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Onward & Upward: A century of women climbing in the Tetons

Clockwise from upper left: Irene Beardsley, Jean Dempsey, Bev Boynton and Dana Larkin. [Photos] Courtesy of respective names
Clockwise from upper left: Kit DesLauriers [Photo by Andy Bardon]; Patty McDonald, Catherine Cullinane and Jane Baldwin. [Photos] Courtesy of respective names

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 83 (Autumn 2023), which is available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up the hard copies of Alpinist for all the goodness!–Ed.]

On the morning of August 27, 1923, Eleanor Davis scrambled across golden-grey granite with the piercing blue sky of the American West overhead. From where she stood, she could likely see so far in every direction that the horizon seemed to bend all around her, with faint shadows of distant mountain ranges at the edges of her vision. Stony spires poked out of white snowfields to the south and north.

Davis and her climbing partner Albert Ellingwood had camped high above Bradley Lake in Garnet Canyon the night before, nearly getting lost in the dense conifer forests at the base of the Teton Range. “There are no trails other than those made by elk, and the woods are enchanting,” Davis recounted the following year in Trail and Timberline. “We spoke a bit enviously of that day, surely not far distant, when a good trail will make this wonderfully beautiful [canyon] more accessible to campers.”

Leaving their “high but sheltered camp,” the duo expected difficult ice at the top of the Lower Saddle, a scree-covered ridge that hangs down between the Grand and Middle Tetons, but found the glacier had receded. Bursts of pink, purple and green from moss campion and skypilot flowers would likely have colored their path as they moved through a sea of dark rock. They headed toward the Upper Saddle, a ridge between the main peak and the Enclosure, a ca. 13,300-foot subpeak of the Grand. After lunch they used binoculars to locate major features of the Owen-Spalding route, based on descriptions by William Owen from August 1898.

They roped up at the Upper Saddle and moved through the technical scrambling, finding a “thin glaze of ice” on the rock in places. On the now-infamous “Belly Roll,” which involves a traverse across a detached flake, they would have encountered relatively easy climbing but breathtaking exposure.

A few hours later Davis stood on top of the Grand Teton, becoming the first recorded woman to achieve the 13,775-foot summit. It had been twenty-five years since the party of William Owen made it to the summit, and only three other people had stood on top since then—a team of college boys from Montana who had climbed it two days earlier. There was very little information available about the terrain and the peak, so for anyone to get to the top of the Grand at that time was a significant accomplishment.

“The view from the top [was] all that one’s heart could desire,” Davis later wrote. “Mt. Moran to the north looked most intriguing…. We traced the winding course of the Snake River to the south and saw a snowy range off to the southeast. We scanned the nearby peaks for available routes to their summits, hoping to climb them soon.”

Eleanor Davis sits on the summit of Sentinel Rock in Colorado after climbing to the top with her friend Eleanor Bartlett. [Photo] Colorado Mountain Club Archives

The bluebird day Davis described is one I’ve experienced countless times, moving through the broken terrain of the Tetons toward rocky summits, finding verglas in nooks and crannies, looking out at the expansive landscapes on either side of the range and daydreaming of future routes. I climbed in the Tetons for the first time in 2007 and since then it has been a place of firsts: my first times glissading down a snowfield, getting benighted, using an ice axe and crampons. When I moved to a town on the western slope of the Tetons in 2018, it felt like coming home.

In late 2022, I learned that The Teton Climbers’ Coalition would be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first female ascent of the Grand Teton the next year, and they were looking for suggestions on how to engage the community. This sparked the nugget of an idea in my storyteller’s brain—I could help mark this full century of women climbing in the Tetons while sharing my own love of these mountains with a wider audience. The history of climbing here feels like a living, breathing one, where friends and neighbors I see at the trailhead and the grocery store have played a part in shaping its past, present and future.

Since the start of 2023 I interviewed nine women who have climbed in the Tetons from the 1950s up until today. Their stories are varied—some have notched superlatives, while others have quietly climbed these peaks without getting their names in the history books. What they have in common is that they’ve moved through the miles of broken granite because they long to sit on a ledge and look out at horizon-bending vistas, to experience the unbeatable relief of taking their boots off and dipping swollen feet into an icy snowmelt river, to catalogue the unique flora and fauna that inhabit every elevation of this stunning alpine ecosystem and to stand on historic summits.

Hearing about women’s achievements has inspired my own forays into the mountains, and in the 1924 Trail and Timberline article, Davis wrote about the inspiration she drew from earlier tales from the Tetons: “We gathered around our campfire to hear read aloud the accounts of the previous climbs of the Grand Teton.”

