Women on the Tetons
Women have been climbing in this range for nearly a century.
By Molly Loomis
IRENE AYRES, ELIZABETH Cowles, Margaret Smith, Eleanor Davis—these names don’t ring a bell for most Teton climbers. But they should. These four women were among a handful of alpinists during the early days of Teton exploration, achieving both first ascents and first female ascents around the range.
While some of the first female ascents came years, if not decades, after those by men, the achievements of these women are still remarkable. At the time, it was expected men would explore mountains; these women not only had to have the physical strength and skills to make it to a summit, but also the emotional and mental mettle to buck society’s idea of what they should and/or could do.
In 1924, Paul Petzoldt guided local landowner Geraldine Lucas, a fifty-eight-year-old former schoolteacher, to the top of the Grand Teton. While hers is often regarded as the first female ascent of the Grand—immortalized by a dramatic photo of Lucas standing with an American flag at the summit—it wasn’t. Eleanor Davis, a physical education teacher at The Colorado College and graduate of the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, stood on the peak’s 13,775-foot summit a year earlier with longtime climbing partner Albert Ellingwood. Scant description exists of Davis and Ellingwood’s ascent, but climber Bob Ormes described Davis as “a little wren of a type, very tough and strong and not disturbed by altitude,” and a “damn good climber and nervy.”
In recognition of her ascent of the Grand Teton, Davis became the first woman from Colorado to be invited to join the predominantly male and East Coast-oriented American Alpine Club.
IN THE 1930S, other women’s names began surfacing in summit registers tucked atop Teton peaks. Ayres made numerous documented first ascents with her brother, Fred Ayres (including Traverse Peak, Rock of Ages, Bivouac Peak’s West Ridge, and the West Horn) and also first female ascents of Disappointment Peak, Mount Owen, and Mount Moran’s Skillet Glacier. In 1939, Miriam Underhill, who ten years earlier made history with the world’s first documented “manless” technical climb on France’s Petit Grepon, did the first female ascent of Cloudveil Dome. Elizabeth Cowles, who did many first ascents in the Tetons, made the first climb of Buck Mountain (known as Mount Alpenglow at the time) during this era.
But as ninety-four-year-old Teton climber Margaret Smith Craighead recalls today, rarely did the area’s women alpinists climb together. Craighead began climbing in the Tetons as a young woman, when her father worked in the park as a naturalist. A crew that included men like Jack Durrance, Glenn Exum, and Paul Petzoldt—all of whom are considered some of America’s finest climbers—took Craighead, who was up for adventure, under their wings. (One eventually proposed to her on the slopes of Teewinot. She declined, explaining that she thought of him more as a brother. In a huff he left her to descend on her own.)
As soon as the sun was up, Craighead’s crew would begin hiking to the base of a climb. At night they’d retire to the campfire to tell stories of the day’s adventures while working on their hobnail boots or sometimes play music and “hobo dance.” Craighead describes herself as “kind of like a mascot to the guys,” but she held her own in the group. She did several first ascents in the range, and one summer, Durrance invited her to climb the North Face of the Grand Teton. (Tired from a long climb the prior day—it had stretched well into the evening—Craighead turned around early in the attempt.)
WITH UNDERHILL’S ASCENT of the Petit Grepon, the term and idea of a “manless” climb became more popular, and more women got the experience and confidence necessary to attempt climbs without a male partner. In the summer of 1939, Craighead, Margaret Bedell, Ann Sharples, and Mary Whittemore set out to make history with the first manless ascent of the Grand Teton. Craighead, the youngest of the group, had climbed most of the major Teton peaks by the age of sixteen. Bedell was an enthusiastic climber who aspired to eventually ascend every peak in the range. Sharples was a national-caliber skier and the group’s leader. Even though this climb was Whittemore’s first in the Tetons, she had spent four years training with professional mountain guides.
At the time, Craighead wrote: “This may have been of importance to the record of events, but to us it was just another climb.” It was just another climb to the ladies, but it made the regional news. The following day The Salt Lake Tribune wrote: “Another successful invasion of the field of sport by the weaker sex. The laconic record filed in the Jenny Lake museum of Grand Teton National Park reads: Left base camp, Lower Saddle elevation 11,000 feet at 3:50 a m., ascended by the Owen, regular route, and reached summit 8:20 a m., left peak 10 a m., arrived Jenny lake 5:10 p m.”
The article failed to mention that the women arose extra early to beat everyone else to the summit; they knew that otherwise critics wouldn’t believe they had made it up on their own. Craighead was so taken with the experience of climbing with other women that afterward she began climbing regularly with Irene Ayres.
Craighead, who now lives in Missoula, Montana, but regularly visits her family in Kelly, Wyoming, stopped climbing long ago. Like most women of the era, her focus shifted to her growing family. “Back then it was a childhood activity,” explains her son, Derek Craighead. “She got married and had kids.”
