Old SC Seat!

Women on the Rocks: The Early Years of the SMS & RCS

Ruth Dyar Mendenhall (1912-1989)
Introduction by Mark Goebel
From the Mugelnoos, Dec 97-Jan 98.

From the bottom of the box which serves as our SMS records keeping system, I recently discovered an essay titled, Women On The Rocks, Way Back Then, written by Ruth Dyar Mendenhall (1912-1989), dated October, 1987, in which she tells of her experiences as a skier, climber, and the close knit activities of the Ski Mountaineers and Rock Climbing Sections of the Sierra Club, in Los Angeles beginning in 1937.

Ruth had sent her write up to Pete Matulavich in March, 1988, after Pete had inquired about obtaining a copy of the first issue of Mugelnoos. Ruth was the editor for its first 4 years, and after WW II, she continued her editorial leadership until 1978. Ruth and her husband John, were well known for a number of first ascents in the Sierra, Tetons, and Canada; years of leadership in the Sierra Club and The American Alpine Club; and they also wrote and published books on climbing and backpacking.

In her letter to Pete, she states, "I also have noted that you really have extracted the spirit of those days from the Mug. ( and presumably other sources). Instead of commenting in detail on this, I think I'll send you a copy of the treatise I wrote last fall on the same subject, except it was slanted for the female climbers of the thirties, and I wrote it mostly with them in mind. This caused me to give a great deal of thought and some research to the prewar atmosphere in which we skied and climbed." In addition, she states, "I found I could not write about those times only for women, because we had such good times for both men and women. We really were so close in our activities and friendship in 1938 and 1939 that I have never seen another group quite like it. Ski huts and Mugelnoos were social centers. At that time the skiers were much more numerous than the climbers. All but one or two of our climbing group were fundamentally ski mountaineers. Only a relatively few of the ski group found their forte in climbing (John and I were among them). It was party due to the depression and threat of WW 11. In my write-up I had to emphasize climbing, but ski mountaineering was really the bed-rock of the group." Ruth's description of those early days begins in this issue, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Mark Goebel

Women On The Rocks, Way Back Then

Due to the passage of time I have advanced from the status of climber to that of Pioneer Woman Climber. I started climbing rocks in Southern California in 1938. Alpine techniques had been introduced to both the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas in 1931 during Robert L. M. Underhill's visit from New England. A Rock Climbing Section (usually referred to as the RCS) was established in the mid-thirties in the Southern California (now Angeles) Chapter of the Sierra Club. At the time I took up the sport, the popularity of climbing was rapidly rising. Most of the pioneer rock climbers were men, but several outstanding women climbers had already retired from climbing or overlapped with me. Now that I have become a Pioneer nearly fifty years later, modern women climbers have expressed an interest in the status of women climbers of that day. A question occasionally asked is whether we climbed with men or mostly with each other. The short simple answer to that is that we did not have enough climbers to sort them out by gender.

There were seldom more than three or four serious women climbers in Southern California at any one time, often only one or two compared with, perhaps, six to a couple of dozen men. Besides that, the boys and girls enjoyed climbing together. Most respected their own and each other's abilities and limitations. A few fellows, usually young gymnasts, seemed to feel diminished if a girl made a pitch they couldn't. But I remember very little machismo, or for that matter machisma, among us. Of course a mixture of these attitudes did surface occasionally. For example, at a Taquitz Rock climb, the man who was trip leader was arranging the ropes for the day's climbs. He asked me to lead a visitor from Switzerland up the Fingertip Traverse. Although I had made the climb, I was in my first season and somewhat lacking in confidence. I was on the verge of declining when another man nearby, who really had nothing to do with the matter, spoke to me: "Ruth! You shouldn't! You had only three or four hours of sleep last night." That decided me. I agreed to lead the rope, off-handedly collected my equipment and my second, and went. Years later I discovered by chance that I had acquired a modest fame in Europe as a rock climber.

