An all-women’s climb of the Grand Teton celebrates the first female ascent of the peak 100 years ago
On a sunny August morning, a group of twenty-six women of all ages walked up and down steep rock slabs in sticky rubber approach shoes. The blue waters of Jenny Lake sparkled below them and the jagged granite peaks of the Tetons reached high into the sky above them.
In 1923, Eleanor Davis became the first known woman to climb the Grand Teton – the second tallest peak in Wyoming. A hundred years later, this all-female group of climbers along with an all-female team of guides were getting ready to summit the peak to celebrate her legacy.
“As soon as I heard about this climb, I thought 'That sounds like something I should do,'” said Dawn Rucker, who lives in Jackson. “And I really do believe courage is like a muscle and unless you push yourself to where you're uncomfortable, you don't get stronger.”
Rucker was taking part in a two-day training to learn the skills needed to navigate the Grand Teton – tying knots, managing ropes, rock climbing, rappelling, and walking on steep terrain.
Rucker was at the training with her friend Ellen Houlihan, who lives in North Carolina. The two went to West Point together and Houlihan said they are now lifelong adventure partners.
“Dawn has this motto that once a year we should do something that gets our hearts pumping a little hard and maybe scares us a little bit. So this is that adventure for this year,” Houlihan said.
Morgan McGlashon was one of the guides helping to run the training and is no stranger to breaking glass ceilings in the mountains. When she was 19, she became the youngest known woman to ski the Grand Teton and said going into the mountains with a group of all women is something special.
“It's very exciting and fun and powerful and important and sparkly and beautiful,” she said.
McGlashon, who is now 28, helped organize the climb and was the youngest ski guide working at Exum Mountain Guides when she started in 2020.
“I think it is really exciting and important that Exum is doing this climb as a way to help get and see more women out in the mountains. And it’s also a really cool celebration of the Centennial,” she said.
Kimberly Geil works at the Exum office, and is the guiding company's historian and founder of the Exum History Project. She said Eleanor Davis’ 1923 climb of the Grand was actually very early in the history of the known ascents of the peak.
“This was not only the first recorded female ascent, but only the third party to summit and only the fourth recorded ascent of the peak,” she said.
Davis was the physical education instructor at Colorado College and the vice president of the Colorado Mountain Club. Geil said that on the day Davis summited the Grand with her friend Albert Ellingwood. The six other men in their party turned around before the top.
“The fact that Eleanor Davis was on this early climb of the Grand Teton is notable because climbing was a very male dominated sport at that time, but obviously she was capable and more than able to hold her own,” Geil said.
A hundred years later, the group of all-female climbers and guides from Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides split in half and headed into the mountains in two waves over the weekend.
One group hiked up on Saturday and made their summit attempt on Sunday, August 27th, exactly one hundred years after Davis’ first attempt. The next group hiked up on the Centennial day and summited the following morning.
On the first day of their trips, the groups hiked more than six miles up a steep trail and gained almost 5,000 feet in elevation.
That night, they camped at the Lower Saddle, about 2,000 vertical feet shy of the summit of the Grand. The inside of the Exum hut was decorated with a disco ball, colorful hanging circles, and a rainbow banner that read “Celebrate!”
After eating dinner, the group gathered together to hear the plan for the next day. Exum Mountain Guide Jessica Baker pointed out the potential paths that the group could take the next day and traced the most popular route to the summit, called the Owen-Spalding.
“We're looking at little bits and pieces of our route, barely, but most of it's out of sight further to the northwest,” she said. “That's where you start into the famous belly crawl, belly roll, Owen Chimney, up into the Sargent’s Chimneys and then scrambling the rest of the way to the summit.”
Baker emphasized that these kinds of trips are about so much more than getting to the summit – she said that teamwork, communication, self-awareness, and making smart decisions when it came to weather and terrain all came first.
“We're on an adventure together, and we're going to work with Mother Nature, and we're going to work with how we're feeling, and we're going to work with our safety protocols and do the right thing,” she said.
The next morning, the group woke up in the dark and got their climbing harnesses, helmets, and headlamps on. They started hiking at 4:30 a.m., navigating up steep slabs and rocky ramps to make it to the Upper Saddle about 600 vertical feet below the summit.
The group then roped up to tackle the so-called belly roll and belly crawl of the climb. McGlashon, Baker, and the other guides clearly communicated the plan for navigating the technical terrain.
“Wanna, I’m gonna bump up ahead so I’ll go below you, and when the rope comes tight, you can say, ‘That’s me, Morgan!,’” said McGlashon. “And even if you can’t hear me, which you might not be able to, go ahead and climb. Sound good?”
As McGlashon moved around the corner, Wanna Johansson waited for her rope to go tight to start traversing on an exposed ledge with thousands of feet of open air below.
Johansson, who was born in the Philippines and now lives in Jackson, was able to come on the climb thanks to a scholarship from Exum, Women in the Tetons, and the Teton Climbers’ Coalition. She said her presence as a woman of color helps break down barriers.
“This stuff is rewriting the narrative – we can rewrite the story and just be here,” she said.
While not everyone decided to go all the way to the 13,775 foot summit, a group reached the top of the Grand Teton just before 8 a.m.
At the summit, the women laughed, hugged, and put pink glitter on their faces. A bed of fluffy clouds covered the valley below and the blue sky above seemed endless.
Paige MacLeod, who lives in Wilson, was one of the climbers on the summit. She took it all in.
“I wasn't sure this morning – I was not sure! How am I feeling now? Kind of in awe – in awe,” she said.
MacLeod said the climb was made possible thanks to good guides and good company.
“It's a miraculous thing to be up here, among all these awesome women with glitter on their faces,” she said.
Johansson was also taking it in and got her picture taken on the summit, standing tall with her arms out wide and a huge grin on her face.
“I just finished crying and there could be more tears,” she said. “I feel just super grateful to be here, it's a magic place.”
After about half an hour on the summit, the group started descending back down to camp, retracing their steps through the Sargent’s Chimney and then rappelling 120 feet to reach the Upper Saddle.
Back at the Lower Saddle a few hours later, Johansson said the experience of being on the summit was deeply cathartic.
“Honestly, I think I left a lot up there,” she said. “I was allowed to leave some stuff up there that I've been carrying.”
Johansson said she’ll be taking home a feeling of being welcomed into the climbing community.
“There was a kind of a dissolution of lines between being separate and, you know, it feels very much like we all had to move as one being up this amazing being,” she said.
What will the next one hundred years of climbing look like in the Tetons? For Johansson, she said she hopes the narrative can keep changing about who is climbing in the mountains.