In documenting more women’s stories, I hope others like me may find the inspiration to spend more days in the mountains, whether they’re going for a summit or not. It’s those experiences of the raw elements, the sun and wind, the dirt and stone, that strip away the frivolities of modern life and connect us to our truest selves.

In an April 2023 video call from her home in Palo Alto, California, Irene Beardsley described her inauspicious first visit to the Tetons. In 1955, during winter of her sophomore year at Stanford University, she was part of a group of seven students who headed to Wyoming with the goal of doing a winter ascent of the Grand under the leadership of Leigh Ortenburger, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. They skied up Garnet Canyon to camp, then woke up the next morning to a whiteout. Undeterred, they started up the mountain and quickly got lost. They descended and dug a snow cave by standing on one ski and using the other to dig. Beardsley lost one of her skis in the deep snow.

The winter storm continued through the next morning, so they decided to bail. To replace her lost ski, Beardsley tore off an old plank of wood that had been nailed to a tree, put a backup ski tip on the end and strapped the board to her boot with a piece of rope. The new setup was a bit slow for her liking, so when she wanted to go fast, she lifted the cobbled-together ski and rode on one leg.

Beardsley had started climbing as a freshman. After what she called a “futile effort to find a compatible group of friends,” she attended a meeting of the Stanford Alpine Club. Her counterparts easily scrambled up the dirty chimney where they were practicing on her first day with the club, but she couldn’t make it to the top. She did not feel like a natural, she said, but was determined to get stronger for future outings.

Beardsley was drawn to the club’s social nature: lunchtime meetings and weekend trips to Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne. Eventually, Beardsley fell in love with the movements required for climbing and the relationships formed through it. As one of the only women majoring in physics at Stanford, with tedious problem sets due every week, she found that climbing provided a powerful experience that was deeper than the busywork of school.

“One of the really important things was the relationship you form with people you climb with,” she said. “Having the life of another person trusted to you and vice versa. Just the thought that I could do this was pretty amazing.” She wrote her parents a letter early on, proud to tell them that she was out climbing in Yosemite next to a 1,000-foot drop and she wasn’t even afraid.

Despite the whiteout and lost ski on that first trip to the Tetons in 1955, Beardsley was still drawn to the range. She and Ortenburger returned to climb the next summer. The couple married in 1956, the same year the first edition of Ortenburger’s A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range was published. Throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, they spent the school year at Stanford, where Beardsley was working toward her PhD in physics, and summers in the Tetons, where they lived in a climbers’ camp near Jenny Lake. Formerly a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp that was decommissioned in 1942, the unofficial campground was filled with “misfits and wild characters,” Beardsley said.

Irene Beardsley works her way up the route that still bears her name—Irene’s Arête—during the first ascent of the climb with John Dietschy in 1957. [Photo] Irene Beardsley Collection

In 1962 Beardsley gave birth to her first child, Carolyn, in California. But the new family of three still made it to Wyoming and lived in a tent that first summer. “She would get up and wander off to visit climbers in the next campsite,” recalled Beardsley. Eventually, though, “Carolyn got really sick with roseola and had to go to the hospital for a few days. It’s really hard to care for a sick child in a tent.” By then, the climbers’ camp was too “raunchy and unreliable” for the young family, so they moved into a house.

In her early years of climbing, Beardsley never led anything, primarily because Ortenburger, her main partner, wanted to move quickly. “He always wanted to get up the climb as fast as possible; he didn’t want to mess around with me!” she said. Despite that, she started to develop her skills on the sharp end with other partners such as Tom Kimbrough, Bob Irvine and fellow Stanford climbers who would come through town. She climbed with a handful of women here and there, teaming up with her daughter’s seventeen-year-old babysitter for the CMC route on Mt. Moran in 1963. At 5.5, it’s not the most technically difficult route, but it’s a massive outing that usually requires one or two nights of backcountry camping, an approach across two lakes via canoe with a portage in between and challenging route finding. The two men they planned to climb with bailed at high camp, so the women summited without them.

In 1965, the same year she completed her PhD, Beardsley partnered with Sue Swedlund, an East Coast climber who had been developing her rock skills with Teton guides. “She was a natural and very athletic already. The guides couldn’t make her fall off anything,” Beardsley said. After getting to know each other on a climb of Underhill Ridge, the women took on the North Face of the Grand Teton, which involves crossing the heavily crevassed Teton Glacier and surmounting a steep crux called the Pendulum Pitch.

