Like A Boss: Ruth Dyar Mendenhall—California's Pioneer Rock Climber by Wynne Benti

Banner Peak Bivouac, July 5, 1939
Dear Mother,
Twenty-four hours ago I was picking my way across the 45-degree slope of a glacier, at around 11,500 feet elevation, at the western base of the Minarets, roped, crampons strapped to my ski boots, John cutting steps with the ice axe, the sun beating down on the glacier, the High Sierra all about us...
— Woman on the Rocks: The Mountaineering Letters of Ruth Dyar Mendenhall

In the 1930s, there were few opportunities for women to climb or to join all-male mountaineering expeditions. Ruth Dyar Mendenhall broke that barrier to become one of California and America’s first women mountain climbers. Though her name is immortalized on mountain routes and summits, Mendenhall is unknown to most Americans.

Born in Washington State, Ruth Dyar graduated magna cum laude in journalism from the University of Washington in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. That year, the School of Journalism abandoned its policy of helping all of its students find jobs and focused on helping only its male students find work. With no prospects for employment, Ruth moved to Los Angeles with $40 loaned to her by relatives and 25 cents of her own cash. Though she dreamed of being a writer, Ruth took a job as a secretary, learning how to type quickly on a manual Underwood typewriter. She typed letters to family, making several copies and keeping the carbons, leaving a record of her remarkable life as a pioneering climber and free spirit.

A 1937 trip up Highway 395 might have sparked Ruth’s interest in mountaineering: “The first time mountains caught my imagination as something besides scenery was when I saw the long East side of the High Sierra glittering under its April snow cover from Independence.

"I can recall daydreaming about what one might find there,” she wrote. Ruth and her cousin, Phoebe Russell, joined the Sierra Club’s Ski Mountaineering and Rock Climbing Section. In 1938, her first year with the club, she began climbing and skiing in Southern California mountains, joining the ranks of Sierra Club members who, from the late 1920s to post World War II, established some of the most important technical routes in California and the Sierra. The Sierra Club was also one of the first groups to visibly include women on their mountaineering trips. Four months after joining, Ruth was able to circumvent the setbacks to a career in journalism and became the editor of the Mugelnoos, the group’s well-known newsletter, a position she held for the next 40 years. She also edited the American Alpine Club News for several years. Her words live on in the hundreds of letters that documented her climbing and skiing exploits; her daughter, Valerie Mendenhall Cohen, edited a collection of Ruth’s adventure-filled missives in Woman on the Rocks: The Mountaineering Letters of Ruth Dyar Mendenhall

Yosemite, Washington Column, June 3, 1938
...We climbed for about 3 1/2 hours, going up and up; up perpendicular cracks with no handholds, that one mounted merely by sticking the toes of your tennis shoes in the crevice...up a sort of “chimney” climbed with back on one wall and knees on the other. I simply loved it! I think I ought to become a good rock climber in my time...

By the time she was 25, Ruth had established herself as a leading figure in the new field of technical rope climbing in California. On her very first climb in Yosemite, she impressed one of the leading climbers of the day, Glen Dawson, the last surviving member of Norman Clyde’s first ascent of Mount Whitney’s East Face in 1931. “The great Glen Dawson shook my hand and said ‘Congratulations on a good climb,’” she wrote.

Tahquitz, June 21, 1938
More important than for me to fall in love with one of the Mountaineers, is for one of the more worthy to fall in love with me, you know. I am getting to be quite a flirt, even in overalls.

Ruth met John Mendenhall on that climbing trip to Tahquitz and in 1939, just a few weeks after a first ascent on a new route up Mount Whitney, they married. Together, they made many notable first ascents in America and Canada while raising their two daughters, Vivian and Valerie. Their numerous first ascents in the Sierra include Mount Whitney, Third Needle (1939), Mount Sill, Swiss Aréte (1938), Temple Crag, North Peak (1940), Mount Whitney, Southeast Buttress (1941), Lower Cathedral Spire, Yosemite (1948), Williamson, North Face (1957) and Mt. Mendenhall (12,277-ft.) named for John. The competition with other climbers to establish new routes was so great, that secrecy was paramount. The couple often left directions to their locations in sealed envelopes, instructing their young daughters that under no circumstance were the envelopes to be opened unless the Mendenhalls did not return.


Despite the social pressures on women at that time—of being the good wife and mother and keeping a lovely home, Ruth Dyar Mendenhall was always determined to establish herself as a climber, independent of John’s successes. The Sierra Club gave Ruth and John the Francis Farquhar Award for Achievement and Leadership in Mountaineering. Ruth and John were partners in climbing and life, and through their individual achievements, established a place in California climbing history.


