Maria Boone Cranor’s death resonates with climbing and fitness communities
Maria Boone Cranor was like a stone thrown into a pond, perhaps one that had escaped Valhalla or fallen through Half Dome. And the ripples that rippled from her are the people whose lives she changed.
Cranor moved to Salt Lake with small climbing equipment manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment in 1991. That was after she had proven herself to be a talented climber and unofficial member of an elite group known as the Stonemasters. It was just when she was starting to be considered a marketing expert and years before she became a physics teacher.
Equipped with a sharp mind and a great deal of determination, Cranor could seemingly be anything she wanted. Every few decades, she would seek a new challenge and reinvent herself. She did that until January 15, when she at age 76 died of cancer at the home of some of her close friends in Salt Lake.
However, of all Cranor’s gifts, one stood out from the rest and endured his many transformations.
“I think his greatest talent,” said Mike Call, a Salt Lake City cameraman who is working on a documentary about Cranor to be released later this year, “was seeing what was someone’s chance. She might look at them and say, ‘You know, you really should keep doing this. She did that with me. She did that with all my friends that she was friends with. And pretty much everyone who knew her, when I interviewed them, ended up saying pretty much the same thing, which was, “‘You know, Maria changed my life completely, fundamentally.'”
Cranor will be best remembered for her impact on the climbing world, although she didn’t break in until she was in her early 20s. She was familiar with the outdoors at the time, having grown up on the beaches and cliffs of San Francisco and earning her BA in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley. However, until her first husband, UC Davis professor Carl Cranor, introduced her to climbing in 1973, she had never fully immersed herself in nature.
However, that is exactly what he did with the escalation. He separated from Cranor, abandoned financial ties to his wealthy family, and resumed the “ditbagger” lifestyle that reached its height in the mid-1970s. That meant living simply, driving a beat-up bright yellow Honda Civic and camping at now famous sites like Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park and near Suicide Rock in Joshua Tree National Park.
The sport challenged her both mentally and physically, but she had a gift for it. Kevin Powell, a professional rock climber and photographer, described her style as “sort of a pretty graceful ballerina-like technique.” She quickly became one of the best climbers in the sport, completing the Valhalla route at Suicide Rock in Joshua Tree on her first attempt. The route was so difficult that it served as a test for climbers who wanted to join the “Stonemasters”, considered the best of the best. She was the first woman to ascend.
Cranor also encouraged other women in the sport. He is said to have witnessed 14-year-old Lynn Hill’s first climb and encouraged her to continue in the sport. Hill became one of the best known climbers in the world, male or female.
“I have to believe that someone as powerful as Maria finds you at the bottom of a climb and tells you: ‘You have a lot of talent for that. You should keep doing it. I think she probably had a huge influence on Lynn to the point where she basically ended up becoming the greatest climber of all time,” Call said. “And there was Maria, right at the base, right at the beginning. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too romantic or projecting. But I feel like that’s what Maria does. She helps people become better versions of themselves simply by being Maria. I don’t think she even tried.
However, Cranor’s ability to secure and inspire was not limited to other women on the climb. Powell met her when she was 15 and said she served as a big sister, sounding board and cheerleader as he made his own journey across the slabs and into adulthood. He adored her even though the first time she secured him, she took a 60 foot fall.
“She was very supportive and comforting,” Powell said. “And yes, I think from that moment on, we had this kind of special bond and magical bond from that first event. And we had other life-changing experiences as she taught me to grow.”
But that was in Cranor’s nature, said Peter Metcalf, Black Diamond’s founder and former chief executive, who called Cranor “an integral part” of the company’s survival and success. She often found herself in the spotlight, he said, not because she sought it out but because people respected her and her opinions. She also had a unique ability, Metcalf added, to make a person feel like the center of the world.
That magnetism allowed her, over the course of a year, to leverage a customer service position at Great Pacific Ironworks, Patagonia’s first retail store, to be named director of marketing for Chouinard Equipment. Patagonia’s durable goods division, Chouinard Equipment, was declared bankrupt soon after and successfully revived by a handful of employees, including Metcalf, Cranor and her husband of 14 years, Jonny Woodward, as Black Diamond.
Metcalf said he will never forget the first time he met Cranor.
“The energy, his passion for the sport, was palpable,” he said. “And you can tell the intelligence of him. I mean, she was an incredibly smart person. And last but not least, she had the ability to take you apart and focus on you, to ask thoughtful questions, and to be interested in focusing on what your challenges are, what your problems are. It wasn’t about her, it was about you and what are you doing or what do you need? And she did that with everyone.”
By the time Black Diamond moved to SLC, Cranor had been named vice president of marketing and chief creative officer. Your ability to translate feedback you received from climbers and seeing where the sport was headed helped guide the marketing campaigns and ethos of Black Diamond. Behind the scenes, she advocated for the company to introduce current staples like the Spot bouldering pad and backpack, ATC belay device, and wiregate carabiner. Additionally, she directed the content, images, and color schemes on the company catalogwhich became the yearbook of the sport and the industry standard.
Cranor made sure the company gave back to the community as well. He worked behind the scenes in the development of The Access Fund, which promotes ethical climbing and advocates for climbing access. She also started the backcountry benefitthe Utah Avalanche Center’s largest annual fundraiser.
“Without her, we never would have become who we became,” Metcalf said. “She was an integral part of creating this look, feel and vibe.”
However, when he turned 50, Cranor decided it was time to start a new chapter. He left Black Diamond and enrolled as a student at the University of Utah to study, primarily, physics. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t taken a math course since high school and hasn’t had trouble with basic algebra.
Cranor’s niece, Alastair Boone, said her aunt loved a challenge and liked to “take the hard way.” With hip pain and arthritis limiting her climbing, she set about exercising her mind.
“It probably felt good for her to excel at something at 50 when she couldn’t climb as well anymore because her body was aging,” said Boone, one of Cranor’s nine nieces and nephews. “She had a voracious mind and she could do that. She had the brainpower to devour a complicated subject. I think she loved solving difficult problems.”
As in any other phase of his life, Cranor rose to the top. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and then enrolled in the doctoral program. She became a researcher and teacher. And she changed people’s lives.
Robert Owen, who studied physics with her at the U, praised Cranor’s impact on his life in a post on a Kudoboard dedicated to her.
“She not only made me aware that I could be a serious physicist,” he wrote, “she also made sure the professors knew it.”
She is like a stone dropped into a pond. Since then, the rock has disappeared, but its ripples persist.