Panel discussion adds history to the Centennial celebration of women climbers in the Tetons
Eleanor Davis became the first known woman to climb the Grand Teton in 1923. One hundred years later, a group of all women summited the peak in her honor. The Centennial celebration also brought together a panel of five trailblazing women who shared reflections on other record-setting accomplishments in the mountain range.
The panel took place at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum in late August and included local climbers Irene Beardsley, Beverly Boynton, Catherine Cullinane, Sue Miller and Georgie Stanley. The women shared stories about some of their biggest adventures, joys and challenges in the alpine.
Collectively, the five women represented the first female guides at both Exum and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and accomplished a wide-range of first ascents in the mountains at a time when women were less commonly found in the sport.
Beverly Boynton started climbing on the East Coast in the 70s at a time when the feminist movement was becoming more mainstream. She said the timing helped support her growth as a climber.
“My group of climbers in Boston, it seemed they just assumed that I was going to be their equal and that of course I was going to lead. There was never any fuss over that, which I think was really lucky,” she said.
Boynton moved to Jackson in 1981 and fell in love with the long, hard climbs in the Tetons. Over the decades she went up more than a hundred different routes and put up first ascents on classics like Dihedral of Horrors and intimidating climbs like Thor Peak, which is eye-catching even from the valley road.
“It's so obvious that of course I wanted to climb it. I have no idea if I asked anyone anything about it, but there it was,” she said.
Boynton led the hardest part on that first ascent of Thor Peak, despite the fact that opportunities to protect herself from falling were few and far between. But she said that being afraid didn’t cross her mind then or really ever throughout her times in the mountains.
“I have to say, I didn't really get scared. I just felt like my experience was gonna carry me through, and it just felt really comfortable being out on mountains and routes. It felt like I belonged there,” she said.
Boynton said she dealt with bad weather or challenging climbing by focusing on the present.
“I kind of had a philosophy that ‘I’m okay, right now, in this moment and I just got a string another moment that I'm okay’ and that's kind of how you do it, it's the same thing as taking one step at a time, I guess,” she said.
Multiple surgeries have now made it hard for Boynton to continue climbing in the mountains. But, that hasn’t stopped her from adventuring – she’s just taken up canoeing in the Arctic as a replacement. She said she still spends time with the mountains, just in a different way.
“When I'm ski-skating the road in the park, it takes me a long time because I keep stopping and looking – I've been here, I've been there, I remember that,” she said.
Irene Beardsley is about fifteen years older than Boynton. Eighty-eight-year-old Beardsley started climbing in college in California through the Stanford Alpine Club – but she said her initial exposure to climbing wasn’t quite as supportive as Boyton’s.
“I had a different experience than Bev because in the Club, they told us ‘Well, there were some women who were really good, but you're not so good.’ But I did start to lead and I climbed with women – that was good,” she said.
Beardsley was, in fact, very good at climbing. She and her friend Sue Swedlund completed the first all-female ascent of the North Face of the Grand Teton in 1965. Beardsley was pregnant with her second child at the time.
For Beardsley, climbing has always been about the people you’re with.
“One of the things that I particularly like about the Tetons is friends, the way you feel about the people you share a rope with – it just was so wonderful,” she said.
In 1957, Beardsley and her friend John Dietschy were the first to climb a challenging seven-pitch route in the Tetons going up Disappointment Peak. Beardsley said she kept it together until a big storm rolled in.
“There's a big gap at the top where there's a very hard climb on the opposite face and you can get under that rock and we sat there. And I just sort of bawled because I was just, you know, I had been brave all through the climb,” she said.
Dietschy later named the route in her honor, and Irene’s Arete is now one of the most popular rock climbs in the Tetons. Beardsley still hikes in the Tetons regularly – and got up the Grand one last time at a remarkable age.
“We think I was 75 – it was very slow,” she laughed.
Challenges they faced
Beardsley was the first woman to ever guide for the Jackson-based guiding company Exum in 1963, although she was only able to do so once.
Kimberly Geil moderated the panel and is the founder of the Exum History Project. Often referred to as Exum’s historian, Geil said the company’s original owner brought on Beardsley because the company was short-staffed at the time.
“In 1963, Glenn [Exum] was desperate for another guide to help Herb Swedlund with a group of nine climbers on Cube Point. So reluctantly, he hired Irene as an assistant guide.”
Geil said the company didn’t hire its first full-time female guide, Catherine Cullinane, until 1981, after owner Exum had retired.
“Glenn Exum was unfortunately very old fashioned and out of step, I would say when it came to women. Very supportive of his male guides, he did not think women should guide,” she said.
Cullinane, who was also on the panel, said she looks back on the experience with a lot of appreciation.
“I was in nursing school, I made money to go through school and got to go climbing and it was the best and it still is – my people,” she said.
Despite those kinds of barriers to entry, Geil said that women kept pushing themselves and the sport to higher heights. Geil quoted mountain guide and historian Renny Jackson’s reflections on climbing in the range in the collection titled A Place Called Jackson Hole: A Historic Resource Study of Grand Teton National Park.
“Here we see in the Tetons, a tradition that has continued to the present day – namely, noteworthy alpine achievements by women who can hold their own in the sport,” Geil said.