Maria Boone Cranor’s death ripples through climbing, physics communities

Whether they knew her as a Dirtbagger, an essential element in Black Diamond’s rise or a physics professor, Cranor’s impact on others was undeniable.

(Kevin Powell) Maria Boone Cranor, a climbing pioneer who was integral to the success of Black Diamond Equipment and later got a degree in physics from the University of Utah, died on Jan. 15, 2023 at the age of 76.

Maria Boone Cranor was like a stone dropped in a pond — maybe one that had skittered its way off Valhalla or tumbled down Half Dome. And the ripples that undulated out from her are the people whose lives she changed.

Cranor moved to Salt Lake with the small upstart climbing equipment manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment in 1991. That was after she’d proven herself as a talented climber and unofficial member of an elite group known as the Stonemasters. It was just as she was becoming regarded as a marketing savant, and years before her evolution into a physics professor.

Equipped with a sharp mind and a stock load of determination, Cranor seemingly could be anything she wanted. Every few decades, she’d go looking for a new challenge and reinvent herself. She did that right up until Jan. 15, when at age 76 she died from cancer at the Salt Lake home of some of her close friends.

Of all Cranor’s gifts, though, one stood out from the rest and endured through her many transformations.

“I think her biggest talent,” said Mike Call, a Salt Lake City videographer who is working on a documentary about Cranor to be released later this year, “was seeing what someone’s possibility was. She could look at them and say, ‘You know, you should really keep doing this.’ She did that with me. She did that with all of my friends that she was friends with. And almost everyone who knew her, when I interviewed them, ended up saying almost the same thing, which was: “‘You know, Maria completely, fundamentally changed my life.’”

Cranor will be best remembered for her impact on the climbing world, though she didn’t enter it until she was in her mid-20s. She’d been familiar with the outdoors at that point, having grown up along the beaches and cliffs of San Francisco and gotten her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California in Berkeley. Until her first husband, UC Davis professor Carl Cranor, introduced her to climbing in 1973, however, she’d never submersed herself fully in nature.

(Kevin Powell) Maria Boone Cranor, a climbing pioneer who was integral to the success of Black Diamond Equipment and later got a degree in physics from the University of Utah, died on Jan. 15, 2023 at the age of 76.

Yet that’s exactly what she did with climbing. She separated from Cranor, dropped financial ties to her affluent family and picked up the “dirtbagger” lifestyle that reached its heyday in the mid-1970s. That meant living simply, driving around in a beat-up, bright yellow Honda Civic and making camp 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 knack for it. Kevin Powell, a climber and professional photographer, described her style as “a pretty graceful kind of ballerina-like technique.” She quickly became one of the best female climbers in the sport, completing the Valhalla route on Suicide Rock in Joshua Tree on her first try. The route was so difficult that it served as the test for climbers wanting to join the “Stonemasters,” considered the best of the best. She was the first woman to ascend it.

Cranor encouraged other women in the sport as well. She is said to have witnessed the first climb of 14-year-old Lynn Hill and urged her to keep at the sport. Hill went on to become one of the world’s best-known climbers, male or female.

“I have to believe that somebody as powerful as Maria meets you at the bottom of a rock climb and tells you, ‘You’re really talented at it. You should keep doing it.’ I think that probably had a big influence on Lynn to the point where, you know, she ended up becoming the best climber of all time, basically,” Call said. “And there was Maria, right at the base of it, right at the beginning. I don’t know, maybe I’m being overly romantic or projecting. But I kind of feel like that’s what Maria does. She helps people become better versions of themselves just by being Maria. I don’t think she even tried to.”

Cranor’s ability to assure and inspire wasn’t limited to other women in climbing, though. Powell met her when he was 15 and said she served as a big sister, sounding board and cheerleader as he made his own journey across slabs and into adulthood. He adored her even though the first time she belayed him he took a 60-foot fall.

(Russ Clune) Maria Boone Cranor in the parking lot of the Patagonia headquarters in the late 1980s. In on year, Cranor went from being a sales associate to the marketing director of Chouinard Equipment, the precursor to Black Diamond. She used her ability to see the future of climbing while respecting its past to grow Black Diamond into the major company it is today.

“She was very supportive and comforting,” Powell said. “And yeah, I think from that time, we just had this kind of special bond and magical bond from that first event. And we had some other life-altering experiences for me as she was teaching me how to grow up.”

But that was just in Cranor’s nature, said Peter Metcalf, the founder and former CEO of Black Diamond who called Cranor “integral” to the company’s survival and success. She often found herself at the center of attention, he said, not because she was seeking it but because people respected her and her opinions. She also had a unique ability, Metcalf added, to make a person feel like they were the center of the world.

That magnetism allowed her to, over the course of a year, parlay a customer service position at Great Pacific Ironworks — Patagonia’s first retail store — into being named director of marketing for Chouinard Equipment. The hard goods division of Patagonia, Chouinard Equipment was soon after placed in bankruptcy 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, her passion for the sport, was palpable,” he said. “And you can tell her intelligence. I mean, she was an incredibly intelligent person. And then last, not least, is that she had the ability to disarm and focus on you, ask thoughtful questions and be interested in focusing on what are your challenges, what are your issues. It wasn’t about her, it was about you and what are you up to or what do you need? And she did that with everybody.”

(Kevin Powell) Maria Boone Cranor, a climbing pioneer who was integral to the success of Black Diamond Equipment and later got a degree in physics from the University of Utah, died on Jan. 15, 2023 at the age of 76.

By the time Black Diamond moved to SLC, Cranor had been named vice president of marketing and creative director. Her ability to both translate the feedback she got from climbers and see where the sport was headed helped her guide Black Diamond’s marketing campaigns and ethos. Behind the scenes she advocated for the company to introduce such present-day staples as the Spot bouldering crash pad and backpack, the ATC belay device and the wiregate carabiner. In addition, she directed the content, images and color schemes in the company’s catalog, which became the yearbook for the sport and the industry standard.

Cranor ensured the company gave back to the community as well. She 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 Benefit, the Utah Avalanche Center’s largest annual fundraising event.

“Without her, we would never have become who we became,” Metcalf said. “She was integral to the creation of this image and feel and vibe.”

When she turned 50, though, Cranor decided it was time to start a new chapter. She left Black Diamond and enrolled as an undergraduate in the University of Utah to study, of all things, physics. Nevermind that she hadn’t taken a math course since high school and fumbled with basic algebra.

Cranor’s niece Alastair Boone said her aunt craved challenges and liked “to take the hard way.” With hip pain and arthritis limiting her climbing, she turned to exerting her mind.

“It probably felt good for her to excel at something in her 50s when she couldn’t climb so well anymore because her body was aging,” said Boone, one of Cranor’s nine nieces and nephews. “She had a voracious mind and could do that. She had the intellectual capability to sort of devour a complicated topic. I think that she loved solving hard problems.”

As with every other phase of her life, Cranor rose to the top. She earned her bachelor’s degree in physics and then enrolled in the doctoral program. She became a research fellow and a lecturer. And, she changed people’s lives.

(Kevin Powell | contributed) Maria Boone Cranor, a climbing pioneer who was integral to the success of Black Diamond Equipment and later got a degree in physics from the University of Utah, died on Jan. 15, 2023, at the age of 76.

Robert Owen, who studied physics with her at the U, extolled 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 made sure the professors knew it, too.”

She is like a rock dropped into a pond. The rock has since disappeared, but its ripples persist.