Ted Vaill Oral History


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Ted Vaill Oral History


Copyright Cyns Nelson


Ted Vaill speaks about his experiences as a climber and as a member of the American Alpine Club. He talks about his early life and how he got started climbing, as well as how he became involved with the American Alpine Club. Vaill also speaks about many of the climbs he undertook, including some in Tibet and China as well as the Tetons and Death Canyon.







The American Alpine Club Library


February 23rd, 2008


Cyns Nelson


Ted Vaill


The American Alpine Club Library in Golden, CO




0:00 (Today is February 23rd, 2008. My name is Cyns Nelson and I am working with the American Alpine Club’s story project. We’re at the Alpine Club, in the library, recording stories that capture member’s defining experiences in and with mountain environments. Right now I’m joined by Ted Vaill, who has been a member of the Alpine Club since 1968. And Ted is going to talk about some particular experiences, in the Tetons, Nepal, and China. So, Ted, I’ll just let you give a quick introduction to your climbing history; say whatever you might like about the Alpine Club and then just tell me some stories.)

Great. I was born in 1940 in Hartford, Connecticut. I went to camp, climbed the White Mountains—hiked, mostly—worked in the AMC huts in the late ‘50s, and carried heavy loads up. In 1960 I went to Europe and met this German guy, and we climbed Zutspitzah [?]—not a difficult climb, but it was terrifying. But it gave me my first experience with modern rope technique and climbing.

In 1961, when I was a student at Colgate, I went to the Tetons. I was a dishwasher and dirt-bag climber, and helped organize the dishroom, and got fired, and through some connections in Washington I came back the next year as a park ranger, to the surprise of the people who had fired me there. But I was now “The Law” in the Tetons.

So my climbing— First in the Tetons, in ’61, I was peak bagging—getting all the big peaks—but then I started looking for new routes, and things like that. At the same time I was also at law school, at the University of Chicago, and a bunch of us gathered around a guy named John Gill, who the greatest boulderer in the world, and is still known as that. So we were sort of accolites [sp?] to John Gill, who was a student at the University of Chicago. We were the first ones to use chalk, in the world. I’ve talked about this with Jim McCarthy, and he agrees that Gill was the first to use chalk. He was a gymnast, and we would train in the gym at the University of Chicago. Actually TRAIN for climbing; nobody trained then. But we would use chalk, and we’d go up to Devil’s Lake, [which] had greasy holes and we’d put the chalk on to make the holes better. Very controversial at the time—of course, it’s known around the world.

In the Tetons, as a park ranger from ’62 to ’64, I— On my days off I would go off and try difficult new routes and standard classics. Two of them stood out in my mind: One was a climb of Mt. Moran; we made the first ascent of the southwest kuwar of Mt. Moran—this other guy and myself. And we—going up this very steep ice kuwar, 55 degrees, I look up and there’s this refrigerator-sized rock coming down, that bounds from side to side, slow motion, above me. And I was right in the center of the kuwar. So I just made myself as small as possible and this huge rock bounded right over me. I could feel it brush by my arm. So then we finished the route, the end of the ice, and there was a rock pitch at the top. Made the summit, completed the climb, and then came back down the same way. And we were hit with a massive lightning storm that knocked us out—actually knocked my partner unconscious—and I don’t even remember going down the ropes. We rigged them so fast that we had to leave the ropes up there. Our hands were frozen so we had to down climb—we had crampons—so we had to down climb this 55-degree ice kuwar, unroped, which was very harrowing. We got to the bottom and bivouacked for the night. We were supposed to be back. The next day my colleagues on the rescue team were about to come out to try to rescue me when we dragged ourselves into the station, Jenny Lake ranger station.

04:34 The other story was in Death Canyon, in 1964, which is an area that is more rock climbing than alpine climbing. So Bill Buckingham and I were getting ready to do a route in Death Canyon, called Apocalypse Arret. And there was Yvon Chouinard, fresh from Yosemite, coming in. And he heard—with Mort Hempel—and he said, “Oh, these guys [are] gonna steal our route.” So, the same day they were out and they did Snaz, on the other side of Death Canyon, when we were doing Apocalypse Aret—which was a pretty hair-raising climb in itself, because Bill said, “Why don’t you do the next lead?” And so I did, and I got up on this flake—it was about a 30-foot flake—and about 20-feet up I found out it was completely detached and was rocking back and forth, with a 2,000-foot exposure below. So I have this multi-ton rock that I’m lay-backing on and that’s rocking back and forth as I go up. I made it, and brought Bill up, and he said, “That was hard! That was really hard!” Well it was only 5.7, but at the time—this was 1964—that was at the upper levels of what people were climbing in the Tetons. And Lee Ortenburger made the second ascent of it, and he said this was the most dangerous climb he’d ever done in his life.

