[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 79 (Autumn 2022), which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 79 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
IN THE FALL 1997 issue of Sandstone and Tile, the publication of the Stanford Historical Society, there’s a picture of a woman standing outside of a door labeled “Forge & Foundry.” She is wearing a long apron, and her gloved hands hold something I can’t make out clearly. A welder’s mask is tilted up on her head, revealing a smile that’s more like a smirk. The caption reads: “Bea Vogel forged her own pitons after Maxine Steinecke suggested she check out the ‘wonderful metal shop in the engineering department.’ Photograph from 1952.” The accompanying article, “A Woman’s Place: Coed Climbing in the 1940s and 1950s,” by historian John Rawlings, describes the rich, but often ignored, stories of the women of the Stanford Alpine Club, compiling information from a series of oral history interviews he’d conducted.
It was March 2020 when I first came across the photo. I was researching women’s climbing history, then, for an eventual book, and I looked up Bea’s name online, desperate to talk to her. The first thing I found was an obituary. Without being able to speak with Bea herself, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to learn much about her besides the glimpses in Rawlings’ articles. But to my good fortune, the Stanford Alpine Club had kept a file dedicated to her in their collection. Although the Stanford Special Collections were closed to visiting researchers because of the pandemic, their archivists dug through her file and scanned everything about Yosemite they could find, including the transcripts of her interviews with Rawlings. As I began to read through the scanned documents and look at more images, my picture of Bea started to come into focus.
I knew that I was holding additional proof that the lineage of women climbers in Yosemite went back just as far as men’s–an idea that, today, seems obvious to me, but it ran contrary to much of what I had read about Yosemite climbing history. In his 1992 introduction to The Vertical World of Yosemite, Galen Rowell had declared, “Women are conspicuously absent from the climbs in this book. I have no apology to make here because it is not my place to change history… There indeed were women recreational climbers… but their skill level was far below that of the best men.” It wasn’t only that such statements ignored the legacy of elite women climbers such as Beverly Johnson–who made the first all-female ascent of El Capitan (Tu-Tok-A- Nu-La) with Sibylle Hechtel via the Triple Direct in 1973 and who established Grape Race, a hard big-wall route on the same formation with Charlie Porter in 1975. There were also much earlier examples, such as Bea, someone who had found her own way up the Valley’s slick granite with pitons she had forged herself. A woman with a wild grin and a strong body, clearly already at home amid the sunstruck rock and the quiet air of a bygone age.
BEATRICE VOGEL WAS BORN on February 3, 1930, to Hans Ernst Vogel and Roesle Jenny Vogel. Bea’s parents were Swiss immigrants who retained their dual citizenship, but as Bea told John Rawlings, prejudices against Germans kept their family from ever speaking Swiss-German at home.
The landscape of Billings, Montana, was a perfect home for a young and wild Bea, who loved to climb trees and explore the cliffs on the edge of town. On Sundays, her family would hike along the sandstone cliffs, and Bea would scramble over house-sized boulders, learning to trust her feet as she roamed the talus slopes. And from the time she was eight, her father, Ernst, took her along on adventures into the nearby Beartooth Mountains. There, they wandered around the glacier cirques and alpine lakes, sometimes on foot and sometimes on her horse, Vulcan.
For her last two years of high school, Bea went to a preparatory school in Michigan called Kingswood School Cranbrook, which encouraged girls’ participation in athletics, and Bea played basketball and field hockey. It was long before Title IX would improve women’s access to sports programs in the US, and Bea wouldn’t realize how relatively rare this opportunity was until later. Ernst and Roesle Vogel valued education highly, but the prep school had been a reach for their budget. To save money, Bea spent two years at the nearby Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University Billings) before transferring in 1951 to Stanford University, which her parents believed offered more to their daughter than any local school would.
At Stanford, Bea was excited to enjoy all the amenities a large university had to offer. She planned to try out for the track team, but the woman in charge of the physical education department told Bea that there was no track program for women and that running might affect her childbearing abilities. Bea was flustered, but not deterred. She soon learned about the Stanford Alpine Club, which admitted both men and women. That should be challenging enough, she thought, and she signed up.
Like many Stanford Alpine Club members, Bea spent weekends climbing the classic granite routes around Yosemite Valley. She also went on longer road trips to venture up the alpine rock of the Tetons. In one of Rawlings’ interviews, Nancy Bickford Miller, a climbing partner, recalled an excursion to the Tetons with Bea and Nick Clinch. One night, injured and in a knee brace, Clinch noticed a bear walking into their camp. He yelled for Bea to chase it off, which she did with a set of cooking pans, appearing completely unafraid.
