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Mary Cronin: The First Woman to Climb All of Colorado's Fourteeners
On the cold morning of January 13, 1925, Mary Cronin—along with thousands of other Denverites—awoke to a grim headline in the Rocky Mountain News: “Agnes Vaille Freezes on Longs Peak.” Newspapers across the state were reporting the same story. The famed mountaineer had died the day before after being trapped on the east face of Longs Peak during a surprise snowstorm.
It had been the first successful winter ascent of that face of the treacherous mountain, but Vaille never made it back down.
Agnes Vaille had been a popular figure in Denver society and a well-known member of the Colorado Mountain Club. But while all of Colorado mourned the loss of this intrepid adventurer, Mary Cronin set out with a new determination to finish what her friend had begun: to become the first woman to climb all of Colorado’s fourteeners.
Only four years earlier in 1921, Cronin was a young clerk working in her home city of Denver. She’d been working the same job since she was nineteen, and now at the age of twenty-seven she was restless and looking for adventure.
She soon found it when she joined, seemingly on a whim, a hiking trip being led by the Colorado Mountain Club, a popular nonprofit mountaineering organization founded about a decade earlier. The leader of this particular excursion was one of the club’s many female members, Ethel Murphy, and their destination was Beaver Brook Trail, just west of Golden. The trip was nearly ruined by a surprise spring blizzard on April 24, in which heavy rains froze and became driving snow. Murphy later wrote: “Well, I’m glad I came, wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but—never again!”
Still, the trip, as maligned by weather as it was, seemed to awaken something in young Mary Cronin. She became a regular guest on CMC-led hikes, and by the end of the year she was a full-fledged member. On August 21st, she joined an ambitious hike that would change the course of her life: a climb of the Never Summer Range, led by Agnes Vaille.
Vaille was already well-known around Colorado at this point. She was one of many women in the Colorado Mountain Club—in the year she joined, of the 229 members of the club, 93 were women— and had quickly made a name for herself for her ambition. She frequently took on dangerous hikes, blazing new trails up treacherous mountainsides as a scout for the club, and her life’s goal was to become a member of the exclusive “14,000-Footers Club”—the list of people who had climbed all of Colorado’s fourteeners, mountains which exceed 14,000 feet in elevation.
This “club” was a small one, including only a handful of men—and no women. Agnes wanted to be the first.
On the August 1921 trip, she led a small group up the Never Summer Range and to the summit of Longs Peak. This was Mary Cronin’s first “fourteener,” and the first expedition she went on led by Vaille. The two would become fast friends.
Vaille’s ambition seemed to be contagious. She quickly convinced Cronin to join her on her crusade to bag all of Colorado’s fourteeners, a task that Cronin took to with gusto.
Over the next three years, Agnes Vaille and Mary Cronin went on an epic journey of peak-bagging. They traveled all across the state, from Telluride to San Luis to Leadville, summiting one mountain after the next. By the end of 1924, Cronin had reached the peaks of twenty-three new fourteeners, while Vaille had bagged twenty-one.
Even as they tackled new peaks together, Vaille was repeatedly drawn back to Longs. The mountain’s east face is one of the most dangerous climbs in the Colorado Rockies, and the difficulty of the ascent proved an irresistible challenge. Vaille and Cronin climbed it twice together in 1924, and as summer ended Vaille returned to Longs Peak again, this time with Walter Kiener.
They attempted to scale the mountain’s dangerous east face twice that fall, but failed both times. This didn’t deter Vaille, who quickly vowed to make the first winter climb of the mountain. And so she and Kiener returned in January of 1925 to make one more attempt.
This time, they succeeded. On January 12 they reached the summit, triumphant, and turned to begin the descent back down the way they had come. But the mountain was not done with them. An unexpected snowstorm blew in, trapping Vaille and Kiener in an area without shelter or easy exit. Kiener managed to escape and return with a rescue party, one of whom would die on the slope, but Vaille never made it back down alive.
Agnes Vaille’s career as a mountaineer ended in tragedy, following close on the heels of one of her greatest triumphs. But the other women of the Colorado Mountain Club carried on her legacy as trailblazers—and the most prominent of these was Mary Cronin.
Cronin responded to the loss of her friend by practically throwing herself into mountaineering. The year Vaille died, Cronin tackled five new fourteeners, all within spitting distance of each other. She bagged all five of them in less than three days, and then re-climbed two others on her way home, just to prove a point.
The next year, in 1926, Cronin became a member of the CMC Board of Directors, and after that she was even more active in the club. She led many trips every year both for members and guests, still finding time in between to steadily bag more and more fourteeners. Her progress was slower without her friend Agnes, but she managed to get a few more every year—and in the fall of 1931 she became the first woman to summit Lone Eagle Peak.
Finally, in 1934, Cronin finished her mission. She bagged her last four peaks that summer: Mount Elbert, San Luis Peak, Mount Oxford, and Mount Belford. With this accomplishment, she finished the mission Agnes Vaille had started more than a decade earlier. But her career as a mountaineer wasn’t over, as she remained active as a CMC leader for many years, in various roles.
Her nearly two-decade-long membership in the Colorado Mountain Club ended in 1939 when her accounting job transferred from Denver to Nebraska, and then to Texas. The pronounced lack of mountains in either state stymied Mary Cronin’s greatest passion, and from then on she only climbed on occasion. However, her role in the club did not end until her death. She maintained her membership for decades, despite living outside Colorado.
The trail blazed by Mary Cronin and Agnes Vaille, and Ethel Murphy and Eleanor Davis, is one that endures to this day. They, along with other members of the Colorado Mountain Club, were pioneering women in a pastime long dominated by men. They proved beyond doubt that whatever heights men can reach—whether figurative or literal—women can too.
Note: Edits made 5/14/2020 to correct several details, including some dates of climbs, the survival of Walter Kiener, and misattributed photographs.
“Mary Cronin.” Colorado Encyclopedia. https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/mary-cronin. Accessed March 19, 2020.
“Women in the Early Days of the Colorado Mountain Club.” American Mountaineering Museum. https://www.mountaineeringmuseum.org/blog-1/2019/3/22/women-in-the-early-days-of-the-colorado-mountain-club. Accessed March 19, 2020.
Robertson, Janet. The Magnificent Mountain Women: Adventures in the Colorado Rockies. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.