Remembering Bev Johnson – One of America’s Greatest Climbers/Adventurers

Christine Cauble | April 4th, 2011 - 1:39 pm|

Photo of Bev from Summit magazine; Found on the 'net, if anyone can kindly help with photographer credit

Let us not forget ‘her’story…

Before state-of-the-art camming devices, comfy climbing shoes and harnesses, ergonomic packs, these women paved the road for us the hard way (or I should say fixed the lines for us..).

Lately, it’s been Bev Johnson that has been sparking that light of inspiration.

Before a lot of us were born, she was ascending up the 3,000 foot monolithic face of El Capitan in Yosemite.  Alone.  It was unheard of at that time for a woman.

Born in Annapolis,  Maryland in 1947,  she was the daughter of a Navy officer and a homemaking mother.  Bev traveled around quite a bit in her youth, eventually settling in Arlington, Virginia.  From the start, she was heavily active in sports; loved the ocean and exuded some of her pre-climbing skills as a proficient gymnast.  Heading out to Ohio where she was attending Kent State University and achieving a place on the Dean’s List, she found the lure of mountains overwhelmingly distracting and began trekking with her college mountaineering club.

Bev at 15; photo from the book, 'View from the Edge'


After meeting fellow outdoor and rock adventurer friends, she began spending much of her time in the Shawangunks in NY, a premier climbing area also known for notoriously sandbagged grading, where she sharpened her climbing skills.  From there, she transferred out to the west to the University of Southern California and her place as a respected, courageous climber was molded as solid as granite into the heart of Yosemite –  the mecca for rock climbers.

It was October 17, 1978 when Beverly decided to ascend up the Dihedral Wall up El Cap by herself.   In 10 days, she succeeded in making it to the top and if you know what soloing a big wall entails (placing protection as you ascend, repositioning your anchor, ultimately anchoring the rope at the top of the pitch, descending to clean and gather your gear up, getting back up to the anchor and then bringing up a heavy haul bag….yup)   you would understand Bev’s remark of  ”…..I kept thinking and thinking that the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

She also helped put up first ascents of routes on El Cap (like the Grape Race – with Charlie Porter),  Half Dome and completed the first, all-female ascent on El Cap along with her partner, another notable climber, Sibylle Hetchel.

And this part was just her climbing life……..

Currently in the throes of reading a book on her life, “The View From the Edge” by Gabriela Zimm, I was inspired to stop short to first write about her.  One point that I’d like to make about this book, is that it reflects upon a lot of Bev’s passion and drive for climbing big walls, however that was just a small part of her.   She was extremely dynamic;  as a true adventurer, she piloted fixed-winged planes, helicopters; she was also an advanced skier, mountaineer, sailor, rescuer, firefighter, cinematographer..and the list goes on with the many hats she wore.


Photo by Sibylle Hetchel

Most of us can only dream about doing what Beverly Johnson did and accomplished in her lifetime.  One letter I’d like to share in this piece was what she wrote to her family after completing The Grape Race route on El Cap with Charlie Porter.  She had just finished the Triple Direct ascent on El Cap with Sibylle Hetchel and ALSO The Nose with Dan Asay and you can see both the appreciation of the natural world around her and the extent of all the intense physical activity she was putting in on these extreme routes:

“October 18th, 1973

Dear Folks,

Hi. Writing you on the occasion of my giving up climbing for the 400th time  I’ve gotten too paranoid and it doesn’t seem worth the risks.

Got down yesterday from another seven day bout on El Cap, this time a new route with Charlie.  It was an interesting experience although the wall was rather blank and devoid of ledges, so all functions had to be performed while suspended and there was always the worry of dropping some crucial item and being stuck in the middle of El Cap without it.

I was still fairly strung out from the Triple Direct which I had finished five days before.   My mind was still boggled and my wounds still open–an incredible set of blisters from my boots, chunk of meat still missing from my hands, my back raw from my waist loop.  I couldn’t believe I was going back up.  Extended climbs are at least as punishing mentally.  Can’t relax.  Seven days of trusting life to flimsy gadgets and fragile ropes.  Got to stay alert.  No mistakes–ran out of food and water and had to sprint from the summit, climbing most of the final night by headlamp and moonlight.

Walk out eight miles the next morning.  Very tired but glad to be released from the clutches of El Capitan at last.  Walking through the forest along the rim.  The forest and the wall seem surreal by turns.  It is impossible to hold them in the mind together.  Ethereal forest.  Cool, autumn shade for parched throat.  Slender, white aspen with yellow leaves, gold grasses, dark conifers.  Down a thousand switchbacks, feet protesting.  Endless switchbacks.  Finally Camp 4, home free.

