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THE GRAND TETON CLIMBERS' RANCH An American Alpine Club Lodging Facility

[Cover photo: AAC member Sarah Sheehy.]

"It's changed and it hasn't,"

quips Bob Baribeau, the manager of the American Alpine Club's Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch, when asked about the transitions this place has gone through in the past 48 climbing seasons. Baribeau has witnessed 45 of these seasons. The GTCR, and many of its original inhabitants, have remained steadfast throughout both evident obstacles (a catastrophic fire, storm seasons, smoke) and less perceptible shifts (an ever-growing climbing industry and a guiding industry in flux). The property, nestled at the base of the Tetons near Bradley and Taggert lakes, is rich in history, in views, and in stories.

Here, we'll try to give you a peek at it, but disclaimer: the only way to get to know the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch is to go yourself.

THE PAST

It was 1966.

Grand Teton National Park's climbing bums were in a tough spot: the Jenny Lake climbers' camp, which had been a gathering spot for the community since the '50's, was being shut down—potentially due to the "raucous" climbers' nature and unfavorable interactions with the growing influx of tourists.

A few years previously, Grand Teton National Park had acquired the Double Diamond Dude Ranch, which had been operating either as a ranch or tourist camp for 40 years. The property—perched on a glacial moraine at nearly 6,700 feet, shooting distance from the Teton Range's greatest peaks—was ideal.

"We were looking for something in Moose [the closest 'town' to the Ranch], and the National Park offered us this," remembers local legend Bob Horton, "How could we say no?"

Under the direction of American Alpine Club President Nick Clinch, the AAC said yes, acquiring access to the property through a Special Use Permit in 1970. Thus, the mountaineering community had a home at the base of the Teton Range.

These photos, courtesy of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, show the Ranch in it's Double-Diamond days. The current Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch logo, which features two diamonds, pays tribute to the Ranch's roots.

After Clinch secured the property, a community began to form. Dave Dornan, the first Chairman of the AAC Climbers' Ranch Committee, teamed up with volunteers including the legendary Yvon Chouinard (who lived at the GTCR for its first two summers) to tackle projects like extensive plumbing repairs. The Ranch became recognized as a space where climbing legends and armchair mountaineers alike could gather to grill food, sip beer, and, most importantly, share stories. The Tetons, after all, are full of stories, and the 70's and 80's were decades full of first ascents by Climbers' Ranch regulars. One of these innovating climbers was Mike Munger, a part-time GTCR resident and prolific first ascentionist who established a host of new routes in Death Canyon and beyond, taking advantage of the Ranch's convenient location only a short walk from the most popular Teton trailheads.

Nick Clinch (1930-2016)

A revered climber and character, Clinch was a remarkable leader. He led the only American expedition ever to make a first ascent of an 8000-meter summit, he led the American Alpine Club through an era of expansion, and he (along with Leigh Ortenberger and NPS Director Horace Albright) led the aquisition and development of the Climbers' Ranch. Clinch received the Heilprin Award for service to the Club and the rarely granted President’s Gold Medal—twice.

Then came 1985.

"I was sleeping in my bunk in my cabin," recounts Bob Horton, gesturing to the cabin through the window of the GTCR Library, "and suddenly woke up to Rob saying, 'it's time to go.'" A forest fire (the Taggart Lake/Beaver Creek Fire) was sweeping through the Climbers' Ranch, and would destroy half the Ranch's cabins before it abated. Luckily, the fire missed the main lodge, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Rebuilding, with assistance from the National Park Service, began immediately. The Ortenburger cabin, one of the first cabins relocated to the GTCR from a nearby ranch after the fire, was named for Teton legend, prolific mountaineer, author and photographer Leigh Ortenburger. The few remaining destroyed cabins' replacements were also sourced from a nearby abandoned dude ranch, so the only recently-rebuilt structure is the current shower house, which replaced the old bath house destroyed in the fire. The period of recovery extended from 1986 through the spring of 1991.

THE PRESENT

Photo: Brad schwarm

The Kickoff

The Ranch offers a predictable rhythm, one that has changed very little in the past decades. The first week of June, when snow often still coats the high peaks, is Work Week: a week of gathering, of sharing the events of the previous winter, and of volunteering to bring the Ranch into summertime shape. Volunteers donate their time to help with everything from routine maintenance issues (fixing leaky toilets, testing smoke detectors, and setting parking lot logs) to capital projects (building cabinets and staining cabins), and in return are served one generous meal each day and offered free lodging at the Ranch for the month of June.

