Offer the surname Michael to a High Sierra aficionado, and they might recall guidebook listings of some pioneering peak ascents. Say Michael to a Yosemite buff, and they might connect it to the Park’s first woman naturalist. Charles and Enid Michael may be little known, their story yet to be fully explored, but they were two of the most remarkable people ever to grip Sierra granite or I.D. an iris. Their lives overlapped John Muir’s in time, substance, and spirit, and arguably it was they who best carried Muir’s torch into the 20th century. Their tale embodies America’s fraught journey from Muir to modern times, and though the tides of history practically washed them aside, it seems they coalesced their mountain callings into a depth and a pairing to die for.
Charles Michael was Yosemite’s assistant postmaster, Enid Reeve was a Pasadena schoolteacher, and they met around 1909, possibly on a July 4th Sierra Club outing to the top of El Capitan. They met on more adventures, including an airy 1911 route up Unicorn Peak, and in 1918 they married. When Enid moved up to Yosemite to join Charles they shunned his issued apartment for a tent pitched on an island in the Merced River.
They climbed ropeless because, as Enid would later explain to a young protégé, “a rope would be an insult to the mountains.”
They started their days with a dip in the river and breakfast shared with various animals, then while Charles worked the mails Enid explored, taking notes. On his days off they explored together. She loved the plants, he loved the birds, and by all accounts they became an inseparable pair, two legs of a love triangle, the third being the most magical valley on earth.
At the time though, Yosemite was fielding a post-WWI tourist boom like a frontier carnival. Highlights included an annual “cowboy and Indian rodeo,” a mini-zoo of caged animals, bear-feeding events at the garbage pit, and a paddock of rescued lowland elk. Tourists came to hand-feed deer and bears, drive their tin-lizzies into meadows to picnic, and join a nightly traffic jam to see the Firefall being spilled off of Glacier Point. Leidig Meadow hosted a herd of dairy cattle, and an open season encouraged hunters to shoot predators.
Americans who saw national parks as natural treasures were distraught at all this, and the Park Service, founded just a few years before the Michaels married, set a more naturalist course. In 1919 several parks instituted ranger-naturalists leading interpretive walks and similar activities. Like most things then the agency was all men, but Yosemite’s staff knew that Enid had such facility with the plants and animals that in 1921 they were happy to have her as a volunteer. A year later they hired her as one of the nation’s first two women ranger-naturalists. Somehow she would get away with never wearing a uniform (just a badge on her blouse), but she took to the role of Yosemite interpreter and protector with the devotion of a mother bear to cubs, gathering lines of enthusiastic followers.
Soon Yosemite initiated a field school for training new naturalists, and Enid served as one of the first instructors. She and Charles also started writing sparkling naturalist articles in two new publications, Yosemite Nature Notes and a Stockton Record column, “Automotive ‘Out O’ Doors.” They encouraged people to come with eyes open to everything from rare orchids to the encroachment of pines into meadows, from polyandry among woodpeckers to the scenic grandeur in different seasons.
They often added subtly touching references to their “partner,” ie. one another. In addition, Enid built a native-plant garden behind the valley’s museum. Here she acquainted visitors to hundreds of different species she’d carefully collected and transplanted, and instructed them not to pick flowers.
Oh, and, both she and Charles climbed.
With no gear other than sneakers, the Michaels climbed Yosemite like no one before, and like few since. From Inspiration Point to Tenaya Canyon they found ways up ramps, fissures, seams, and ledges, climbing to find adventurous new ways to the rim, to see what plants clung in high crevices, and to look over the valley with the raptors. Enid climbed on her own sometimes, but when together Charles led, coaching Enid right behind. Anecdotes from them both tell that he had an absolute regard for her abilities, and she an abiding trust in him. They climbed ropeless because, as Enid would later explain to a young protégé, “a rope would be an insult to the mountains.”
Sometimes they took late-summer holidays into the high country. Before marrying, Charles had made first ascents of three very remote and intimidating summits, the highest Devil’s Crag and two of the highest Kaweah peaks. When guidebooks came out decades later, few even knew to question authors who rated these older routes with a circular assumption that if someone had climbed them alone and ropeless, that defined a middling Class 3 or maybe 4. But the rare climbers who go to those peaks today learn that Charles Michael soloed sustained 5th class terrain.
In 1923 Enid and Charles made the first climbing excursion to the Minarets, aiming for what appeared to be the highest spire. To escape from a dark chasm with a huge chockstone, Charles climbed a vertical wall using “projections about an inch wide which gave the wall a ladder effect, with several rungs missing.” Desperately reaching a safe ledge, he knew he “could not bear to see Mrs. Michael take such a chance.” Enid agreed to wait beneath the chockstone, and urged her husband to continue to the top if possible. Charles carried on, but wrote, “Climbing alone in such surroundings gave me no pleasure. I missed the steadying influence of my climbing partner.”
The uppermost spire held “the most difficult three hundred feet that I ever had the pleasure of climbing, and climbing alone I failed to get the full joy of adventure.” Steep, smooth sections between ledges forced him to use many precarious techniques and “zigzag” routefinding. Near the top he “completely spiraled the pyramid,” edged up a dire ramp across the uppermost west face, and reached the highest rocks. He descended safely back to Enid and completed what, but for remoteness and the fact that few Americans then thought much of climbing at all, could have been celebrated as one of the most challenging ascents in the nation.
