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The View from the Edge: Life and Landscapes of Beverly Johnson

The View from the Edge: Life and Landscapes of Beverly Johnson. Gabriela Zim. Mountain N’Air Books, La Crescenta, California, 1996. 188 pages, black-and-white photographs. $17.00.

In capturing the historical context and significance of Bev Johnson as the first woman to solo Yosemite’s El Capitan in a climbing world largely insulated from the then-popular second wave of feminist politics, her biographer, Gabriela Zim, quotes the words Bev spoke to a Times reporter shortly after her successful ascent:

… the feminist movement doesn’t rate much attention among the mountaineering subculture. We generally think of ourselves as girls, not as Big Women. We’re not feminists because we’re not forced to be. The men don’t polarize us. They treat us as climbers with certain strengths and limitations, and they help us as equals.

It is unfortunate that The View from the Edge cannot maintain the same easy relationship with gender differences that its subject appears to have had. Almost shrill at times, the biographer’s voice frequently punctures the otherwise inspiring international adventures of Bev Johnson and bellows an agenda that pits women against women and women against men in overly simplistic and cartoonish battles of the sexes.

In discussing how Bev climbed very little with other women, Zim draws her own conclusion that, for Bev, “climbing with other women could be a sign of weakness,” and seen as a step down. This was the case for many women climbers, though, since the number of men in the sport has always greatly outweighed the number of women; climber Sybille Hechtel’s perspective attests to this: Zim quotes her saying “Climbing all of ‘69, ‘70, ‘71, I never saw another woman climbing once.”

Bev Johnson was a bold, aggressive climber and sought out partners whose vertical appetites equaled her own; many of those partners were indeed male. But Bev’s words on the issue to the Times reporter indicate that her own perspectives on gender were far more complex and less polarizing than Zim’s are.

Zim seems angered, and yet at the same time a little too pleased, that Bev “earned the right to stay and climb” in the '‘Boys’ Club,” a contradiction that privileges the very male domain that angers Zim, as well as undervaluing the women who chose to participate in it. These sentiments may be acceptable on their own—given that the world of climbing has historically been a masculinized environment, and given that Bev Johnson’s accomplishments were indeed extraordinary for an American woman at that point in U.S. climbing history. What is inexcusable is Zim’s apparent need to objectify and trivialize the women who ventured into that domain: she describes one great woman athlete merely as an “athletic blonde,” and employs diminutive phrases like “the little engine that could,” and “rock nymph” to characterize Bev Johnson herself.

Nevertheless, Zim deserves credit for her fine documentation of Bev Johnson’s remarkable and historically noteworthy life, particularly her well-chosen selection of Bev’s letters, which were written to her family during her travels around the globe. These writings describe Johnson’s encounters with the rain forests of the Amazon, the Antarctic ice cap, and even the Afghanistan- Russian war as filmed by Bev and her husband Mike Hoover. The letters demonstrate the wit and verve of a Bev Johnson that no biographer could ever duplicate, and convey the conflicts and confusions she experienced about continuing to live the nomadic life of a climber versus settling down into something more conventional.

Ultimately, Zim warrants applause for harnessing the subject’s compelling and complex emotional life in a book that, like all climbing books, runs the risk of presenting a very one-dimen- sional look at its subject as climber. View from the Edge is brave in this sense, even tackling prickly and private issues like infertility and abortion. Because the reader is provided with such intimate glimpses of Bev Johnson’s life, the final chapter describing her death in the infamous Ruby Mountains helicopter crash becomes all the more jarring. If one can get past the gender bulldozing as well as the atrocious typographical errors left behind by a neglectful editor, there is a genuine and well-rounded story of a spirited adventurer worth telling our daughters and sons about.

Amy Irvine