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