Mary Cronin (1893–1982) was an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) and the first woman to summit each of Colorado’s Fourteeners. Today, Cronin is best known for her accomplishments in the backcountry, and the CMC she helped develop continues its tradition of guiding people into the mountains.
Mary A. Cronin was born in Denver on April 1, 1893, to Daniel and Henrietta Cronin. Her family probably stayed in Denver during most of the 1890s, but in 1900 they were living in the mining town of Victor, where Daniel worked as a day laborer. By 1905, they were back in Denver, living in Capitol Hill, but by the end of the decade, Daniel was institutionalized at Denver County Hospital. He was later moved to the state hospital in Pueblo, where he died in 1928. He was buried at Fairmount Cemetery next to two young daughters who had not survived childhood. Mary probably finished school around 1909, the year she turned sixteen, and soon found work as an accounting clerk for Western Union. She lived with her mother for the next few years but was living on her own by 1914. While none of this seems like the prelude to a historic mountaineering career, it appears that after just a few years’ work as a clerk, Cronin was starting to climb the walls with boredom.
Colorado Mountain Club
Cronin attended her first recorded hiking trip with the Colorado Mountain Club as a guest in the midst of a spring blizzard on April 24, 1921. The party’s destination was the Beaver Brook Trail, just west of Golden. The CMC’s magazine, Trail & Timberline, recounted the excursion under the heading “You are Missing Something”—an appropriate title, since a quarter of those who had registered for the hike failed to appear. In her trip report, leader Ethel Murphy wrote that rain turned to snow as the party went up Clear Creek Canyon, getting worse as the hike went on. “[T]he last half of the trail was the worst and the drifts were very deep,” she wrote. “But everyone kept in good spirits and the general verdict seemed to be expressed as, ‘Well, I’m glad I came; wouldn’t have missed it for anything; but—never again!’”
Despite this soggy preamble, Cronin soon became a regular attendee of CMC trips, and by the end of 1921 had climbed her first Fourteener, Longs Peak (14,259 feet). This most likely occurred on August 21, at the conclusion of the club’s summer outing to the Never Summer Range, on a hike led by Agnes Vaille. Cronin’s next known Fourteener ascents were Grays (14,278 ft.) and Torreys (14,274 ft.) Peaks, which she climbed with the CMC on June 18, 1922. Cronin’s other CMC hikes that summer included the Arapahoe Peaks, west of Boulder, and Elephant Butte, near Evergreen.
Peak Bagging with Agnes Vaille
In 1923 Cronin began climbing peaks in earnest. Early summit registers reveal that one of her most frequent hiking companions was the famed Agnes Vaille. By the time Cronin joined the CMC, Vaille was already a veteran climber and one of the club’s best-known members. With Vaille well on her way to finishing the Fourteeners, it seemed natural that she would encourage friends to do the same. In 1923 Cronin and Vaille embarked on an epic summer of peak bagging.
Not one to bide her time, Vaille went to La Plata Peak (14,343 ft.), near Leadville, on July 2 with fellow CMC member Jack Lee. They were the only party to sign the peak’s logbook for the entire year. On July 7 and 8, Vaille and Cronin warmed up for their high adventures with a return to Grays and Torreys; they had the peaks to themselves. In mid-July, the two women and a few unnamed friends were in the Sangre de Cristos for climbs of Crestone Needle (14,203 ft.) and Humboldt Peak (14,070 ft.). The allure of south-central Colorado must have been strong, as Vaille returned the next weekend, possibly with Jack Lee. On July 21, Vaille and Cronin climbed Culebra Peak (14,053 ft.), and the next day they made a cloudy climb up “Old Baldy,” since renamed Mt. Lindsey (14,048 ft.), in honor of Junior CMC chaperone Malcolm Lindsey.
Cronin stayed closer to home but still managed a climb of Mt. Sherman (14,043 ft.) with eighteen CMC members on July 22. On July 26, Cronin and Vaille reunited for an extended peak-bagging trip through the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. Their starting point was Lake City, which they probably reached via the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. After overnighting in town, the pair signed in on their first two summits, Redcloud (14,041 ft.) and Sunshine (14,007 ft.) Peaks, on July 28, the third day of their trip. The next morning they ascended Boulder Gulch, at the southeast foot of the massif that includes Handies Peak (14,058). At timberline, Cronin paused by a large alpine tarn for a picture and then continued to the summit of Handies, signing in on July 29. The next day they climbed 14,309-foot Uncompahgre Peak, the highest in the San Juans. On July 31, the pair summited Wetterhorn Peak (14,021 ft.) before descending into Ouray.
On August 2, the pair successfully summited Mt. Sneffels (14,158 ft.) despite looming cloud cover. On August 4, they summited Wilson Peak (14,023 ft.), their eighth and final summit of the trip. After returning home, the pair joined CMC parties for climbs of Mt. Shavano (14,235 ft.) on August 12 and Mt. Evans (14,271 ft.) on September 30. By the end of 1923, Cronin had climbed at least fifteen new Fourteeners, and Vaille had racked up at least seventeen.
