On August 24, 2023 as the morning sun hit Teewinot, a group of 40 women gathered in front of the historic Exum Mountain Guides office. Among them were Exum guide service owner, Cyndi Hargis, numerous long-time Exum guides, the dynamic Exum office duo, Jane Gallie & Margo Krisjohnson, and a diverse group of climbers, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, friends- all gathered to celebrate the centennial achievement of the first female ascent of the Grand Teton by Eleanor Davis in 1923. It’s hard to say for certain, but it seems likely that this is the largest group of women to have ever gathered in this location. The power of the moment was palpable.
Over bagels and coffee, the group got to know each other before heading across Jenny Lake for two days of climbing school. Armed with sticky rubber, they walked up rock slabs, practicing the art of traversing uneven ground in approach shoes. The group learned to tie knots, use climbing commands, belay, rappel, and travel as a rope team with the goal of climbing the Grand Teton together.
Interspersed throughout the days of the training and climbing, the community came together to host a series of events for the centennial, the first of which took place at the Jackson Hole Historical Society. The event, titled “Beers and Banter” was an incredible culmination of history, stories, and banter, aptly themed towards women climbing in the Tetons over the last 100 years. Kimberly Geil, the resident historian of Exum Mountain Guides, gave an amazing talk on Eleanor Davis and other notable women climbers in the Tetons.
Geil then facilitated a panel made up of notable female climber’s still alive and well in the Tetons; Irene Beardsly (88) of Irene’s Arete fame, Catherine Cullinane, the first full-time female Exum guide, Sue Miller, first female guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Bev Boynton, notable first ascensionist and passionate Teton resident, and Georgie Stanley, member of the first all-female ascent of Cho Oyu in 1999. The panel was an immaculate balance of educational, interesting, charming, and humorous. Irene Beardsly and Sue Swedlund climbed the North Face of the Grand in 1965. Irene was pregnant. When asked how old she was the last time Irene climbed the Grand Teton, she responded, “We think I was 75- it was very slow.”
Bev Boynton, who has the first ascent of Dihedral of Horrors and Thor Peak, when asked how she dealt with fear in mountains, she simply responded, “I didn’t really get scared.”
You can watch the entire thing here: *****
Eleanor Davis was the physical education instructor at Colorado College and the vice president of the Colorado Mountain Club. According to Geil, on the day Davis summited the Grand with her friend Albert, the six other men in their party turned around before the top.
“The fact that Eleanor Davis was on this early climb of the Grand Teton is notable because climbing was a very male dominated sport at that time, but obviously she was capable and more than able to hold her own,” Geil said. Davis lived to be 107. Even late into her life, she often walked to go climb mountains, from her house, to save money.
A hundred years later, the group of all-female climbers and guides split in half and headed into the mountains in two waves over the weekend.
One group hiked up on Saturday and made their summit attempt on Sunday, August 27th, exactly one hundred years after Davis’ first attempt. The next group hiked up on the Centennial day and summited the following morning.
On the first day of their prospective climbs, each group hiked ~5000’ vertical feet to the Exum high camp at the Lower Saddle between the Middle Teton and Grand Teton. The Exum hut, typically a rather drab little shelter, was decorated with colorful paper orbs, a banner that read “CELEBRATE”, and disco ball attached to the ceiling with carabiners and a climbing sling.
After eating dinner and settling into the high alpine environment, the group gathered to discuss different routes up the mountain and a plan for the following day. Due to incoming weather, as well as the fact that it was the route that Davis took in 1923, all climbers planned to head to the Owen-Spaulding route. Just as Davis had done, the group would traverse the famous moves of the “Belly Roll”, “Belly Crawl”, and the Owen and Sergeants Chimneys.
The following morning, everyone rose at 3am, forced down some small breakfast with instant coffee, and set out towards the summit around 4am. Climbing with headlamps on, the team navigated the steep and rocky path to the Upper Saddle. It wasn’t until crossing the exposed moves of the belly crawl that the sun began to rise and before they knew it, guides and climbers hugged and celebrated their success on the summit around 7am.
A thin cloud layer just above the summit encouraged the group to take some photos and begin their descent before the weather deteriorated further. Continuing to work together, everyone made their way back to the Lower Saddle and into the Exum hut just in time to avoid a torrential downpour.
Once the rain began to lighten and everyone refueled with hot drinks and more substantial breakfast, the first team began their descent back to the valley while the second team began to make their way up. The two groups exchanged high-fives in the boulder field and the second team made their way up to discover the upper mountain for themselves.
Going through a similar routine, once at the Lower Saddle, the second group enjoyed hot dinner and a spectacular sunset while learning about the series of events to expect the following day. All cozy in the hut, the team was early to bed so they too could rise in the dark and begin their journey to the summit.