“It was a beautiful day. We didn’t see any rockfall,” Beardsley said of the first all-female ascent, a feat she accomplished while two and a half months pregnant with her second daughter, Teresa. “It was really kind of magical. Everything went amazingly well.”

Beardsley’s name will always remain synonymous with Teton climbing—quite literally. On July 10, 1957, Beardsley and John Dietschy made the first ascent of Irene’s Arête (5.8) on Disappointment Peak. This classic alpine rock climb doesn’t reach a true summit, but the steep nature requires sustained technical climbing up cracks and faces. After they got to the top and waited out a rainstorm under a boulder, Beardsley “was so emotionally exhausted that [she] burst into tears.” After the rain stopped, she gathered herself and they descended without discussing a name for the climb. A few weeks later, she heard Dietschy had named the climb after her, a gesture that surprised her since he had led all the pitches.

I had an emotional reaction similar to Beardsley’s the only time I climbed the arête, tears falling down my cheeks as I flailed on the old-school 5.8 pitches. A mix of fear and frustration overtook me as forty-five-mile-per-hour winds howled through the nearby rock towers and I glanced at the air under my feet. I had underestimated the difficulty of the route and had overestimated my own abilities. Visible from the road with a warm glow of the sun’s last rays, Irene’s Arête provides a constant reminder for me to stay humble in the mountains.

I first heard of Jane Baldwin through a conversation with Christian Beckwith, longtime Tetons climber, writer and founding editor of Alpinist. A few weeks later, I was headed to Jane’s cabin in Wilson, Wyoming, to sit down for an interview.

Jane Baldwin smiles during an interview in her cabin in Wilson, Wyoming, in 2023. [Photo] Julie Ellison

In 1973, Baldwin, then twenty-two years old, spent the summer working as a permits person in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). Four days a week, she staffed the permits desk. One day a week, she hiked throughout the park so she could report back about trail conditions to visitors. Even though Congress had passed Title VII (a law prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin) in 1964, women were still fighting for the same opportunities as men. GTNP employees kept a hiking log in park headquarters, where Baldwin recorded her excursions. One day, district ranger Tom Milligan noticed that Baldwin had covered more miles than anyone else that summer. He asked her to come on as one of the park’s first female backcountry rangers for the following year.

“He was early to do that, to give women opportunities—earlier than a lot of park supervisors,” Baldwin said. “I have a lot of gratitude for his being open-minded.”

The same year Baldwin was issuing permits, Patty McDonald was working the park’s south entrance at GTNP after graduating college. McDonald had fallen in love with the West and its endless outdoor opportunities a few years earlier while working in Zion National Park the summer after her freshman year in college. She was thrilled to get the job in the Tetons, but she couldn’t help noticing that the five men on entrance station duty with her were classified as rangers, while the two women were park aides.

Fast-forward to the end of the summer of 1973, when McDonald decided she wanted to come back the following year as a ranger. 

“Girls can’t be rangers,” McDonald recalled being told. That didn’t seem fair to McDonald because she knew she did as good a job as the guys, if not better, but that “no” only intensified her determination. After working her way up the chain of command, she took a deep breath and marched into the office of GTNP superintendent Gary Everhardt.

“I’d like to be considered for a ranger position next year,” she said.

McDonald remembered Everhardt leaning back in his chair and thinking for a moment. “Why don’t you talk to Tom Milligan?” he said.

She spoke with Milligan, and he gave her an assignment: spend two weeks hiking and climbing as much as you can. She was to keep a journal and then hand it over to Milligan. At the time, she was dating GTNP climbing ranger Dave Lowe, and the pair had spent the summer hiking and climbing all over the park, so she felt ready for the task.

“I hiked and climbed my tail off during those two weeks,” McDonald recalled. She later took her journal to Milligan, and he offered her a backcountry ranger position for the following year.

The 1974 article “Ladies on the Move” in the GTNP newsletter described a new breed of women: rugged, strong, and confident that they will succeed.” [Photo] Julie Ellison 

In the summer of 1974, Baldwin and McDonald spent five days a week separately patrolling trails and backcountry areas; the former’s charge was Garnet Canyon, as well as Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes, and the latter’s, Paintbrush and Cascade Canyons. Their workweeks were spent sleeping next to alpine lakes and hiking the meadows and ridges of the high mountains. “It was maybe the best job of my life,” McDonald said, almost fifty years later.

