By Alastair Boone
“A lot of us have inflection points in our lives,” says Ryan Behunin, physics professor at Northern Arizona State University. “And oftentimes, at that inflection point there’s a person who can change the trajectory of your life. [For me] she was absolutely one of them. I can say with 100% certainty that I would not be where I am now without having known her.”
Behunin is referring to Maria Boone Cranor—one of the most popular lecturers in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at The University of Utah. She died of cancer on January 15, 2022 at the Salt Lake City home of her great friends April and Dale Goddard. She was 76 years old.
After a long and storied career as a pioneering female rock climber and co-founder of Black Diamond Equipment, Cranor came to the U at age 50. True to her nature as a fierce intellect and lifelong student, she took on a double major in physics and childhood development despite having already earned her BA from UC Berkeley some 23 years earlier. Her physics classes were particularly challenging because she had not taken math since high school and did not understand even basic algebra. But she was fascinated by the subject and determined to succeed. She received math tutoring from Black Diamond engineers and old friends, and she thrived in the program.
“If I’m being completely honest, you could tell that it had been some time since she’d applied her math skills,” says Behunin, her classmate and student at the U and ultimately her lifelong friend. “But she absolutely had the things that were important in science. Being curious, applying logic to problem solving, those are the important skills. She had those. The math is a skill like any other, you can develop that. And she did.”
After earning her BS in psychology in 2002, Cranor decided to continue at the U, working toward a PhD in physics. She was admitted to the graduate program and studied under Richard Price, a leading specialist in general relativity who invited her to join his research group. She also became a lecturer, and her course on science writing would be the most popular in the department.
In the course, Cranor taught students about ethics and how to spot pseudoscience in academic publications and in the news. In one assignment, her students pretended to be engineers at Black Diamond who were working on an ethics problem related to climbing equipment. Little did they know, it was a real problem that the company had faced, and at the end she revealed what the engineers had done.
“I still recommend the things we read in her class to my students,” recounts Behunin. In the days since Cranor’s death, countless people have come forward to say the same: That she stood at the crossroads of their lives with a twinkle in her eye and an insightful word of encouragement.
“Maria was the best person I ever knew. She was also the catalyst who made the structure of my adult life possible,” Rob Owen—another classmate-in-physics-turned-lifelong friend—wrote online after her death. “I doubt I could have become a physicist without her help and influence. And if I somehow had, I wouldn’t know why I’d done it.”
The oldest of five, Cranor grew up in San Francisco. From the start she was the leader of the pack—bold, adventurous, and creative. Her siblings followed her everywhere, even when it might have been wiser to stay home. She led them to the bluffs above San Francisco’s China Beach, where they scrambled along vertical cliffs, much to the dismay of their parents. But her fierce spirit could not be contained. A precocious reader, she began school at the age of four and graduated from high school at 16 having read Tolstoy and Dostoyevski and become fluent in French.
She studied anthropology as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley from 1963-1968, in the heyday of the Free Speech Movement and the civil rights movement, and Vietnam War protests. She attended marches led by activist Mario Savio and attended rallies where students put flowers in the bayonets of the National Guard sent to quell the dissidents. By her own account, she was transformed by her time at Berkeley and left the university intellectually challenged, energized, and committed to progressive politics.
In her late twenties, she discovered rock climbing and was instantly hooked. She moved off the grid and joined the legendary California climbing scene of the 1970s, living at Yosemite’s famous Camp 4 and on the road, climbing crags up and down the state.
Rock climbing was a fast love for Cranor. She described it as “meeting the mission,” a formidable task that she could learn to conquer. It spoke to her desire to take the hard way, and find the solutions to difficult problems.
And it was fun. “[She just had] dozens of friends and acquaintances she would be involved with every morning after breakfast. It was the big powwow with Maria at the center of it,” said Jonny Woodward—a formidable rock climber to whom Maria was married from 1986-2000. The two met at a climbing exchange in England, and then traveled around the U.S. together, living on the road and climbing, before becoming romantically involved. “Maria was just such a big part of that community, such a central character for so many people.”
A skilled climber who prided herself on technique rather than brute strength, Cranor was also a natural mentor for the other women in the male-dominated climbing scene. She was the first woman to ascend Valhalla—a route at Suicide Rock that only a handful of other climbers in the world had completed at the time. Climbers who did the route were considered “Stonemasters,” an elite designation that meant you were one of the best. And she didn’t just climb Valhalla, she flashed it—that is, succeeded on her first try without falling. This was just one of several first-female ascents she made around the state.
In 1984, Cranor was living in Fullerton, California and working at Great Pacific Ironworks, the retail store for Chouinard Equipment—Yvon Chouinard’s climbing gear company that would eventually become Black Diamond. Soon she was hired into a customer service role by Peter Metcalf, co-founder and former longtime CEO of Black Diamond. By 1985 she had created a position for herself as director of marketing.
Cranor was a firebrand and a groundbreaking business woman. After Chouinard declared bankruptcy in 1989, she bought the assets for the company along with Metcalf and a handful of other former employees. Their team moved the headquarters from Ventura, CA to Salt Lake City in 1991 and called it Black Diamond after the tough form of natural diamond formed from pieces of coal under pressure. The name was a perfect fit for Cranor and her colleagues: a group of dirtbag climbers who believed they could transform a bankruptcy into a company that would make a difference for the outdoor community.
She worked as vice president of marketing and creative director for nine years, fighting hard to make sure the company was advancing along with the sport. She was committed to good ideas—when a friend or colleague introduced her to a worthwhile new concept or a superior piece of technology, she threw herself behind it.
“She saw the future of climbing out the windshield not the rearview mirror,” says Metcalf. “She was always a genius at being able to intuitively understand where the sport was and where it was going… . Nobody could do that better than Maria Cranor.”
Throughout her adult life in Salt Lake City, Cranor and Woodward hosted famously fun dinner parties that would bring all kinds of people together. Renowned climbers and alpinists like Lynn Hill and Mark Twight would mingle with brilliant physicists and other friends of diverse backgrounds. She cooked homemade meals, sat everyone down at her table set with silver and built bridges—deliberately seating people next to each other who she felt would get along. The parties fostered fascinating conversations, career development . . . and sometimes romance. The gatherings ended in the living room where everyone would sit on the rug, drink coffee out of demitasse cups and eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream out of the carton with a spoon.
Cranor did not ultimately finish her PhD, but that didn’t matter to her. She was more invested in learning than earning an advanced degree. As her life continued, she became very concerned about the future of the country and directed her formidable energy at causes she believed in. At age 67, she moved to Pueblo, Colorado for seven months to work for the first Obama campaign, coordinating local activities and registering voters door-to-door. She was also a generous donor to UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology, believing that public education serves as a bright light during dark moments.
“What Maria really showed me is that knowledge is for everyone, and that curiosity is the best skill we can ever have,” Rob Owen wrote. “Every one of us can learn every single thing that we ever want to learn. And most surprising of all: we never have to give up who we are in order to become who we want to be.”
Alastair Boone is Maria Cranor’s niece. She is also the editor of Street Spirit newspaper, in Berkeley, California.