Search for missing plaque reveals Grand Teton dispute
By Mike Koshmrl
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Sometime in the opening week of July 1977, somebody scaled the Grand Teton and pilfered a bit more more than a pebble as a remembrance of the 13,775-foot summit.
The thief, or thieves, absconded with a rather controversial plaque.
For 48 years before, a lightning-warped bronze tablet commemorating William “Billy” Owen, Frank Spalding, John Shive and Frank Peterson’s disputed 1898 first ascent of the grandest of the Teton peaks had graced one of the gray granite summit boulders. Then it went missing. Now Owen’s great-great-nephew, Peter Boutin, wants it back.
“If it were returned, I’d be happy to write a check for $500,” Boutin told the News&Guide.
An attorney, Boutin lives in San Francisco.
“Who knows where the plaque went,” he said, “but it always occurred to me that there’s at least some possibility that it got handed down or is in a garage somewhere in the greater Jackson Hole area.”
The mystery of the Grand’s missing plaque likely stems from the never-settled debate over who first stood on its summit. Before people went up three times in a day or conceived crazy conquests like the Teton triathlon “picnic,” simply reaching the Grand Teton’s summit proved a feat in itself.
The question over who first summited has long been a topic of fierce debate, argued over decades and even hashed out in hundreds of pages in Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s 1992 book, “The Grand Controversy.”
There are three major theories.
The majority of modern mountaineers familiar with the Tetons subscribe to the Owen-Spalding 1898 first ascent. The Wyoming Legislature agreed in 1927. After an investigation legislators passed a joint resolution that declared Owen and Spalding the first to touch its top. Lawmakers authorized the placement of a bronze tablet on the summit to commemorate the achievement.
But Hayden Survey explorers Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson claimed the first summit well before, in 1872. With no documentation to substantiate their claim, many alpinists familiar with the Tetons have been skeptical of the timing and final destination of the Langford-Stevenson approach from the head of Teton Creek’s South Fork up to the Grand’s summit — and back — in a day. Still, their account had persuaded some mountaineers and residents, including the Bonneys.
A third theory is that U.S. Army surgeon William Kieffer first crested the Tetons’ highest point in 1893. Kieffer’s supposed ascent was not publicized until 1959, when a letter making the claim was uncovered from Owen’s files.
Back to the plaque
The paper trail over what became of the Owen-Spalding plaque is thin. The News&Guide’s forebears — the News and the Guide — never really covered its disappearance, beyond a couple of short stories declaring it stolen, incidentally (or not) the same time a 300-pound wooden Grand Teton National Park entrance sign also disappeared.
Undaunted, the News&Guide started piecing together new clues.
“I believe that a guy named Mike Petrilak took it,” retired 33-year veteran Teton park climbing ranger Bob Irvine said within seconds of a phone call.
Petrilak, to Irvine’s recollection, was a Wisconsinite who was a friend of the Bonneys and a believer of the Langford-Stevenson theory. He may even have been issued a citation for the historic heist of the commemorative marker, though when Irvine looked into it a few years ago the records didn’t exist.
The retired climbing ranger and former Weber State University mathematics professor was also not totally convinced of his own recollection.
“I think there’s a good chance what I said was true, but I don’t have any evidence,” Irvine said.
“That’s just what a newspaper reporter needs, right?” he joked. “Wild speculation by a demented old man.”
But Irvine’s hunch was shared. He emailed his former fellow ranger, Ralph Tingey, who had the same take on the missing plaque.
“I believe you are right, that Mike Petrilak took down the plaque from the summit,” Tingey wrote to his pal Irvine in an email. “Someone probably did give him a ticket, but I don’t believe the plaque was ever returned to the summit.”
Petrilak died years ago, but his ex-wife and climbing partner during his northwest Wyoming days is alive and well in Carbondale, Colorado, Tingey said. Stephanie Janiga also didn’t hesitate to point to Petrilak as the culprit.
“Well, my ex-husband had some very fixed views about how things should and shouldn’t be,” Janiga sad. “I think part of Mike’s belief system was that Stevenson and Langford did it first.”
She recalled that Petrilak added a second plaque to the summit.
“I don’t remember what it said, but it may have said Stevenson/Langford,” she said.