When summer 1924 arrived, Cronin and Vaille added four more peaks to their list of shared summits, plus two return visits to Longs Peak. On August 24, they returned to Rocky Mountain National Park with another CMC party whose goal was to summit Mt. Meeker. On October 11–12, Vaille, Walter Kiener, and Hermann and Elmina Buhl climbed Mt. Evans. On this trip, Vaille and Kiener vowed to make the first winter climb of Longs Peak’s East Face. The pair made two unsuccessful attempts in late 1924 and set out for a third try in January 1925. Despite her strong friendship with Vaille, Cronin did not participate in any of these climbs. On the morning of January 13, 1925, Denver awoke to the Rocky Mountain News headline, “Agnes Vaille Freezes on Longs Peak!” At the time of Vaille’s death, The Denver Post reported that she had climbed all but sixteen of the Fourteeners in the lower forty-eight states. Three years later, Trail & Timberline announced the completion of the Agnes Vaille storm shelter, just below the Keyhole on Longs Peak, a tribute to the fallen mountaineer.
Cronin’s first climb after Vaille’s death was in the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge. The Quandary Peak trip was a popular one—forty-eight people climbed to the 14,271-foot summit, including three young children. On August 24, Cronin and three others climbed Mt. Lincoln (14,265), Mt. Democrat (14,155 ft.), and probably Mt. Bross (14,178 ft.). A day later, Cronin summited Mt. Antero (14,276 ft.), her fifth summit in three days. She then re-climbed Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn Peaks during the CMC’s Labor Day trip.
The following season, in 1926, Cronin began her appointment to the CMC Board of Directors and the Membership Committee. In July she helped lead a trip to Mt. Harvard (14,421 ft.) and Mt. Princeton (14,204 ft.). On the 1926 Labor Day trip, Cronin bagged Grizzly Peak, measuring just under 14,000 feet, near Independence Pass. On July 10, 1926, Cronin and a party of twenty-three others set off for the CMC summer outing to Montana’s Glacier National Park, where they had a firsthand experience with a forest fire just outside the Many Glacier Hotel.
In 1927 Cronin served as one of the leaders for the CMC’s annual outing, the goal of which was to summit the four peaks of the Chicago Basin—Windom Peak (14,082 ft.), Sunlight Peak (14,059 ft.), Mt. Eolus (14,083 ft.), and North Eolus (14,039 ft.)—in what is now the San Juan National Forest. In a grueling thirteen-hour day, the party managed to bag all four, and Cronin finished out her summer with a Labor Day climb of Pyramid Peak (14,025 ft.) in the Elk Range. Meanwhile, she began her third year on the CMC board and her second with the Local Walks Committee.
Approaching the Milestone
On August 21, 1928, Cronin and her party reached the Knife Ridge on Capitol Peak (14,130 ft.). The following day, she and several others summited both South and North Maroon Peaks (14,163 ft. and 14,019 ft., respectively). On the Labor Day trip that year, seventeen CMC members summited Blanca Peak and nearby Little Bear Peak on the same day. It is not known whether Cronin ascended any Fourteeners in the 1929 season, but she did lead a ski trip above Georgetown in January. As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, Cronin’s list of “high tops” grew into the forties. In 1930 she summited Culebra Peak and led a Labor Day excursion to the top of Castle Peak (14,279 ft.). In 1931 her first Fourteener of the season was Longs Peak once again, and it marked the first time that Cronin used the steel descent cables that Roger Toll had installed on the north face following Vaille’s death. In early July, Cronin accompanied the CMC to Mount Antero but diverted for a solo climb up Mt. Princeton. On Monday, August 24, Cronin summited El Diente (14,159 ft.), part of a new class of Fourteeners whose heights had not previously been measured correctly. One week later, Cronin became the first woman to summit Lone Eagle Peak (11,946 ft.).
As 1933 dawned, Cronin was closing in on her final Fourteener summits. That summer she would summit Mt. Elbert (14,440 ft.) and San Luis Peak (14,022 ft.). In summer 1934, Cronin neared her final summit but showed remarkable self-control, busying herself with CMC duties and unremarkable hikes with groups. Finally, on Labor Day weekend, a small but luminous party of eighteen CMC members closed in on the goal. The final two mountains on Cronin’s list were Mt. Oxford (14,160 ft.) and Mt. Belford (14,203 ft.). Despite dreadful summit conditions, Cronin bagged both peaks, becoming the first woman to climb all of Colorado’s Fourteeners.
Cronin remained active with the CMC, and in September 1937, she led a CMC party on the first ascent of Blanca Peak’s northeast ridge and north face. If Cronin ever climbed another major peak, it was not recorded. A short time later, her job with the Western Union disbursement accounting division required a transfer to Omaha, Nebraska. By January 1941, she had moved again to Dallas, Texas. She eventually returned to Denver but then moved to Seattle by the mid-1960s to be near her sister. By 1972, she had moved to the more rustic Olympic Peninsula. Mary Cronin died on March 22, 1982, at the age of eighty-eight.
Adapted from Woody Smith, “Climbing the ‘High Tops’ with Mary Cronin and the Colorado Mountain Club,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 28, no. 3 (2008).