Work week volunteers sing and play once the hard part is done. Photo: JH News & Guide.

Beyond this, Work Week is familial, communal, close. It brings people together in a way that only sharing a goal and working hard for it in the shadow of the Tetons can.

Work Week volunteers span all generations, from those who don't fit into climbing shoes yet to those who have hung up their climbing shoes, citing bad backs and knees. Once the work is done, all share in the celebrations, whether that means singing around the picnic table or getting cozy and sharing stories in the library.

The Library

Alan Nagle, a retired professor from the University of Iowa, has spent summers at the Ranch for many of the past ten years, climbing and curating the GTCR library, which now houses over 600 titles. The library is a quiet, sacred room—no shoes allowed—where climbers on their rest days pour over guidebooks and lose themselves in adventure stories. Wood beams, a vaulted ceiling, and gorgeous regional art round out the space. Some books, dated over sixty years old, are inscribed with notes from one climber to another or annotated with beta for specific approaches, moves, or climbs. These marks, and the library itself, offer a path back through time for the modern climber.

Treasures from the GTCR Library, August 2018.
William Fetterhoff, a legend of the Ranch and Chair of the American Alpine Club's Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch Committee, has penned an incredible book of stories spanning from 1999 to 2008. Check out an abbreviated version at the AAC Library, or the full version at the GTCR library.

The Routine

One night in a Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch co-ed, dormitory-style cabin costs AAC members just $17 and non-members $27. Guests share a men's and women's bathhouse offering showers, sinks and toilets. This accommodation comes with a communal cook-shelter, where guests can set up their cooking stoves and enjoy the fellowship of the climbing community. Children of all ages are welcome—this truly a place for all, with a couple exceptions: house pets and bears. The Ranch offers bear-proof containers for food storage, a necessity in a National Park that's home to numerous brown bears and grizzlies.

In an increasingly superficially-connected world, the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch offers opportunities for more tangible connection: to the tall pines, to the peaks, and to each other. The Ranch doesn't have wireless internet, and many cell phone carriers don't provide coverage in the Park. The result is an oasis that alternates between feeling completely still and bustling with friends raising their voices in song, in laughter, and in storytelling.

GTCR cabin accommodations: spacious bunks and cozy interiors.

An added bonus: this recently-installed training wall/playground on the side of the GTCR bathhouse provides a place to stay strong or, for some visitors, to try climbing for the first time.

"But be careful; it's a trick wall," cautions GTCR seasonal staff member Peggy Flavin, "Some of the holds spin."

The view from the bathhouse wall. August 2018.

THE FUTURE

"It's changed and it hasn't."

One change is in client base: what used to be a resource for more self-sufficient "dirtbags"—the climbers who clashed with the tourists at the original Jenny Lake camp—is increasingly also utilized by guided parties, hikers, and people who would prefer the Ranch install w-fi. This shift is emblematic of the climbing community at large, which is currently undergoing rapid growth, largely stemming from an increase in indoor climbing gyms. Despite occasional grumbling from dirtbags nostalgic for simpler times, most recognize this challenge as a positive one: more climbers means more people to advocate for climbing, and the more people who can reap the benefits of spending time at the Ranch (community, connection, immersion in the natural world), the better for our world. All are welcome at the Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch.

The author and her sister a'top the Grand Teton on a smoky late-summer morning, 2018.

One other challenge is environmental. "The smoke has come in the past ten years," says Bob Horton, a Ranch resident since the Ranch began. He looks out the window of the library in August, 2018 to peaks partially obscured by a low, foggy haze, which has drifted in from wildfires ravaging land far to the North and West. The Tetons are getting smokier, and they're also heating up. Horton remembers snow climbs in August of '75 that are now rock climbs. Scientists predict the region will only grow warmer, smokier, and subject to more volatile thunderstorms as time goes on. This is ominous, but climbers are adaptable, and individuals at the Ranch, in the Park, and worldwide are working to mitigate these environmental concerns. The Ranch can accommodate change.

Photo: rOBERT HYMAN

Years ago, the late, great Doug Tompkins asked, "In response to the people who say you can't go back... What happens when you get to the cliff? Do you take one step forward or do you make a 180-degree turn and take one step forward? Which is progress?"

Past Grand Teton Climbers' Ranch resident Yvon Chouinard replied, “The solution might be to turn around and take a forward step.”

The Climbers' Ranch has demonstrated its power to withstand the test of time, thanks to the love of the people who call it a home. If you, too, would like to call it home, you know where to find it.

RESOURCES

Photo: AAC member Robert Hyman
Created By
Emma Longcope
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