Other women in our club had been making their mark in the climbing world Mary Jane Edwards. , Adrienne Applewhite (Jones) , the first woman to climb the East Face of Mt. Whitney. LaVere Daniels (Aulie) , who appeared in a professional movie short, "Three on a Rope." and was the first woman to climb Temple Crag, 12,999 feet. May Pridham, who had made assorted climbs with her sister and other girls before she ever heard of rope techniques, and who provided our newssheet with skiing and climbing cartoons so pertinent that they are famous in Sierra Club publications to this day. Also Else Strand, Agnes Fair. We didn't think of ourselves as women climbers, but as women who liked to climb. The field of mountaineering and rock climbing was wide open to all comers.

I had grown up having outdoor adventures with various of my three sisters and occasional cousins. We had hiked, backpacked, camped, and made wilderness fishing trips. Though we had never heard of rock climbing, we had indulged in ascents of some of the basalt formations in Spokane, Washington (our brother was too conservative). I later classified some of these climbs as Fourth Class; we should have been roped. Though all these girls climbed to some extent in later years, I was the only one to develop such a passion for climbing that I pursued it for thirty-five seasons.

From Spokane I had come to southern California as a college graduate in need of a job, my school having assigned all its scarce job openings that year to men. A relative offered me secretarial work with one of the State Relief organizations of the time. I was lonely, homesick and displaced in both occupation and geography. When I discovered the Ski Mountaineers Section of the Sierra Club, my life improved immeasurably. When I found out that many of the skiers became rock climbers when the snow melted, I thought I had been catapulted into Eden. Don't laugh! After all, there allegedly was an apple tree in Eden. And due to a childhood of tree climbing, I soon realized that apple trees are the horticultural equivalent of sound granite.

My situation was not unlike that of many young people of that time, the latter years of the Great Depression. Some were unemployed; many held poorly paying jobs and worked hard not to lose them. We hungered for fun, adventure and companionship. These were all available in the skiing and climbing set  and at that time had the added advantage of not costing much.

In the late 1930's there were no ski lifts except for a few short rope tows. The Ski Mountaineers gave instruction. They also raised money and provided the manpower to build and maintain ski huts in nearby mountains. Hut fees were twenty-five cents a night. Entertainment, often complete with a member's accordion at the end of a steep trail, was free.

Rock climbing was even cheaper. Our club furnished most of the equipment. Ropes were 90-foot and 130-foot seven-sixteenth inch manila, the best yachting line available. Its lack of stretch was compensated for by dynamic belays. Steel carabiners were imported from Germany. The same was true of soft iron pitons until duty became so high that local manufacture was arranged. Quarter-inch manila was used for slings, Prusiks, etc. We wore leather patches sewn on pants and shirts to protect us from the friction of body rappels. We wore old jeans and very jaunty, individual felt hats. Ice axes and piton hammers were personal equipment, and often there was only, one to a rope. For footgear in the high mountains we had men's work shoes or old leather ski boots nailed with tricounis. For rock climbing we wore tennis shoes or crepe-soled basketball shoes. With this gear, the better climbers of the time put up routes judged very difficult to this day, and others followed them. In recent years a male climber remarked in my hearing, "Imagine climbing the Mechanic's Route (at Tahquitz) in tennis shoes!" I said, "I don't have to imagine it. I did it."

In my first season, I attended RCS climbs almost every weekend. There were one-day or half-day instructional climbs locally, at Stony Point, Eagle Rock, and Devil's Gate Dam (until the authorities plastered it with concrete). Here anyone could learn elementary rope handling, belaying, and safety. Weekend climbs were held at Tahquitz Rock. This thousand-foot wedge of glorious granitic rock, on the south side of Mt. San Jacinto above Idylwild, seemed to offer endless possibilities for new routes. Only ten had been established by early 1938. And for three-day weekends, we went to the High Sierra, its stupendous East side readily accessible from the south. Climbers' vaca tions were usually spent in the Sierra. Foreign climbing, except for a rare venture to Canada, was at that time beyond- the scope of our group

