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.
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
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.
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