Melanie Kirol on the summit pitch of Irene's Arete, Disappointment Peak (11,618'), Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The route has become a classic, offering variations from 5.8 to 5.10, with clean, aesthetic cracks and a magnificent position. [Photo] Cameron Lawson

Irene's Arete

Posted on: July 1, 2006


Fifty years ago, many women learned to climb because of a man. I can honestly claim, however, that I started climbing before I met my first husband. In the fall of 1953, I had just left the East Coast for Stanford. A shy, serious physics major, looking for a way to make friends, I saw an ad in the Daily for the Stanford Alpine Club. When I failed to get up my first practice climb, it became clear that I wasn't a natural athlete.

Undaunted, I signed up for other club outings, including a Yosemite trip that resulted in a waterless Halloween bivouac. As we sat by a fire, telling stories and listening to children trick-or-treating in the valley below, I realized I'd discovered the community for which I had longed—as well as a newfound love of adventure.

Climbing would soon provide me with an even closer connection and a way of life. A Berkeley student with a quaint Okie accent who frequented our club, perhaps in search of female climbers (indeed, I became his third SAC girlfriend), Leigh Ortenburger was working on an advanced degree in mathematics—and on the first edition of his now-classic Teton guidebook. We began seeing more of each other, as Leigh enticed me onto more difficult climbs than I might have done as a lowly club neophyte. In 1956 we spent our honeymoon in Tuckerman's Ravine, so Leigh could teach me about snow. But he never encouraged me to lead, perhaps because I would have been less efficient on longer climbs or perhaps because he might have worried about me, and I didn't push it.

In 1957 Leigh had just gotten out of the army early to work for the Petzoldt-Exum Guide Service and I had just graduated from Stanford. After a few days peak-bagging together in the Tetons, he left to guide the Grand. Glenn Exum didn't allow me to go along. (Years later Glenn would once actually pay me to be an assistant guide.) By the time Leigh returned with tendonitis, my restlessness had become unbearable, so he introduced me to a bookish medical student, John Dietschy: "John, this is my wife. Why don't you take her climbing?"

Later I would decide that John, with his dark brown hair and glasses, was quite attractive, but then I was shy and anxious about my ability to follow his proposed new route on Disappointment Peak. But after a first, leisurely new route on Fairshare Tower, I felt comfortable enough to tell him about my ambition to lead. That night at the Petzoldt Caves, after dinner, John sat calmly smoking his pipe and looking at the next day's project: a nearly vertical knife-edge, with two brief steps and a final deep notch before it leveled out onto the plateau of Disappointment Peak. It looked impossible.

At first the shallow cracks didn't reassure me much. To ease my struggles removing the pitons, John hauled the pack, and I needed a brief tight rope to negotiate our crux: a steep diagonal 5.8 move on minimal holds. But when the next pitch required me to commit to a white crystal foothold over nothing, I hesitated in disbelief, then finally stepped out. To my amazement, my boot stuck.

Now we made continuous progress up sustained 5.6 and 5.7 terrain, but the weather deteriorated. After our seventh pitch, at the prominent notch, the storm broke. We found shelter under an overhang, and I burst into tears of relief. When the rain and lightning ceased, we descended to the right and rappelled down a loose gully. Back at the Caves, in a jubilant mood, we were greeted by some of John's friends who had come to climb the Exum Ridge.

The following day, when John offered to let me lead the party up the Exum, I accepted, and as the names of pitches I'd studied in Leigh's guidebook turned into tangible forms, my joy overwhelmed any hesitations I might have had. I didn't even recognize the infamous Friction Pitch until I was through its crux.

Some months later I was surprised to learn that John had named the arete after me. I've only seen him once since then, over coffee in the Denver airport, but the euphoria and self-confidence from our first ascent—and my subsequent first lead—carried me into other adventures, first female ascents such as the North Face of the Grand with Sue Swedlund in 1965, and the 1978 women's climb of Annapurna.

Each time I've revisited Irene's Arete, its sinuous bands of dark and light gneiss and the companionship of my friends have reminded me why climbing has been a central part of my life. In 1981 Renny Jackson, Bob Irvine, Chris Anderson and I used rock shoes instead of boots, and with no pitons to remove, my additional twenty-four years didn't matter. In 1984 Bob and Rich Perch talked me into trying the 5.9 variation: I stemmed up the flaring open book and got my hands on the top, when my arm strength failed and Perch gave me a tug. To my pride, mixed with embarrassment that I'd become notorious for a route I'd never led, Bob bragged to some climbers at the Caves, "We just did Irene's, and this is Irene."

Irene Beardsley (formerly Ortenburger) during the first ascent of Irene's Arete in 1957. In the years since, Beardsley, the fourth woman to earn a PhD in physics from Stanford, has made hundreds of ascents, including the 1965 first all-woman climb of the North Face of the Grand Teton, and the 1978 first American (and first female) ascent of Annapurna. [Photo] Irene Beardsley collection

In 2004 I started to have chronic back pain, and I wanted to climb again while it was still possible. Renny and Dave Carman agreed that we should do "something" that summer. As the end of the summer approached, "something" became the arete. Sixty-nine years old, I hadn't done any roped climbing in two years. Dave, a wily senior Exum guide, swore I could do it and told me to start working on assisted pull-ups.

On the morning of the climb, I strolled from the Lupine Meadows up to the Caves, changed into rock shoes (the same ones from 1981 and 1984), took some ibuprofen and looked skeptically at the route. Renny said, "Well, why don't we just go over to the bottom of the climb and see what happens?"

Following Renny up the first pitch felt like jumping into freezing water. After a while, however, I found my balance, and soon enough we were at the top of the third pitch, right up against the 5.8 crux. As in every previous ascent, I couldn't quite pull off this move without a little tension.

Past the crux, I knew I could do the rest of it, yet I didn't want it to end. When we stopped for lunch in the sun, my happiness was mixed with the bittersweet knowledge that this probably was the last time. And I would save my fiftieth anniversary climb of the Grand for my seventieth birthday in 2005.

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