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Jean (Jene) Crenshaw, cofounder of Summit magazine, dies at 95

Helen Kilness, left, and Jean (Jene) Crenshaw, ca. 2014. [Photo] Katie Ives

Helen Kilness, left, and Jean (Jene) Crenshaw in 2014. [Photo] Katie Ives

Jean (Jene) Crenshaw–the cofounder of Summit magazine, the first monthly publication dedicated to climbing in the US–died September 2 in Big Bear, California, at age 95. She was preceded in death by her close friend and Summit cofounder Helen Kilness, who died at age 96 in 2018.

Summit was published from 1955 through 1989. Paula Crenshaw, Jean’s niece, wrote:

To grasp the contribution of these two extraordinary women is to understand the societal expectations of women in the 1950s after World War II. Mostly, middle-class women were expected to marry and become housewives…. Unmarried or career women were often looked upon as those women not lucky enough to have found a husband to support them. This is the world Jean and Helen found themselves in when they left the Coast Guard after World War II…. They combined savings, bought a motorcycle, taught themselves to ride in the dealership parking lot, and rode it across the country back to their families. They discovered a passion for rock climbing during excursions with the Sierra Club and in 1955, they turned their love of the mountains into 35 years spent publishing Summit magazine.

Paula Crenshaw, Jean's niece, wrote of this photo, which was taken ca. 2014: These are the last photos taken of them when I rode my bike down to visit. Jean was pestering me to take her for a ride on the back. I was too afraid she'd fall off! But it shows her famous smile everyone loved. Helen died a few months later. [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

Paula Crenshaw, Jean’s niece, wrote: “These are the last photos taken of them when I rode my bike down to visit. Jean was pestering me to take her for a ride on the back. I was too afraid she’d fall off! But it shows her famous smile everyone loved. Helen died a few months later.” [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

Jean and Helen were concerned no one would buy a mountaineering magazine produced by women, and therefore listed themselves as the more masculine Sounding Jene Crenshaw and HVJ Kilness. This tactic fooled at least one outraged reader who in 1956 wrote, “Sir: I find a regrettable tendency in your magazine to refer to mountaineering as a career equally adaptable to both men and women.” This letter created a storm of responses from readers and the resulting controversy delighted Helen and Jean.

Helen and Jean were quite religious but hired the comic illustrator Sheridan Anderson, whom Doug Robinson remembers as a “dirtbag bon vivant,” to produce their magazine artwork. Sheridan, always the jokester, couldn’t resist sneaking in cartoons for the covers with disguised vulgarity that would be missed by the “ladies.” Summit unwittingly published several of these magazine covers. By the 1970s, to some climbers, the magazine had an outdated folksy reputation and was overshadowed by the hardcore mountaineering magazines. Nonetheless, the editors published now-classic works by some of the top writers of the day, including Steve Roper, Royal Robbins (who was the rock-climbing editor from 1964 to 1974), Arlene Blum, whose advocacy for women’s climbing would inspire generations to come–and many more.

Moreover, the magazine focused on mountains for everyone, and an article on a family enjoying a modest hike would run alongside an article on the latest hard rock route to go up. The magazine began as a monthly production but when monthly deadlines interfered with climbing adventures it became bimonthly. Deadlines became fluid for a sometimes-frustrated readership as Jean and Helen explored new mountains to write about and photograph. Long after Summit ended, Jean and Helen, even into their 90s, would take off for the wilderness and disappear for days at a time…. Theirs was a life well lived.

A cover of Summit Magazine. [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

A cover of Summit. [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

The American Alpine Club recognized Crenshaw and Kilness for their important contributions and lifetime service to American mountaineers in 1989. [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

The American Alpine Club recognized Crenshaw and Kilness “for their important contributions and lifetime service to American mountaineers” in 1989. [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives wrote a profile of the women and of Summit for a Sharp End story titled “A House of Stone and Snow” in Alpinist 49 (2015). Ives had visited Crenshaw and Kilness in their home above Big Bear Lake in 2014. Ives shared some excerpts from the story in a Facebook post on September 6 after learning of Crenshaw’s death:

