Achieving New Heights

28 Apr 2024

From a mountain guide: An inspiring experience at the Women’s Grand Teton Centennial Celebration

WORDS & IMAGES | Morgan McGlashon

On Aug. 24, 2023, as the morning sunhit Teewinot, a group of 40 women gathered in front of the historic Exum Mountain Guides office. Among them were Exum guide service owner, Cyndi Hargis, numerous longtime Exum guides, the dynamic Exum office duo, Jane Gallie and Margo Krisjohnson, and a diverse group of climbers — mothers, daughters, grandmothers, friends — all gathered to celebrate the centennial achievement of the first female ascent of the Grand Teton by Eleanor Davis in 1923. It’s hard to say for certain, but it seems likely that this is the largest group of women to have ever gathered in this location. The power of the moment was palpable.

Over bagels and coffee, the group got to know each other before heading across Jenny Lake for two days of climbing school. Armed with sticky rubber, they walked up rock slabs, practicing the art of traversing uneven ground in approach shoes. The group learned to tie knots, use climbing commands, belay, rappel and travel as a rope team with the goal of climbing the Grand Teton together.

Interspersed throughout the days of training and climbing, the community came together to host a series of events for the centennial, the first of which took place at the Jackson Hole Historical Society. The event, titled “Beers and Banter,” was an incredible culmination of history and stories, aptly themed towards women climbing in the Tetons over the last 100 years. Kimberly Geil, the resident historian of Exum Mountain Guides, gave an amazing talk on Eleanor Davis and other notable women climbers in the Tetons.

Eleanor Davis was the physical education instructor at Colorado College and the vice president of the Colorado Mountain Club. According to Kimberly, on the day Davis summited the Grand with her friend Albert, the six other men in their party turned around before the top.

“The fact that Eleanor Davis was on this early climb of the Grand Teton is notable because climbing was a very male-dominated sport at that time, but obviously she was capable and more than able to hold her own,” she said. Davis lived to be 107. Even late into her life, she often walked to go climb mountains, from her house, to save money.

A hundred years later, the group of all-female climbers and guides split in half and headed into the mountains in two waves.

One group hiked up on Saturday and made their summit attempt on Sunday, Aug. 27, exactly one hundred years after Davis’ first attempt. The next group hiked up on the Centennial day and summited the following morning.

On the first day of their prospective climbs, each group hiked over 5,000 vertical feet to the Exum high camp at the Lower Saddle between the Middle Teton and Grand Teton. The Exum hut, typically a rather drab little shelter, was decorated with colorful paper orbs, a banner that read “CELEBRATE,” and disco ball attached to the ceiling with carabiners and a climbing sling.

The following morning, everyone rose at 3 a.m., forced down some small breakfast with instant coffee, and set out towards the summit around 4 a.m. Climbing with headlamps on, the team navigated the steep and rocky path to the Upper Saddle. It wasn’t until crossing the exposed moves of the belly crawl that the sun began to rise and before they knew it, guides and climbers hugged and celebrated their success on the summit around 7 a.m.

A thin cloud layer just above the summit encouraged the group to take some photos and begin their descent before the weather deteriorated further. Continuing to work together, everyone made their way back to the Lower Saddle and into the Exum hut just in time to avoid a torrential downpour.

Once the rain began to lighten and everyone refueled with hot drinks and more substantial breakfast, the first team began their descent back to the valley while the second team began to make their way up.

Wanna Johansson, who received the Grand Scholarship to participate in the climb, provided by Women in the Tetons and the Teton Climber’s Coalition, told me, “Girls like me don’t get to do things like this.” I am fortunate enough to stand on top of the Grand Teton with relative regularity compared to most, and I don’t often cry, but this time my cheeks were sticky with tears.

On a regular Grand Teton rotation, I may be the only woman at the Lower Saddle. In addition to a large portion of climbers on the mountain in general being men, there are few enough other female guides that we often do not overlap or get to work together. To make this event happen, the two Grand Teton guide services (Exum and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) had to join forces to ensure we had enough guides to host the climb. It was a team so strong that they not only floated up the Grand Teton, but levitated those alongside them. It was a remarkable show of craftmanship and skill, and an honor to work alongside these women.

To see the trails, the canyon, the camp and the summit populated with so many incredible women was not only unique, but a truly historic moment in the Tetons. I think Eleanor Davis would be proud. 

Morgan McGlashon is a guide with Exum Mountain Guides.