The Stanford Alpine Club, like many climbing clubs at the time, had a system of certifications for leaders and followers. Rawlings later asked Clinch why so few of the club’s women ever led climbs. “The men somehow didn’t expect the women to end up being leaders,” said Clinch. But–he quickly added– there was one woman who was so unusually strong and talented that she had to be certified as a leader. That woman was Bea Vogel.
Bea told Rawlings, “In the club there was no prohibition of women becoming rope leaders; they just hadn’t so far.” Bea described herself the way many of her friends and climbing partners at the time did: assertive and determined, and steadfast in her convictions. She’d always assumed that she could become a leader, even though the culture of the times reflected otherwise: middle-class women were widely expected, then, to focus on homelife and to remain in subservient roles. According to Miller, “The Stanford Alpine Club reflected the lifestyle in the ’50s. There were just maybe a few people such as Irene [Beardsley], Bea or Jane [Noble] who could see past that.”
Writings by SAC members suggest that other women had led in the past, such as Freddy Hubbard, who graduated from Stanford in 1949, though many former SAC members confirm Bea’s status as the first certified to do so by the club. “Bea broke the barrier,” recalled Clinch, and after she began leading, other women started to recognize that they deserved to move on from following as well.
Bea and her climbing partners forged a new culture for the club of all-woman climbs. A National Park Service register from Grand Teton National Park listed one of the first of such climbs, a July 8, 1952 ascent of the “Petzoldt route”–a reference to the CMC Route–on Mt. Moran, up a wide, 1,000-foot face that rises from a steep, dark notch like the orb of another planet. Bea is listed as the leader, accompanied by Mary Kay Pottinger, Jane Noble and Gail Fleming. Under “Remarks,” the team wrote, “First ascent of the year. All woman party.” According to Stanford Alpine Club records, this quartet also made ascents of the airy North Ridge of Middle Teton and the blocky Southwest Ridge of Symmetry Spire.
In addition, entries in the American Alpine Journal note Bea’s participation in various Teton first ascents with male partners, including the North Face (West Chimney) of Mt. Wister in 1952 with Leigh Ortenburger and Willi Unsoeld. Two decades prior, in The Teton Peaks and Their Ascents, Fritiof M. Fryxell had predicted that this route, then unattempted, would “furnish one of the best climbs in the range.” In his report, Ortenburger remarked that Bea slipped on one occasion. “Knowing that it would take a pretty good pitch to cause her to fall,” he reflected, “I was ready for some real difficulty when I started upward. Once I rounded the corner, it was suddenly apparent what the trouble had been. Willi had silently led up an awkward, difficult overhang.” Past that point, the team sped onward, and they reached the summit early enough to continue to Veiled Peak, where they made the first ascent of the East Ridge–a route that consists mostly of scrambling, apart from the crux pitch, where a burnished slab reflects the light and a climber suddenly remembers just how far from the valley floor they now are.
In Yosemite, Bea made more manless ascents, including one of the West Face of Lower Brother, one of the most popular climbs of the 1950s, with Marian Steineke and Mary Kay Pottinger. In A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra (1954), Richard Leonard, David Brower and William Dunmire described “the rounded character of the holds, polished by winter avalanches, and the ten-foot overhanging steps make this a good climb…. The problem is mainly one of friction.” Bea led the entire route barefoot, placing hardly any pitons, and she told Rawlings that “Dave Harrah was somewhat annoyed with the…climb,” Rawlings asked her why. Bea responded they’d been able to climb faster than most parties, and that perhaps she had bruised the egos of some other club members.
One of her fondest memories came not from a climb she did herself, but from a conversation she had with a friend. “Warren [Harding] was complaining about Royal Robbins finishing the Northwest Face of Half Dome without him,” Bea recalled in an interview with Rawlings. “[Warren] was pouting and moaning because he had been left out. Well, I told him, ‘Oh, hell! There are lots of other walls. Why don’t you do El Capitan,’ and standing in El Cap Meadow and pointing at a line, I said, ‘You can climb right up the South Buttress.’ And he looked at it and said, ‘Well, OK, maybe we can.'” Ever since, Bea credited herself with giving Harding the inspiration to make the first ascent of the Nose.