After that I graduated from law school, ended up in the military and stationed on the island of Guam and climbing in the Guam jungles. I climbed Mount Fuji with John Hudson, the great American climber who tragically died. I did the Winter’s ascent with him, his last climb, got some great pictures of him.

06:23 Then in ’69 I got out of the service on Guam, and I had been communicating with various officials at the American Alpine Club. Nepal had opened up, after years of being closed, so I hooked onto the 1969 American Alpine Club Dala-gari expedition. One of the 8,000-meter peaks. So I arrived early, in Katmandu, and I said I need some acclimatization . So I hired a Tibetan guide, and we went up and climbed Mardi Himal, which is a trekker peak there, about 18,000-something feet, right in the shadow of Machu Pichari and Annapurna. And then I came back and hung out in this village for a while, but I got dissintary. And I was in the Royal Hotel in Katmandu, sick as a dog for four days. And I was so weak after that, I left a message saying: “I’m bailing from the expedition. I can’t do it.” Well, as you may know, Lou Reichert and Boyd Everett and Dave Sedeman and others went up to attempt the peak, and all of them died, except for Lou Reichert who was at high camp and was going off to the latrine. And a huge avalanche came down and killed everyone except—and Jim Morrissey and Al Reed, Al had gotten sick and Jim was taking him down. The three of them were the only— Seven Americans killed, plus some Sherpas, the worst tragedy in American history, mountaineering history. So I think that I almost certainly would have been at that high camp had I not gotten sick. So thank god for getting dissentary! At least, that one time.

08:07 So I came back to the ‘States, got married, had a family, practiced law. And in 1973 Bill Putnam was becoming president of the American Alpine Club. And he said, “Ted, I want to form a legal committee. Would you be the chair of the legal committee?” I said, “Okay.” I had only been a member for five years by that time, but I said alright, I’ll do it. Little did I know that 35 years later I’d still be chair of the legal committee. It’s been the source of a lot of my climbing activities, because I’ve revolved them around the American Alpine Club. When they have a climb in a particular area I’ll go climbing in that region, and bring my family along. I remember one time Pinati was speaking, and we were sitting right in front of him—my wife and twin daughters, who were like five or six years old—and he went on, and on, and on for hours, it seemed. And the kids were falling asleep, but we couldn’t leave because we were sitting right in front of him. So those were some of the less pleasant experiences there.

You know, I guess one thing a lot of climbers have to face is: Once you get a family, and a home, and kids, do you continue climbing, and how do you do it? And how do you make money doing it? I mean, if you’re a dirt-bagger maybe you can live out of tents and garbage cans. But, you know, I was a lawyer.

9:34 But I think I have kept up my climbing life, much, after that. And the highlight of it, in the time after I got married, was when China opened up in 1980. And I was part of the International Cooperation Committee with Bob Bates. I was also, at that time—from ’76 to ’82—secretary of the American Alpine Club and on the Board of Directors. So we were at the forefront of helping to open up China. And in the early 1970s there was something called “Ping-pong Diplomacy,” where they brought a ping-pong team of Americans to China in the early ‘70s, when—and this was a way, and a non-political way, to open China up. And then it closed up again. And Dung Chao Ping died—Mao Tze Tung died in 1976; and then in ’79 diplomatic relations reestablished with China; 1980, things opened up and there was one American expedition to Mina Conka that Jed Williamson and Yvonne Chouinard and others were on. But the next expedition was one that was sort of a reconnaissance that we did in 1981 to the Segunyang Range in the Tibetan autonomous district of Szechuan province in eastern Tibet. And Alan Steck and I took a group in to that area, a trekker group for Mountain Travel. And also Jim Dineeny and Jack Tackle and two others were going in with us to attempt an ascent of Segunyang, a very, very difficult peak there. They did not succeed because we came in too late in the year on Segunyang. But Alan and I, we went around the corner and we saw this peak, a beautiful peak called Celestial Peak. It was like a perfect pyramid. And we looked at each other and we said, “We gotta climb that.” So we made arrangements to get a permit to climb it, and put a team together. The next year, 1982—

11:52 Oh, one thing I should say is, while we were in Beijing we invited Shu Jong Chong—the head of the Chinese Mountaineering Association, a government official who had led the Chinese Everest expedition—to the United States. And I extended an invitation on behalf of the American Alpine Club for him to come to the United States to speak at the annual meeting in Los Angeles in 1981. Never out of China before, we met him at the airport, showed him the American way of life. We went to the supermarket and he said, “I understand you actually have food for cats and dogs, here.” And we said, “Yea, this whole row is cat food, dog food, and things like that.” And we took him to Las Vegas, of course, and San Francisco, and he stayed at my house. And he then said, “We want to reciprocate for this wonderful time. We’re going to invite you, we’re going to invite your twin daughters—and you can come along too—to China, at the expense of the Chinese government.

