First All-Woman Ascent of El Cap - Summit Mag, April 1974


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Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Topic Author's Original Post - Jun 29, 2006 - 08:39pm PT
Not exactly the "Walls Without Balls" article, but...

All-Woman Climb of El Capitan
By Sybile Hechtel
Beverly Johnson

It is astonishing, considering the steady increase of female climbers in the Valley and elsewhere, that there have been so few female ascents of the big walls in Yosemite. It is certainly not due to lack of competence in climbing or leading: a number of women lead climbs at the 5.9 level and a few lead 5.10. Nor does the absence of an engineering/tool-oriented upbringing seem to prevent women from learning to nail: This past September a woman led the notorious 3rd pitch of the North American Wall, generally considered the hardest pitch on the climb.

Thus I wondered why it had not been done before when I went up with Bev Johnson last September to do an all-woman ascent of El Capitan. I didn't wonder long. After the first pitch the answer was obvious: hauling. If one considers that Ellie Hawkins, a woman climber, weighs all of 102 pounds, it becomes quite clear why there are not more female ascents of El Capitan. Perhaps the solution is three-woman teams: one to clean the pitch while two battle the haulbag. By evening of our first day, many of the misconceptions I had suffered from were clearing up. Contrary to expectations, one takes ensolite pads not to sleep in comfort, but to insure the water bottles a pleasant night. (Since getting our pads meant unpacking the entire sack, we usually left them inside).

Compared to previous years, 1973 saw a veritable explosion of women on walls. Earlier ascents are fairly well covered by Robbins in Mountain #25, 1973. In summation, several Grade V climbs were done by mixed teams, including the Chouinard-Herbert and Salathe-Steck on Sentinel Rock, the south face of Washington Column, and the Leaning Tower. None were done by women alone and the only Grade VI climbs done by women were the northwest face of Half Dome and the west face of Sentinel.

Last year's explosion was set off by Bev Johnson's solo ascent of the south face of the Column, in my mind the most impressive thing done this last year. Annie Rizzi and I repeated her ascent a few weeks later in a venture singular only for its length and the number of jokes it occasioned. Although this is the first time two women climbed a wall, Bev's solo ascent luckily removed from us the onus of proving anything about the abilities of women, a task we were hardly prepared for.

Neither of us had climbed in eight months, being students; and my entire preparation consisted of having nailed three pitches several years ago. Annie was somewhat better prepared, having done the Chouinard-Herbert on Sentinel the previous fall, yet as I look back I'm only amazed we made it at all. It turned into somewhat of an epic, complete with running out of water and hanging bivvies since we didn't quite make the ledges. Daily thundershowers helped augment our water supply, especially the last night. However, neither of us learned our lesson, and Annie went on to climb Half Dome via the regular route in June.

About the same time, Bev Johnson climbed the Nose on El Capitan with Dan Asay, which constitutes the first successful completion of an El Capitan route by a woman sharing the leading. This ascent took four and a half days and was preceded by an earlier unsuccessful attempt in which Bev and Russ McClean were forced to retreat from El Capitan towers by stormy weather.

Two more female ascents followed in quick succession. In September, Ellie Hawkins climbed the North American Wall with her husband Bruce and an Englishman, Keith. Previously, she and Bruce had climbed the Prow and the Rostrum, both of which have some very strenuous and difficult nailing. About a week later, Bev and I began our ascent of the Triple Direct on El Capitan. Previously, Roy Naase and I had climbed the Leaning Tower in the hope of increasing the speed of my nailing and my proficiency on overhanging walls. When I got down from that, Bev said, "Well, I've thought about how long it'll take us and Friday is the last day we should start up."

The Great Roof pitch

No big walls get started on time. Having sorted our hardware Friday morning, we were madly racing about borrowing baby angles and Chouinard cliff hooks. Saturday we carried as many water bottles as we'd been able to borrow or steal to the base and began fixing pitches. To our consternation and my unvoiced relief, it rained that night. Since storms were predicted, we continued fixing pitches, finally managing to fix four in the course of three days. At this point, Bev increased our water allotment from 5 ½ to 6 ¾ gallons and we set our alarms for 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Our first few pitches went fairly fast with one exception: we couldn't haul the sack. The solution of waiting until the second finished cleaning and hauling together was also less than ideal-aside from being time consuming it meant if the sack was stuck, one of us had to rappel down, free the sack and jumar back up. I've got to give Bev credit for engineering some very original haul set-ups to finally get that sack up. We hoped to make Mammoth Terrace (top of 10th) for our first night, but hauling soon cured us of that delusion. Instead, by the aid of a headlamp, we finally arrived at the Half Dollar (top of 8th) where we spent a very comfortable night.

