somewhere in the greater Jackson Hole area.”

The mystery of the Grand’s missing plaque likely stems from the never-settled debate over who first stood on its summit. Before people went up three times in a day or conceived crazy conquests like the Teton triathlon “picnic,” simply reaching the Grand Teton’s summit proved a feat in itself.

The question over who first summited has long been a topic of fierce debate, argued over decades and even hashed out in hundreds of pages in Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s 1992 book, “The Grand Controversy.”

There are three major theories.

The majority of modern mountaineers familiar with the Tetons subscribe to the Owen-Spalding 1898 first ascent. The Wyoming Legislature agreed in 1927. After an investigation legislators passed a joint resolution that declared Owen and Spalding the first to touch its top. Lawmakers authorized the placement of a bronze tablet on the summit to commemorate the achievement.

But Hayden Survey explorers Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson claimed the first summit well before, in 1872. With no documentation to substantiate their claim, many alpinists familiar with the Tetons have been skeptical of the timing and final destination of the Langford-Stevenson approach from the head of Teton Creek’s South Fork up to the Grand’s summit — and back — in a day. Still, their account had persuaded some mountaineers and residents, including the Bonneys.

A third theory is that U.S. Army surgeon William Kieffer first crested the Tetons’ highest point in 1893. Kieffer’s supposed ascent was not publicized until 1959, when a letter making the claim was uncovered from Owen’s files.

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