The two women partnered with climbing rangers, Exum guides and other locals, completing routes throughout the park—technical climbs with big approaches such as Underhill Ridge and Petzoldt Ridge on the Grand, the South Ridge of Nez Perce and Irene’s Arête. Baldwin recalled hiking to the Lower Saddle with Tom Kimbrough and Irene Beardsley once. “She stripped off her shirt and was hiking in her bra,” Baldwin said. “She pooh-poohed me because I wouldn’t do it. I was in my ranger uniform!”

California climber Anne-Marie Rizzi became the first female climbing ranger for GTNP in 1977. When Jean Dempsey—who at the time went by Jean Ruwitch—was hired as the second female climbing ranger in 1978, the Boulder, Colorado, native already had thirteen years of climbing experience. In Eldorado Canyon, her backyard climbing area, and Boulder Canyon, she’d led routes in the 5.11 range. At the time, there were not many women leading 5.11. She’d been working at Holubar Mountaineering in Boulder when a customer encouraged her to apply to become a climbing ranger at GTNP.

She’d contacted the Park Service about becoming a ranger and they’d sent her an application. With her climbing resume, she was hired.

“The first summer was just absolutely wonderful,” Dempsey said during a video call from her home in Boulder. She climbed many of area’s classic rock climbs: The Snaz, Irene’s Arête, Baxter’s Pinnacle, Exum Direct, the South Buttress Right of Moran.

Her favorite climb in the Tetons was that ascent of Moran, an experience she treasured for its remoteness. She and her male partner, a fellow ranger, paddled a borrowed Park Service canoe 3.1 miles across a glassy Leigh Lake. Hiking 700 feet up through a boulder-filled gully, they reached a mellow slope. They camped at the base of the climb on a huge boulder, with water from Laughing Lion Falls flowing nearby.

Once on the climb, Dempsey’s partner attempted to lead the crux pitch which involves insecure lieback moves while smearing your feet on the wall and pulling on a fingertip-thin crack in the corner. He struggled to get his fingers in the crack and tried the moves a few times with no success. Since their goal was to free the route (not aid through it by pulling on gear), it was Dempsey’s turn on the sharp end.

She onsighted the pitch (graded 5.11a/b in the latest edition of A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range) in what she called “good style,” while her partner, who followed the route, did some moves on toprope that he said he would not have done on lead. A male climber friend and fellow ranger repeated the route the following week.

“He said to me, ‘I knew you were a guy because it took balls to lead that climb,’” Dempsey recalled.

Jean Dempsey poses in her GTNP climbing ranger uniform in 1978. [Photo] Jean Dempsey collection

As is the case with many women who have made history, the magnitude of Dempsey’s accomplishments was not fully understood until decades later. She knew she was the second female climbing ranger for GTNP when she was hired in the 1970s, but it was only at a ranger reunion in 2022 that she learned she was also the second female climbing ranger in the US.

While Dempsey says she didn’t always understand her role in breaking new ground for women in climbing, she recognizes it now and is proud of what she helped accomplish.

“Women are finally empowered to do the things that we have known all along we could do,” Dempsey said in an introduction interview for The Teton Climbers’ Coalition’s AlpinFilm2023, “because we are smart, strong, tenacious, and capable.”

Just as dawn broke on a summer morning in 1976, twenty-six-year-old Bev Boynton and three friends got their first glimpse of the Tetons. The spiny peaks lit up orange and yellow while their old truck rattled down John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, the road that meanders along the spine of the mountains and into Yellowstone National Park. Boynton glanced from the bison standing along the road up to the unforgiving rise of the towers above.

God, I don’t know that I can climb them, she thought in a sleepy haze. Although she’d climbed the long routes of New Hampshire’s Cathedral Ledge and Cannon Cliff, the latter a broad expanse of granite soaring 800 feet, these summits were six and seven thousand feet above where she sat. Maybe they were that intimidating, or maybe she was just tired from the 2,300-mile drive she and her fellow Boston climbers had completed over the preceding days. They pulled over on the side of the road to sleep for a few hours.

They woke up to do the Southwest Ridge of Symmetry Spire, a 5.7 with corners, arêtes and cracks through steep faces. “It felt perfectly comfortable … once I woke up,” Boynton said. “Climbing a lot on Cannon was good preparation.”

Boynton’s trepidation about climbing in the high mountains might have faded quickly, but my own memories of moving in the Tetons are filled with alpine butterflies. Driving toward those granite spires in the 3 a.m. darkness, I can’t see the mountains, but their presence looms in the blackness ahead. My excitement to get up there is matched only by my worry about what could go wrong.

