No Mountain Too High: The Climbs of Betsy Cowles Partridge

Three years before Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Nargay made their famous ascent of Mount Everest in 1953[1], Elizabeth “Betsy” Cowles Partridge, an intrepid woman from Colorado Springs, Colorado, was part of an American Expedition exploring a route to conquer the world’s tallest peak.

It appears that Betsy Cowles Partridge had mountaineering in her blood. Born in 1902, she had climbed 54 of the peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado by the age of 31. From the Alps of Europe to the Rocky Mountains of North America, Sierra Nevada of South America to the Himalayas of Asia, Betsy traveled the world tackling some of the world’s highest peaks. Whether as a climber, photographer, author, and in later life lecturer, it seems that no mountain was too high for Betsy on her way to Everest.

With its towering mountains and beautiful valleys Switzerland held special significance for Betsy throughout her travels. After the peaks of Colorado, the peaks of Switzerland were the first of the great mountains that Betsy would climb. She first traversed[2] the famous Matterhorn, along with numerous other peaks, in 1933. Between 1936 and 1937 Betsy climbed 21 of the peaks of Switzerland, including her second accent of the Matterhorn, this time traversing from the village of Zmutt.

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The Matterhorn at its finest; Swiss Ridge on the left, Zmutt Ridge on the right. Betsy Cowles Partridge papers, Accession #2082, Box 2, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Betsy would return to Switzerland six more times over the course of her life to climb the striking peaks of the Alps. Switzerland not only gave Betsy the rewarding experiences of climbing, but also lifelong friendships. It was here that Betsy met the famous pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, a friendship that lasted the remainder of Betsy’s life.

Living in Colorado Springs, Betsy was no stranger to the formidable peaks of the Tetons, mountains that Betsy thought were “designed especially for climbers by a Providence sympathetic to mountaineering.” At the age of 32 Betsy made her first ascent of Grand Teton in 1934. In 1935 Betsy was the first female to traverse the Grand Tetons.

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The “Grand” and its neighbors. Betsy Cowles Partridge papers, Accession #2082, Box 1, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Betsy returned to the Tetons twice more before her expedition to Mount Everest. In 1941 Betsy made the first ascent of Grand Teton’s Petzoldt Ridge. In 1956, at the age of 44, Betsy climbed Grand Teton, Symmetry Spire, and Mount St. John. This would be the last time that Betsy climbed the peaks of the Tetons.

In her quest to climb the great peaks of the world Betsy also traveled to Colombia to tackle the peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Range. It would not be an easy jaunt as the year was 1941 and the world was in turmoil with the start of the Second World War. The choice to make a climb while the world was at war did not come easily, but she decided that if she did not go then, she probably never would. Betsy had to go through the American Consulate to acquire special permission from the Colombian government to bring her photographic equipment along for the climb. With official permission and equipment in tow, Betsy was part of the team that made the first ascent of La Reina Peak (18,170 feet) of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Range. Betsy also climbed Pico Ujueta and the Guardian.

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On the peak of La Reina, left to right: Paul Petzoldt, Max Eberli, and Elizabeth Knowlton. Betsy Cowles Partridge papers, Accession #2082, Box 2, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In 1950 Betsy had the opportunity of a lifetime when she was invited by Oscar R. Houston to join his American Expedition to Mount Everest. The expedition went to scout if a possible ascent on the peak could be made from the southern slope through Nepal. All her previous experience had prepared Betsy for this historic expedition. On the journey to the southern slope Betsy traveled through Kathmandu, meeting Mohun, the last reigning Maharajah of Nepal. At the Thyangboche Monastery, Betsy was the first American woman to witness the rites of the monks. The Houston expedition reached a height between 18,000 and 19,000 feet in the exploration to find a viable route.

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Houston Expedition, left to right: Anderson Bakewell, Oscar R. Houston, Elizabeth “Betsy” S. Cowles, H.W. Tilman, and Charles S. Houston. Betsy Cowles Partridge papers, Accession #2082, Box 1, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Betsy and other members of the expedition determined that the south face “may well be impossible” and presented “no practical climbing route.”[3] While the expedition was not successful, they did contribute to the history of climbing of Mount Everest. Betsy recorded her experience through a round robin letter with family and friends in America. After the Houston expedition Betsy toured the country lecturing and delighting crowds with the color slides.

For more reading about the fascinating life of Betsy Cowles Partridge visit the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming to view Betsy’s diaries, photographs and letters to experience through her eyes. For Betsy Cowles Partridge truly no mountain was too high.

– Submitted by Steven Yeager, AHC intern from the UW History Department.

[1] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Sir Edmund Hillary,” Encyclopaedia Britannica

[2] According to sportsdefinitions.com, traverse in mountain climbing refers to ascending a mountain from one side and descending another, or moving sideways across a mountain face.

[3] “North to Everest,” short essay written by Robert Tillman found at the beginning of Betsy Cowles Partridge journal in box 3 of her papers. Tillman was another explorer who met the Houston Expedition while he was in Nepal.

This entry was posted in found in the archive, Grand Tetons, International Collections, Mountaineering, Uncategorized, women's history and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to No Mountain Too High: The Climbs of Betsy Cowles Partridge

  1. Mary Zimmerer says:

    Interesting and well written, Steven. Good luck with your internship.

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