In 1987, Ruth wrote “Women on the Rocks, Way Back Then,” an article about the history of women climbers in California. She noted that with the passage of time, she had advanced in status from ‘climber’ to ‘pioneer woman climber’: “We didn’t think of ourselves as women climbers, but as women who liked to climb.”

@2018 Spotted Dog Press

Something About Mary . . . DeDecker by Wynne Benti

Almost two decades ago, Walt Wheelock, publisher at La Siesta Press, handed me a tattered olive-green box with the letters “MES” handprinted in black ink on one side. Inside were the original manuscript and photographs for the book, Mines of the Eastern Sierra, written by Mary DeDecker. He said, “you need to republish this book.”

Considered one of the top three women botanists in California, Mary DeDecker, who studied fine art at UCLA, was completely self-taught and recognized internationally for her expertise in botany. She founded the Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and wrote Flora of the Eastern Mojave published by the California Native Plant Society.

On July 4, 1974, while exploring Eureka Valley, northwest of Death Valley, Mary discovered an entirely new genus and species of plant, Dedeckera eurekensis. The discovery of an entirely new genera of flowering plant after 1950 in the continental United States was, and still is, a rare event. When John Thomas Howell at the California Academy of Sciences and botanist James Reveal at the University of Maryland confirmed Mary DeDecker’s discovery, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, Reveal and Howell proposed the genus Dedeckera, and added the specific sobriquet eurekensis in honor of the plant’s Eureka Valley location and the discovery of a new genus and species.

Mary was a deeply concerned conservationist. She was honest, bluntly so at times. During the proposed expansion of Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert outside Barstow, Mary studied the native plants in and around the base. She reported the countryside devastated, the plants destroyed. Mary often opposed the BLM’s management style when it came to the California desert, so it was somewhat ironic when the BLM presented her with an enormous plaque for her work on native plants. Perhaps they were secretly thankful, like we all were, for the education Mary gave them.

When Walt Wheelock asked writer and desert journalist, L. Burr Belden, who could write a book about the old mining camps of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, Belden said, without hesitation, “Mary DeDecker!” Her book, Mines of the Eastern Sierra along with Belden’s Mines of Death Valley were combined into one book, Death Valley to Yosemite: Frontier Mining Camps and Ghost Towns, published by Spotted Dog Press.

Unlike so many residents of the Eastern Sierra who had the luxury of knowing and working with Mary, I was a latecomer, barely squeezing into that tiny window of precious time passing. Meeting and working with authors like Mary DeDecker, is one of the reasons I love being an independent book publisher. During that space in time, towards the end of a life that spanned a century and ended at the beginning of a millennium, I learned that Mary DeDecker was a woman of integrity and intelligence who had, among her many accomplishments, created her own amazing life. —©2014 Wynne Benti

©2018 Spotted Dog Press

14,491’, 14,494', 14,496', 14,497.61', 14,500', 14,505' . . . by Wynne Benti

First climbed in 1873, Mt. Whitney’s elevation has been readjusted more than once.

Since Climbing Mt. Whitney was first published over a half-century ago, Mt. Whitney’s elevation has been readjusted at least three times by “the powers-that-be.” A quick web search on Google using “Mt. Whitney + Elevation” produces a published elevation of 14,505 ft. Being a complete layman when it comes to surveying, I do at least understand that the mountain is not necessarily growing a couple of feet every year. Many of the readjustments have occurred because more up-to-date methods of numerical interpretation have been developed since the peak was first officially surveyed by the Wheeler Survey more than 125 years ago.

In August, I called the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to confirm the correct elevation and was put in touch with Dale Benson, a cartographer in the USGS National Geospatial Technical Operations Center in Denver who provided a wealth of information about the history of Mt. Whitney's surveys and elevation. 

The first recorded climb of Mt. Whitney occurred in 1873 when three fishermen, Charles Begole, Albert Johnson and John Lucas, reached the summit from the town of Lone Pine. Shortly thereafter, Whitney Survey party member, Clarence King, who initially climbed Mt. Langley thinking it was higher, also reached the top of Whitney. Over the years, various survey parties have gone to great lengths to measure the elevation of Mt. Whitney, each placing a marker noting their calculations on the summit. The earliest was most likely a station mark, consisting of rock cairn placed by the Wheeler Survey. 

In March 2005, John Sellars, Cartographic Technician at the USGS Rocky Mountain Mapping Center in Denver compiled an excellent history of surveys and establishment of elevations on Mt. Whitney of which there are many. Sellars wrote that in 1905, the USGS ran a level line to the summit of Mt. Whitney, to the highest point, setting a tablet labeled "14502" for the elevation 14501.976. The elevation was readjusted in the notes of the level man, R.A. Farmer to 14500.695 ft. A "special tablet" was described in USGS Bulletins 342 and 766. The USGS Survey Bulletin 310, Results of Primary Triangulation and Primary Traverse, Fiscal Year 1905-06, noted the station mark as a "triangulation tablet cemented in rock under an 8-foot high cairn at an elevation of 14499 ft. above mean sea level."

