A giant rockfall has forever changed what’s arguably the world’s most famous natural skyline — the iconic Cathedral Group view of the Grand Teton, Teewinot and Mount Owen.

What’s being called “a big chunk of the mountain” fell off last fall, altering the profile of the Grand’s East Ridge so significantly that people can see the difference from the valley floor.

Part of the Second Tower on the 13,775-foot Grand’s East Ridge collapsed in September 2022, changing the feature’s profile from an even-sided pyramid to a pointed spire. The modification is most apparent from the north, particularly from the Cathedral Group Turnout on the Jenny Lake Loop road in Grand Teton National Park.

That’s the vantage from which Teewinot Mountain, the Grand and Mount Owen align in a composition that evokes what Fritiof Fryxell called the range’s distinctive “gothic note.”

“I slammed on the brakes.  There it was in profile. That’s what caught my eye and blew my mind.”

Paul Horton, Climber

The triumvirate’s “converging lines of spire rising beyond spire [culminating in] pointed summits … direct one’s vision and thoughts yet higher,” according to a description of the moniker and mountains penned by Fryxell, Grand Teton National Park’s first naturalist.

Today, the Second Tower (the first tower on the ridge is called the Molar Tooth) is more spire-like than it was before the rockfall. But is the change merely a ding in a distant facade or something more significant?

“I think people will notice,” former climbing ranger and climbing guidebook author Renny Jackson said. “Anybody who has ridden that loop road or driven it gets used to those familiar sights,” he said of the iconic Cathedral Group skyline.

“This thing kind of sticks out.”

Most dramatic rockfall

Former climbing guide Paul Horton was hiking to a camp beneath the south side of the Second Tower last summer when he noticed a usually clear flow of snow runoff was tainted with mud. Later in the summer other climbers began reporting rockfall from the tower, culminating in significant cascades in early September.

Stones and boulders crashed hundreds of feet down both sides of the ridge to the Teepe and Teton Glaciers below.

“I think it’s the most dramatic rockfall,” Horton said of his lifetime in the Tetons.

The Cathedral Group profile today sports a distinctly sharper and smaller Second Tower, below and left of the Grand Teton summit, than it did before the rockfall. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)
The same view of the Cathedral Group as it looked before the partial collapse of the Second Tower. (Tim Mayo)

But the extent to which the world-famous skyline was forever altered went unseen initially, perhaps because of weather. “People had seen big rockfall,” Horton said, “they just didn’t realize the extent of it.”

Last fall after the initial hullabaloo, Horton was driving from the north — where the peaks align as the Cathedral Group — when he saw a completely different view from what he was used to.

“I slammed on the brakes,” he said. “There it was in profile,” a fang, not a pyramid. “That’s what caught my eye and blew my mind.”

The summit of the Second Tower is rarely visited by mountaineers. During the first ascent of the East Ridge by Robert Underhill and Kenneth Henderson in 1929, the climbers bypassed the obstacle.

Horton, a self-professed peak-bagger and prolific explorer, has climbed to the top of the feature. He reckons a mass of rock more than 100 feet high exfoliated from the west side of the tower, leaving the top precariously hanging over space.

“I’m not going back,” Horton said.

Climbing altered?

Guidebook author Jackson recently sent the latest edition of “A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range” to the printers with some warnings regarding the changing nature of the range. “I felt I had to give a heads-up to people that these are the routes that might be affected,” he said.

A crucial part of the East Ridge route passes under the now-missing part of the Second Tower. But an examination of pre- and post-collapse photographs revealed that a critical chimney that is key to bypassing the tower appears intact.

Guidebook author and former climbing ranger Renny Jackson made this analysis of the Second Tower rockfall. It depicts the now-missing part of the tower and the East Ridge climbing route bypassing it below. ((Greg Winston/Renny Jackson/A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, Fourth Edition)

Another former Teton climbing ranger and guide, Mountain Weather meteorologist Jim Woodmencey, called the missing piece “a big chunk of the mountain.” Although “the range is falling apart all of the time,” the larger events are rare, he said.

“Normal rockfall occurs almost constantly,” he said, “especially following rain storms and things like that.”

In this instance, “I can’t trace any weather effects that go with it.”

Many mountaineers would attribute seemingly more-frequent large-scale rock avalanches in the world’s great ranges to climate change, global warming and the melting of permafrost in rock formations. Woodmencey doesn’t buy that explanation, but the end result of the change is noticeable nevertheless.

“It’s much sharper of an edge on there than used to be,” he said, likening the new profile to a chipped tooth.

Siyuan Ye, his pants wet from frolicking in the snow, becomes one of millions to record an image of the world-famous skyline as he takes a picture of father Jun Ye and mother Min Li at the Cathedral Group Turnout in Grand Teton National Park on May 9, 2023. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

There’s been no call for a name change — “The Tower Formerly Known as The Second” comes to mind — or any significant interpretive display. Park rangers will advise climbers of specific hazards “if they start to see rockfall events of the size and frequency that we did last summer,” spokeswoman Valerie Gohlke said in an email.

