Big Wall Beverly Johnson Changed the Calculus of Yosemite Climbing
In 1969, Beverly Johnson left school in the last semester of her geology studies for a more hands-on education in California granite, culminating with her historic first female solo of El Capitan in 1978. Johnson spent ten days on Yosemite’s iconic 3,000-foot monolith, just one highlight in her extraordinary life as a climber, skier, fire-crew boss, and award-winning cinematographer, among many other things.
Johnson set up residence in Yosemite’s Camp 4, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins in the twilight of rock climbing’s golden age. As her skills progressed she became a leading light in the sport’s next great generation, an era of free-climbing progression that kicked off in earnest in 1971.
In one memorable stretch in the autumn of 1973, she made the first all-female ascent of Triple Direct on El Capitan with Sibylle Hetchel, climbed The Nose with Dan Asay and then wrapped up the season with the first ascent of The Grape Race with Charlie Porter. In little over a month, Johnson, by then known as “Big-Wall Bev,” had spent nearly three weeks on El Capitan’s sheer granite face.
“I think they were taking bets on us,” Hetchel said of the Camp 4 regulars watching their weeklong ascent of Triple Direct. “Half the people were betting we were going to make it, and the other half were betting that we weren’t.” Johnson entertained no such doubts. She was a member of Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), and if her own crew had to rescue her she’d never live it down.
“She was the first ‘one of the guys’ girls,” said Jim Bridwell, founder of YOSAR and unofficial dean of Yosemite’s new generation. “We didn’t take girls climbing, but we’d take her. If she could do it, it was 5.9. If she couldn’t, it was 5.10.” Those were the early days. After her first couple of seasons in the valley Johnson was regularly leading 5.10 and higher, but Bridwell stuck with his notions. When Johnson repeated the first pitch of New Dimensions, a route Bridwell himself pioneered and rated 5.11, he downrated it to 5.10.
Johnson could only laugh, and tackle more tough lines. On Whack and Dangle, a Yosemite route now rated 5.11b, Johnson paused mid-climb and shouted down to her partner, Bruce Hilden. “You know, if I make it, they will just downrate the climb.”
Johnson and Hechtel gearing up for Triple Connect, 1973. Screenshot from Wild New Brave.
Johnson’s 10-day solo of El Cap’s Dihedral Wall in 1978 erased all doubts, and gave her an unexpected flash of celebrity. She received more press coverage in the Bay Area papers than the pope, who was visiting San Francisco at the time, Gabriella Zim wrote in a 1999 profile of Johnson collected in Rocks and Roses, Mountaineering Essays by Some of the World’s Best Women Climbers of the 20th Century. Johnson was invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The band played “Climb Every Mountain” as she walked onto the set.
“Why do you do it?” Carson asked.
“I have no idea,” Johnson deadpanned.
Her appearance as contestant number three on the game show “To Tell The Truth” was more revealing. When a celebrity panelist asked how she knows she is ready for a climb, Johnson replied, “You try. If you don’t make it, you’re not ready.”
Johnson was game to try just about anything. Born in Annapolis in 1947, her father was a Naval aviator and her mom a homemaker. She was an accomplished gymnast and dancer, raised in “22-button society,” she said, a reference to the length of the opera gloves she wore at her society debut in 1965. She started college at Kent State, and then applied—so she thought—to UCLA, drawn by the promise of California sun and the school’s standout gymnastics program. When the acceptance letter arrived and Johnson realized she’d actually applied to USC, she rolled with it, studying geology at USC and honing her athleticism on the rock and the ski trail.
She followed her passion for cross-country skiing to Squaw Valley, where she found work sewing parkas and later as a ski instructor. For the next decade her life fell into a seasonal rhythm, skiing in the winter and climbing the rest of the year. She spent nine full seasons in Yosemite, notching significant firsts on and off the rock. She was the first woman on the park’s search and rescue team, the first woman fire crew boss and helitack leader, flying into wildfires on helicopters.