Growing up in North Andover, Massachusetts, Boynton had attended summer camp on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, where she saw women in outdoor leadership positions. As she got older, she would hike in the White Mountains year-round, even in winter.

Forty-one years later, Bev Boynton flips through A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range during an interview in her home in 2023. [Photo] Julie Ellison

“I was pre–Title IX, so for people who didn’t have a family that encouraged them, there were fewer opportunities to excel in sports or teams. I busted out of it a little bit…but when the Title IX [generation of] women and girls started [climbing], they blew me out of the water when it came to sport climbing. I still held my own in trad climbing, and in the Tetons and other ranges.”

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 gave women the right to equal opportunity in sports in educational institutions that receive federal funding. With more women having the chance to participate in sports, they were able to develop their strength, fitness and athleticism in a structured, accessible way.

Boynton had only been climbing for a year when she made that first trip to the Tetons in 1976, and she progressed quickly.

“They were real climbers. The point was to lead climbs and to climb on all sorts of conditions,” she said of her Boston climbing friends. “They were a really good group of men and women, people who were totally committed to the fact that leading climbs and climbing hard was the deal. I completely bought into that.”

Boynton continued to visit the Tetons and other mountains of the western US with her East Coast friends, always returning to her life as a nurse in Boston. Then in 1981 she packed her car and headed west with a plan to move to Estes Park, Colorado. That winter, while visiting Jackson, she and her friends went out backcountry skiing on a powder day. Within a few days, Boynton had interviewed at the hospital in Jackson and accepted a job there.

Boynton loved every part of Tetons climbing, eventually. At first, she disliked how long the approaches were—she just wanted to climb—but that resolved over time. She found joy in moving on rock, in placing protection, in being on a cliff and looking out and in learning about the flora of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. She was driven to do as many different climbs as she could, from first ascents to classic lines.

“Routes on high peaks are amazing—the need to climb not only on good rock, but bad rock, wet rock, on snow. To route find, to climb quickly with efficient belay changes, to throw in good pro quickly and not overly often.… Scanty route info, if any; seeing the line. The descent, the bivouacs, the weather. Such deep satisfaction!” Boynton said.

Boynton climbs the west face of Aiguille de Blaitière in the Alps. [Photo] Bev Boynton collection

Boynton frequently referenced a big black book of photos in the ranger station to find routes she had never done before that might not be in the guidebook. She would zero in on a prominent set of features, take a few notes and find a partner to get it done. She did the same thing while on the road in the park, which is how she became fixated on the giant corner high on the east face of Thor Peak, an ascent she did in August 1994 with Rob Mahoney on a “three-day beautiful adventure.” Richard Pownall, Glenn Exum and Mike Brewer had done the first ascent of the face in 1950, but they backed off the prominent corner because of poor rock and difficult climbing. On her and Mahoney’s first ascent of this variation, Boynton led two of the three 100-foot pitches up the corner system, which  A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range describes as “spectacular” and 5.8 to 5.9 in difficulty.

“I wanted to seek out climbs with a rating that would push me technically, in a place off the beaten track,” she said. “I wanted to climb something that I wasn’t sure I could do—but probably could.”

The uncertainty of alpine climbing is a sentiment that simultaneously plagues and intrigues me about the Tetons. What if I can’t do the crux? What if a storm rolls in? What if I get injured? Going into these peaks regularly requires an affinity for the unknown, a desire to have an adventure and to be in the experience, regardless of the outcome.

The same year Boynton moved to the Tetons, Catherine Cullinane was hired on as the first female guide at Exum Mountain Guides. Growing up in California in an outdoorsy family, Cullinane took a rock climbing course in high school and fell in love with the movement. After graduating in 1973, she got a job working in the cafeteria in Yosemite. Over the next few years, she apprenticed in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows from some of the best climbers of the era, such as Ron Kauk, John Bachar and Dale Bard, among others.

One summer Cullinane and a friend drove a Volkswagen Beetle 900 miles from Yosemite to the Tetons to visit friends who worked for Exum. On the two-week trip, she met Margo Krisjansons, who worked in the Exum office and would become a lifelong friend, and Renny Jackson, her future husband, who would go on to co-author the third and fourth editions of Ortenburger’s A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range. For the next few years, Cullinane spent the winters attending nursing school in California and summers in the Tetons.

By 1981, Exum was getting busy and needed extra help portering gear to the Lower Saddle for clients, so Cullinane started carrying propane tanks. Toward the end of that summer, Exum asked Cullinane to start working as an assistant guide.