Meantime, those in the know and those who compare National Park Service display at the Cathedral Group Turnout to the actual profile will see the awesome power of wildness.

“That’s the most beautiful thing about nature,” Gohlke said, “it’s always changing.”

Horton agrees. “You gotta figure it’s not done falling down,” he said.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Well nature is so awesome I don’t think climate change has anything to do with it this has been happening since the beginning of Earth. So keep going where the asphalt ends and nature begins thanks for the story.

  2. I cannot believe I missed this story until now, just days before Father’s Day 2023! My late husband Brian Alton White made the Summit of the Grand on Father’s Day 1977, an hour before he fell to his death. That skyline has been etched in my mind ever since.

  3. The first time we saw the Tetons I was awe struck…fairly flat land, then mountains ( no foot hills.) It just made everything that much more spectacular! We have always felt a sense of peacefulness and serenity here!
    I’ll have to look at my photos to see the changes.

  4. Born and raised in WY. My parents and I spent many a day in Jackson Hole, I love the iconic beauty of the landscape. I always felt this wonderful calm feeling there. My husband and I were married there in 90. The Tetons towering over us we exchanged wedding vows and that was 31 years ago. My Ken loved the Tetons too. Maybe we can return and spend more time taking in the beautiful scenery of WY.

  5. Holy moly! I don’t know what else to say, save for that unbelievable expletive!

  6. Was just there! The Tetons are the most beautiful in the world to me. Could very well have happened due to the fact that these mountains are a subpage of the Rockies and consist of a fault block uplifted from earth’s crust millions of years ago. The fault is on the boundary of 4 major geologic provinces: 2 of which are the Idaho/Wyoming Thrust belt and Yellowstone volcanic plateau. The fault blocks move apart due to tension perpendicular to the fault line causing the mountains to rise abruptly in the east but gradually in the west. The valley of Jacson Hole through which the Snake River flows represents a corresponding subsiding block along the fault line. Lots of shaking going on in this area in the past few years. Just sayin’……USGS does not report all of them either.

  7. Great article, especially with the before and after pics and Jackson’s route section map with the estimated rockfall! That’s really a very large rockslide for any lower 48 ranges except maybe something exfoliating in Yosemite. Not by Alaskan standards of course, but still huge. The slide could have been affected by global warming as the longer something is frozen in place annually, the less likely rockfall or slides are to occur. Obvi connection. Ice and snow melts earlier in the spring and summer, with more dramatic diurnal freeze/thaw cycles. Also, the regional effects are towards more potential precip in the warmer atmosphere, thus stronger storms into late spring and early summer. That’s a noticeable affect in nearby Salt Lake where it rains more than it used to in late May/early June despite the drought. The more precip during freeze/thaw days, the greater the effects. The permafrost claim I dunno about. Jackson Hole gets cold in the winter but it’s not -50° F. Alaska cold for there to even be much permafrost there.

    Great story. If I was climbing the East Ridge, I don’t think I’d stop for lunch at that col under the tower! 😄

  8. A magnificent nature calling on a huge tower collapse how amazing that is for the mountain and the skyline just amazing Brown Mike

  9. I am the only one still alive from the first ascent. Richard Irvin led up the north face of the tower using pitons for aid. Richard climbed without his ice ax as did one of the others. I came up last with three ice axes dangling from my arms while I pounded out the pitons. It looks like our route might still exist; however, it would be close to the knife edge facing the summit. Someone should go do it and claim a new route.

  10. July 25, 2018 a huge boulder was reported to have detached from Elephant Mtn, Maine and flattened a swath of forest. It’s not known exactly when because no one lives there. The 30 by 50 foot boulder is at the end of the path and you can see the article in the Daily Mail. October, 1987, the Gendarme, a rock tower on Seneca Rocks, tipped over to the west altering the appearance of the aptly named Seneca Rocks Gunsight.

  11. Just was there on October 1st, 2022 and I wasn’t aware of the rock fall, plus nobody even mentioned it. Still was incredible and I really liked the Wilson/Moose road but unfortunately we couldn’t go all the way through. Loved it!!

  12. Could the falling of part of the Tetons happen due to earthquakes? Last year I feel we had quite a few earthquakes. The earthquakes were only 2 to 3 on the scale, but they do shake the earth.

    1. An interesting thought … I was camped on Death Canyon Shelf along the Teton Crest Trail on the evening of Sept. 2, 2017 standing around talking to some fellow backpackers when a large chunk of the southeast side of the canyon collapsed into the valley. I took some photos of the event, posted them on flickr, and later forgot about it. Some months later when following the on-line earthquake tracker, I noticed the earlier record of the Soda Springs ID 5.3 earthquake event. I compared the date stamp on my photo with the date of the quake; the time of day also matched up. So even though I didn’t actually feel the quake, it had a significant impact on the local landscape. Checking the USGS record, the largest quake in Sept 2022 was 3.9 on Sept. 18 centered at Mammoth, in Yellowstone. Although the article does not provide the exact date, it would be interesting to see if there is a correlation. Although weathering and erosion takes its toll on the mountains, all it may take is a small trigger to generate the dramatic rearrangement of the landscape.