I auspiciously began the second day by getting lost, knocking down a large block with the haul line, and getting the sack stuck. Otherwise the two pitches to Mammoth Terrace were fairly pleasant and straightforward. Once there, we were on our own regarding route finding since we only had a description of the Salathe Wall which goes down and left at this juncture while the Direct continues up the Muir Wall. Bev took advantage of this great opportunity a pitch later by getting lost.

Still undaunted, we spent our most comfortable night there, on Block Ledge. The bivvies are the most beautiful I've had in the Valley. The experience of being part way up El Capitan and looking up night after night to see vast cliffs towering above us, the awesome summit overhangs stark silhouettes in the night, is an unforgettable one. Although exhausted, we spent hours looking at stars bright in the moonless sky, watching the moon sink soon after the sun and gazing around at the expanse of white rock extending forever to both sides, curving outward below to embrace the earth.

The next morning we finally solved our hauling problem by deciding it wouldn't rain and using windpants and sweaters to wrap up some extra hardware (including six out of eight of our ¾ angles-we each threw in three thinking we could easily do the climb with five) and throwing it over the edge in a stuff sack. During the next three pitches we asked each other, "Are the standard angles on the spare iron rack?" "No, they must be in the haul bag." "Are you sure they're not in the day pack?"

After a thorough search the next day, we finally realized what must have been their fate. Continuing up several pitches of corners, we arrived at the Bolt Ladder which starts the three pitches of traversing onto Camp 4. I found this one of the more spectacular pitches: after a day in huge corners, one traverses straight out for about twenty feet. The blast of air which hit me once I rounded the corner was no equal for the vastness of the view which opened up in front. For the first time we could see what lay ahead and look down at the toe of El Capitan spreading below us. Our fifth day we rounded the Great Roof and spent the night on Camp 5, where the closeness of the summit increased our impatience to be off. Knowing we couldn't make it in a day, we nevertheless passed by Camp 6 and spent the night in slings three pitches below the top, where a friend met us the next day with food, water, and a willing back to help carry down our gear.

When I visited the Valley later, Bev was halfway up El Capitan on a new route, less than two weeks after we got down. I'd like to be there, too. Unlike many of my friends, I don't want to give up walls because they involve too much work and hassle. I don't want to give up aid climbing now that I've "done a big wall" and turn to free climbing. I'd like to go back and climb El Capitan again, by some other route, because it's the most beautiful place I've ever been.


East Coast US
Jun 29, 2006 - 08:57pm PT
I remember that article. Thanks for reposting it.

Trad climber
On the road!
Nov 19, 2012 - 04:16pm PT
Ah yes -- that one was in Summit Magazine.
BTW, my name is spelled: Sibylle
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C.
Nov 19, 2012 - 04:23pm PT
Sibylle, on top of something else during the FaceLift.
She's a darn good ropegun.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Nov 19, 2012 - 05:09pm PT
Fun seeing you at FL

McHale's Navy

Trad climber
Panorama City, California & living in Seattle
Nov 19, 2012 - 05:51pm PT
Here are some unpublished pics of Bev Johnson. I was soloing the regular route on the Leaning Tower in the Spring of 77 and when I got to the first ledge discovered Bev Johnson was there! We continued to solo together and bivied on the last pitch that night. Charlie Christ took the pics that me and Bev are in and I took the one of her where she is by herself. Too bad the first is a little blurred. This photo of us below, with Bev above me, must have been taken from the parking area.
Bev had a unique way of climbing her stirrups using a daisy chain to save arm energy. Funny thing we were both wearing yellow shirts and were both there with Soloing the Dihedral in mind. She did that the next year and I did it the next week.

Trad climber
Douglas, WY
Nov 19, 2012 - 06:13pm PT
Not sure whether Sibylle ever got one of my "ranch burgers" at the FL? I know that Mighty Hiker and Flanders both did...
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Nov 19, 2012 - 06:31pm PT
Sibylle, that writing has some tender images. I appreciate that as much as your talent and energetic attitude. Thanks for the posts and the glimpses of Bev and Ellie, especially. It was a big deal meeting you at Facelift and a real pleasure.
Fossil climber

Trad climber
Atlin, B. C.
Nov 19, 2012 - 10:42pm PT
Sibylle - glad to see that story again. You and Bev were amazing and admirable. Great to see that pic of Bev, too - hadn’t seen that one, and every time I see one - which is all too rarely - it gives me a bit of a twinge. For a while there, Bev and Donna Pritchett and Ned Gillette were my three main x-c instructors. Inevitably, when Bev and Donna arrived at the Mt. Shop to pick up their students, they had yogurt and crumbs down the front of their sweaters and were giggling like high schoolers. And they absolutely charmed their students. All three are gone now. Glad you’re still hanging in there.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 20, 2012 - 12:02pm PT
Another thread on this topic...
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Mar 10, 2013 - 01:40pm PT
And a bump...
Messages 1 - 11 of total 11 in this topic
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