Remembering her years in the club, Bea said to Rawlings, “We weren’t told that there were limits on ability or [that] ‘You can’t do such-and-such because you aren’t strong enough, because you’re a woman.’ There was a wonderful spirit of camaraderie and cooperation.” Not every woman had that same experience. Irene Beardsley, another prolific SAC member, came to Stanford a year after Bea graduated in 1952. In an email to me, Beardsley recalled the leaders of the club implying that people like Bea were extraordinary and that ordinary people, like her, should just focus on being competent followers. (This was, of course, advice that Beardsley didn’t listen to: she would later make the first all-female ascent of the North Face of the Grand Teton with Sue Swedlund in 1968, and she would become one of the first two women and first two Americans to summit Annapurna in 1978.)
Bea married a classmate from Stanford and lived in San Francisco for a few years after graduation until she got a divorce and, as she put it to Rawlings, “took up with rock climbers again.” In 1959 she moved to Boulder, Colorado. There, while working on a master’s degree, she read in the newspaper about a new spider collection at the University of Colorado. As an avid admirer of the natural world, she felt inspired to start up her own collection, rambling in the mountains, gathering vials of spiders, and returning home to preserve and identify them. After earning her master’s, she received a grant from the National Science Foundation and went to Yale to work on her PhD in zoology, focusing on wolf spiders.
Despite Bea’s limitless ambition, she struggled with the sexism of academia. Her professors didn’t support her work during graduate school, forcing her to self-publish her thesis, and after graduating in 1968, she found herself passed over for jobs while less qualified men were hired instead. She got married for the second time to a fellow Yale scientist and moved with him to Austin, where he had a job at the University of Texas. After taking time away from work to have children, she felt it was impossible to reenter the academic job market. She never became a professor herself, but her frustration at women’s place in society–as I later learned–brought her to a new passion.
HOPING TO LEARN MORE by talking with Bea’s relatives, I scanned her obituary for clues, searched social media for the names of her remaining family members and contacted a museum to which she had donated her spider collection. For months I tried new tactics, but nothing seemed to work. I still couldn’t forget the effect that original photo had on my imagination.
I returned to the obituary once more to see if I had missed any hints. The article mentioned the town her son lived in, and in the digital white pages, I found a mailing address, though there was no way to tell how old this information was. It was my last shot. I typed up a letter, explaining that I was looking for the family of Bea Vogel of Billings, Montana, for a book about women’s climbing history. I included my email address and phone number, and I put it in the mail.
Three weeks later, an email popped up in my inbox. It was Walter Vogel, Bea’s son. Soon, through his memories and connections, I was able to get in touch with more of Bea’s colleagues and friends. A common thread emerged among their recollections, as people who had known her at different stages of her eighty-eight-year life described a woman who, whatever the consequences, refused to let anyone stand in her way of doing what she felt was right.
IN AUSTIN, AS I LEARNED, Bea kept up her independent research, taking pride in her tarantulas and black widows and becoming known for her fearlessness around creatures that others found spooky or strange. She became the first president of the American Arachnological Society, continuing to build her collection without an official academic affiliation. But Bea also fell in with a group of female graduate students–some also biologists like her–who were doing a very different kind of work.
When Bea and Victoria Foe began working together in August 1968, Foe had also been struggling against sexism in the sciences. In an interview with researcher Rachel Brown, Foe recalled a prevailing thought amongst men at the time that educating women was pointless since they would eventually end up leaving academia to raise families. Foe told Brown, “It was really clear that this issue of being able to control reproduction was really, really key,” to their ability to pursue dreams outside of the home. The 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut had given married couples the right to use contraception, but in many states, including Texas, doctors were refusing to prescribe birth control to unmarried women. With University of Texas PhD student Judy Smith, Foe began learning more about the effectiveness of various birth control methods and finding doctors who would prescribe them.
During the autumn of 1968, Bea joined Foe and Smith, as did a handful of other women, in the formation of the Austin Women’s Liberation Birth Control Information Center. Soon afterward, the group realized that the women seeking their help were desperate for information not just about birth control but about abortion as well. Abortion was illegal in Texas until the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and so the BCIC worked to help women access care in a variety of ways. Bea and Victoria Foe traveled together, giving talks on the radio and in public about reproductive rights. They debated priests, explained the dangers of self-induced abortions, and provided as many resources as possible. The BCIC even worked to verify safe abortion providers in Mexico and coordinated to help Texas women cross the border. “I just knew her as this wonderful, fearless woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer from men,” Foe later said to me.
