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A House of Stone and Snow

This Sharp End story originally appeared in Alpinist 49.

[In 2014 Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives visited Helen Kilness and Jene Crenshaw at their home. The two women were the founders of Summit Magazine, the first US monthly climbing magazine that ran from 1955-1989. Kilness died April 14, 2018, at age 96. Crenshaw died September 2, 2019, at age 95.–Ed.]

A 1971 cover of Summit [Photo] Courtesy The Henry S. Hall, Jr. American Alpine Club Library

THE SMALL BROWN SHINGLED HOUSE is enfolded by boulders, perched on top of its own granite crag. Stark light falls around the golden oak leaves, the pinecones and the needles. Low mountains rise across the valley, pine-green and sunbaked white. The distant lake recedes to an iridescent blue band. The rock deposits grains of sand on my hands when I touch it, soft and grey as ash. After the long California drought, there’s a sense that everything could flare up in an instant, burn out and vanish.

The house itself seems, slowly, to be going back to the wild. One wall is covered with woodpecker holes; another is starting to bow. Paint peels on the front porch, and the balcony looks frail. Hummingbirds whirr at the window feeder, with a blur of wings. It’s the sort of place a child would find magical. Miniature model houses appear, nestled high in the boulders; a little bridge arches over a dry pool. A climber might traverse the house, across the giant boulders and stone bricks, without ever letting her feet touch the ground. Or wander amid the surrounding alcoves of rocks, clambering up rounded cracks and sloping holds.

On the front door, there’s a painted sign with the image of a piton and the lettering, Summit House.

NEARLY SIXTY YEARS AGO, when Jene Crenshaw and Helen Kilness first drove up the winding mountain roads and saw the house above Big Bear Lake, built with such surreal imagination, they knew it was the place they’d dreamed of: solitary and quiet, with a catacomb-like basement where they could create a darkroom and set up their printing press. It was here that they stitched together early issues of Summit, America’s first monthly climbing magazine. And from 1955 to 1989, they occupied a constant, often hidden, presence in mountain writing.

“The less people knew about us,” Jene tells me, when I visit in October, “the easier it was to work. We had to do our own thing…. We kept to ourselves. We had to.” At first, they worried that readers might not purchase an outdoor magazine run by two female publishers, so they listed themselves as “J. M. Crenshaw” and “H.V.J. Kilness” on the masthead. Later, Jene switched to “Jene M. Crenshaw” (which, to her, sounded less feminine than her given name, “Jean”). Helen continued to use her initials and last name. “It was a man’s world,” Jene says of the Fifties. “I didn’t resent it. It was just the facts of life.”

Summit House, where Jene Crenshaw and Helen Kilness did much of the work of editing Summit. Traversing the rocks that encircle the building provides an interesting boulder problem.

[Photo] Katie Ives

Although other female editors had served at North American club publications such as The Canadian Alpine Journal and Mugelnoos, Helen and Jene launched Summit at a time when women had largely faded to the background in the narratives of United States mountaineering. Susan R. Schrepfer, in Nature’s Altars, notes a “diminished visibility” of women climbing at high standards during the 1950s and early 1960s–in contrast to the prominent female leaders of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Miriam Underhill, who penned her manifesto on “manless” ascents after traversing the steep spire of the Aiguille du Grepon with Alice Damesme. The Fifties in the US, recent historians argue, was an era of intensely paradoxical messages. Wartime posters of heroines performing jobs of absent men in offices and factories disappeared, replaced by gleaming advertisements that showcased suburban housewives consuming new kitchen and beauty products. Women’s magazines alternated between publishing scattered stories about female career achievements and promoting a vision of middle-class domestic bliss so perfect it was unattainable for real families.

Men who felt stifled by the conventions of Fifties society discovered an outlet in the words of Beat writers urging them to leave civilization behind. Women who sought similar forms of escape sometimes struggled to find a place in the same counterculture, where their presence was not always welcomed. As Ruth Rosen explains in The World Split Open, “For young men determined to avoid the world of their fathers, freedom meant cutting loose from women and children.” With the rise of postwar technology, Joe Fitschen recalls, climbing became “quite violent…with the bashing of pitons and the struggling over overhangs”; to many, “it just didn’t seem to be the kind of thing young women should be doing.” Examples of strong female lead climbers, such as Bonnie Prudden, who participated in thirty new Gunks routes between 1946 and 1955, or Jan Conn, who made hundreds of first ascents across America with her husband–remained fairly rare. Irene Beardsley (later famous for the first all-female ascent of the North Face of the Grand) joined the Stanford Alpine Club in the early 1950s, where she met a number of talented, active women. But she didn’t start leading, herself, for several years. “I think I positively enjoyed the freedom to be different,” she recalls, “At the same time, I was quite shy. I did feel I was defying norms.” With few clear paths to follow, the female adventurers of the Fifties often had to create their own.

“EVERYTHING WAS A CHALLENGE, and I was out to meet it,” Jene tells me. “I’ve never been frightened in my life. I can’t even remember what it’s like to be frightened.” After the death of her father, an electrician, Jene’s mother struggled to raise her and her brothers in Huntington Park, California. Like many of her high school classmates, Jene joined the military during World War II. In the Coast Guard, stationed in Georgia, one of her fellow radio operators was Helen–a quiet woman who grew up on a South Dakota farm. When the war ended, they pooled their small savings, bought a motorcycle, taught themselves to drive it and set off across the country together.