  13. Amazing!! I am so glad that I saw the Tetons last summer. Going back this summer!

  14. Beautiful place I’ve been to Zion Park Bryce canyon Park Grand canyon Park if there’s nothing like the Rockies greatest

  15. There’s other missing rock too. The foreground, second from the left peak looks like a rock is missing. And the one just below it, to the right is lower and has a different profile.

  16. For the average traveler or resident of Jackson and environs, the altered state of the Cathedral Group since autumn, 2022 rockfall(s). little has changed.
    Since seeing the spectacular Tetons as an enthused child, 1952, I have rated every Alpine encounter against the splendor of the Tetons.
    Decades ago, I found several that almost challenge the awe of the upward thrust of the Teton’s collective mass that was carved into the wonder of peaks. My family visited the Park and stayed at a favorite cabin at The Double Diamond Ranch, and the classic formof the Grand viewed from the edge of the glacial moraine forest, punctuated with the sounds of a pair of ravens gliding by. And, I visited the landmark guest ranch up the gravel drive several times through university years and after, finally saying Fairweather, as the Park took the Double Diamond and it transformed onto a new life as Climber’s Camp. Several years ago I came across a photo on my phone of the same glacial moraine, barren of forest due to fires in the late 1980s.
    That shakes one’s trust in the solid permanence of geology and forest.
    Alas, nature has assumed the cloak of impermanence she always had and we, mere humans, must adjust to Climate Change and altered states of geologic forces.
    When very young, I told my parents I was hiking to Taggert Lake, “OK, be sure to return in time to clean up before 6 o’clock dinner at the dining hall!” I never told where I went! And it was a great adventure, high up and on a perfect view ledge, peering down to the cradled Teton Glacier! Alas, I never repeated the feat! Instead, I moved from NE Ohio to the Pacific side of the Cascade Range and hiked, packpacked and scrambled hundreds of trails and routes, always measuring against the Teton splendor.
    A few places reached that tantalizing experience, one in the south portion of the North Cascades N.P., Mt Goode, it’s 6000 foot NE wall sheltering a hidden vale that can be perceived by non technical climbers from the slope of Mt Logan. Another place, the headwaters of the Entiat River in a vast cirque with shear headwalls decked out with hanging glaciers, a sight so impressive I was compelled to visit in late season. Alas, a snowstorm terminated my grand re-encounter. The place has the greatest concentration of tall peaks in the North Cascades. Fortunate, I visited a High Sierra place of great peaks in late September, 1980: 1000 Island Lake, dominated bt a great peak on similar altitude to the Grand. And a hike to a small walk up that enables the breathless hiker to peer over 1000 ft down to the bald head of Half Dome and ever downward to Yosemite Valley!
    So, if you are not ‘into” climbing, there are many places that can set the spirit free! And, the Teton’s are forever “there!” Bears, elk and all! Happy Trails, 2023!
    Footnote: fir Cascades lovers, Fred Beckey’s 3 volume set of Cascade Alpine Guide is indispensable!
    “Steven’s Pass to Rainy Pass” volume include the two cirque I described, above.

  17. Fabulous capture of a once in a lifetime event. Climbed and skied a frw times in that area. Great article. Thanks

    1. True Tim.. You and Angus both.. You and Angus are both adding to our joy and knowledge..

  18. My old climbing and skiing partner Dave Ryan’s body is up there, killed by rockfall in the vicinity of the Molar Tooth in 1987. Since then I’ve always looked at the Tetons a little differently than most people.

  19. Mother nature hates two things in particular. Mountains and depressions
    Geologically Mountains will be flattened by gravity, freezing/thawing, wind erosion, etc
    On the other hand depressions will be filled by the eroding Mountains
    It takes millions of years but is a truism for geologists.

    1. Dennis: In general true, but nature doesn’t hate mountains and valleys. While some portions are giving way to erosion and spalling, many are getting taller by ongoing geological uplift forces. There is no hate in nature – just overall balance through various forces; geothermal, gravity, plate tectonic shifting, on various medium; rock, water, air, and vegetation, caused by variations in temperature caused by solar radiation variations, planetary rotation/position/tilt variations, and internal forces over time.

      1. Wise and insightful observations. What a privilege we have to be tiny specks on this changing Earth. Cameras, now, frequently capture changes, but seen and unseen, these changes in the Earth have been going on for millions and millions of years, long before the words, “Global Warming,” were ever uttered or feared. Thank you Bill, for your amazing and educated tutoring.

  20. That N side traverse was always loose and touchy…glad no one was on it when the big stuff came down.

  21. Is the Grand Teton National Park going to be less spectacular because of the dramatic change in one of the peaks? I am forever in awe of the magnificence in nature. Nothing in nature stays the same, it is not predictable. The Tetons continue to be awe inspiring. They are spectacular!