Over the weekend of July 4, 1938, I had my first taste of scaling one of the fourteen thousand foot peaks in the Palisades west of Big Pine in Owens Valley. The backpack was three or four miles of easy trail to Third Lake at about 10,000 feet. Parties attacked North Palisade, 14,242 feet and Mt. Sill, 14,162 feet, by assorted routes. I was on one of two ropes that made a new route up the North Buttress (now called the Swiss Arete in climber's guides). We had two experienced rope leaders. The rest of us were all in our first season of climbing. The two men, whose bent was really not rock climbing, didn't seem to appreciate the exposure. I was so exhilarated by my first ascent of a "real mountain," by the elevation and difficult moves, and by the lovely surroundings that, though I kept my cool, I was running over with sheer joy. We made the summit and descended by an easier way.For years afterwards, my rope leader twitted me about our return to camp. He claimed that when our friends came into view beside their little campfires, I exclaimed, "Let's run, so they won't think we're tired.

Over Labor Day that year, eleven RCS members, nine men and two women, made the strenuous backpack, largely cross-country, over Pinnacle Pass to camp at East Face Lake at over 13,000 feet. Next day we all climbed 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney's East Face by the Sunshine-Peewee Route (now more decorously referred to as the East Buttress). The difficulty of the pack-in made a much more lasting impression on my mind than the climb itself.

Backpacking equipment of the day included Trapper Nelson packboards of wood and canvas, tortuous for neck and shoulders. Many of us had made our own sleeping bags. A pillow factory blew goose down into the tubes. Down cost $3 a pound, but as we often remarked, down was going up. A shelter was rarely needed, since it "never" rained in the Sierra until after nylon and plastic were invented. Our foods came from the grocery store in the form of cheese, sausage, spaghetti, cereals, dried fruits, crackers and candy. We didn't miss freeze-dried or "instant" foods since there weren't any. But we did have Primus stoves from Sweden for use above timberline.

On our trips the mountains rang all day, and sometimes far into the night with puns, jokes, yodels, shouts, and laughter, and with the singing and pinging of pitons going deeper into the cracks with each whack of the hammer. It was a gay and happy period in our lives, certainly not carefree, but light-hearted and filled with good comradeship.

Both men and women became close friends through their mountain activities and related pursuits. We were often together evenings as well as weekends. We held meetings, gave parties, promoted "ski rallies" to raise funds for the ski huts, and published our Ski Mountaineers and Rock Climbing Sections' newssheet, The Mugelnoos. For many a year I was chief honcho for The Mugelnoos, named after what is now called a mogul, and our Ski Mountaineers chairman George Bauwens' Austrian accent. I kept the newssheet crammed with puns (one issue claimed forty-nine puns), cartoons, and facts that made climbing history. The first ascent of the Eigerwand was noted in August 1938. We also had a correspondent from Byrd's third expedition of 1939-40. The Expedition's official artist, Leland Curtis, was a member of the Ski Mountaineers Section.

Transportation to Section affairs posed the usual problems. Most of the men and a few women drove old cars, and the rest of us were courtesy or paying passengers. Some of the crowd still lived at home, a very few were married, others occupied rooms or apartments, alone or with friends. Gradually a few of us, whose situations and yearnings were similar, conceived the idea of starting a cooperative coeducational boarding house for climbers and skiers. We weren't quite ready for serious romance, though that came along soon. We weren't into what are now called relationships. Our mutual and overwhelming desire was a place to live that would be spacious, enjoyable and of necessity economical: A Home. The concept was rather far-out for the times. That it actually became a reality and a success seems a little surprising even now.

Ideas had been exchanged, and the prospective personnel reduced to six for a start: three men (Howard Koster, Glen Warner, and John Mendenhall) and three women (Olga Schomberg, my sister Joan Dyar (Clark) who had recently joined me in California, and I). We were between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. The men and I were dedicated climbers and also skied. Olga and Joan climbed a little and skied more. Our first practical need was to find the right house.

All the rental houses we had looked at up to late April 1939 were unsuitable - inconveniently located, too costly, too stark, too small. Then came an incredible stroke of luck. En route to a ski mountaineering venture on Mt. San Gorgonio, John and I took a look at a house for rent in northeastern Los Angeles. There it was! Big enough; on a streetcar line; cheap enough ($60 a month); and fully and nicely furnished, right down to table linens, a radio- phonograph, an encyclopedia, a piano, a fireplace and a mantel clock. On top of all that, the landlady, Grace Shults, had been a Sierra Club member. She seemed to have neither questions nor qualms about our unconventional plans. We telephoned our prospective housemates to inspect the place, and went off skiing. Early the next week, the chosen six assembled to look together at this gem of a house. The decision seemed so momentous that for a short time we even ran out of wisecracks. We voted "Yes."