…..The world has changed.  Gerald Ford (Who’s he?) is on the cover of this magazine. The Jihad is in full swing in the Middle East.  I feel like I’ve been to Mars.”

….Love to all of you.  Very tired.

Good night.

Beverly”



Photo: Mike Hoover


Photo by Sibylle Hetchel


Have a laugh at this warm memory that Beverly’s husband, Mike Hoover shared with ‘Outside’ Magazine in regards to their first meeting:

“…Hoover met Johnson in the late 1960s in Yosemite. He was descending a rock-climbing route when he threw down a rope and heard a yelp. It was Johnson, leading a much harder climb, and she was not pleased to have been hit.

“As I went by she totally ignored me and said something to her belayer about how some people are dickheads– she had a real foul mouth,” said Hoover fondly. “I hung on the rope next to her to say I was sorry, but it was like I didn’t exist. I was in love.”

Although I haven’t finished her book quite yet, I had to take a pause to write and dedicate this article to Bev; her inspiration was just that great. If you’d like more personal details on Bev’s life, pick up this book by Gabriela Zim, ‘A View from the Edge’

Thank you, Bev Johnson for your amazing and brave achievements – an expression of a restless and curious spirit we all share within; however, you took the reigns of your life so gracefully and made it happen.  Your memory and achievements continue to inspire us to explore life to our greatest extent because we are here only temporarily on this great globe.  Lastly, I’d like to add these words of the great writer and climber,  John Long,  as he reminisces over the life and his experiences with this brilliant adventurer:

The front pages of the Los Angeles Times carried the story, that along with Frank Wells (president of Disney Productions) and two others, Beverly Johnson of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, had died in a helicopter crash.  I’ve lost many friends to high mountains, steep rocks, deep caves and the like, but this grim news had never so violently ripped the wind from my chest as reading this article.

…Beverly Johnson was famous when I first went to Yosemite Valley as a wannabe rock climbing star in the spring of 1971.  I didn’t know that I had the tools to become a formidable climber but several resident icons did, and I was taken into their inner circle much as a family takes in a stray dog.  In 1971, Yosemite Valley was the sanctum sanctorum of world rock climbing, and the Yosemite climbers were the best.  Several of the inner circle had international repuatations; all of them stayed in Camp 4, traditional outdoor flophouse for anyone with the dream, a rope and a restless spirit.

…Though only in her twenties, Beverly had climbed with all the greats, had taken part in historic first ascents, and would shortly complete the first all-female ascent of El Capitan, the crown jewel of world rock climbing, and ultimate goal of all climbers.  In 1971, Beverly Johnson was already a legend, but you’d have never known it had you met her then.  Through my eyes she seemed totally out of place.  With the lithe, muscular body of the gymnast she’d once been, she radiated a rich femininity that was a grace note in contrast to all the intense male bluster we lived around and the stark conditions we lived in.

Like the few remarkable people I have met, Beverly enchanted me not with what she had done, and would go on to do, rather by who she was, and how she made me feel about myself.  I remember tweaking my shoulder and having to stay off the rocks for a week.  I’d spent the summer rounding into shape for a couple of big ascents, and now found myself winged and probably having to return to the college grind without bagging the climbs I’d spent the previous year thinking about, working out for and banking on for dream fodder.  I was so bitter and cranky that for several days my best friends had avoided me.  Then one morning Beverly came over to my campsite and started asking me about my shoulder and about all the climbs I’d done that summer; many of which I’d never imagined doing the previous year.  She asked me about school and the courses I was going to take.  She made me breakfast while we talked.  Slowly, she restored my enthusiasm for me, not simply for what I had done or hoped to do, and I came to realize I’d already had a season most climbers would kill for, myself included.

…Because Beverly was so grounded, so at peace with herself, she could slow even the most hyper of us down enough to smell the roses.

….Hell, yes, I fell in love with her.  I fell in love with her because we all fell in love with her.  Nothing could have been more natural.  And I don’t mean in a romantic way, for in my case she was six years older when we first met, and the difference between a seventeen-year-old boy and a twenty-three-year-old woman is an age.  I mean that I fell in love with who she was and how I felt around her.  We all felt that way.  Sometimes our regard toward her played out in goofy ways.

I remember a couple of us huddling over a Playboy magazine, our eyes out on stilts, when someone said, “Jesus, Beverly’s coming!”.  We stashed the magazine-I think it was a Canadian climber, Hugh Burton who sat on it.  Beverly came over and straightaway pulled the magazine out from under Hugh and we all flushed like a Sierra sunset as Beverly thumbed through the pages, pausing at the centerfold.  ”Jeepers, ” she said.  ”Looks like someone shot two rockets through the poor girl’s back.”.

“We found it, ” I lied.  ”It was just laying here on the table.”

