Badassery: Shunning Climbing Ropes for Science in Yosemite
Each week we highlight badasses throughout history doing the unthinkable in celebration of human potential. This Week: Enid Michael, Yosemite’s first woman naturalist who climbed without ropes
Enid Michael was Yosemite National Park’s first woman naturalist, who often climbed high into the air on the region’s granite walls without ropes in the name of science.
Still with her maiden name, Enid Reeve was a school teacher in Pasadena interested in environmentalism. She met Yosemite’s assistant postmaster, Charles Michael, reportedly at a July 4th Sierra Club celebration on the top of El Capitan in 1909.
The two quickly were taken with adventures that included climbing high peaks. When they married nearly 10 years later (she was 36), they even chose to eschew an apartment and opted to live in a tent near a river in the park with views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. They lived simply, using the water to bathe before and after their research expeditions around the valley.
At the time, Yosemite was being overrun by tourists, and events such as feeding wild animals, which would be shunned today, were normal. The National Park Service was established in 1916 to usher in a more scientific approach to land conservation.
Many parks began instituting ranger-naturalist programs in 1919 to begin the process of educating tourists. While most of these positions were given to men, Michael's known love of the valley’s plants and animals won her a spot as a volunteer. After a year working for free, she was hired as the park’s first female ranger-naturalist.
With a badge on her blouse, she cultivated an affinity for wildflowers and cubs. She served as a seasonal ranger there for two decades, hosting lectures, guiding nature walks, and showing off botanical treasures to park goers.
She studied thousands of plant specimens over her time as a ranger and guide, and wrote heavily about her findings. She published more than 500 articles on Yosemite flora and fauna, and established a wildflower garden behind the Yosemite Museum.
The Michaels loved to climb and would often take on challenging routes without ropes to explore plant life in cliff face crevices high above the valley floor. She discusses many of these trailblazing adventures in her writings. In June 1925, she discusses climbing nearly 3,500-feet to The Diving Board, a now popular lookout point, wearing knee-high socks and leather shoes.
According to Andy Selters in his Adventure Journal, she once told a young protégé that they free climbed because “ropes would be an insult to the mountains.”
“Their lives overlapped John Muir’s in time, substance, and spirit, and arguably it was they who best carried Muir’s torch into the 20th century,” says Selters.
While her husband died in 1942, she would go on to remarry another adventurer and live another 25 years traveling and adventuring around wild U.S. lands.