Ruth Dyar Mendenhall, 1912-1989

Publication Year: 1990.



Ruth Eleanor Dyar was bom on August 16, 1912 in Kiesling, Washington, a farming hamlet near Spokane. Her father, Ralph, was a newspaper executive and playwright. Her maternal grandparents, who had emigrated from southern Germany, had founded Kiesling. Ruth’s love of the outdoors developed during her early years on hikes in the hills near her family’s farm. As a child, she learned that she loved climbing anything available—trees in her grandfather’s orchard, the farm buildings. When her family moved to Spokane after the war, she continued to climb on a neighborhood basalt outcrop.

Ruth attended the University of Washington with a major in journalism, graduating magna cum laude. Although she hoped for work in her field, professional jobs were scarce. She soon moved to California because she was offered secretarial work there, but she was very lonely in her first years away from home. She frequently wrote to family and friends, beginning a lifelong tradition as a correspondent.

Ruth joined the Sierra Club in 1937 and began going on outings with the Ski Mountaineers section. She first encountered rock climbing in the spring of 1938 when most of the ski mountaineers switched to climbing for the summer. Technical climbing had recently begun in California. There were six routes on Tahquitz Rock, and Ruth did them all. She was one of a party of five that made the first ascent of the Swiss Arête on Mount Sill. There were two experienced climbers and three neophytes: two young men and Ruth. The male beginners felt extremely insecure on the exposed ridge and never climbed again, but Ruth was thrilled by the climbing and the altitude.

Ruth was one of six who established a cooperative climbers’ residence, “Base Camp,” in 1939. A mixed group of young people living together in a big house was a concept far ahead of its time. For the residents, Base Camp was like the home and family most of them missed. At this time, Ruth developed her lifelong interest in outdoor journalism, serving as editor of Mugelnoos, the spirited and irreverent newsletter of the Sierra Club’s Ski Mountaineers and Rock Climbing Sections during its first four years. She later served on the Sierra Club’s editorial board in 1940 and 1941.

Ruth met John Mendenhall, a structural engineer, in 1938 at the base of Tahquitz Rock. They were married in Van Nuys on September 22, 1939. They climbed extensively in California before World War II. They made first ascents of Monument Peak in the southern California desert, a route on Strawberry Peak in the San Gabriels, and Mount Whitney’s southeast face. In 1940, they went to the Canadian Rockies to attempt unclimbed Mount Confederation. The approach went twenty miles through an untracked forest of deadfalls. Although they reached the mountain, bad weather prevented an ascent.

With the advent of World War II, John was transferred to defense industries in the East. In some areas, the Mendenhalls could make practice climbs on local cliffs. They managed one trip from Alabama to the Tetons in 1944. Ruth wrote, “It was good to be in that high, clean beautiful country. … It was so fine to be on top again.” They made several climbs, including the first ascent of the west face of Teewinot.

When Ruth and John returned to southern California after the war, they resumed climbing. In 1948, they pioneered the route which is now the standard on the Lower Cathedral Spire in Yosemite. They also returned to Canada. In 1947, they made the first ascent of Mount Confederation. In 1952, they completed the first ascent of Aiguille Peak.

After the war, the Mendenhalls’ interests also centered on their family: Vivian and Valerie. For a few years, Ruth and John alternated in attending weekend climbs. However, the children soon accompanied them on hikes and later on backpacking trips. They taught the girls to be at home in the mountains. Good judgment was learned from example and anecdote as much as from formal teaching.

In 1957, they pioneered the first route on the north face of Mount Williamson in the Sierra Nevada, whose approach is among the most arduous. There were many other pioneering ascents in the Sierra, the Palisades and Minarets. Ruth fulfilled a personal goal of climbing all the 14,000-foot peaks in California.

Ruth remained active in journalism until late in her life. After the war, she resumed the editorial leadership of Mugelnoos and was chairman of the editorial committee until 1978. She also contributed occasional articles to outdoor magazines. In 1966, she published her first book, Backcountry Cookery. Ruth believed that beginners would enjoy the mountains best if they learned simple and practical techniques and kept their sense of humor. The next year, she published Backpack Techniques, which was based on the same philosophy as its predecessor. In 1969, Introduction to Rock and Mountain Climbing was published with John as co-author. In the 1970s, in response to new technologies such as chocks and freeze-dried food, Ruth produced second editions of all three books. In 1983, a third edition of Introduction was published under the title of The Challenge of Rock and Mountain Climbing. In 1982, she co-authored Gorp, Glop and Glue Stew, a facetious collection of outdoor recipes. From 1978 to 1981, she was editor of the American Alpine News.

The Mendenhalls joined the American Alpine Club in 1966. Ruth served on the Board of Directors from 1974 to 1980. She was on the Membership Committee in 1976 and its Chairman from 1977 to 1980.

In 1978, when John retired, the couple bought a house in Seattle. Before they left California, the Sierra Club honored them with the Farquhar Award for achievement and leadership in mountaineering. They were also interviewed by the club’s Oral History Project and received honorary memberships in the Rock Climbing Section. In 1983, the American Alpine Club presented them with the Angelo Heilprin Citation for service to the Club and to mountaineering.

Ruth Dyar Mendenhall died suddenly on March 22, 1989 after a brief illness with the flu. She requested that her ashes be scattered near John’s at a special spot in the mountains. Throughout her life, with all her pleasure in people, her home and her writings, she felt, as she expressed at the end of her first book, “The peaks, the snows, the ink-black skies; the waters, winds and wild flowers; the trails and campfires—all will call you back.”

Vivian Mendenhall