Ed Exum: Thwarted By Apple Pie

A Profile of Ed Exum, Exum Guide in the 1960s and Glenn Exum’s Son.

At seven years old, Ed “Eddie” Exum might have succeeded in climbing the Grand Teton, if only he hadn’t gorged himself on apple pie. Ed spent all but one summer of his childhood in Grand Teton National Park, where his parents ran the climbing school now known as Exum Mountain Guides. His father, Glenn Exum, became famous for the first ascent of the ridge on the Grand Teton that bears his name. Glenn[1] ran the guiding company for almost 50 years, first with Paul Petzoldt, the school’s founder, and then on his own. While it’s been decades since Ed was cavorting in Lupine Meadows as a child or guiding peaks as a young man, he looks back on those times with fondness, as well as an appreciation for how Exum Mountain Guides continues to keep his family’s legacy alive today.

Photo 1: Circa mid 1940s. Eddie Exum as a young boy in the Tetons, with an ice axe bigger than he is. Courtesy of Ed Exum.

Living in the Old Shower House

When Ed was a baby in the early 1940s, his family spent the summers living in the Jenny Lake Campground during the climbing season. His mother, Beth, washed his diapers by hand in the creek, and later those of his younger sister, Glenda. By 1946 the park had let the school move into the old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) shower house, one of the buildings remaining from the Jenny Lake CCC camp that had been active between 1934 to 1942.[2] In addition to serving as the office and equipment storage for the climbing school, the small building became home to the Exum family and other guides for many summers.

The Exum family lived on the north side of the old bathhouse. Shaded by trees, the modest building was constructed with vertical planks joined together with thin strips of wood. Even though the elements could make their way in through the occasional missing knothole, it was still a step up from living in a tent. Wide, double doors opened into a rectangular space that served as a lobby for clients. To the right was a long room that doubled as the office for the climbing school, and behind it was the Exum family’s living quarters. The small room to the left of the main doors was the equipment room, with ropes hanging neatly on pegs in the walls. And the slightly bigger room in the back was where at least one guide and his family would stay. Dick Pownall spent summers here, as did Bob Merriam and others.

Cooking and heating were accomplished through the use of a wood stove. Even though it had once been a bathhouse, the structure did not have running water. So for showers, Ed’s dad rigged up an old lard can with holes poked in the bottom of it. They would heat water on the stove, pour it into the can, and shower underneath it. The water would run under the stove, into one of the many drains in the floor, and out of the building.

Running the Climbing School

Ed’s father, Glenn, would take clients up the Grand Teton and on other climbs. But Glenn didn’t have the best business sense. Ed describes his father as a bit of a dreamer – a wonderful climber, storyteller, musician, and father figure to his guides – but not so good with the details of running a company. Glenn didn’t care about making money; he simply wanted people to have a good experience. And they did! But had it not been for Ed’s mother, Beth, the school might not have stayed afloat. Beth was the solid and dependable rock to balance Glenn’s outgoing nature.

His father wanted to give people good value for their money, and was reluctant to raise rates. Early on, the cost to take the basic climbing class was $5.00 for the day. There was an additional 50 cent charge to ride one of Mann McCain’s boats to and from the other side of Jenny Lake, where the climbing schools were conducted. Ed remembers that his father thought those were outrageous rates – both for the boat ride and for the school. And Glenn was loath to raise the Basic School rate from $5.00 to $7.50. But Beth, having a better command of what it took to run the business, insisted.

Given his distaste for charging money, it’s not surprising that Glenn also had a strong dislike for tipping. He felt it was extremely unprofessional, and didn’t allow the guides to accept tips from clients. Ed thinks that some of the original guides did accept tips on the sly, but certainly not in his father’s presence.

Beth initially wrote by hand all of the certificates awarded to clients who had successfully climbed the Grand Teton or other peaks. She had wonderful penmanship, Ed recalls. Later, she began to type them.

