American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Elizabeth Woolsey, 1908-1997

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998



An enthusiastic member of the American Alpine Club for 62 years, Elizabeth D. “Betty” Woolsey, 88, died at her home on Trail Creek ranch above Wilson, Wyoming, on January 11. Her last glance was of the meadow, horses feeding on sparkling snow, with evening shadows approaching.

Betty was bom December 28, 1908, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where her father worked for the Forest Service. She spent her formative years living in a log house on the edge of a mesa. There, her bedroom faced the Sandia mountains, which, in her own words, “cast a spell on me.” This spell lead to “a lifelong affair with the mountains.” Following adventurous years spent in the southwest, the family, which now included five daughters, moved permanently to New Haven, Connecticut.

After graduating from Vassar, Betty was drawn to the European Alps, where she was accompanied by climbers who have since become legends. In the early 1930s, she went to Chamonix, France, where she ascended her first major peak, the Grepon. On this granite spire she was introduced to “awesome exposure.” On another climb, she was exposed to the sight of an English climber, “sandwiched between two guides. The guides poked their client with an ice axe below and hauled from above like a piece of luggage,” she remembered. In Zermatt, Switzerland, guided by the noted Bernhardt Biner, Betty climbed her first high peak, Monte Rosa. From the summit, she looked down on the Matterhorn and other great peaks.

On her return to the United States, she explored the Big Horn Mountains with AAC members Bill House, Alan and Bill Wilcox. They climbed and named almost all the major peaks. One peak was named Mt. Woolsey in memory of her late father. In the Canadian Rockies, she climbed in the Banff area with Roger Whitney and Bradley Gilman. (The latter became president of the AAC in 1953.) The group enjoyed the climbs; however, she added, “they had no liking for the unstable rock.”

All this mountain experience naturally led to exploration of the alpine world of ice and snow, beginning in Europe, where Betty first learned to ski. She credited her guides for teaching her how to deal with mountain emergencies in winter.

Betty was well-prepared for success when she entered international ski races in Europe, culminating in 1936 with what she called the “Nazi Olympics” in Germany. She was chosen as captain by her fellow team members. Betty, who delighted in being on the edge, excelled at downhill, and was the leading American skier in the Olympic event. She and her friend, Marian “Sis” McKean, entered major races that followed and they both compared favorably with the more-experienced Europeans.

Hitler intervened. The ski-racing scene came to America, and Betty’s attention shifted to American mountains. In summer, she climbed in the Wind River mountains, the Tetons, and was a member of an expedition to Mount Waddington, which, at the time, was Canada’s highest unclimbed peak.

Betty’s ski-racing career climaxed when she won, handily, the 1939 U.S. National Downhill Championship at Mount Hood, Oregon. It was a high speed race. Sun Valley, a ski resort just three years old, became the focal point for American ski racing, and attracted a sprinkling of European racers and Hollywood luminaries. Betty naturally was drawn to the setting. She commented: “I settled down to a routine of skiing and partying, with emphasis on the latter.”

Becoming disenchanted with resort life, Betty joined a trip with a group of friends headed for Jackson Hole, with its uncrowded slopes and light powder snow. “I discovered my piece of land the first time I skied down Teton Pass,” she recalled. She acquired that land in 1943 and began the achievement of her life, creating Trail Creek Ranch.

On the “piece of land” stood a sturdy log house—lacking running water or electricity— and a few crumbling buildings, leftovers from the stage-stop days. At once, several friends were attracted to the scene and joyfully helped Betty put the place in order. An accomplished writer, she reluctantly left the ranch in winter to stay in New York City, where she was editor of Ski Illustrated magazine, the first of its kind in America. In three years, she resigned from the job and settled at Trail Creek permanently.

With improvements to the house, the addition of a bam, and more meadowland acquired, Betty began taking a few “paying guests.” Following tradition, many guests found satisfaction assisting with ranch work.

Betty made sure that everyone would have the thrill of high-mountain adventures. Leading pack trips into the wilderness, she had only a map for a guide, and often relied on a catch of trout for the main course at dinner. She became acquainted with Gibb Scott, a rancher and hunting guide (he had even climbed the Grand Teton, which locals seldom did), and he became Betty’s tutor for horseback travel in the mountains and ranching.

In winter, she shuttled skiers to the top of Teton Pass, and with knowledge gained from years of experience, led them safely down a variety of exhilarating runs. Those who had never skied powder before were just expected to follow. Somehow, the neophytes managed, and soon became proficient. Betty had an exceptional feel for snow, whether it was safe or unsafe. With her respect for avalanche danger, she hung a thermometer from a tree branch at the top of Telemark run to provide a clue. Betty would never ski the enormous open slopes of Glory Bowl in winter; rather, she waited for the consolidated spring snow. She undoubtedly holds the record for the number of runs made on Teton Pass, a record unlikely to be broken.

Trail Creek Ranch became well established, requiring wranglers, cooks, ranch hands and assorted chore boys. Betty always referred to employees as “the crew.” The most important member, Margaret “Muggs” Schultz, expertly guided skiers down the slopes in winter, tended the hayfields and harvest in summer, and had inherent know-how to deal with most any problem on the ranch. She was assisted for many years by “Sis” McKean Wigglesworth, Betty’s friend from ski racing days. Several crew members were influenced by Betty’s enthusiasm and became successful dude ranchers, guides and outfitters.

Betty took delight in having a houseful of interesting people. She relished good food and good conversation. There was an intellectual side to her many-faceted personality. An insatiable reader, she was also devoted to opera, “Mozart in particular,” she would add. An evening at the Met was a top priority when she visited New York.

As long as she was able, Betty refreshed her soul by irrigating the fields. Placing dams in the ditches, she would reverently watch as water flowed over the meadow, nourishing the hay ground and pasture for her animals. “Horses are the heart of a dude ranch,” she asserted, and was justly proud of the herd she had put together and sustained.

A memorial service for Betty was held at Trail Creek Ranch on June 7, 1997, where her memorable words were recalled:

I have seen the face of the land change in my lifetime. The wild uncrowded places are scarcer now, untracked snows harder to find, and ski racing has become big business. Time is running out. I would not have been born later.

All quotes are from Elizabeth Woolsey’s autobiography, Off the Beaten Track, Wilson Bench Press, Box 104, Wilson, WY 83014.

Virginia Huidekoper

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