Many guides often say that they first 20 minutes from camp to the “black dike” (a large stripe of igneous rock that slices through the mountain about 200’ above the Lower Saddle) is the hardest part of the day. It is a confusing combination of altitude, strange hours, little sleep, and uncomfortable conditions in the dark that tend to be tough on the body. Once past the black dike, the terrain steepens, and it becomes necessary to use your hands for upwards progress. This change is often enough to distract the brain from the growing fire in the lungs, legs, and head. As a result, the black dike is often a location where some climbers decide to turn back and begin the long descent to the valley floor. Those that felt adequate continued to the summit where they took photos, applied glitter, and appreciated the endless views before doing the same.
Wanna Johansson, recipient of the “Grand Scholarship” provided by Women in the Tetons and the Teton Climber’s Coalition to participate in the climb told me, “girls like me don’t get to things like this.” I am fortunate enough to stand on top of the Grand Teton with relative regularity compared to most and I don’t often cry, but this time my cheeks were sticky with tears and glitter.
On a regular Grand Teton rotation, I may be the only woman at the Lower Saddle. In addition to a large portion of climbers on the mountain in general being men, there are few enough other female guides that we often do not overlap or get to work together. To make this event happen, the two Grand Teton guide services (Exum and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) had to join forces to ensure we had enough guides to host the climb. It was a team so strong that they not only floated up the Grand Teton but levitated those alongside them. It was a remarkable show of craftmanship and skill an honor to work alongside you all.
To see the trails, the canyon, the camp, and the summit populated with so many incredible women was not only unique, but a truly historic moment in the Tetons. I think Eleanor Davis would be proud.
Upon returning to the valley, everyone parted ways to sleep before re-joining for one final celebration at the Grand Teton Climber’s Ranch the following evening. In the grassy meadow beneath the jagged peak they had just scaled, climbers, guides, community members, friends, and families gathered to cheers the rich history and bright future of women climbing in the Tetons.
An additional list of thank you’s because this whole event would not have happened without countless hours of work, support, and encouragement of so many people:
The lovely lades of Skida: Corinne, Jessie, and Bella
In addition to the glitter and the fact that we were a group of 20 women storming the castle, thanks to the Vermont-based hat and apparel company, Skida, all of the ladies had some extra flare. To say we stood out is an understatement. It was awesome. Skida has been a remarkable supporter of women in the outdoors across the board, but they have also supported many other projects we love, such as Nexus, an all-female ski film that highlights our favorite duo: Jane and Margo. You can watch Nexus here*.
Kimberly Geil, Marisol Sullivan, and Michelle Leber who brought order to the chaos and made a dream a reality. I know that this crew has had the hope and vision of an all-women’s Grand Teton Climb for at least the last decade and to see it, finally, blossom is inspiration worth holding on to. If not for their vision, logistical support, and unparalleled understanding of the way things work at Exum and on the Grand Teton, we would be nowhere.
Marian Meyers and Sheila Reddy from the Teton Climber’s Coalition. As fellow board members and dedicated climber’s, this was a shared vision that came to fruition because we made it so. Whether is was connecting the dots, finding the money, or climbing the mountain, you did it all. Thank you.
Hannah Haberman and Mara Gans for being life-long friends and taking time out of their own busy lives to come document this event. You can listen and/or read Hannah’s stories from the weekend on Wyoming Public Radio.
Catherine Cullinane, Evelyn Wyatt, Lynn Wolfe and so many other phenomenal female guides for not only paving the way but building a seismic proof foundation for the rest of us to stand on.
Lauren Montgomery and Ila from Teton Climber’s Ranch. Without your hosting with the mosting, countless hours of planning and lobbying with the park service on all our behalf, and diving head first into this celebration, the centennial party would not have happened.
Shelby, Lauren and Chantelle from Women in the Tetons. Thank you for your support in helping finance the Grand Scholarship and the Centennial party. Women in the Tetons are better off with your support and I am so grateful for your presence and passion in this community.
Cyndi Hargis, Brenton Reagan, and Nat Patridge because I wouldn’t have a job and therefore this wouldn’t have happened without you. Ha. But actually, thank you for your unwavering support of this event.
Phil Powers from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides for your encouragement in making this event a reality. Thank you also for your partnership in staffing this climb, you have some of the best female guides in the biz.
Jessica Baker, Aili Farquar, Michelle Leber, Marisol Sullivan, Holly Mackin, Peggy Flavin, Rebecca Yaguda, and Nancy Bokino for being the most badass guide team anyone could ask for.
Let this list serve as a reminder that these sorts of things do not happen without the effort, money, and time of a lot of people. It is amazing when it all comes together, but seeing change and progress in any sphere, the least of which is the mountains takes hard work. That work isn’t over, and it will continue to take all of us to see equality in the Tetons, in climbing, in life.
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