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Remembering Maria Cranor: Stonemaster, Black Diamond Executive, Physicist

“Maria was a fearsome force, a gravitational body that drew you in with her broad smile, infectious laugh, and sharp intellect.” 

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I first met Maria in Joshua Tree in the spring of 1985. I was driving too fast down one of the washboard dirt tracks that crisscross the desert floor. Maria was in the passenger seat of the speeding, oncoming truck, driven by her boyfriend, Jonny Woodward. We didn’t collide, but we did hit it off immediately and became friends for life. 

Maria was a fearsome force, a gravitational body that drew you in with her broad smile, infectious laugh, and sharp intellect. She entered the rock climbing world at a relatively late age, in her late 20s, in 1974. Her earliest partners included Kevin Powell, John Long, Rick Accomazzo, and Daryl Hensel. With this troop of SoCal talent, she was forced to sink or swim. She swam. By 1976 she had led the Stonemaster test piece, Valhalla at Tahquitz, making the first female ascent of the notorious 5.11 slab.

Maria was inspirational for the small group of women in the climbing scene back then. “Maria happened to be at Big Rock in Southern California the very first day I went climbing with my older sisters,” recalls Lynn Hill. “I remember her luminous smile and warm enthusiasm when she saw me leading my first climb at the age of 14. In the following years I was fortunate to be part of the same group of close-knit, passionate climbers. Maria was one of the few strong woman climbers in those days, and she took pride in climbing in the best style possible.”

Maria loved the climbing scene—to the point of taking a job well below her IQ level at Chouinard Equipment in 1984. Yvon’s attention was less focused on Chouinard Equipment than on the far-more-profitable Patagonia, so he put Peter Metcalf in charge of the hardware business, and Metcalf, sensing Maria’s genius, hired her and tasked her with helping the floundering business regain its mojo. Maria understood climbing on a visceral level; she saw that it was moving from the confines of the traditional mindset into the modern world of sport climbing, and she planted a foot in each camp. Maria became the curator of the Chouinard image, creating the content for the catalogs and marketing materials. But she was much more than a marketing director; she was our conscience and moral compass.

Then, in April 1989, the shit suddenly hit the fan at Chouinard Equipment. Several lawsuits threatened the company’s existence and, worse, Patagonia’s assets; so Yvon cut the cord, putting Chouinard Equipment into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Some folks fled, and some of us stayed, but it’s fair to say that Black Diamond’s emergence from the ashes of Chouinard Equipment would never have happened without two people: Peter Metcalf was the heart and lungs; Maria Cranor was the soul. 

“Maria possessed a genius ability to transform into word and image the events that created our experiences on rock and in the mountains,” remembers Metcalf. “That special insight is one reason why Black Diamond was immediately embraced by our community. In the creation of Black Diamond, Maria was to me what Tenzing was to Hillary or Shipton to Tillman or Stanley to Livingston… a powerful, integral partner and indispensable colleague. We were inseparable for over a decade.”

Maria Cranor (left) with Lynn Hill and Mari Gingery. (Photo: John Long)

Maria had a strong sense of social justice that flowed down to the dirtbag climbing community. Her budgeted allowance for “free merchandise” was, at best, a quaint suggestion. She regularly got phone calls from climbers needing something or other for an expedition or a trip, and if she deemed their cause worthy, she provided the gear, budget be damned. Inside the company, she was both a matriarch and, to many new employees, a valued mentor. Boone Speed remembers Maria being “beyond generous and helpful. She saw and understood a complex and bigger picture than most [of us]. And she was keen to share it with anyone who showed interest. Maria was the most influential person in my adult life.”

Maria’s interests went well beyond climbing. When she figured she’d done all she could both as a climber and  Black Diamond executive, she moved on, transitioning, in her early 50s, to… physics. Never mind that she didn’t have a background in math; never mind that she didn’t even have a working knowledge of algebra; she’d figure all that out while learning calculus, which she did, in her own words, “by the seat of my pants,” meaning that she sat at her desk for 16 hours a day. She eventually became a professor at the University of Utah, and even though she was largely removed from the climbing scene, she kept up with both new recruits and old dogs at Black Diamond. 

Kolin Powick, Black Diamond’s current VP of Product, never worked directly with Maria, but they nonetheless communicated frequently in recent years.  “I was constantly amazed with how well she kept up [with]  the climbing scene,” he writes. “I often used her as a sounding board to ensure BD was staying true. Even though [she hadn’t] worked at BD for over two decades, she still used the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ when referring to BD. So rad…”

When I got the phone call about her death just hours after she passed at 76, I went numb. Maria and I had stayed in touch sporadically; our most recent exchange was via text last July when she was looking for beta for her niece, who was asking about a good climbing gym in Boston. We LOLed around various topics before signing off. I never dreamed it would be the last time we’d communicate. But Maria shuffled off the mortal coil on her terms: fiercely independent to the very end. She didn’t want to have others suffer her illness, choosing instead to quietly exit. The vacuum she left behind will be impossible to fill. 

Goodbye, Mighty M.