Johnson seemed to excel at anything she put her mind to. When the longtime cross-country enthusiast took up alpine skiing, even Bridwell—he of the sandbagged ratings—raved. “Bev’s ski equipment was comprised of hand me downs. I gave her some 207 French team skis and cut-down poles. She got boots from the sister of a friend. Up ahead, I spied a lone skier making big, smooth, fast turns. After 200 yards of semi-reckless abandon, I could make out it was a woman smoking down the hill. It was Beverly,” he wrote in Climbing magazine in 1994. “Bev was like that when it came to picking up skills. You turn your back and the next thing you know, she had improved twice as much as you.”
Johnson’s adventures took on a globe-spanning scope after her romance with Mike Hoover got serious in 1976. The two first met in Yosemite, as Trip Gabriel related in a 1996 Outside magazine profile of Hoover. “He was descending a rock-climbing route when he threw down a rope and heard a yelp. It was Johnson, leading a much harder climb, and she was not pleased to have been hit. ‘As I went by she totally ignored me and said something to her belayer about how some people are dickheads—she had a real foul mouth,’ said Hoover fondly. ‘I hung on the rope next to her to say I was sorry, but it was like I didn’t exist. I was in love.’”
Johnson hardly noticed the rugged 6’5” Hoover, who would later double for Clint Eastwood during filming of the classic climbing thriller The Eiger Sanction. That changed when they both joined a climbing expedition to Venezuela in 1976, and fell in love. The couple started splitting time between a log cabin in Wyoming, and a modest house in Los Angeles. Hoover was an up-and-coming outdoor sports cinematographer, and Johnson mastered the camera as easily as a pair of borrowed skis. They carved out a living as filmmakers, often documenting their own extraordinary adventures.
They explored Antarctica’s remote Palmer Peninsula for ABC’s American Sportsman, travelling by dogsled and using a gyrocopter, a type of ultralight helicopter for reconnaissance flights. Johnson, a skilled fixed-wing pilot, flew the temperamental craft.
Next, Johnson led a team of six women to the island of Irian Jaya, parachuting into the jungle highlands and climbing out. “After the trip to Venezuela, I said no more jungles, but now I’m ready to go again,” she told a newspaper reporter on the eve of that expedition, which Hoover filmed for a documentary. “Even rats learn, but not me.”
Johnson and Hoover married in 1981 and spent their honeymoon back in Antarctica, climbing the continent’s highest peak, Mt. Vinson. Johnson later paddled a kayak alone through the Strait of Magellan, windsurfed across the Bering Strait and filmed a ski traverse of Greenland for ABC’s American Sportsman, acting as a one-woman crew. With Hoover, she travelled many times to Afghanistan to cover the Soviet-Afghan war as freelance television producers.
Wherever her adventures took her Johnson was unflappable. “When things would really get horrible and everybody else would be falling apart, she would get a snake-eyed look and just chill out,” Hoover told Gabriel.
In April 1994, Johnson and Hoover were invited on a heliskiing trip to Nevada’s Ruby Range hosted by Frank Wells, president of the Walt Disney Company. Also on the trip was Dick Bass, owner of Utah’s Snowbird Ski Resort, and Hoover’s old Eiger Sanction Doppelganger, actor Clint Eastwood.
The First All-Woman Ascent of El Capitan, An Excerpt from 1973 from Oakley Anderson-Moore on Vimeo.
After a day of skiing, two helicopters came to ferry the party back to their lodge. The weather had turned nasty, and the helicopter carrying Johnson, Hoover, Wells and their ski guide was forced to land and wait out the storm. After about two hours, the weather cleared enough for the helicopter to take off, but barely two minutes later the engine quit and the machine plummeted some 250 feet onto steep terrain. Hoover was the only survivor.
In her profile of Johnson, Gabriella Zim wrote, “What separates Bev from an impressive but two-dimensional tick list of world exploration and adventure, though, is the acknowledgement by nearly all of her partners of her unique spirit. She found intense joy in the journey, not just the discovery, and the journey of her life is a story that needs no exaggeration.”
Words by Jeff Moag