In August of 1923, three college students decided to climb the Grand Teton on a whim. Quin Blackburn, the leader of the party, would go on to lead the Byrd Antarctic Expedition in 1934. The other two, Andy DePirro and David DeLap were nearly lost to history apart from those who knew them. However, in the 1980s David DeLap was “discovered” and his well-told story of the climb made headlines. While the climb was indeed an amazing feat, it’s the story of his life that’s the true adventure.
Born November 22, 1890, near Norris City, Illinois, David quickly became the family wanderer. At the early age of 12, David knew exactly where he wanted to live someday by looking at a remote dot on a map. He chose Powderville, nearly 100 miles away from the nearest railway station in southeastern Montana. In 1917, he made good on his dream when he discovered one could prove up on a homestead while serving in the army. He filed on 320 acres near Powderville, then headed out to serve in WWI.
While in the army, he chose to join the Company F, 318th Engineers who eventually joined the 6th Division, aptly nicknamed the “Sight Seeing Sixth” for the large amount of traveling they did. This division was chosen to stay behind in Germany as an Army of Occupation following the end of the war.
He arrived at his homestead in Fall of 1919 having been away for 16 months. He had 7 days to look things over before starting a teaching job at Pilgrim Creek. By June of 1920, David had built a cabin and fencing between teaching stints. And thus began a pattern of teaching, attending university, working odd jobs, sightseeing and in his spare time, proving up on his homestead. David, along with a WWI buddy Tom Pease, worked the harvest fields of Kansas, cotton and oil fields of Texas and were bookkeepers for United Fruit Company in Honduras. They spent a month in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and traveled by foot through Yellowstone National Park. In 1922, David stated attending summer school at Montana State College and the University of Montana.
While in Bozeman, summer of 1922, David hiked Mount Baldy in his old football shoes, and his interest in climbing first took hold. The following year while attending school in Missoula, David first met Quin Blackburn during an organized hike up Squaw Peak. When Quin saw David’s football shoes, he recommended the cleats be removed and replaced with caulks instead. This would be the only climbing gear David would ever have. David would spend much of that summer climbing, ending the season with the biggest climb of all: The Grand Teton
Armed with nothing more than a climber’s pick and regular hiking gear, David and Quin, now joined by Andy DePirro who owned a car, struck out to conquer what most found an impossible task. The Grand Teton, near Jackson, Wyoming, stands at approximately 13,747 feet above sea level. The men’s accent is a spectacular tale of ingenuity and teamwork. After hiking and climbing 13,000 feet, with roughly 747 feet to go they found two large 40-50-foot chimneys of ice in their path. It was here Quin Blackburn took charge. According to DeLap:
“Blackburn had me stand at the bottom of the chimney and cut niches in the ice just above my shoulders big and deep enough to receive the toes of our shoes with the caulks. DePirro climbed my body and placed the toes of his shoes into the niches. Blackburn then climbed both of our bodies; cut niches into the icy walls above the shoulders of DePirro, then climbed up and placed the toes of his caulked shoes in to the niches above DePirro’s shoulders. Then he cut niches above his own shoulders and I climbed the bodies of both of them and placed the toes of my shoes into the niches above Blackburn’s shoulders. Thus, we proceeded to the top of the chimney.”
They climbed the second chimney in the same manner, reaching the top of the summit at 5:55 p.m. On a blank check from the Gallatin Trust and Savings Bank of Bozeman, Blackburn wrote their names, addresses, date, time started and time of arrival and “Raining in the A.M. Snowing in the P.M. Colder than hell.” They placed the note in a can which had been left at the summit in 1898. It had been 25 years since anyone had reached the top. They had been completely oblivious to the grand scale of their achievement. Upon their descent, the group quickly headed back to Missoula where they all parted ways, David heading back to Bozeman for University.
In 1928, David graduated from Montana State College with a degree in Civil Engineering while serving in the National Guard. The following year, he married Ada Walton at the First Methodist Church in Bozeman. Nearly 90 years later, their son, David DeLap, Jr. found the flowers from the wedding in a marked cardboard box in the family home (currently on exhibit at the Gallatin History Museum). They spent their honeymoon for three months in Columbus, Georgia where David was attending infantry officer’s school. In August of 1929, they moved into their new home at 825 South Grand Avenue, and David started teaching at the High School where he would remain for over ten years.
During WWII, David served two years in Alaska, arriving back home in Bozeman on Christmas Eve 1946 to his wife Ada and their young son David Jr. Following a 7-year stint at Montana State College in the Math department, David retired from teaching in 1954, almost immediately jumping into the Real Estate business until 1967 when he officially retired at the age of 77. But David’s life remained far from stagnant. David and Ada traveled to Anchorage, Alaska that year to visit with their son, which would later become a nearly annual trip for David. From 1970 until her death in 1974, Ada battled with Parkinson’s Disease, which required many trips to a Billings clinic.
Following her death, David began an annual trip to Illinois for the DeLap family reunions and often spent Christmas in Anchorage where he participated in the Christmas Bird Count with his son’s family.
It was about this time, 1980, when people became interested in the story of the 1923 Grand Teton climb. David made two trips to Jackson Wyoming to share the story. David spent his 90th birthday at a party thrown by Judge Lessley, where over ninety friends came to celebrate, and in 1986, the DeLap reunion was held in Bozeman.
The most amazing thing about David’s life though, is that he wrote it all down. Both he and Ada were diligent at keeping a journal. It is through this meticulous record keeping that the story of his life has endured to the present day.
David DeLap, Sr. lived to be 101 years old and what an amazing life it was.