It was also Beth who handled all the finances, paid all the bills, and took care of all the details that needed to be attended to. In the early years, the guides were paid daily, in cash. Beth would take in the money from the clients, record it, and put the guides’ wages into envelopes. The proceeds were always split 50-50 – half to the guides, half to the school. She placed the envelopes in the drawer of a small end table for the guides to pick up when they returned with their clients. That end table still stands in the Exum office today, although the drawer no longer has that function.

Next to the table sits a wooden chair with thick blue cushions. The lore around the climbing school is that the chair was built by Glenn; to this day, it is known as “Glenn’s chair.”[3] Ed, however, says that his dad wasn’t that crafty, and it was likely Glenn’s uncle, Clarence Tollman, who built both the chair and the table.

Adventures Growing Up

Ed has many fond memories of his summers in the Tetons, although he’s lucky he survived some of his adventures. When he was 6 years old, he built a boat out of cardboard and took it for its maiden voyage on Jenny Lake. It quickly became saturated with water and began to sink, and he realized with a rush of disappointment and surprise that his boat-building skills were not so exceptional after all. His craft was clearly going to meet the same fate as the Titanic, so he abandoned ship and swam back to shore. Looking back on the episode, Ed calls it “one of those Darwin moments that I’m just glad to have survived.”

That didn’t discourage him from later building a canoe with his buddy Dave Rudd when they were around 13 or 14 years old. Dave’s father, Lowe Rudd, owned the horse riding concession[4] next to the climbing school. The boys built a 14-foot frame, stretched canvas across it, and did their best to waterproof it. They launched it from the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River, near the Jackson Lake Dam, with the intention of floating down the river to the town of Moose. Halfway there, the canoe sank. Making their way to shore, they set out cross-country wearing nothing but their bathing trunks and tennis shoes. It was pitch dark by the time they finally reached the road near Signal Mountain, and were able to hitch a ride back home.

On summer nights, Ed and Dave sometimes liked to entertain themselves by frightening unsuspecting tourists in the Jenny Lake campground. There were often folks who had never camped before, and were afraid of encountering wild animals. Not wanting these tourists to leave disappointed, Ed and Dave would creep over to the campground after dark, scratch on tents and growl like bears, and then be delighted by the terrified screams that would ensue.

They liked to build campfires near Cottonwood Creek. Once, they left a fire smoldering, and came back a few hours later to find that it had set two trees ablaze. Fortunately, they were able to put the fire out before they burned down the whole forest.

The Sierra Club and Sardines

When Ed and Dave were about 16 or 17 years old, they were tasked with helping out on a Sierra Club hike into the Wind River Mountain Range. The Sierra Club had hired the Rudds to pack in their gear – there were over 100 hikers, so this was quite an endeavor. The boys were in charge of horses carrying the sleeping bags for about half of the group. But they were having trouble getting the loads to stay situated, kept stopping to make adjustments, and eventually fell far behind. And then, they took a wrong turn. They ended up about 12 miles away from the rest of the group, in the dark, with no food for themselves or the horses – but plenty of sleeping bags! Of course, that meant that half of the hikers were without sleeping bags for the night.

By the next afternoon, a search party had tracked the boys to their makeshift camp. When they arrived, Ed remembers wisecracking, “Where have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you!” No one else found that funny. By the time they made it back to the rest of the group, it was dark again, and there were rows of hikers lined up like sardines in front of the fires, trying to keep warm. The happy ending for the boys was that they didn’t get into too much trouble, since everyone was mostly glad they hadn’t gotten themselves killed.

Apple Pie and Climbing the Grand Teton

Growing up at a mountain climbing school, Ed was scrambling around on the rocks at a very young age. When he was only 7 years old, his father decided it was time for him to climb the Grand Teton. The day long hike up to the Lower Saddle went well. To celebrate, they broke out an apple pie that Leigh Ortenburger had brought. This turned out to be a mistake. The next morning, Ed woke up so sick to his stomach that he was unable to attempt the climb. In fact, he was so incapacitated that he couldn’t get off the mountain on his own power.

Fortunately, he was small enough to fit in Dick Pownall’s backpack, who carried him down until he recovered enough to walk the rest of the way. He did succeed in climbing the Grand Teton two years later, on August 11, 1950, at the age of nine, certainly making him the youngest to have done so at the time.