A decade later, Walter Starr, Jr. tried to make the peak’s second ascent but fell to his death, and the search for his body and fate became a story far more famous than Charles’ successful climb. Years after Starr’s death, surveyors verified that a different Minaret stands a few feet higher, drawing attention farther from Charles’s ascent. It’s impossible to know his exact route, but modern climbers who’ve climbed Michael Minaret agree it is a daunting tower where all but the best will be very glad for a rope. It’s probably 5.7 or even 5.8.
In Yosemite the routes the Michaels climbed include a direct line from Mirror Lake to the top of the Diving Board beside Half Dome, a tenuous ledge linkage up the Three Brothers (which has since fallen away), and a chute nearly adjacent to Illilouette Falls. Charles especially wanted to descend into the inner Tenaya gorge during a spring flood, to witness the waters rampaging through the narrow slot. After several tries they succeeded, and it’s not clear if anyone has ever done that since.
Their exploits drew wide-eyed but arms-length notoriety among Yosemite notables, but that was the extent of their fame. Occasionally they did invite others on wild climbs that the followers would never forget. The “thrilling and interesting” climb Enid raved about most often was what they called “Acorn Crack,” a chute system connecting from Lower Cathedral Rock up to the hanging valley of Bridalveil Falls.
In the 1930s, innovative Sierra Club climbers developed techniques with ropes and hardware that made steep climbing much safer, and they started climbing impressive Yosemite features–the first of note being Higher Cathedral Spire in 1934. In the enthrall of amazing new possibilities, the new generation appraised the Michaels’ legacy as admirable, old-school mediocrity. One of them wrote, “the Michaels made ascents of practically everything in the Valley that does not require pitons.”
The truth, however, is that Charles and Enid climbed where even today most would want a belay. Charles was one of the very few elite climbers of the day. Enid once wrote, “…he climbs over dangerous places…without excitement, yet let a beautiful bird come into his vision and suddenly he is on fire.”
One autumn day when Yosemite Falls ran dry they went there to estimate the height of the winter pillar of ice that forms at the base of the upper falls. From the strangely quiet amphitheater where plummeting water usually thunders, Charles scrambled up to the right and traversed back left on a ledge across the upper fall’s sheer wall. To his own astonishment he reached the water’s central course, “an impossible appearing place.” From there he lowered a string to Enid waiting on the slabs below. He cut the string and they measured it to 400 feet, enabling them to tell the world the details of another Yosemite marvel.
Enid, meanwhile, explored, studied, wrote, and led walks practically year-round, well past her salaried summers, and she lobbied for a full-time position. But the naturalist programs had year-round money only for the Chief Naturalist–an administrative position not likely to seat a woman at a time when women were just getting the vote, in an agency needing a militaristic mandate just to implement the novel idea of public lands under federal authority.
Yosemite’s Assistant Superintendent likely summarized Enid’s situation when he wrote a memo saying “I don’t like a woman supervising male workers at the garden,” which of course she had created.
Enid’s essays, as well as footage and photos of her, clearly show a glistening joy in the outdoors, but likely she had a ready edge. Historian Elizabeth O’Neill wrote that she had “eyes like blue ice and an unyielding spirit to match.” O’Neill also described how Enid mentored Carl Sharsmith (who would himself become the grand mentor of Tuolumne naturalists) with a harsh scolding if he stepped on a plant.
Roles came clear in 1929, when the Park promoted one of Enid’s former Field School students as the new Chief Naturalist, her boss. She and he butted heads, and by 1935 he decided not to hire her back at all. He cited a laundry list of supposed conflicts, including “careless in personal appearance” and “always opposed to our newer innovations”–namely entertainment-themed activities such as auto caravans and reptile exhibits. In contrast to her animated reputation, he labeled her as “aloof” and “stale.” Enid defended herself with firm courtesy, and thanks to supporters’ appeals all the way to D.C. she was kept on.
Charles as best we know tried to hold to simplicity. He was offered a promotion to Head Postmaster but he turned it down, to keep more time for exploring with Enid. As industrial America bourgeoned into Yosemite though, he grew disenchanted, possibly heartbroken. During the late 1920s the NPS, needing a larger constituency to support its mission and even its existence, encouraged more visitation to Yosemite and got an eight-fold explosion, to nearly half a million a year. In field reports to an academic researcher Charles added these comments: “Yosemite Valley is getting to be an awful place,” and, “I am tired of the constant whiz of automobiles.”
Coincidence or causation who knows, but Charles developed heart problems, and after the 1934 season he had to retire, at just 54. He and Enid then spent more time in Pasadena. When she came up for her summer position, he stayed with her in a cabin she was assigned. Then in December, 1941 he passed away. For one more season Enid worked as a park naturalist, then those programs were closed for the duration of WWII.
Enid kept going to Yosemite though, into the 1960s. On the trails and serving as the Sierra Club’s caretaker at their LeConte Memorial Lodge, she continued inspiring others to discover the richness around them. Enid had helped define the role of a Park Naturalist, and she was the most prolific writer in Yosemite’s history, compiling some 537 articles. She remarried to another Sierra devotee, and they relished travels to other national parks before Enid died in 1966.