The rooms were apportioned among us without problems. Joan and I had the big upstairs bedroom, and Olga the small one. John, who needed a little peace and quiet for his engineering studies, had the third. Howard and Glen took the big downstairs bedroom. Mr. and Mrs. Shults retained a small corner apartment. Their son occupied a little knotty-pine building at the back of the lot. That was Monday. The next Saturday, May 5, 1939, we moved in.

Six people arrived with their accumulated belongings. These turned the ample front porch into a sort of junkyard of hickory skis, bamboo ski poles, desks, boots, carpets, a drafting board, lamps, ropes, a typing chair, canned milk, my typewriter. Before getting organized, we looked again at our brown stucco palace. Enthusiasm mounted. Glen and I were so pleased at the back lawn that we turned somersaults all over it. There were roses, syringa, and apple blossoms in bloom. Mrs. Shults, with what turned out to be typical kindness and thoughtfulness, had cooked us a big pot of split pea soup and disappeared into her own rooms. Pea soup became a symbolic delicacy that for many years was ceremoniously served at the Camp anniversaries and reunions.

A few days later, as all gathered at our new home for dinner, we held a house meeting. Our residence had to have a name, of course. After contemplating the fact that we had all heard of Green Gables and Seven Gables, Howard suggested Composition Roof, and Joan came up with Clark Gables. Eventually we chose Base Camp. We decided to try out this system of housework: a girl and a fellow would buy food and cook dinner together for one week (breakfasts were individually prepared, and we were seldom home for lunches); a girl and a fellow would wash dinner dishes; and a girl and a fellow would do the cleaning, yard work, household laundry, and everything else. We would have the same partner for three weeks, then switch partners and start all over. This plan worked so well that we stuck to it, with trade-offs and variations, for the duration.

None of us had ever been in charge of running a household, and we found the job novel and even hilarious. Before we moved in, our contemporaries told us it "wouldn't work." It did, and so did we. Of course we didn't all have the same tastes and talents. Some were better cooks than others, Howard the best of us all. One our male visitors did remark that he "just couldn't see why the men should be compelled to cook." It really took two to run the 1915 washing machine in our small back cellar. It had two large copper tubs, leaky hoses, an electric wringer, and frightening gears. We kept each other up to a high standard of living. I once overheard Olga reprimanding Glen for getting out a clean tablecloth. Glen replied firmly that he would rather eat off newspapers than use the dirty one.

Dinners were nutritious and tasty, though sometimes we were up till midnight the preceding evening preparing jello, shelling peas, etc. Mother's Day came around soon after we were settled, so we planned a special dinner for the five available parents and grandmothers. Olga and I planned the menu: roast beef, gravy, new potatoes, asparagus, aspic salad, rolls, coffee, and strawberry pie. Much preparation had to be done the preceding Saturday afternoon, since most of us planned to attend a practice climb Sunday morning. It had been my custom to rush off to climbs at the earliest possible moment, and return as late as feasible, and the fellows were even more addicted to this procedure. That Sunday Glen left early to take the ropes, which were stored in our living room window seat, to Eagle Rock. But the rest of us were putting finishing touches on the dinner preparations. I was baking pies and dusting, Joan fixing bouquets, Howard doing the wash, and John cleaning house and preening the parking strip. I put the roast in the oven and set the electric timer to turn it on at noon; those who stayed home watched breathlessly to be sure it did. Eventually John, Olga and I were off to the climb, being greeted by remarks about our lateness. I explained that we were too busy keeping house to climb, a shock to those who knew us.

