A legend still in his time
But, for his climbing partners that day, Aug. 6, this climb up the 13,770-foot peak was anything but ordinary.
After all, Pownall in the 1940s and 1950s had pioneered many of the most difficult rock-climbing routes in the Teton Mountains. He might have been, but for a quirk of fate, the first American on Mt. Everest.
“Why was this important to me? Because Dick Pownall was one of the greatest mountaineers on the planet in his day, and he’s my hero,” explained Bob McLaurin, Vail’s town manager, who arranged the trip. “The opportunity to share a rope with him on the Grand Teton was too much to pass up.”
Pownall, now 75, figures he has climbed Grand Teton 150 times, give or take a few, beginning in 1947. He had first started climbing in the Tetons in 1944 while still in high school during a summer spent on a trail-building crew.
Most of his climbs were as a guide for Exum Guide Service, for whom he worked for 15 summers, first while in college and later as a school teacher in Lakewood. He has ascended the mountain by eight different routes, all of them requiring ropes, carabiners, and other tools of more serious mountaineering.
“You can make it as hard or as easy as you want,” says Pownall. With 7,000 feet of vertical, it’s a gut-buster by almost any standard of the Rocky Mountains.
Most famous of these routes was the North Face, which Pownall and two companions pioneered in 1949. Leading that climb, Pownall finished the final pitch, called Pendulum Pitch, in the dark, and the trio spent the night on the summit.
“We were in extremely good shape in those days,” recalls Pownall. “It was difficult, but I don’t think we appreciated the degree of difficulty.”
The direct climb up the North Face was repeated in 1957 for a photographer commissioned by Life, although the magazine spread was bumped by Sputnik, the first satellite launched into space.
Among the young climbers employed for that photo shoot was a young Yvon Chouinard, who shagged loads up the mountain for $5 a day. Chouinard later became well known for his climbing exploits in the Sierra Nevada, as well as other ranges around the world, and for the climbing-gear business he established.
Dan Burgette, the leading climbing ranger for Grand Teton National Park, says today’s sport climbers shouldn’t diminish that pioneer climb, even if it’s a 5.8 route. Today, climbers today have sticky-rubbered shoes, something climbers then didn’t have.
Even so, climbing the North Face today requires judgment and route-finding skills of a complete mountaineer, he says.
“We sometimes get people who get into trouble on the North Face even though they think they’re 5.10 or 5.12 climbers.”
Among the nation’s best climbers of the era were assembled for the 1963 expedition to put the first American atop Everest. About half came from the ranks of Exum guides, among them Pownall and Jake Breitenbach. The two were the first team slotted to make a summit bid on Everest, but in the deadly shifting Khumbu Icefall, a wall of ice broke loose, killing Breitenbach.
Instead, Jim Whittaker, later known as the first manager and employee of REI, had the distinction.
Except for the death of his partner, Pownall today doesn’t speak with regret about the Everest climb or express envy that another American became first. Acquaintances say he’s always been soft-spoken, self-effacing, and calm.
Along with his strength, stamina, and judgment, that calmness is probably what made him a top guide and mountaineer. Even at age 75, all of this was evident on the recent climb up Exum Ridge, the most popular route up Grand Teton and one pioneered by his former employer, Glen Exum, in 1931.
Setting out at about 6:30 a.m., Pownall, McLaurin and two other climbers from Vail had reached the summit within seven hours. On top, Pownall called Glenn Exum’s widow, Beth Exum, who lives in the Denver area, and his wife, Mary, in Vail. Twenty-something climbers asked to be photographed with him.
As they descended the mountain, word spread that Dick Pownall – the one whose name was littered in the guidebooks – was on the mountain.
“I didn’t realize quite the celebrity status he had up there,” reports a climbing companion, Vail resident Bob Kendall, who himself had first climbed Grand Teton in 1955, when he was 15 years old.
“When word got out on the mountain, people were coming around to meet him. These were guys 25 to 30 years old, two generations away, who knew who he was and wanted to meet him.”
The oldest person to go up the Grand Teton was climbing legend Paul Petzoldt, at age 86. But what impressed climbing rangers like Burgette was the style with which Pownall made it up the mountain.
“To me, it’s just like John Glenn going back to space in his elder years. That’s just far beyond what most of us are going to be doing in our later years.”
Pownall has maintained a low-profile existence since the Everest Expedition in 1963. He settled down to a career as a teacher, a coach, and then a principal and to raise a family. Based on advice from other rock climbers, he bought a lot in the brand-new resort of Vail and started building a cabin.
Since retiring in Vail he has twice remodeled his cabin into what is now a modest chalet located in Vail’s priciest neighborhood. Sitting on the patio of that home amid aspen trees and a terraced garden, he reflected this week
on his climb.
“The mountain is bigger than it used to be, and the climb is longer than it used to be. I felt like Rip Van Winkle.”
Companions, however, report he held his own just fine.