When Glenn Exum first discovered a new climbing route up the Grand Teton at 18, he could hardly have predicted the legacy he’d leave behind.
He made the ascent solo, with no rope, in cleated leather football shoes two sizes too big. That ridge Exum climbed in 1931 now bears his name.
He and climbing partner Paul Petzoldt revolutionized guiding in Grand Teton National Park when they founded the Petzoldt-Exum School of American Mountaineering, which later became Exum Mountain Guides.
Though Glenn Exum died in 2000 his descendants still contemplate the meaning of their patriarch’s legacy. And last week, for the first time in their lives, Glenn Exum’s son, grandson, and great-grandson found themselves together in Jackson Hole.
Ed Exum, 78, Damon Exum, 43, and Ben Exum, 8, live in Denver, where Glenn Exum settled after he sold his guiding service in the late 1970s.
Their visit was prompted by the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum’s June 27 Beers and Banter event on the past, present and future of the Exum Mountain Guides. Ed Exum was a panelist along with former Exum guides Nat Patridge, Jane Gallie and Dave Dornan.
The three Exums arrived in town a few days before the event to take advantage of their time in the valley and honor Glenn Exum’s legacy in the most fitting way — by climbing.
Ben practiced belaying under the guidance of Exum guide Tim Cohn. Though he is just 8, his family’s climbing legacy is not lost on him. Nor on his father.
Damon Exum, a lieutenant in the Denver Fire Department, completed his first ascent of the Exum Ridge at 19. And though Glenn Exum was young by most standards when he completed his historic ascent at 18, his son, Ed, was even younger when he summited the Grand at age 9.
If Ben wants to beat his grandfather’s record he doesn’t have much time left. But whether he makes it to the peak in a year or not, Ben remains optimistic about his climbing future.
During their Jackson stay, the three Exums watched “One Last Song on his Mountain,” a 1981 PBS documentary which follows Glenn Exum’s 50th anniversary ascent of the Exum Ridge on the Grand.
For Ed and Damon Exum, who were around at the time of that ascent, it was a chance to reminisce.
For Ben, who is too young to have ever met his great-grandfather, the deep dive into Exum history was a learning experience — one that has left him with a newfound admiration for his great-grandfather’s dedication to teaching others.
“I learned a lot about him,” Ben said. “He wasn’t a very talented climber at first, but then he became a great teacher.”
Each member of the Exum family delivers a tough act to follow. Yet even while Ed Exum was growing up immersed in the climbing world, his father never pressured him into becoming a climber.
Nevertheless, Ed Exum gradually built up his climbing skills and in his senior year of high school became a guide for his father's company until an accident in the Wind River Range at age 25 put a halt to his guiding career.
Even though Ed Exum has been coming back to visit the valley for decades, the sight of the Tetons never fails to knock the wind out of him.
“It’s just always amazing, that first view of it,” he said. “It still really tugs at your heartstrings, because it’s so beautiful.”
The three Exums were heartened to see how Exum Mountain Guides has taken on a life of its own since Glenn Exum was at its helm.
“In a busy time, they can have 150 guests in a day — and these guys are getting them up and down the mountains, and safely,” Damon Exum said. “The scale of it and the quality is just amazing. So it’s just really nice to be invited back.”