Cliffs and Challenges

A Young Woman Explores Yosemite, 1915–1917

Laura White Brunner Edited by Jared Champion

When she couldn’t find hiking boots that fit, Laura White Brunner explored Yosemite backcountry barefoot, and at times alone, in an era when grizzly bears still roamed the park. When told she couldn’t hike in pants, she pinned up her skirt. Brunner showed admirable pluck, but, more remarkably, she did it as a teenager in the 1910s—and she wrote it all down. Her memoir, recovered from the Yosemite archives and published here for the first time, recounts two summers spent working and hiking in Yosemite Valley during a time of great change—in the park and in the world beyond.

In captivating prose Brunner describes her unlikely adventures in the summers of 1915 and 1917, as well as what she calls “the interlude” between them. Sometimes funny, sometimes painful, always engaging, her account captures the “trails” and tribulations of a young woman coming of age in America’s most beautiful national park. Lightly edited and put into biographical, geographical, and historical context by Jared N. Champion, the book is also illustrated with historic photographs, many taken by Brunner herself. It provides an indelible picture of a bygone time, of awakening young womanhood in a pristine natural world just opening to tourism on a grand scale.

Cliffs and Challenges is an engaging story of a girl discovering the beauty and adventure of the natural world. Working at a tourist camp in Yosemite National Park during the early twentieth century, Laura White Brunner learns to hike and climb as she makes friends with kindred spirits among the camp workers and the guests. Brunner’s sense of humor, lively appreciation of life, and ability to capture vignettes of camp life and of her companions make this book a pleasure to read. Reading Brunner’s words a century after she wrote them, I feel that I would have enjoyed her company on those backcountry trails.”

—Ellen Wohl, author of Rhythms of Change in Rocky Mountain National Park

“Laura White Brunner made the beds and swept the floors at Camp Curry, and her remembrances bring to life the unheralded hard work required to keep our national parks functioning in the early twentieth century. But Brunner also shares the joy of exploring Yosemite on her time off, climbing its most challenging cliffs—including the formidable Half Dome—with her skirts pinned together between her knees because she was not allowed to wear pants. Her experiences as a worker and mountaineer are a remarkable story for todays readers.”

—Diane Smith, author of Yellowstone and the Smithsonian: Centers of Wildlife Conservation

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Late in life, Laura White Brunner (1899–1973) told a reporter that she had always wanted to be a national park ranger, but, sadly, was “born too soon.” Nonetheless she made Yosemite her own—in her hiking, photographs, and memoir, but also in a practical sense, when her ascent of Half Dome by the “Clothes-Line Rope” inspired the park administration, who feared more women might summit the monolith, to install the iconic “Cables on Half Dome” route that remains in place today. Brunner went on to a career in journalism and though she tried for decades to publish her memoir, this is its first appearance in print.

About the Author

Jared N. Champion is assistant professor of writing and interdisciplinary studies at the Penfield College of Mercer University.