Additional level lines were run by the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey (abbreviated C&GS; later renamed the National Geodetic Survey) in 1925 and 1928, establishing a new elevation on top of the 1905 USGS tablet, as well setting two additional marks on the top of the mountain—BM U43 1925 and BM K72 1928. 

The National Park Service placed the following plaque: MOUNT WHITNEY ELEVATION 14,496.811 FT. JOHN MUIR TRAIL-HIGH SIERRA SEPTEMBER 5, 1930

Six other marks were in place prior to the 1950 C&GS tablet being set. Sellars noted that the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) triangulation station "WHITNEY 1950" was the mark recognized by the USGS with the highest degree of horizontal accuracy. Because of this, the elevation shown on the 7.5' quad published in 1994 was 14,491 ft.  That is the NGVD29 (National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929) elevation for the NGS 1950 station.  The USGS benchmark has an NGVD29 elevation of 14,494 ft., but the depiction of this was superseded by the NGS mark having a better horizontal position.   

Sellars concluded that the elevation for Mt. Whitney using the North American Vertical Datum of 1988 (NAVD88) should be 14500.24 ft. using the NGS program VERTCON to convert the elevation of 14494.12 ft (NGVD29) derived from the elevation differences of the "14502" and "WHITNEY 1950" marks as described in the 1950 and 1962 C&GS descriptions of WHITNEY 1950.

In 2005, an article by Guy Rocha, Archivist for the State of Nevada, entitled, Height of a Mountain Tale, was first published in the Nevada Observer, and recently republished by the Reno Gazette Journal.  Rocha introduces us to Nevada Surveyor Robert Nielsen, who in 1996, as student at California State University Fresno led a survey party to determine whether or not White Mountain Peak was taller than Mount Whitney. 

Rocha writes: "As a student in the Surveying Engineering Program, Nielsen and his colleagues organized four summit crews to climb the four highest peaks in California: Mt. Whitney, Mt. Williamson, White Mountain, and North Palisade. ‘Our goal,’ wrote Nielsen, 'was to take simultaneous GPS observations from the tops of four, 14,000’-plus mountains, my high elevation test base'."

They determined that Mt. Whitney at 14,500 ft. was the highest mountain in the contiguous United States followed by Mt. Williamson, 14,382.3 ft.; North Palisade, 14,255.9 ft.; and White Mountain, 14,243.2 ft., now the 22nd highest peak in the contiguous U.S. Rocha concludes: "With further GPS surveys of mountain summits in the Rocky Mountains, White Mountain's rank may change again." 

Perhaps this description by Dale Benson best explains the findings that justify 14,500 ft. elevation: "14505 is the published NAVD88 elevation for the National Geodetic Survey trig station at the top.  That elevation is a VERTCON conversion of the old Vertical Angle elevation (14498 ft.) from the C&GS occupation in 1950 (PID GT1811). When USGS was up there in 1956 they transferred an elevation from the NGS BM U43.  Also, the 1950 and 1962 descriptions of WHITNEY give differences of elevations to several other stations on the top that indicate they are higher than the National Geodetic Survey trig station.

“Using the transferred elevation to the National Geodetic Survey station WHITNEY, and applying the differences listed in the description would indicate the highest point is the USGS mark 14502 or the USGS 'special tablet' which appeared to have been set over it and later destroyed.  In either case, the rounded NAVD88 elevation for the highest point would be 14500.3 ft., or 14,500 ft. for ease of communication." Bill Stone at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Geodetic Survey agreed. In other words, based on the data available to date, the elevation of Mt. Whitney is 14,500 ft not 14,505. 

What does this mean for Mt. Whitney? As technology improves, we'll no doubt be seeing more elevation readjustments possibly on Mt. Whitney and on other mountains. As one hiker, who summited the peak several years ago, said when learning of the most recent elevation change, “I have a coffee mug that states 14,497.61' and a T-Shirt that states "I Climbed (big letters) out of my car to take a picture of (tiny letters) Mt. Whitney, CA (Big), plus 14,497'. I stand by my coffee mug and T-Shirt as the defining elevation!” 

©2018 Spotted Dog Press

Sources: 

Benson, Dale, Mt. Whitney Elevation Comparisons, U.S. Geological Survey, National Geospatial Technical Operations Center, August 2012

Rocha, Guy, Height of a Mountain Tale, The Nevada Observer, July 15, 2005

Sellars, John R., Elevations on Mount Whitney, U.S. Geological Survey, Rocky Mountain Mapping Center, March 28, 2005

William Stone, SOUTHWEST REGION (NM, NV, UT, AZ) Geodetic Advisor, NOAA's National Geodetic Survey, August 2012