Photo 2: Circa mid to late 1940s. Eddie Exum with climbing rope. Courtesy of Ed Exum.

Becoming a Guide

By high school, Ed was an apprentice guide, helping out with the Basic Schools, and picking up techniques along the way. Upon graduating from high school, he became a full-fledged guide, guiding for seven seasons beginning in 1959. He specialized in the “grunt” work – guiding the Grand Teton, Cube Point, and the climbing schools. The most challenging and difficult climbs he left to the other guides, who had a passion for climbing that he didn’t share. What he felt most intensely was the huge responsibility of keeping people safe, a constant shadow in the back of his mind. It’s fair to say that climbing wasn’t a path he had chosen; he was born into it.

The other guides had discovered climbing on their own, and often pursued it over the displeasure and objection of their parents, who didn’t see it as a proper undertaking for their offspring. Whereas his colleagues sought to hone their skills and challenge themselves further by climbing on their days off, Ed usually chose to go fishing. This was an activity he shared with his father – they’d find respite from the pressures of guiding through fly fishing, and over the years, this became Ed’s passion. He’s fly fished all over the world, with one of his favorite partners being Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia.

Nevertheless, Ed always felt he blended in well enough with the other guides. He didn’t get special treatment from his father, or anyone else, and that was a source of pride for him – that he was able to do his part. It helped that Glenn didn’t push Ed to do more than he wanted. Ed never felt pressure to become a superb climber, or the best guide. His dad let Ed’s climbing and guiding evolve naturally, and Ed always felt that he was able to live up to his father’s expectations.

[Photo 3: Guides Day, 1959. From L to R: Jake Breitenbach, Bob French, Al Read, Barry Corbet, Eddie Exum, Glenn Exum, Willi Unsoeld. Courtesy of Ed Exum.]

Career-Ending Incident

But Ed’s climbing career came to an early end. In 1965, he and four or five other guides celebrated the end of the guiding season with a trip into the Wind Rivers. Their goal was an unclimbed mountain near Gannett Peak, of which they were hoping to make an ascent. After a long hike to reach the base, they ventured up. They were rewarded with a series of not overly challenging pitches, which they judged to be around a 5.6 rating. The climb itself was uneventful, and the descent was easy going as well. That is, until Ed stepped on a wet, slippery rock.

Caught off guard, he pitched off the ledge, and tumbled head over heels 30 to 40 feet down the scree slope. When he came to a stop, he was relieved to find he was still alive, but he was not in good shape. He had broken his arm in eight places, had two serious puncture wounds in his legs, and had multiple head wounds as well as abrasions all over his body.

Realizing that he had survived, his next thought was, “How in the world are they going to get me out of here?” His friends cleaned and bandaged his wounds as best they could, and they spent a whole day helping him painfully descend the peak. First hurdle surmounted. But now they had a 26-mile hike back to their cars. Fortunately, they ran into a hunting party at the trailhead with a pack horse. The big horn sheep hunters were just getting ready to head out. Ed was able to hitch a ride on the horse, saving him a difficult and dangerous hike.

By the time they reached the trailhead, he was eager to get into Rod Newcomb’s van and turn on the heat, having been thoroughly chilled from the ride. As he gratefully soaked up the warmth, the feeling returned to his badly broken arm. His left wrist had swollen to twice its normal size. It was throbbing so intensely that he rolled down the window and held his hand out the entire ride back to Jackson to numb the pain.

It took two full days to get him out of the Winds and to the hospital in Jackson, and that’s only because of the good luck of getting to ride out on the horse. They had been about a half a mile from the base of the peak when he fell, and it took them all day to descend that distance. Hiking out 26 more miles, even if relatively flat, would have been a challenge he’s glad he didn’t have to face.

The experience spelled the end of his climbing career. His arm remained in a cast for an entire year, and one bone in his wrist refused to heal. But there was a silver lining to the whole affair, for which he is eternally grateful: the accident kept him out of the Vietnam War.