Some of my favorite memories of them below (from 2014, hence the present tense, although in a way this moment feels timeless to me, as if they must still be living this life somehow):

“INSIDE SUMMIT HOUSE, Jene takes out a series of black-and-white photos from a tucked-away box. There’s an image of her in a white military uniform, her smile full of authority and charisma. There’s a photo of Helen leaning her back against their motorcycle, gazing wide-eyed at the world. Jene tells me she was briefly engaged to an enlisted man. ‘But he went down with his ship. Afterward, I said I would never get married. And I never did. The magazine became my life.’ Between the lines of Summit stories, there’s another, invisible history of that life lived at the rhythm of pitches, the running of a press, the shuffling of feet on forest trails–and the moment of sitting down before a blank piece of paper, that, no matter how often repeated, feels endlessly new. There’s the friendship between two women that has lasted for more than seventy years. And the house they shared, now precarious with age, still perched on top of its crag.

“‘It’s been real nice living here,’ Helen says. ‘I enjoyed every moment, just living surrounded by birds, deer, trees, being out in the mountains.’ Toward evening, the light deepens to rose and gold. One of their two small terriers gently washes the face of the other, now ailing. ‘Climbing gives you a good attitude toward danger,’ Jene says, when I ask her what she loved about our pursuit. ‘Climbing makes you accept life as it is. It’s a good, clean life, to climb mountains. A good feeling when you get to the top.’ She knew the risks her writers faced; in quiet moments, she faced them, too. ‘I would always leave my desk in order because I might not come back,’ she says. She’s accepted the idea of dying. ‘It just means that you might not come back.’

Night falls so quickly it happens without notice. One minute the sky was still lit, and then it’s dark. Soon the first snows will fall, piling drifts as high as six feet; soon they’ll have to move down to their second house in the valley. Jene says she thinks she’s still strong enough to run the tractor to plough the road; she insists they could spend one more winter here. ‘I’m dragging my feet,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t want to go.'”

Jean Crenshaw as a young woman. [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

Jean (Jene) Crenshaw as a young woman. [Photo] Courtesy of Paula Crenshaw

Ives shared the following quotes about Summit, which she collected from interviews for her 2015 Sharp End story (and which have since been updated).

Jim McCarthy: “Like any any pioneering effort it had an enormous influence on subsequent publications. If present day climbing media pundits don’t properly credit Summit, it because they, like most of their contemporaries, don’t know much about history.”

Ed Webster: “When I think of Summit magazine, yes, it featured an eclectic array of foreign mountaineering, skiing and rock climbing articles, but what stood out and made a lasting impression on me and the white painter’s pants, rugby shirt, bandana-wearing climbers of my generation were Sheridan Anderson’s cartoon masterpieces–and Royal Robbins’ philosophically nuanced how-to manifestos on clean climbing and the use of nuts. The symbiotic effect of Sheridan’s cartoons and Robbin’s prose exhortations had on us was profound. Hammers and rock pitons were left at home. And nuts triumphed! This sea change in rock climbing protection and environmentally aware climbing ethics occurred almost overnight in America in the early 1970s. Royal, Sheridan, and Summit magazine had an equal role in leading this social movement to adopt clean climbing as did Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost’s elegantly-designed hexes and stoppers, and Doug Robinson’s treatise “The Whole Natural Art of Protection” published in the 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalogue. In its own modest understated way, Summit magazine, ably piloted by Jean Crenshaw, helped usher in the worldwide clean climbing revolution of the early 1970s.”

Arlene Blum’s first cover story with Summit was about the groundbreaking all-women’s expedition to Denali in 1970. She told Alpinist, “Their publishing my articles was important to the beginning of my writing and climbing career. When I did my ‘endless winter’ of climbing expeditions around the world for 15 months during 1971 to 1973, I wrote 10 articles for Summit magazine and was paid $100 for each. This payment made the critical difference that allowed me to climb in countries like Iran and Afghanistan at this better time. Due to the early support of Helen and Jean, I was able to gain the high-altitude experience that made possible my later expeditions, such as Annapurna and Everest. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for believing in me and supporting me at a critical time for my climbing career.”