Flashback: Elaine Matthews

A prolific female climbing pioneer of the 70s, Gunkie Elaine Matthews talks women in climbing and how she became a "lifer".


The ever-stong and humble Matthews tolerating a photo in Joshua Tree. Photo Chris Cook, 2010.

It was the middle of June, but a severe cold snap had moved in on Elaine Matthews and Chuck Ostin. They had just reached Camp VI  (a relatively plush high-in-the-sky bivy ledge) of El Cap with the summit nearly in sight.  It was hard enough finding partners in the male-dominated climbing world in 1970, and with only a handful—if that—of pitches to go until they reached the summit, Matthews wasn’t about to let a little “blizzard” deter her from finishing the route.


But then the haul bag broke and plummeted to the ground, leaving Matthews and Ostin in shorts with no sleeping bags, food or water suspended on the side of the wall.


If it were up to her, she would have suffered hypothermia before she resorted to a rescue. Self-admittedly headstrong since her early childhood, Matthews wasn’t ready for help out. Despite attempting to shout up to the descending party that they did not need help, Tom Baumann, Chuck Pratt and a few others lowered a rope down, one rappelling down, to assist.


“We were overwhelmed with the fact that Tom had rapped down the ropes and passed over these knots—horrifying—that we jummared out with him,” says Matthews. 


Had they completed their attempt, Matthews would have been the first woman to climb El Cap—both swinging leads and hauling loads with Ostin, something that very, very few women were doing at the time. Summiting El Cap was a huge milestone for woman in the early 70s, and something that was finally completed almost three years later by Beverly Johnson. Claude Suhl made the interesting, but perhaps not strong, argument that since Matthews did, in fact, jumar out of the last few hundred feet to the summit, that she was technically the first woman to climb El Cap. Regardless, Matthews never went back to try it again.


Matthews and cat and land in Minnesota. Photo George Bloom,1965




Matthews’ story started as many women back then—a boyfriend at the school she was attending in Minnesota introduced her to the sport. That boyfriend was George Blum, a Vulgarian, who brought Matthews to the Gunks in the summer of  ‘65, where she met a slew of fun-loving, mischievous Vulgarians in their haunt.


“I guess to put into perspective a little bit, I was a college student and it was the 60s. The Vulgarians seemed like the perfect group,” says Matthews. “I felt as if I had found my real family. Everyone was very accepting, everything went and everyone was tolerated and embraced.”


She was enamored of the place and the people. Suhl, another Vulgarian who Matthews would later date in the Gunks, remembers that a short time after her initial visit, Matthews showed up with a van back at the Gunks—this time, without Blum. Matthews was by no means the only female among the Vulgarians. But Matthews was different: she was passionate about climbing from the beginning and the only one at the time actively climbing.


Smiling and in her comfort zone, Matthews sets up for a big move in Red Rock. Photo Andy Carson, 2007.


“I ended up wanting to climb and wanting to pursue leading,” she says. That was something many women were not interested in at the time. But being a female climber at the time wasn’t easy, even for this bold and headstrong force.


 “It was a little disconcerting,” she says, “and nagged at me and my self confidence. Climbing was a guy thing in one aspect in those days: carrying heavy racks of pitons with hammers and hammering in and hammering out. It was work.”


At one points, when Matthews was going through a hard stage where she was “scared shitless”, some of the other women in their circle of friends, suggested she didn’t really have to climb.


“They said, ‘you don’t really have to climb just because the guys do,’” Matthews says. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? I have to. I have to climb. This is what I have to do.’”


Her desire to climb took over, but not without occasional criticism, like when she lead Birdland, a huge accomplishment by anyone at the time in the late 60s/early 70s. But despite the noted success of this feat, “One of the guys wanted to downgrade it,” she says, and call it a 5.7.


No stranger to steep terrain, Matthews catches a quick rest before the roof moves on Wild Seed in the New River Gorge. Photo Beth McLendon, 2012.


While Matthews loved the Gunks climbing and people, she moved back West for nine years, living in Jackson Hole to be close to Yosemite and alpine climbing areas like the Wind River Range.  For the first few years she would spend two or three months living in Yosemite, where she hung with legends like Chuck Pratt and more than pulled her weight on the wall. This is when she attempted El Cap and wowed the boys with her bold climbing and strong leading head. But, ironically, it wasn’t until the last night of her last visit that she finally met some other women climbers there. Though she’d crossed paths with them a few times, she’d never swapped belays.


An independent woman, over the years Matthews taught dance, guided and worked at IBM after moving back to New York. She eventually opened the Inner Wall Climbing Gym in New Paltz in January 1994, with her partner Bruce.  Mostly because, she admits, “we wanted to climb in the winter.” They owned the gym until 2007, when they sold it so they could have more free time to climb.


Though Matthews had some slow times in her climbing career, like when her daughter was young, this year she celebrates her 50th year climbing. She refers to it more like a relationship though, calling it her anniversary. Fifty years is an impressive length to be climbing in it’s own right, but it is made more impressive by the fact that she is still leading, and leading hard.


Matthews poses with Gunkie John Stannard in Joshua Tree. Photo Chris Cook, 2006.


Just the other week she climbed Turdland… “and you know what,” she says, “I found that a TCU fits next to that pin and it’s no longer R,” she laughs. “Well, I didn’t test it, but it looked really good.”



Matthews leading the infamous Turdland this summer. Photo: Christian Fracchia, 2015.  


Humble, strong and selective with her words, Matthews was a force to be reconed with as the topless cover girl of the second edition of Vulgarian Digest, climbing lifer and pioreer of the early female climbing culture. But it comes back to the simple things when I ask her what about this area keeps her around. 


“Is it the climbing, the community…the feel of the landscape,” I asked.


“Yes,” she says, considering the whole list. “I just love it here.”