Cliffs and Challenges: Laura Brunner White and Her Untold Story

Cliffs and Challenges: Laura Brunner White and Her Untold Story

Half Dome Mountain. Photo courtesy Adventures in California

Jared Champion discovered the unpublished autobiography manuscript for Cliffs and Challenges when he received a grant for a project. Champion wanted to go to Yosemite because he had not been able to travel, so he began digging deep in the archives and uncovered the incredible story of Laura Brunner White.

On Monday, Sept. 17, the American Studies department welcomed Champion to speak about this very discovery.

White was born in the late 1890s to a working-class family. She was taken out of school in order to work and help provide for her family. Later, after her parents divorced, White’s mother took her to Camp Curry in Yosemite National Park, California, in order to make money between the summers of 1915 and 1917.

Camp Curry was a strict working environment in the frigid Yosemite Valley, at the base of Half Dome. White was expected to be perfect in her work. During her free time, she hiked around Yosemite with a few of her friends. At the time, it was frowned upon for women to hike; there were no female hiking boots, so White would often hike barefoot. She would also pin her dress up between her legs since she was not allowed to wear pants. 

Her hiking partners would often goad her and say that she couldn’t climb something that they could. Instead, White continued hiking with them, and together they had  many adventures. In a correspondence, it was said that her hiking partners were worried that their playful contests would go too far and someone would get hurt.  Instead, it lead to historical achievements for women.

White climbed the Half Dome and used the Clothesline Trail — named because of hikers who tied clotheslines together from Camp Curry to help hoist themselves up the face of Half Dome. Her feats were documented by her hiking partners, who were on the front of the adventure photography wave. White believed she was the first woman to climb Half Dome, and went to the record keepers to get confirmation. 

The record keepers did not give her a straight answer, and did not get back to her in a timely fashion. This was a typical experience in White’s life. As a working-class woman, she was subject to sexism and others being condescending or not believing her. 

When she was older, White decided to document her story in an autobiography. She wrote to many publishers and literary enthusiasts to ask for help in getting her story out, but never faced success. Some said her writing was poor, others said the organization was lost, and others contested that she needed to provide proof that she was the first woman to climb Half Dome.

Unfortunately, White did not have a way to prove this claim, which turned out the be the beginning of the endless amount of problems she faced as she tried to publish her memoir. These moments of strife are present in her writing, as well as her thoughts on the matter.   

White died without her work reaching the public, but that was not the end. Her daughter took up the fight but ran into similar problem: publishers didn’t think the public would read it, especially if it couldn’t be proven that White was the first woman to climb Half Dome. Eventually it came out that White was the second woman up Half Dome, after the first Female Park Ranger in Yosemite National Park. This piece of information unfortunately did not help get the manuscript published.

Eventually, the manuscript, along with many of White’s personal belongings — newspaper clippings with advertisements to become a Park Ranger at Yosemite and letters to her hiking partners — were donated to the Yosemite Archives. This is where they sat before Jared Champion found them and began his research.

Although White wasn’t the first woman up Half Dome, she was extremely influential in its history. The National Park Service got wind that she had climbed up the Clothesline Trail, causing them to become afraid that more women would follow in her footsteps. In response, they installed permanent cables that are still in place today. Even with this addition, the hike up Half Dome continues to be rated as one of the most difficult and dangerous hikes on the planet, and has resulted in multiple deaths.

When Champion discovered White and her story, he wanted to know more. He uncovered information that had been lost and brought it into the public eye.  At a conference, a publisher approached him and offered a deal for the memoir to finally become available to the public. The world is ready to listen to what White has to say. White’s story of defying gender-norms, chasing her dreams, and navigating through countless obstacles will be told to the masses, and it could not come at a better time.

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