The narrative had promise. One of the members of Petrilak’s long-secret thieving climbing party was even still alive to tell the tale, Janiga said. And that man, who goes by D. Jan Black, of Cripple Creek, Colorado, was willing to expose the misdeed from so many years ago.
It all went down on July 29, 1972, Black said.
The Owen/Spalding plaque didn’t go missing for another five years — until July 1977.
“We didn’t remove that plaque,” Black said. “That would have been illegal.”
In fact, Black said, “this is the first I’ve ever heard that the Owen-Spalding plaque was taken down.”
What Black did, he said, is add a second plaque, with the help of his brother, Petrilak and another friend. They timed their climb on the 100-year anniversary of the questionable Langford-Stevenson ascent and toted a second, competing commemorative plaque to mark the occasion.
“I decided that Langford and Stevenson were right and first climbed it in 1872,” Black said. “So I decided to make a plaque for it.”
Forged in Washington, D.C., the unsanctioned Langford/Stevenson plaque didn’t last long atop the Grand.
“Within a few days of putting it up, it was removed by, I think it was a guide,” Black said. “But he turned it over to the National Park Service. They wanted to get in touch with me, and I went into their office, and they fined me $35. They gave me the plaque back, and I still have it, in fact.”
After conferring with Black, Janiga backtracked on her story. Her late-ex, she said, just added the second plaque — he didn’t steal the first.
Tingey thought he had a similar mix-up: that the addition of the second Grand Teton plaque and theft of the original were conflated in his mind after the lapse of half a lifetime.
Irvine stood behind his hunch, but also added that he easily could have gotten the two plaques confused.
While memories fade, the history of the Owen-Spalding plaque is clear — at least until its disappearance.
Fritiof Fryxell, Phil Smith and William Gilman hauled the 22-inch-wide, 20-pound tablet — paid for by Owen’s wife, Emma Matilda — up the Grand on July 30, 1929. The team drilled two holes to affix the “Grand Teton Memorial Tablet,” which was also sealed in place with cement, according to a 1930 entry in the “Annals of Wyoming.”
As former Jenny Lake climbing ranger Renny Jackson remembers it, the plaque took a beating during its 48 years of life at 13,775 feet. Incidentally (or not), he summited the Grand on July 1, 1977 — the same week that the plaque went missing, according to digitized summit registries posted online.
“I always enjoyed looking at it, mostly because of the lightning-strike damage to it,” Jackson said. “It had undergone some melting and had become distorted.”
A whole chapter of “A Grand Controversy,” titled “Forever in Bronze,” is devoted to the plaque, and though the Bonneys stop well short of taking credit for its disappearance, they were also not shy about suggesting a connection.
“Did an environmentalist decide that the plaque was defiling the grandest summit in the Teton Range?” their book reads. “Did a vandal simply pry it loose and pitch it off the north face to crash below? Did the Bonneys, in their lonely crusade for the 1872 claim, make a political statement?”
At least for now, there will be no blanks filled in the Teton history books. Like the question of who first summited the Grand, the answer remains shrouded by memories as distorted by time as the weathered plaque.
“That controversy is active and continues on today,” Jackson said. “It’s probably the most enduring controversy of a significant peak — and who made its first ascent — in the United States.”
New evidence settling the Grand’s decidedly grander mystery will be hard to come by.
But Boutin, the San Francisco attorney with blood ties to Billy Owen, is hopeful that his $500 offer will catch the eye of the lesser controversy: the pilfered plaque.
“It is a bit of a mystery,” he said. “You never know. Maybe somebody sold it, but I think the more likely thing is somebody took it, and they put it in a garage some place.”
Should the plaque ever surface, Boutin’s hope is that it could be displayed at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center at Moose, alongside other memorabilia from the Owen-Spalding team’s 1898 Grand Teton ascent. But, for now, he just hopes it shows up.
“Maybe somebody will feel that they’ve had it long enough and could use a few dollars in their pocket,” Boutin said. “Frankly, they should do the right thing.”
He suggested leaving it at the News&Guide’s Jackson office until he can come get it: 1225 Maple Way.
“Presumably,” Boutin said, “it wouldn’t be that difficult for them to leave it at your front door.”