“Say, Bev?”  someone asked.  ”Does a woman’s body really look like that?”

“This is a really sick place I live in.” Beverly laughed.  ”You’re all sick.”.

We told her that she looked better than every woman in the magazine and she called us all liars.  We said that not one of those naked women could make their way up Leaning Tower or Mt. Watkins and Bev said that they all had better things to do.  We told her that we loved her anyway and that she was twice the woman the models were and she gave us back the magazine and said we’d better look again….

…I try to picture Beverly in the Gold City and I laugh.  At first glance, she would look as out of place as she seemed to me the first time I met her in Camp 4.  But that’s only my take on it.  Any capable spirit could see that she belonged, that the stars were as much her place as the side of Half Dome, or the glare ice of Antarctica, or the jungles of Irian Jaya.  So, perhaps this play ended as it should.  Perhaps Beverly is just where she need to be.  It’s the rest of us who need to understand Beverly on her own terms, not ours.

- John Long, December 1995

Tribute article written by Christine Cauble

12 Responses to “Remembering Bev Johnson – One of America’s Greatest Climbers/Adventurers”

  1. We helped the team in Irian Jaya. My wife nursed Mike back from severe Malaria.

    Beverly hosted our family at Jackson Hole in their early days there.

    She was such a great host. Taught my kids to repel.
    Mel
    909-794-9203

  2. Bruce Goodchilld says:

    My parents were friends with hers in Rhode Island in the early
    60′s; I recall fondly hanging out with Beverly and her younger
    brother Teddie, including much fun at the pool
    at the officers club at Quonset Point naval base, where
    her father was stationed. She was very athletic even then…..
    I also remember the exact moment my mother phoned me to
    let me know that Beverly had died……

    bruce

  3. Thank you Melvin and Bruce for sharing your personal experiences……she seemed like an incredible human being.

    Have a great new year 2011…

    Christine

  4. Mary Kwart says:

    I was a lowly Ahwahnee Hotel maid in Yosemite Valley in 1974. All of we women Curry Company workers were in awe of the climbers who lived at Camp 4 at the time. I knew Beverley Johnson as someone who worked in the Yosemite Moutaineering School. Or maybe not–maybe she was one of the climbers the Yosemite rangers called on to help them. Whatever. Beverley Johnson was someone I would not have deigned to touch the hem of her garment–she was an awesome pioneering woman climber. I would see her occasionally cross country skiing out to Dewey Point on her skinny racing skis, while I lumbered along on my old wooden plodders. I also saw Ned Gillette in similar circumstances. My boyfriend at the time was a climber.

    I remember the satire of her in “Downward Bound” as Beverley Buns by Warren Harding. This was interesting to me, but I always followed her life and the lives of other pioneering women climbers. I was very sorry to hear of her death in the helicopter crash. Beverley Johnson inspired me to follow my dreams. I am using a quote from her teaching my “Pacific Crest Trail: Strategies for Success” class at Southern Oregon University. I finished the Pacific Crest trail this year–after starting to hike it as a Yosemite maid in 1976. I kept my vision true through all of the years. I was inspired by Beverley and am sad she died young.

  5. peter mcgee says:

    a well written recollection of the times by Mary Kwart.

  6. [...] Photo by Sibylle Hetchel via Rock Rip Roll. [...]

  7. Bob Dodds says:

    I stuck my thumb out and pretty soon a faded red VW bug pulled over. Bev said she hadn’t climbed in two years, just finished smokejumping(kicking) for “Forest Service(Evergreen,Hasenfus)”. I had been climbing a lot, living in Camp Four aka Sunnyside, so I suggested she lead Lunatic Fringe. She then drove us to the lounge described in Jeff Long’s book, Angels of Light, where she bought drinks for myself and Tim Mervine. She said it was “something to write home about”. Jump-start back into the fast lane for her. Tim and I knew Charles Briggs, outside whose house all my climbing gear was stolen one night during a party the night before we left for Canada, and Bev went into Afghanistan with her husband Mike Hoover, and he spoke with William Casey almost monthly, I heard. Small world. To tell the truth, I would have bought drinks for Bev, as tuna on a line that day. Just remember, don’t look up.

  8. Dan Dawes says:

    With everyone sitting around, she could make us laugh reciting Dr.Seuss in a singsong way that made it really funny. Such a useful camping skill.

  9. Lydia McD says:

    Wow. What an amazing human being. Makes me feel very small. C, thanks so much for writing this, it truly blew me away.

  10. The photo at top labelled “publication unknown” is from Summit magazine.

  11. Thank you Clint! And thank you for all your endless and priceless contributions to the climbing community.

  12. Your personal memories triply enrich this tribute. Thank you for sharing.

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