As recorded by author David Garrow in his book Liberty and Sexuality, Bea visited a garage sale one Saturday morning in November of 1969 with Judy Smith, Foe’s BCIC cofounder. The women of the BCIC were afraid that their participation in disseminating abortion information could land them in jail, and at that garage sale, Smith and Bea brought their concerns to lawyer Sarah Weddington. The next year, when Weddington, alongside Linda Coffee, filed the lawsuit of Roe v. Wade, Bea contributed research to portions of the case.
Bea also wrote for Austin’s underground newspaper The Rag, founded by the University of Texas Students for a Democratic Society, contributing one of the newspaper’s first women’s liberation articles, published in June of 1969. Since the newspaper served as an additional way to spread information about birth control, the University of Texas sought to ban its distribution on campus. The ensuing case reached the Supreme Court in Board of Regents v. New Left Education Project, argued in December 1971–just one week before Weddington delivered her first oral arguments in Roe v. Wade.
In that article for The Rag, Bea boldly contemplated her era’s gender norms. She began by lamenting that a common complaint against hippies was that it was hard to “tell the boys from the girls.” Bea questioned why anyone would care about being able to identify strangers’ genders according to stereotypical norms, and she argued that “the reason it is important to know the sex of a person encountered is so you know the rank or status of that person.” She continued with a story that provides one of few written connections she made between her climbing life and her activism:
Recently I went with my husband to a mountaineering supply store to buy special soles for rock climbing to put on our boots. Two kinds were given to us. Superficially the same, but the ones handed [to] me ‘for women’ were thinner, made of rubber which was slicker and therefore would not grip the rock as well, and would wear out faster. I got pretty annoyed because I do more rock climbing than he does, and I outweigh him [by] about 15 pounds and so should have thicker soles if anything. I have never got accustomed to the idea that women do not actually participate in sports but just don the costume and grace the scene of the activity with their ludicrous presence. This is just a bit difficult in the sport of rock climbing, especially on mountain peaks.
BEA’S LIFE SENT RIPPLES into the world that I’ve only begun to comprehend. I wish desperately that I could meet her. I would ask her what it felt like to weld the very tools required to climb in Yosemite, all on her own. I would ask her about the toll it took on her to be constantly fighting against oppression by a world that didn’t see her strengths the same way she did. I would ask her what she lost, and what she gained, by refusing to yield to others’ perceptions of her. And I would ask her what it feels like to see so much of her work undone by the Supreme Court’s recent upheaval of reproductive rights with the June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
For years, Bea traveled from Texas back to her family cabin on East Rosebud Lake, in her beloved Beartooths, for regular summer climbing and hiking trips. She embarked on her last climb, her fourth ascent of Granite Peak, when she was a few months pregnant with her daughter. After a few years in Seattle, she moved back to her home state. “I’m of Montana, I need to be here,” she said in a 2013 interview on the Montana Public Radio podcast Mountain West Voices. She spent the last thirty years of her life there creating art, collecting interesting creatures and wandering barefoot in the mountains.
The more I learned about Bea, the more I came to believe that she saw the same link between climbing and bodily autonomy that I do. Climbing has shown me how important it is to be in control of my own body and to make my own choices in potentially hazardous situations–be that in the mountains or with my health and independence–and perhaps for Bea it did the same.
The 1970s were a time when the struggle for women’s rights rose to the forefront of many people’s consciousness: the Supreme Court ruling in 1971 that allowed unmarried people access to contraception; the decision in Reed v. Reed in 1971 and the passage of Title IX in 1972 that outlawed gender discrimination; the founding of feminist publications, such as Ms. in 1971; the spread of nationwide protests against sexism and so on. Cliffs and mountains, increasingly, became another place where women asserted their right to participate and to lead. In the same year Bea would have celebrated the Roe v. Wade decision, Sibylle Hechtel and Beverly Johnson made the first all-female ascent of El Capitan. A year later, Hechtel described in Summit magazine “a veritable explosion of women on walls.”
At the end of her article for The Rag, Bea explained the intention of the women’s liberation movement. “The goal,” she wrote, “is for every woman to be free to choose who she wants to be, how she wants to relate to other human beings, and what kind of life she wants to lead. To do that… many changes must be made.” I, too, believe they must.
[Delaunay Miller’s book Valley of Giants: Stories from Women at the Heart of Yosemite Climbingrecently received the Banff Mountain Book Award Climbing Literature Award. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 79 for all the goodness!–Ed.]