When we returned to Base Camp, the roast was snapping away in the oven. Joan had set the table for eleven. Chairs, plates and silverware were carefully arranged so the guests would have the best. Several unlooked-for callers rang the doorbell, but never got in the door. Our invited guests duly arrived, and the affair went off smoothly. The older ladies seemed properly impressed. After their departure, we spent the rest of the evening praising ourselves, cleaning up, and hurling insults at each other. During that summer, we entertained countless guests, sometimes too many. We gave special dinners for aunts, cousins, old friends, and mostly our climbing and skiing friends.

Drop-in guests sometimes seemed a bit startled by in-house arguments about who would stake them to the meal (twenty cents a head) . Later we decided we should argue it out in private.

Since early 1938 I had been editing our newssheet, and putting it out at my apartment, with a few assistants both regular and ad hoc. The first time The Mugelnoos was mimeographed and mailed at Base Camp, a gang of thirty friends turned up for the occasion, probably more from curiosity than volunteerism. During the week, I had collected and rewritten the news and cut the stencils, with which John and Glen helped me. The mimeographing, an inky procedure, fitted ideally into the back porch. Our friends were perfect guests. They invited themselves, did most of the work, entertained themselves and their hosts, cleaned up the place, and went home. Mugelnoos-night parties became traditional, and Base Camp was turned into a social center as well as a source of information about almost anything. There was a lot of togetherness, but our rooms were strictly private territory.

Guests or not, there was always something going on at Base Camp. Joan on the piano and Howard on his tuba played duets. Some of us were always poring over mountaineering books such as Climbing Days by Dorothy Pilley and The Romance of Mountaineering by R.L.G. Irving. Four who were taking a first aid course had hysterics over prone-pressure artificial respiration. At dinners, the male cook was to sit in the armchair, which we called the Papa Chair; but if the male cook was absent, the female cook did the honers. There was a decided advantage to having two cooks- no matter what was fixed, there was always one other person to praise it.

We were heavy on economy, especially Howard, who occasionally overdid it. On one occasion he spied an uneaten cob of corn among the garbage, and indignantly bore it to the kitchen to add to the lima beans he was preparing. I intervened in sanitary horror. Howard was adamant. A wrestling match ensued, during which I succeeded in messing up the corn so even Howard admitted it was unfit to eat. Then we settled down to a laughing spree, and for several days our jokes seemed to center around garbage.

At dinner, humor seemed to be at its height. We often had jello for dessert, due to ease of preparation and low cost. Its basic ingredients became a matter of speculation. Howard advanced the theory that it was made from horses' hooves. The encyclopedia revealed that gelatin was indeed extracted from animal tissues. Horses were not specifically mentioned, but it was not uplifting to read of hides, glue, coated pills and isinglass. When the first course was over, Glen leaned back in his purple shirt and said, "Well, bring on the isinglass." I glanced at the color of the dessert being served, and inquired if it was "strawberry roan." On another evening Joan had received a message to telephone a climber who was an intern. As she rose from the table, she remarked, "I have to call General Hospital." John inquired sternly, "Has your meal taken effect already?

Sometimes we laughed so loudly that we would glance up and notice the next-door neighbor peering at us from her kitchen window, and laughing right along with us. This neighbor was such-a good church-goer that we referred to her as the Christian Lady. We were somewhat surprised one day when she told Joan that we were "finer young people than some of the Christians she knew." Our landlady, Mrs. Shults, told us from time to time that we took better care of her property, and kept our house neater, than any tenant she had ever had. Along with all this virtuosity, domesticity and high jinks, we were living more economically than had seemed possible. About twenty dollars from each of us monthly covered all expenses, rent, food, telephone, newspaper and utilities.

We were usually gone weekends, climbing with each other and non-Base Camp friends. John D. Mendenhall had been attracted to the climbing scene since he was a child in Missouri. Chris Jones credited John in Climbing in North America with being the first known person "to consciously belay in the Sierra Nevada." He had figured it out from library books, and practiced with like minded friends. That summer John and I went an many private Climbs together. Our main goal was to make pioneer ascents of the north side of Strawberry Peak in the local mountains. The cliff could be seen from the Angeles Crest Highway, and was ap- proached by a long hot trail and by way of a firebreak amid Southern California's chaparral. Our first route occupied us for several Sundays, and was so devious that we named it the Strawberry Roam.