Jene had learned to climb with the Sierra Club, back when the organization’s coed large-group trips to the hills provided a welcoming environment for female members. The idea of Summit arose from her passion for mountains, as well as her desire, after years of working for a Masonic publication, to have a magazine of her own. “Once we got started,” she says, “the stories came to us.” Many legendary climbing writers published their earliest articles in Summit, experimenting with new styles and ideas. The Letters section hosted fierce debates. Royal Robbins, who served as Summit’s rock-climbing editor from 1964 to 1974, helped usher in the age of clean climbing. Cartoonist Sheridan Anderson, who painted the Summit House sign, poked fun at the grand protagonists of the Golden Age. The publishers presented groundbreaking first ascents and ordinary excursions on an equal level, as if all that mattered was a love of mountains for their own sake–the ability, as Rick Sylvester wrote, “to take pleasure from the experiencing, not just the experience.”

In 1956 a reader wrote a now-infamous letter, beginning, “Sir: I find a regrettable tendency in your magazine to refer to mountaineering as a career equally adaptable to both men and women.” Outraged responses flooded the Letters sections of the next issues (which perhaps was the publishers’ intent), defending women’s right to climb–including a note from Elizabeth Knowlton, who had accompanied a 1932 Nanga Parbat attempt. A year later, Jan and Herb Conn’s article “We Work in Our Spare Time” explained the principles of dirtbaggery for married couples: “It’s a simple matter of mathematics–two people working six months a year are just as good as one person working twelve months to support two people.” By the mid-1970s, Arlene Blum had written a cover story on her all-female Denali expedition; Sibylle Hechtel had reported on “a veritable explosion of women on walls”; Royal Robbins had declared, “If there is any male chauvinism in Yosemite climbing circles (and there is), it has been dealt a severe blow.” And Anderson had sketched a spry female climber facing down a crew of bleary, hungover men, with the caption, “Guess what we girls did today?”

BETWEEN SUMMIT DEADLINES, Jene and Helen went on climbing trips in an old pickup with a small trailer. After dark, they’d turn off some back road, extinguish the headlights and continue by moonlight or starlight until they found a hidden place to sleep. They preferred scrambling up unfrequented peaks, and they kept no record of their ascents. For the most part, Jene recalls, they climbed alone. “It was easier that way,” Jene says. “It was hard to synchronize our schedules with other people’s…. It was safer that way. We knew what we were capable of.” During one of their last big Sierra Club excursions, the trip leader had asked them to take a novice along on a route. At the top of a pitch, Jene told the man to stay to one side while she belayed Helen up, but he kept shifting back and forth, knocking rocks loose. A big stone thundered down, and for a moment, Jene thought Helen was dead. At last, Helen shouted up, “I’m all right.” Jene says, “Those were the happiest words I heard in my life.”

Jene Crenshaw served as a “radio man” in the Coast Guard during World War II.

[Photo] Crenshaw collection

During the 1970s and 1980s, while newer magazines became more polished and specialized, promoting the hardcore and the cutting edge, the publishers of Summit retained their humble approach. They kept the print runs at only 10,000, so as not to interfere with the lifestyle they loved. To some readers, Summit began to seem old-fashioned, its gregarious accessibility a holdover from the mass outings of the Sierra Club days–from a vision of climbing that had more to do with pure fun, than with extreme sport, and from an idea that “mountainlore” (as one enthusiastic letter writer put it), included, not just one form of “mountaineering,” but all the multifaceted ways that people approach the hills.

In the 1972 Ascent, David Roberts looked back at his brief tenure as Summit‘s Rocky Mountain editor, recalling conflicts over the publishers’ decision to replace “By God” with “by gum” and their general reluctance, as Seventh Day Adventists, to permit allusions to evolution. Nonetheless, he concluded, “I ended up with a certain respect for Helen and Jene’s extreme and eccentric stand. It was they, after all, that gave Summit its unmistakable style… accounts of super rock climbs side-by-side with the homeliest backpacking sagas; Ed Cooper photos face-to-face with lint-laden snapshots…. No other editors put so much love into their journal, or made it so much their own.”

Helen Kilness at the end of World War II with the motorcycle that she and Crenshaw used to drive across the country.

[Photo] Crenshaw collection

Climbing history, the American historian Joseph Taylor points out, tends to focus on first ascents and quantifiable records. But there are other layers buried beneath accounts of the hardest, fastest and highest: the perspectives of individuals, male and female, famous and unknown; the drifting of winter light over a flow of blue ice; the slow growth of a bristlecone pine; the quickening of a mind to wonder; all that generally vanishes through the lacunae of history, and that Summit, in its own way, documented so well. Doug Robinson, an early reader, says that as he leafs through old issues, “bits and pieces come surging back into memory, unbidden…of a time when outdoor pursuits like backpacking and of course climbing were far on the fringe from mainline culture”–entire worlds of glimmering domes and distant laughter, bound between the covers for decades, released at the touch of a hand.

INSIDE SUMMIT HOUSE, Jene takes out a series of black-and-white photos from a tuckedaway 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.”

[This is a slightly expanded version of the article that appears in Alpinist 49. Several historians, as well as readers, former staff and contributors of Summit, assisted us with research, including: Helen Kilness, Jene Crenshaw, Elaine Matthews, Brad Rassler, Joe Fitschen Irene Beardsley, Pat Callis, Paula Crenshaw, Joe Kelsey, Julie Rak, Kerwin Klein, Maurice Isserman, Joseph Taylor, Ed Webster, Glen Denny, Steve Roper, Lito Tejada-Flores, John Porter, Brian Cabe, David Roberts, Jim McCarthy, Arlene Blum, Sibylle Hechtel, Sallie Greenwood, Claire Walter, Carla Firey, Tami Knight, David Harris, Glenn Woodsworth, Wayne Merry, Peter Haan, Larry Hamilton, Jan Sacherer Turner, John Harlin III.–Ed.]