Eleanor Davis’ first known female ascent of the Grand Teton in 1923 inspired her contemporaries and women today and offered an opportunity to reflect on both the progress and challenges for women in climbing.
Eleanor Davis was an accomplished climber and physical education teacher at The Colorado College. Barton Hoag described her as “very tough and strong and not disturbed by altitude,” and a “damn good climber and nervy.”
True to this description, Eleanor continued on to summit the Grand with her partner Albert Ellingwood even when six men from their party turned around. In a rare interview, she recalled what was for her, only a minor crisis. She lost her glasses thousands of feet below when she gave Ellingwood her shoulder to stand on.
EARLY WOMEN CLIMBERS PURSUING THEIR OWN PASSIONS, AND CHALLENGING NORMS
Only a year after Eleanor’s ascent in 1924, 58-year-old local homesteader and retired schoolteacher Geraldine Lucas reached the summit of the Grand with the help of a guide, 16-year-old Paul Petzoldt. Geraldine Lucas was an educated divorced woman living on a 160-acre property she owned under what she called “her mountain,” the Grand Teton. Once Eleanor made her first ascent, Geraldine figured she ought to stand on top of the mountain she saw every day too.
However, it was a full 16 years before the first “manless” ascent of the Grand. Margaret Smith (Craighead) grew up climbing in the Tetons, often with men. When Margaret Smith, Margaret Bedell, Ann Sharples, and Mary Whittemore went for the summit, they made sure they were the first on top, so as to avoid anyone thinking men had helped them. Once Margaret Smith married and had children, her climbing mostly ended, and she reflected on it as a “childhood” pursuit.
Even though the early summits by Geraldine and Margaret Smith’s party were very different, they both challenged the idea that women were not strong enough mentally or physically to climb mountains.
A PLACE APART – OPPORTUNITIES FOR REDEFINING WOMEN’S ROLES AND MOUNTAINEERING
Early women climbers in the Tetons faced challenges in terms of expectations – their abilities, what they should wear, and what they should pursue. At the same time, Jackson Hole and the Tetons created opportunities for these women by being a place apart and not as defined by the social norms of the day. Not long before these early female ascents, Jackson Hole was known as a hideout for outlaws. And only three years before Davis’s ascent, the town of Jackson elected its first all-female town council.
In fact, Jackson Hole’s renowned as a ski – and ski mountaineering – destination owes credit to Betty Woolsey. In the early 1940s, Betty skied Teton Pass, establishing many of the lines. Betty recognized that ranching was a hard way to make a living, but saw opportunity in recreation. She began guiding skiers from her base at Trail Creek Ranch.
Also in the 40s, Elizabeth Cowles was breaking more ground for women in the Tetons. She completed the first female ascents of Buck Mountain and Veiled Peak. And, she made the first ascents of the north ridges of Mount Moran and Grand Teton.
SECOND WAVE OF FEMINISM AND MORE FIRSTS IN THE TETONS
The feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s ushered in more firsts for women in the Tetons. Beverly Boynton reflected on her start in climbing in Boston saying that her partners “just assumed that I was going to be their equal and that of course I was going to lead.” After arriving in Jackson in 1981, Boynton began charging up hard lines. She put up first accents like the classic Dihedral of Horrors and the formidable Thor Peak.
Boynton’s experience was in stark contrast to Irene Beardsley’s who was only 15 years older. Irene was not encouraged to lead, despite being a great climber.
The ’70s and early ’80s saw the first women become backcountry and climbing rangers as well as guides in Grand Teton National Park. Jane Baldwin became the first backcountry ranger when her hiking log showed that she was covering an amazing amount of ground in the park. The next year, she was joined by Patty McDonald.
100 YEARS ON – WOMEN CELEBRATING AND SUPPORTING WOMEN
Now in the Tetons, there are so many women doing amazing things that “fly under the radar,” reflects Marian Meyers, Board Member of the Teton Climbers Coalition (TCC) and Teton climber since 1977. At the same time, when the TCC announced its celebration of the centennial of Davis’s first female ascent, it heard from the community that women were looking for more support and connection in the climbing community.
Eleanor’s climb was echoing across the years to raise new questions and inspire new goals: What if our community members could change what it looks like to be an alpine climber? What if aspiring alpinists could get support from other women to lead? What if there could be an all-female guided trip up the Grand?
The idea of the Centennial took hold bringing together the TCC, Women in the Tetons, Exum Guides, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, AAC Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch, and the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum.
SUMMIT DAY ON THE CENTENNIAL
On August 28, 2023, as the sun came up in the Tetons, the Teton Climbers Coalition and partners’ vision became a reality: the Grand was all women.
Among the over 40 women that went up the Grand over the Centennial were: Wanna Johansson, recipient of the Grand Scholarship, who made her first ascent of the Grand as part of an all-female guided trip. Morgan McGlashon, the youngest woman to ski the Grand and lead mountain guide, who fulfilled her longtime dream of leading an all-female guided trip up the Grand. Marian Meyers, a Teton climber since 1977, who was celebrating the community of climbers and mountains she loves, and supporting her climbing partner. And, me, an aspiring alpinist, who achieved my goal of leading the Grand with another woman by the Centennial —– and found even greater joy in seeing the climbing community and women come together around the idea of the Centennial.
CARRYING THE SPIRIT OF THE CENTENNIAL FORWARD
Celebrating at the Climbers’ Ranch the next day, Wanna reflected on her hopes for the future, “When you’re on the mountain, about to step out over 2,000 ft of air to do the “belly roll” and you’re talking about challenges with access, identity, and belonging, the conversation becomes very authentic.” The panel of women ranging from a member of the high school mountain club to a Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger agreed, sharing a hope that the space to be authentic, vulnerable, and withhold judgment that is created on the mountain continues beyond the Centennial, so that the climbing community continues to grow and, like Eleanor Davis, redefine who belongs in the mountains.
This article is written by Sheila Walsh Reddy, Board Member of Teton Climbers Coalition.
Molly Loomis. Women on the Tetons. Jackson Hole Magazine 2015.
Hannah Provost. Eleanor Davis, Humble Mountaineer. AAC 2023.
Kimberly Geil. 100 Years of Women Climbers in the Tetons. Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum 2023.
Yesteryear: There will never be another Gerladine Lucas. Buckrail 2017.
Smialeck. New York Times. 2023
Mularz. Remembering when women ruled a wild west town. AtlasObscura 2020.
Hannah Haberman. Panel discussion. Wyoming Public Media. 2023
Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum. Founding Females. Accessed 2023.