Over the weekend of July 4, 1939, John and I planned to join the Rock Climbing Section's trip to the Minarets in the Sierra. We had spent our evenings the week before poring over maps and guidebooks. Our entire household was preparing for other trips.Ropes were inspected for flaws, crampons were tried on, boots waxed, pants patched commissaries organized.

John and I both had to work Saturday morning. After that nothing went quite right. Our transportation didn't leave till mid-afternoon. We reached the end of the road at midnight. John and I staggered out of our bags at 5 a.m. and backpacked seven miles to the RCS camp, easily identifiable because in those days our climbers rarely saw anyone else in the mountains. Due to inexperience and over-optimism, we thought we could make an afternoon climb of the Underhill-Eichorn Route on Banner Peak, 12,957 feet.The approach seemed long, but we moved fast when we got on the rock. The difficulty increased as we climbed, and by 6 p.m. the summit was still far above us. We bivouacked. We always had extra food in the rucksack, but it was a cold cramped night on our ledge. We slept, we shivered, we nibbled on our Famine Ration of horrid drugstore bargain chocolate. We laughed; climbers always seemed to think the worse the conditions, the funnier. It was a new experience for me, and I thought that since I was there I should make the most of it. The cliffs dropped precipitously below, a star fell, the Banner Glacier gleamed in the moonlight. A red star rose over White Mountain Peak across Owens Valley. At around 4 a.m. the eastern sky was filling with an orange light. Before 5, pale sunlight lay across our ledge. We ate snow and our last lemon drops for breakfast, and descended to camp. We were teased for years about this bivouac, as a couple of weeks later we announced our engagement.

When we told Howard about our plans, he exclaimed, "But you can't get married and move out of Base Camp." It turned Out that we could and did. But Howard, true to his philosophy, in early 1941 brought his own bride to live at ‘Base Camp for a few months, presumably under the housekeeping tutelage of the residents.

again. Dick Jones and Adrienne Applewhite announced their engagement 0ur household and its circle of fiends rose to the occasion. On my birthday, August 16, a surprise party was arranged at Base camp for the two recently engaged couples. My gift from John was an ice axe, the peak of my desires. He had die-stamped in the steel head the words ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY 1939" on one side, and "RUTH FROM JOHN" on the other. After that presentation, Cupid came, in the flesh of a brawny mountain climber dressed in pink tights, a grass skirt, and wings, who carried a small bow and arrow. Gifts proliferated. The party ended with a turmoil of tissue paper, paper dishes, and cake crumbs in the living room. Glen in his sage way, "let's put the cake where the mice won't get it, and go to bed."

Despite mountain peaks and diamond rings, housework went on. Howard edged the front lawn, John mowed the back lawn, and I followed up with the sprinkler. I cooked a huge pot of stew that, with side dishes, kept dinners going for nearly a week. Green apples were falling from the tree that had been in bloom when we moved in. We picked them up for sauce and pies. Times were changing. Dick and Adrienne went on a Mass Honeymoon with a group of friends. Over Labor Day they bivouacked while down-climbing the East Face of Mt. Whitney. On the same weekend, John and I put up a new route on the East Buttress of Third Needle south of Whitney. The next Mugelnoos commented that our two man rope was soon to be spliced. I quit my job: hereafter we would divide work differently. In the midst of a terrible 109 degree hot spell, we were married at the home of John’s parents in the San Fernando Valley and left Base Camp for our own home. Two girls and a man replaced us. The Shults family moved out to make room for more new residents.

The institution of Base Camp as a residence and social headquarters for skiers and climbers continued for over two more years. Sixteen different young people lived there, the maximum at any one time being ten and the minimum six. This number in-cluded nine women and seven men. Base Camp was reluctantly disbanded in October 1941 because of the difficulties of keeping up the number of residents; defense work and the draft, higher education and romance were taking their toll. John and I, on the brink of leaving the Los Angeles area for war work on the East Coast and elsewhere, put up a new route on Mt. Whitney, the Southeast Face. World War II scattered our crowd all over the world and changed our lives. But when we returned four years later-the mountains were waiting.

Ruth Dyar Mendenhall

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