Near Miss on the North Face

Prior to his injury in the Wind Rivers, Ed had other close calls in the mountains. On July 8, 1960 he was guiding the North Face of the Grand Teton with Barry Corbet, a fellow guide, and one client, Buford Brauninger. Barry was up above him, Ed in the middle, and Buford below. The guides often didn’t take belays, so Barry was climbing while Ed belayed the client. Ed was standing on a narrow ledge, and had looped a sling around a large boulder to use as an anchor. It was a steep section, and Buford fell. As Ed caught him, he felt the boulder move. Panicked, he thought, “God, don’t fall again, Buford,” but didn’t say it out loud because he didn’t want to scare him.

But sure enough, Buford slipped again. Somehow, Ed managed to hold him and have the presence of mind to quickly free his sling as the boulder teetered off the ledge, hitting with a thundering “Boom!” as it crashed into the rock face, just missing Buford. Buford yelled up, “Ed, what the hell was that?” Ed yelled back, “That was our anchor! Grab onto something; I can’t hold you!” The booming continued as the boulder bounced several more times before finally hitting the glacier a thousand feet below. Ed estimated that the boulder weighed at least a ton, and had he not been able to pull off his sling in time, all three of them would have been plucked off the mountain with it and fallen to their deaths. 

Small Rocks with Big Ramifications

Even small rocks can have serious consequences. At the time Ed was guiding, helmets weren’t common or required, but this changed after a client got hit in the head and nearly died. Ed was guiding the Grand Teton with Al Read in 1963, and between them they had a group of eight people. After a successful summit, they had reached the overhanging rappel. Several clients had already descended and were waiting below.

Ed was leading a client over to the rappel, and the client clumsily knocked off several rocks. Ed yelled down, “Rocks!!”to warn the others, but a young man named Dave wasn’t able to get out of the way in time. Two of the three rocks found their target – one hitting him in the shoulder and the other hitting him in the head. Although they were only the size of grapefruits, after falling over 100 feet the impact was significant. When Ed and Al reached Dave, they were alarmed at how badly he was bleeding.

There were no cell phones, and no way to communicate with the rangers other than by descending to the valley floor. Dave clearly couldn’t hike out on his own, but they needed to get the rest of the party down and get help. Al won the coin toss, so he descended with the clients. In the meantime, Ed huddled with Dave. They’d bundled him up so he wouldn’t get hypothermic, and he floated in and out of consciousness. At one point, Dave groggily said to Ed, “Let’s go to the saddle,” but other than that, he didn’t speak all day. Ed kept encouraging him to hang in there; that help would be coming soon.

It was nearly 8:00pm and getting dark by the time Ed heard the voices of the approaching rescue party. The rangers assessed the situation, provided what first aid they could, and then got Dave into a litter. Together, Ed and the rangers carried him down the steep slopes and ledges in the dark, by the light of their headlamps, finally reaching the Lower Saddle at daybreak. Dave was a big kid, weighing about 200 lbs, and they’d been carrying him down treacherous terrain for over eight hours.

As they reached the Saddle, the broad, rocky expanse between the Grand Teton and the Middle Teton, they heard the welcome sound of the helicopter arriving. They loaded Dave into the helicopter, and he was flown down to the valley. He ended up being transferred to Idaho Falls for brain surgery, and faced an arduous recovery, including losing the ability to speak for three months. But the summer after the accident he came back to the guide service to thank Ed, Al, and the rangers for everything they had done to save his life. He had made a complete recovery. Ed gets emotional telling the story, knowing that he helped save this young man’s life. And after that incident, it became standard practice for clients to wear helmets.

His Family’s Legacy

After his catastrophic fall in the Wind Rivers, Ed focused on fly fishing instead of climbing. He had a strong background in science, having at one time thought about going to medical school. But he didn’t do well enough on the aptitude tests. He moved to Denver, CO in 1966 to pursue a job in pharmaceutical sales, which ended up being a lifelong, satisfying career for him.