“‘Yes, sign me up!’ was my response,” Cullinane said. In her early days going up the Grand, she would work with another guide to take a group of five or six clients to the summit. As she gained more experience, she started to teach basic and intermediate mountaineering classes on her own. She said her fellow guides were supportive by encouraging her and sharing their tricks of the trade. Occasionally a client would question her position as the leader, but that didn’t bother her. “Once you’re out there, they can see who’s the boss,” she said.

Catherine Cullinane stands on the summit of the Grand Teton in 1985. [Photo] Matt Cullinane

After almost a decade at Exum, Cullinane decided to step back from full-time guiding as life led her in a different direction. Between a new diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, a new baby, the start of her nursing career and a few seasons spent in Denali National Park, she decided it was time to step back. Cullinane continued to teach women’s clinics on a part-time basis for the next ten years as a way to keep sharing her love of climbing with others.

Despite being one of the few female guides at Exum for years, Cullinane mostly felt supported by her peers. Though she stopped guiding full-time decades ago, Cullinane is still part of the Exum family, and she forged some of her longest-lasting friendships during her time with the company in the Tetons.

While Cullinane was starting with Exum in 1981, twenty-four-year-old Evelyn Lees was traveling and living the life of a climbing vagabond. After skipping her college graduation to climb in Yosemite, Lees met Louise Shepherd, an up-and-coming Australian climber who would go on to do several first ascents and establish herself as one of the top female climbers of the 1980s. They climbed together through the western US, where they lived off $75 per month for gas and food, before continuing their partnership on a nine-month climbing trip to Australia and New Zealand.

On a trip to Canada’s Bugaboos, Lees met her future partner, Rick Wyatt, who started working for Exum in 1983. He mentioned to Lees that they might be interested in another woman guide. Lees and Wyatt were based out of Salt Lake City, and they went climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon with one of Exum’s owners, Peter Lev. Lees’ strength and competence on rock earned her an invitation from Lev to work for Exum, and she started guiding for the company in the summer of 1984.

She went to the Tetons, did the Guides’ Day training and started auditing other guides by joining them on trips with clients. She loved it immediately, thanks to the small crew of eighteen guides and the emphasis on mentorship and teamwork. The mental and physical challenge of climbing in the Tetons hooked Lees from the beginning, but looking back, she highlights the unique adventures the mountains provide for every individual who ventures into them.

“I didn’t realize it then, but with climbing, everybody gets their own adventure. If it’s the first time you’ve been there, it doesn’t matter if one or 100 or 1,000 people have done it before you. It’s unique [to you],” she said. Lees retired from guiding in 2015.

Five years ago, I spoke with Kit DesLauriers for an online article about her climbing and training. On a hot July day, I sat outside a Squamish coffee shop typing on my laptop while interviewing her over the phone. DesLauriers was at her home in Jackson, Wyoming, having climbed the Middle Teton the day prior with her daughters. We met again in May 2023, this time at her home, which sits just a few miles south of the 12,809-foot peak.

DesLauriers moved to the Tetons on her thirtieth birthday, November 23, 1999. As a self-proclaimed “Rocky Mountain girl born to New Englanders,” DesLauriers had spent the previous eight years in Telluride, Colorado. She skied in the San Juan Mountains and climbed in Utah’s Indian Creek. After stints as a stonemason, gear retailer, ski tech, SAR member and ski patroller, DesLauriers was invited on a Himalayan climbing expedition in 1998. The team didn’t summit their objective, the 22,595-foot peak Siniolchu in Sikkim, India, but getting up to 20,000 feet on a snowy mountain without skis offered a moment of clarity for DesLauriers.

“That was the moment I realized that all the mountains around me looked skiable and spoke to me. I felt lost without my skis,” she said. “I had started ski mountaineering in Telluride just a little bit, and it didn’t make sense to me to be in the Himalayas and not ski.” On the descent from Siniolchu, she decided to focus on climbing mountains she could ski back down.

The next year, in spring 1999, she found herself on another expedition—this time climbing and skiing Mount Belukha, the highest peak in the Altai Range of Siberia in southern Russia. On this pivotal trip, DesLauriers realized she had the skills to be a peer of the other accomplished mountaineers on the trip.

One of those was Rob DesLauriers, and on a cold night in March, they sat outside a snow cave and looked at the stars. She wondered aloud if she should focus on climbing or skiing. At that point in her life, she felt like she was “just OK” at both.

Rob, who was a skier, said, “Will you teach me to climb?”