So the next year, in 1982, my wife—my now-deceased wife—and twin daughters, who were then nine—they’re now 35—and I went to China. And we flew to Hong Kong, and for a whole month we got to travel all over China. There was a battle going on between the conservatives, who said, “No! Don’t let tourists in; don’t let foreigners into these secret areas of China!” Secret areas—a lot of them were mountains, and beautiful areas. So the moderates were saying: “If you want tourist money, you gotta let them in.” So we got to Beijing and after some banquets and things like that, and renewing our acquaintance with Shu Jong Chong, the head of the Chinese Mountaineering Assocation, they said, “Where do you want to go? You can go anywhere in China.” So we decided to pick the remotest possible area to go. We went to Shin Jong province in western China, north of Tibet. Flew there. And we were probably the first Westerners—some of the first Westerners to go there, except for some CIA people who were there to set up a listening post against Russia; after the post got kicked out of Iran, in 1978, they worked with the Chinese. But tourists—there were no hotels there. We stayed in Dung Chao Ping’s compound in Iromachi, the capital of Shin Jong province, which is directly north of Tibet and still is an area not very much visited. We went up into the Bo Di Xong mountains and climbed a small peak there, and into the Chen Shong mountains, and went down to the Takomakong Dessert, and then took a train all the way back across China—steam engine train all the way back across China, first class, to Beijing, stopping along the way. And in 1983— Oh, and we also signed the agreement, then, for climbing Celestial Peak.

14:49 And the next year, Alan Steck and I, and six other climbers—most of them members of the American Alpine Club, I think all of them, a lot of them with Yosemite climbing experience and with experience abroad—went there. And we climbed the peak in eight days; 34 fifth-class pitches, two 5.10 C, using Firees that had just come out, the rock-climbing shoes, and Frenz—Wild Country gave us some Frenz camming devices, we had 40 of them. And we only used—we did the whole climb free, did it on the south side. We did a film of the climb, best sunlight. So we made a first-class—a first-ascent of this peak by one of the hardest routes on the peak, not the easiest route, but the most classic route on the peak. And we made it to the summit which was a tiny little pinnacle. Unbelievable summit. Got some good film footage—this was Bealuoi cameras, not video, at the time. I did a lot of the sound work on it.

We got down, we had done what was probably the toughest, technically difficult climb done in China to that date. At the very same time, Lou Reichert and George Low and others were on the Kung Shong face of Everest, attempting the east face of Everest. And that was a technically difficult climb, but of a totally different type. The same day we made the summit of Celestial Peak, Lou Reichert made the summit of Everest. And he said he could have lit a candle on the summit of Everest that day. And it was the same thing up—it was 70 degrees. This peak was 10,000 feet lower than Mount Everest, but it was a technical, granite, rock peak of Yosemite-quality granite. And we had some of the best feelings we ever could have when we left that peak, knowing we had stolen this from the Brits who were in the process of climbing peaks in India that were of similar quality. Of course, now people are climbing far more than 5.10 C, but that was 25 years ago when we were doing this. Technology has far surpassed what we had then, but we did use—we decided that we were going to climb Yosemite-climbing standards, in the Himalayas, but two miles higher than El Capitan.

17:33 And since that time I have continued to intertwine my climbing activities with the American Alpine Club activities: go to Banff for a meeting and you climb afterwards. Things like that. I’ve also recently done home exchanges—did one last year to Austria and did some climbing, in April, and I’m going to Switzerland on another home exchange this year for some climbing. So, at age 67 I’m still at it. Still doing it. That’s it!

(Thank you, very much. We really appreciate your taking the time to speak with us.)

18:14 [End of recorded conversation.]

[Some background talking continues.]

Original Format





“Ted Vaill Oral History,” The Collections of the American Alpine Club Library, accessed April 20, 2024, https://library.americanalpineclub.org/items/show/104.