Mary Cronin, An Inspiration | The First Woman 14er Finisher

These pictures are courtesy of the Colorado Mountain Club Archives, Golden, CO

Long before thousands of Coloradans spent their weekends trudging to the top of the states’ fourteeners, the state’s pioneering mountaineers ranged across these mountains, often members of the Colorado Mountain Club. In 1933, Mary Cronin, a Western Union Accountant from Denver became the first woman fourteener finisher with her ascents of Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford. Her story is relatable to any modern peak bagger who stumbled upon a life-long obsession with the Colorado fourteeners. 

Mary Cronin was born and raised in Denver

Mary was born in a working class family in Denver, Colorado in 1893. The family lived in the mining town of Victor for a short time in the mountains near Pikes Peak. One must imagine this period left some mark on Mary, even after they returned in Denver. She found work as an accounting clerk by age 17, and by 21 she was living alone and bored as a young, single woman in the city. She turned to the small but lively Colorado Mountain Club to keep busy.

It started with a Colorado Mountain Club hike.

In 1921, Mary joined the young organization for a trip as a guest up Clear Creek Canyon. The tame hike turned serious when the rain turned to snow and the wind howled fierce halfway into the trip. The leader, one of the CMC’s early female leaders Ethel Murphy later stated, “Well, I’m glad I came, wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but—never again!” The memorable trip must have caught on with Mary, who became a Club member and regular trip attendee.

Mary Cronin
An early CMC climb with many woman climbers

She became good friends with several legendary climbers.

Mary Cronin summited her first fourteener, Longs Peak, in August of that year on a trip led by Agnes Vaille, another legendary pioneer in Colorado mountaineer. She had climbed several dozen fourteeners by that point, set on becoming the first woman fourteener finisher. During the 1920’s, Agnes and Mary climbed nearly twenty fourteeners throughout the state, building up their skills and getting closer to their goal. 

However, Agnes also remained fixated on Longs Peak. In January of 1925, she and fellow CMC member Walter Kiener attempted the first winter ascent of the mountain’s East Face. While the two finally succeeded on their third attempt, she paid for the accomplishment with her life while descending through a blizzard. The news broke like a shadow over much of the state, and Mary threw herself into climbing like never before.

Mary Cronin kept climbing and began leading the CMC.

In the aftermath of her friend’s loss, Mary turned to the mountains for solace. She climbed five peaks within three days, and continued chipping away at her goal over the following decade, reaching 40 summits by 1930. In the meantime, she became an established leader in the Colorado Mountain Club, becoming a Board Member in 1926 and leading numerous hikes and climbs as a trip leader. The time spent in service to the Club likely slowed her progress, though she continued climbing peaks throughout this time.

In 1933 she climbed her last two peaks.

In the early 1930’s, Mary Cronin began to count down her final ascents. Amid continued CMC trips, she had only four peaks left by 1933: Mount Elbert, San Luis Peak, Mount Oxford, and Mount Belford. With all her Class 3 and 4 climbing completed, she finished her final ascents of Mt. Belord and Mt. Oxford in 1934 and cemented her legacy as Colorado’s first woman fourteener finisher. 

Mary Cronin left the state around 1940, her climbing days behind her.

While Mary remained involved with the CMC for the rest of her life, she only climbed a few more years following her achievement, including a climb of Mt Blanca’s north face in 1937. Around 1940 she was transferred out of state for her position and hung up her rope and boots largely for good. She continued to retain her CMC membership, attending events from time to time, until her death in 1988. Mary Cronin accomplished what many though impossible, proving that no height, not even 14,000 feet, is too high for the woman of the west.

RELATED READ: THE BELAY ON K2 | HOW AN ICE AXE SAVED SIX IN 1953

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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