“Only if you teach me to ski the way you can ski,” she replied. Six months later, they were engaged. That November, she moved to Victor, Idaho, on the west side of the Tetons, where Rob was building a house and living in a van. In those early years together, they had a major opportunity to help develop the Teton Mountain Lodge at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, so they climbed and skied in their home range when they could.

Despite the long hours of work and a frugal lifestyle, Kit was able to pursue a personal goal: to climb and ski the Grand Teton. Kristen Ulmer had become the first female to do it in 1997, and in June 2003, Kit felt ready. Along with Rob and their friend Adam Smith, they headed up to camp at the Meadows, a basin in Garnet Canyon. They awoke at 2 a.m. and got ready in the dark. Kit led the first part of the route before pausing to wait for Rob and Adam. “I think we bang a right here,” Kit told her partners. Adam replied, “You mean you don’t know where you’re going?” 

“I know where we’re going,” said Kit. “I just haven’t been there before.” They climbed the Stettner and Chevy Couloirs, where she placed her first ice screw on lead. The experience was exactly what she had been looking for on Siniolchu, the ideal merging of climbing and skiing.

Kit DesLauriers climbs the Grand Teton in April 2015. In the Mountain Profile of the Grand Teton for Alpinist 33, Renny Jackson wrote: “In winter, climbers’ imaginations carry them from here to the Himalaya, the Karakoram and the Alaska Range. It is incredible to consider that so much exists upon a single peak.” [Photo] Jimmy Chin

Over the years, climbing and skiing the Grand became something she did almost annually, in addition to traveling the world to climb and ski other technical peaks. In October 2006, after successfully climbing and skiing Everest, Kit became the first person of any gender to ski the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.

After all those accomplishments, Kit still felt a strong pull when she looked at the peaks outside her home. She wondered if she had what it took to climb and ski the Grand solo. “Physically, I knew I did, but I wanted to be alone up there to know what it was like mentally,” she said. For her it wasn’t about talking up a big mission to other people or getting her name in the history books—it was about having the experience. She wanted to go deep into herself and see what she was made of.

In June 2013, a decade after her first ski descent of the Grand, she led practice for her daughter’s soccer team, something she did twice a week. Then, after driving her daughter home, she headed to the Lupine Meadows trailhead with her ski gear in the back of her truck. Driving into the park amid the lush valley greens of early summer, DesLauriers felt a profound sense of belonging as she looked up at countless spiny ridges that she had climbed and skied regularly for the past fourteen years. She hiked up to the Meadows and bivied on snow. She slept from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., then brewed a cup of coffee and started up with crampons on her ski boots. As her body warmed up for the climb, she went through the list of places where she would check in with herself to evaluate the condition of the route as well as how she was feeling. Get to the bottom of the Stettner Couloir by 5 a.m., mentally transition to the steep part for soloing, then to the bottom of the Chevy Couloir. 

It wasn’t about going fast; it was about being there. When she got to the notorious ice bulge in the Chevy—a technical section that is especially hard with skis on your pack—she found it was in good form and the climbing was easy enough. The anxiety she had held about that section dissipated. When she reached the summit, she experienced a supernatural connection with her surroundings. Sitting up in the blue sky, she felt attuned to the green growth of spring 7,000 feet below, the frozen white of the snowy alpine and a bright sun that warmed her body.

After thirty minutes alone at the top, and with no one else on the mountain that day, she began the descent, skiing from the summit block into the Ford Couloir. She then arrived at the top of the Chevy Couloir, where she rappelled several hundred feet. On the rappels, without a partner to talk to, she muttered to herself, “Pull orange. Pull blue. Pull orange. Pull blue.” When she reached Glencoe Col, she called Rob to tell him she was done with the technical portion of the descent. She had about 5,500 vertical feet and a few miles of skiing and hiking to get back to the trailhead. She told Rob she was on track to be down in time to pick up the kids from school that afternoon—she loves being a mother and welcoming them with a hug at the end of the day as she later explained.

For me, climbing in the mountains is all about what DesLauriers emphasizes: being there. It is a shift away from the self-criticism I experience with the performance-focused mindset of bouldering and sport climbing. It is the raw contact with nature that I crave, the hours of movement that still my mind, the place I imagine being when I want to escape where I actually am. To be up there and in it.

Before I moved to the Tetons, I had heard of Dana Larkin as a strong, competent climber, and we had mutual friends who suggested that we connect. We’ve climbed together a few times, but not nearly as much as I’d like, with life getting in the way. In late April 2023, I walked through the snow toward Larkin’s yurt in Kelly, Wyoming. We had a cup of tea and played with her dog Yama, an energetic red heeler–collie mix, while she told me about her last sixteen years in the Tetons.

