Ruth Dyar Mendenhall - an early woman climber

11:11 p.m. on April 9, 2009 (EDT)
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As I was researching some information on the Web, I came across this article by Ruth Dyar Mendenhall. Ruth and her husband, John Mendenhall, were two of my early mentors as I started seriously doing technical climbing and mountaineering in the late 1950s (as opposed to scrambling up rocks, hiking peaks, and the occasional technical climb with no real technical training). The article appeared in a publication of the History of the Ski Mountaineers, a section of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. The Ski Mountaineers and the Rock Climbing Sections of the Angeles Chapter were closely linked, with many members in both. The newsletter was called Mugelnoos, typical of the punning in those days ("mogul" is a bump encountered when skiing and "noos" is pronounced the same as "news"). I was vice chair of the RCS in the late 1990s.

In addition, Ruth authored and edited several books on backpack cookery - Gorp, Glop, and Glue Stew, Backpack Cookery, and Beyond Gorp: Favorite Foods from Backpack Experts. These have been the sources of many of my favorite meals in the wilderness. They are out of print now, but occasionally can be found in antique bookstores.

I post the link here (respecting the copyright laws by not reproducing the article itself), in part to remind people that women did not start climbing in the 1970s or 1980s as some think, and that there were hard women doing the most technical routes of the day in the 1930s. One of John and Ruth's daughters, Valerie Mendenhall Cohen, recently published a great biography of Ruth, which I still have to get my own copy of (hopefully autographed by Valerie). Valerie's husband, Mike, and I did a couple climbs together in the Valley (the most memorable being the one up the crack in which a bat had been hiding). John and Ruth's older daughter, Vivian, became a researcher in Arctic biology, and when I last heard was at University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Vivian was a hard woman climber during college days in the 1960s when we were in the UCLA Bruin Mountaineers, also doing many of the most technical routes of the day.

1:25 p.m. on April 10, 2009 (EDT)
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Thanks for the info, Bill. It sounds interesting and I'll have to read the article.

Your post reminded me of a book I was given as a present several years ago: Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering by Rebecca A. Brown.

8:23 p.m. on April 11, 2009 (EDT)
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I am not a climber....too chicken and scared of heights, to be honest. I read Miriam Underhill's book and was impressed with what women were doing back then. Did Ruth Mendenhall and Underhill know each other? Climb together? The article mentions Robert Underhill bringing New England lessons to California.

After reading Underhill, I read Brown's book. That book has to be required historical reading for anyone who loves the mountains.

BillS, you have to put together a book. You find the most interesting information. 1939, a co-ed group sharing a house...wonder if that would have gone well in Blue Law Boston.

5:24 p.m. on May 18, 2009 (EDT)
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Were Ruth and Mendenhall Glaciers named for her? I believe they are on Denali mountain?

10:22 p.m. on May 20, 2009 (EDT)
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Nope. Ruth Glacier in Alaska was named by Frederick Cook for his niece and the Mendenhall Glacier was named for Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, methinks.

On the subject of early American woman climbers, I was kinda psyched to climb Miram's route in the Dolomites (talked about in her book). As a strange aside, prior to the trip, I bought a book on ebay. An early guidebook to the Dolomites (back when they were part of Austria). Got the book, and, it had the library bookstamp of Robert Underhill.



-Brian in SLC

April 20, 2018
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