When his father retired in 1978 after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, he asked Ed if he wanted to take over the family business. Ed declined, knowing he didn’t have the passion it deserved. His goal had never been to own the school; he’d done it for summer work and to have that connection with his father. The responsibility of holding clients’ lives in his hands felt heavy, so Ed was happy to let four of Glenn’s senior guides (Peter Lev, Dean Moore, Rod Newcomb, and Al Read) buy the business from his father. 

Owning a mountain climbing school isn’t the sort of the thing that makes one rich, and neither is guiding. But Glenn was never motivated by money, and he sold the climbing school to his senior guides at an extremely generous price. In addition, knowing that none of them had much money to put towards it, Glenn let them pay him off through their share of the school’s profits, over many years. Ed says that this is exactly the way it should have happened.

Ed is grateful to the four owners, and those who have come after them, for the effort they put into growing the business when the opportunities to do so arose. He recognizes that they have made Exum Mountain Guides into the thriving school it is today, widely respected as one of the premier climbing schools, if not the premier climbing school, in the country. And his family’s legacy of excellence and adventure lives on…apple pie and all.

Photo 4: Ed Exum holding the engraved ice axe presented to his father, Glenn Exum, on the 50th anniversary climb of Glenn’s first ascent of the Exum Ridge. The gold-plated Chouinard ice axe was commissioned by Glenn’s friend and client, Monte Later, to commemorate the occasion. Note: Glenn’s name does have two “n’s”, and the actual date of the first ascent was July 9, 1931, although it has been printed as July 15, 1931 elsewhere. But the summit registers don’t lie! Photo taken July 19, 2018. Courtesy of Ed Exum.

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This article is based on phone, in-person, and email conversations with the author and Ed Exum between July 2016 and January 2021, and in-person conversations with the author, Ed Exum, and Louise Geil between September 2016 and October 2020.

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All rights reserved. To contact the author:

Kimberly Geil, PhD

www.CoachingHeights.com

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[1] To avoid confusion, Glenn Exum will be referred to as “Glenn,” as the name “Exum” is synonymous with the climbing school and could refer to either the father or son. [Return to story]

[2] According to https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/grte2/hrs17d.htm, accessed January 15, 2021. [Return to story]

[3] It’s also known as “Chuck’s chair,” after Chuck Pratt, Yosemite climbing legend and Exum guide, who always used to sit in the chair whenever he was in the office. [Return to story]

[4] The Rudds ran their concession out of the old CCC dining hall, which was right next to the CCC shower house/Exum office. [Return to story]

9 thoughts on “Ed Exum: Thwarted By Apple Pie”

  1. A wonderful piece of work which expands the history of America’s finest climbing school and mountain guide service. Ed Exum continues the rich history of his father Glenn Exum, the leader of modern climbing in the Teton range. Exum expanded mountaineering throughout America. His son Ed carries the flame further.

    Reply
  2. Loved learning some of the history of Exum! You’ve got great “insider” stories – thanks for sharing them through your talented writing.

    Reply
  3. Was blessed to spend 6 summers
    working at Jackson Lake Lodge,
    1959 thru 1964, (college and med.
    school) and knew of Al Read and Rod Newcomb but Pete Lev took me up the Grand and saved my life
    when I slipped at Wall Street. Forever grateful to Pete.

    Reply
  4. I enjoyed reading about Ed Exum. Although he doesn’t know me, he and I are actually third cousins as my great-grandfather, Kinchen Williams Exum, was the older brother of his great-grandfather, Edward Wirt Exum. I even have a copy of a letter that Edward Wirt Exum wrote to my grandmother’s sister back in about the 1890s when Edward Wirt Exum was living in Idaho. I was very fortunate to have a long and interesting telephone conversation with Glenn Exum about 30 years ago. I would love to have a conversation with Ed Exum if he would like to speak to me sometime. I can be reached through my email address, which is GFHannett@aol.com. I could provide him with all sorts of information about his Mississippi Exum roots if he is interested.

    Reply
    • George – that’s fascinating that you and Ed are third cousins! I’ll make sure he sees this so that hopefully you all can get in touch with each other.

      Reply

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