By Peter Lev Oct 2019
In the 1930’s mountaineering in the US was developing in accordance with the country’s values of the time, in which self-reliance was a major theme.
During the 1930’s climbers in the Pacific NW developed the self-arrest technique using the ice axe should a fall occur on snow slopes. This technique gave mountaineers considerable independence. Even to this modern day, European climbers and guides often do not know how to self-arrest; they still hold the ice axe pick forward.
Exum Guides in the Tetons benefited from the experience of both Paul Petzoldt and Glenn Exum who had been to the Alps and observed how those guides operate. As Glenn told us, during my early days at Exum, the Euro guides held mountain knowledge close as though it were a military secret. The guide did all the belaying. Clients never belayed and the guide would ‘tie them in’. The client did not even need to learn how to tie into the climbing rope!
Glenn Exum came back from his almost year-long stay in Europe firmly convinced that what he observed of guiding in the Alps, would not be suitable for a self-reliant American. Glenn was also aware the Sierra Club, during this same 1930’s period, had developed and perfected the hip belay*. He and Petzoldt determined to use the hip belay and teach it in their Teton climbing schools. Clients would be rigorously trained in the hip belay, and would be belaying each other.
Basic School in my early days at Exum would have usually between 6 and sometimes 10 clients, while Intermediate School would have usually been between 4 and 6 clients. There were plenty of exceptions, however, with Rod Newcomb having 17 clients once in Basic and Dave Dornan taking 13 up Cube Point! Back in those days we guides had to be like ‘circus ring leaders’ with eyes in the back of our heads.
If clients could not manage to master the hip belay, they either could hire a private guide for a climb of the Grand Teton (and other climbs) or if deemed too unfit, they would not be allowed to climb. ‘Political correctness’ was not a term we knew in those days. I remember being asked once by the office to deal with a very upset Marine Captain who had failed Intermediate School and therefore would not be allowed to go on his scheduled Grand Teton climb. And (apparently) worse, a young woman passed the School and was going up the Grand. The guide in question was one of the best, in my opinion. Since I was asked to intercede and explain the ‘facts of life’ to this very angry person, had to tell him “Sorry, if Jim Kanzler says you can’t climb the GT, then that is the end of it.” We had a very pissed-off Marine Captain who just stomped away. It wasn’t just about the money in those days.
Exum maintained this historic method on through the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and into the 1990’s. Late in the 1990’s the guides began to observe a change in both clients and new guides. This became a subject guides began to discuss more frequently. My last year at Exum was in 2006, and during the prior few years had noticed clients occasionally resisting belaying, saying they ‘didn’t want that responsibility’. Also, the advent on the scene of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) further pushed the Euro-guide method, meaning the guide does all the belaying, resulting today in guides taking only two clients up the grand in most cases. We made good money back in the day, when a guide would routinely take four clients up the GT (and the dollar was worth a real dollar then). We made more money at Exum than any other guide service. Not so today, with a less valuable dollar, and seldom a four-client climb of the Grand. When Nat Patridge, the current Exum President, began to take charge he believed in the old Exum system of every client belaying. He goes back far enough to witness the changing in philosophy with the advent of the AMGA. However, the pressure of the ‘modern day’ is intense. Am told this issue is an on-going discussion amongst the guides, especially the few long-timers left.
On top of these changes, I am told the Exum Ridge, our signature route on the Grand, is now infrequently guided, due to poor fitness and inadequate capabilities of today’s clients! I find this astounding. Of course, all this parallels an apparent majority population in the US which has abandoned ‘self-reliance’ in favor of ‘somebody else’s fault’, lawsuits, and just being fat, and in love with things and money, a ‘land of plenty’…..for some anyway.
*The hip belay, in its’ earliest form, was used by the British climbers, which adapted it from British sailors who used a primitive form of the belay in handling sail rigging lines. Meanwhile, Euros were still using the ‘shoulder belay’, something which rarely held a real fall, and were still using it into the 1950’s (see the movie with Spencer Tracy; The Mountain). The Sierra Club in the 1930’s refined the hip belay using a ‘directional’ close to the belayer and developed a training system to practice holding leader falls, big ones, later tested for real many times in Yosemite and the Tetons (using the hip belay allowed Yosemite climbers to push standards and become the world leaders in rock climbing during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s and into the 1980’s). A training hip belay set-up for holding leader falls, which involved dropping and catching a big truck tire, was still in place at Hidden Falls school area when I first arrived at Exum in 1960.
Excellent overview of the history and tension between guiding styles on the Grand. Glenn’s “conga line” approach combined the proven success/ simplicity of hip belays with the ideal guiding terrain found on both the OS and XM Ridge. Clients were more self-reliant and guides paid close attention to their ability to move efficiently on rock—aka falling (testing of belays) was extremely rare. On harder climbs (ie. Snaz, Irene’s), we tended to use “Euro” techniques; which of course we all practiced in our personal rock climbing systems. The safety record of both methods is a tribute to Exum’s culture of safety and the quality of their guides as climbers and teachers.