Despite over half a century passing since Craighead put on a climbing harness, she offers advice to climbers, male and female alike, that’s timeless: “Be safe and always be careful. There’s so much fun to be had in the mountains. Enjoy every single minute of it. It’s just grand to be there.”
In Their Own Words: A few of the range’s pioneering women climbers share some of their standout memories.
In 1980, Barb Eastman, with Anne Macquarie, did the first all-female ascent of Mount Moran’s Direct South Buttress. The two women were also among Grand Teton National Park’s first female Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers, gaining positions with that illustrious group in 1980.
“We did have some trouble route finding, and we got benighted. While it’s illegal to have fires we figured that we were better off with one, so we built a fire and huddled around it. We had to find a way to make contact because one of us was scheduled in the station [the next day].
As the summer went along Anne and I realized we were qualified to be at Jenny Lake. We weren’t the lowest on the totem pole or the weakest link on the team. It took us a number of weeks to realize that. After all, Anne’s honeymoon was two ascents of McKinley.”
Liza Anderson Wilson did the second female ascent—by ten days—of the Black Ice Couloir on the Grand Teton in 1974.
“It was pretty wild doing the Valhalla Traverse back in those days. It was really bad, and I got knocked around. Right before we had climbed the Enclosure Couloir. Not many women had climbed that then.
I was in these old Grivel crampons that weren’t even rigid, Lowa boots, and Chouinard wool knickers. I remember dropping Keith’s prized Warthog down the couloir. It was a bummer—that was a precious screw.
It didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but I guess there weren’t a lot of women in the Tetons. It’s just what we were doing—climbing everything we could back in those days.”
Irene Beardsley and Sue Swedlund did the first all-female ascent of the Grand Teton’s North Face in 1965. Theirs was considered the hardest all-female ascent at the time.
“Leigh [Ortenburger] suggested and started promoting the idea that Sue and I climb the North Face. I was pretty excited by the idea. I didn’t know [Sue] so we climbed the Underhill [route] to see if we were compatible. She was such a fantastic climber and so level-headed. I had a lot of confidence in her. She fell a few times on the Pendulum Pitch. But it didn’t bother her, it just made her mad.
All the exposure wasn’t quite as appalling as I thought it would be because of all the ledges—it was the Pendulum Pitch that got me. I felt terrible, I dropped Sue’s father’s camera. Being pregnant, I think, made me clumsy. Sue didn’t hold it against me. She was a very nice person. You can say we had fun.”
Catherine Cullinane became the first female Exum guide, and the first female guide in the Tetons, in 1981.
“I came out to the Tetons in 1980 with a friend; we knew a bunch of the Exum guides—Kim Schmitz [a man], TM Herbert, Chuck Pratt, and Herb Swedlund. I did some portering, then got recruited to guide since I knew how to climb. In those days you had some on-the-job training; you’d go work with Rod [Newcomb] and Al [Read, the owners of the company]. All the guides were totally welcoming; I loved the camaraderie. The clients were more of a problem: ‘What?! You’re our guide? You’re so small! How are you going to hold us?’ ”
The Earliest Years of Women Climbing in the Tetons
1891: Emma Matilda Owen and Jennie Dawson are the first women to attempt the Grand Teton.
1923: Eleanor Davis makes the first female ascent of the Grand Teton.
1923: Davis and Albert Ellingwood pioneer the Middle Teton’s Ellingwood Couloir and do the first documented ascent of the South Teton.
1926: Davis becomes the first woman to climb Mount Moran.
1931: Johanna Wittenberger makes the first female ascent of Teewinot.
1932: Irene Ayres is the first woman to climb Disappointment Peak, Storm Point, and Symmetry Spire (solo ascent).
1932: Barbara Gray makes the first female ascent of Nez Perce.
1934: Irene Ayres climbs Mount Owen, Rock of Ages, Rockchuck Peak, Bivouac Peak, and Traverse Peak; all first female ascents or first ascents.
1935: Elizabeth Cowles makes the first ascent of the Grand Teton’s East Face with Paul Petzoldt and Glenn Exum.
1936: Irene Ayres and Margaret Smith Craighead team up for the first female ascent of a new route on Mount Wister.
1936: Margaret Spencer makes the first female ascent of the Grand Teton’s Exum Ridge.
1939: Margaret Bedell, Anne Sharples, Margaret Smith Craighead, and Mary Whittemore make the first manless ascent of the Grand Teton.
1939: Miriam Underhill is the first woman to climb Cloudveil Dome.
1940: Elizabeth Cowles completes the first female ascents of Buck Mountain and Veiled Peak, and the first ascents of the north ridges of Mount Moran and the Grand Teton.
1941: Cowles and Mary Merrick are part of the first team to try the Petzoldt Ridge on the Grand Teton.
Receive Published Stories In Your Inbox
Enter your email address below to subscribe to published stories.