Dana Larkin looks out the window of her yurt in Kelly, Wyoming, in 2023. [Photo] Julie Ellison

On Larkin’s first climbing trip to the Tetons in 2007, she and a friend set an audacious goal to climb the Grand Traverse, a linkup of ten prominent summits in the range via hiking, scrambling, technical climbing and rappelling over almost eighteen miles. The twenty-four-year-old had plenty of rock climbing experience from her time at Colorado College, where she would go to the South Platte, Shelf Road and Indian Creek every chance she could. By the time Larkin showed up in the Tetons, she and her climbing partner had just spent a month in the Bugaboos, so they felt prepared for the challenge of the Grand Traverse.

They managed to summit the first peak, 12,324-foot Teewinot Mountain, but her friend got sick from the altitude and had to stop and puke, so they bailed. But it was enough to hook Larkin.

“There’s something really special about the peaks, just the exploration of it,” she said. By the next year, she had moved to Jackson and was working at Red Top Meadows, a wilderness therapy program for adolescent boys. Larkin spent the next few years climbing at Blacktail Butte, Death Canyon and Rock Springs Buttress. She eventually got payback on the Grand Traverse, completing the linkup despite a cold unplanned bivy on the North Ridge of the traverse’s namesake peak. She and her partner reached the steep chimneys of black and yellow granite late in the day, and with the sun rarely touching those deep crevices, they found ice covering the rock, which slowed them down considerably. For Larkin, adventures like that are part of the magic of the Tetons.

“When I am in the mountains, I don’t want to be anywhere else,” she said. “I can fully be myself, and other people understand. That’s where my light shines, when I am in nature with people who are like that.”

One of those people was Inge Perkins, an accomplished skier and alpine climber. Together they climbed Bean’s Shining Wall of Storms, a seven-pitch 5.12b at 12,000 feet on the southwest face of the Grand. Larkin recalled a fun September day on pristine granite, “talking about everything but climbing.” The next month, Perkins died in an avalanche near Bozeman, Montana. Their budding friendship and climbing partnership only lasted a year, but Larkin had found a kindred spirit in Perkins, another woman with a deep love of big days in the alpine.

It’s that love and appreciation that Larkin wants to pass on to her students at Jackson Hole High School, where she teaches math and coaches the JHHS Mountaineering Club. The group climbs on the school’s indoor walls a few times a week and visits nearby areas like Sinks Canyon, City of Rocks and Devils Tower (Bear Lodge) during school breaks. Although the group is mostly male, there’s one girl who joined the club in 2022.

“She could barely get off the ground last year, but now she is climbing on the steepest [walls], and she really wants to learn how to place gear,” Larkin said, noting the inspiration she draws from the club. “I want to figure out more ways to get them mileage, to navigate, to place gear, to get them into the mountains.”

Larkin scrambles up the top of Exum Ridge (5.5), on the Grand Teton. [Photo] Dan Corn 

From Eleanor Davis and Irene Beardsley to Bev Boynton and Dana Larkin, the time these Teton climbers have spent in the range has laid the groundwork for someone like me never to question my place in the mountains. Theirs and other women’s stories from here have always been a big source of inspiration for my own alpine pursuits.

My time in the Tetons has not been marked by first ascents, fast times or difficult grades. Instead, my memories are characterized by alpine starts, deep conversations and unshakeable friendships. Climbing the East Ridge of Disappointment Peak with my friend Trish who wore a pink tutu all day because it was her birthday. Leading the 5.9 thin hand crack variation of Guides’ Wall with tons of encouragement from my friend and climbing partner Ben, who would go on to officiate my wedding. Turning back on a solo mission up Teewinot Mountain after getting off route and climbing up a loose chimney. Being there to document the first person with Down syndrome to summit the Grand Teton. Summiting the Middle Teton via the Buckingham Ridge with my future husband before cowboy camping in the south fork of Garnet Canyon and drinking canned red wine.

Just like tectonic plates and molten magma shaped the Tetons, these mountains have shaped me. They’ve taught me that the summit itself is only a small—and superfluous—part of the journey. Climbing here is all about finding joy in the other aspects of the experience: the long approaches, the never-ending descents, the maze of canyons and couloirs and ridges, the wildflowers growing among striated rock, the snow and ice of early season and the dusty dryness of late summer. I walk in the footsteps of the climbers before me, and many others will follow. The Tetons and their jagged beauty will be there, ready to teach their lessons to anyone who will listen.