Norma Jean Bowers may not have much name recognition among the dozens of elite outdoorsy types, from weekend warriors to Olympians, who call the Lake Tahoe area home. But as little known as her name might be, her story belongs right up there among the remarkable tales of athletic prowess and adventurous spirit that make Tahoe such a hub for limits-pushing, wilderness-loving types.
In 1990, Bowers, then Norma Jean Saunders, was the first woman to make a documented solo summit—meaning no assistance from other climbers, no roping in with other groups—of North America’s highest peak, Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali, then known as Mt. McKinley. Her expedition was full of challenges, including a five-day storm that nearly scrapped her efforts, coming across the frozen body of another climber just below the summit, and, later, harsh criticism from an author and fellow adventurer that she was after fame and perhaps didn’t make history at all.
But Bowers let nothing stop her on her quest, which had been a dream since her childhood growing up exploring the Alaskan wilderness from the tiny town of Palmer, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. Four years earlier, she’d made her first attempt on Denali, but after reaching 19,500 feet, fell short of the summit. “That just weighs on you, like when you attempt a marathon and you quit at 24 miles,” Bowers says. “It eats at you a little bit.”
These days, Bowers, 56, is still exploring the mountains, but is no longer chasing epic summits—Denali, she says, allowed her to prove to herself that she was capable of achieving such a lofty goal.
We had the chance to catch up with Bowers at the Resort at Squaw Creek, where she's the resort’s lead massage therapist. Here’s what she had to say about her adventures on Denali, the lessons she learned, and how she stokes the adrenaline these days.
Tell us what happened during the four years between your first and second summit attempts.
One of my fellow guides [at the guiding company where we worked], Dave Staeheli, had soloed the peak and done it in amazing style, so strong. Knowing him from guiding, he kept saying to me, ‘You can do this.’ He was inspiring me to reconsider to finish in the correct manner. It started to snowball from there. That winter I began to start training, and I started gathering my gear and talking to people who had summited. I had so much better gear then, and I started surrounding myself with people who believed in me.
You made the trek across the massive glacier to get to the base of the mountain wearing a rigged-up ladder that allowed for a self-rescue. What was that like?
Dave had showed me this rig, and how it allowed me to climb out if I happened to fall into a crevasse. It’s a lightweight painter’s ladder that expands. It was a complete self-rescue technique. Apparently word got out on the mountain that there was this woman trying to solo, and they were saying she’s going to paint the mountain pink with this painter’s ladder. For me, it was like, go ahead and make fun of me. I didn’t want to disappear without a trace. It’s like wearing a life jacket. What do I care what people think?
One especially difficult point in your 1990 expedition was when you came across the body of a climber from a Japanese group who had recently died on the mountain during a storm that you were waiting out below. How did you overcome that?
The Japanese man tried to summit in that hellacious storm because they were pushed by their visa timeline. They tried for the summit during the only time they had available. His climbing partners thought he had descended. He sat down when they disappeared in the whiteout conditions. The hardest part was that he was dead, at the top of a pitch that was close to vertical. That threw a wave of emotions at me at the hardest part of the climbing, and there I am faced with a huge emotional crisis. Here’s a big strong guy and he’s dead, and there’s this storm coming at me, and I’m terrified. I really thought I could have died, and I could have.
What was going through your mind at the summit?
I was still overwhelmed with fear, but when I stood on the summit, the sun was rising and the moon was setting, and that early morning sun was just starting to kiss the mountaintop. You feel so alive and yet, I was still very frightened. I knew I had to make it down, otherwise I became the dumb blonde who disappeared on the glacier, and that’s really how people look at climbing mistakes. You don’t always do something wrong, yet accidents happen. But I knew I had to make it down to make it successful. I knew it wasn’t over yet.
A while after your summit, an acquaintance of yours, a fairly well-known adventurer in the Alaska climbing scene, wrote a book about various excursions on Denali, and in it he claims that another woman climber made a solo summit before you. What’s your take on that?
Over the course of two years, I’d gotten divorced and then moved to California. And within those two years, all signs of recognition of what I’d done was gone. That’s when the Internet was starting up. If you Google something about me, not much comes up, and out comes this book that says all these terrible things about me. [The author] never asked me about it at all. I was kind of blindsided. It was a mystery to me. It could have been the mindset of men in 1990, unsure of whether women really belonged in the arena of that kind of climbing.
How did you address his claims that you weren't the first woman to solo summit the mountain?
If she did [summit solo], she didn’t carry a camera, and she wasn’t seen above 14,000 feet. That doesn’t mean she didn’t do it. She claims he interviewed her, and she probably did it. But Alaska at that time recognized me as the first documented woman to solo summit. It doesn’t take away from her, and it doesn’t take away from me. My summit attempt was all about discovering whether I was capable.
Since your Denali summit, you haven’t felt the need to do any more expeditions of that intensity. Tell us about that shift in perspective.
When I realized I was capable, I didn’t feel like I had to put my life on the line to enjoy the mountain. I am still a mountaineer. My husband I go to the Alps every year. I don’t feel like I have to be on that edge. I don’t feel like my life has to be hanging in danger every moment for me to enjoy the mountains. The excitement is everyday life. I’m on a mountain right now, and I’m as happy as I was in Denali then. I know it sounds really corny, but I felt like the mountain was saying, ‘Come to me, come to me,’ like I had a lesson to learn. It doesn’t call to me anymore. It’s like I had a lesson to learn, and when I learned it, I realized there’s more to life yet. Like how to deal with your dying parents and how to succeed at a marriage.
In your free time, how do you like to explore the Lake Tahoe area?
I do a lot alone. I do 18-mile hikes on the PCT alone. Right now I’m on a 20-mile mountain bike ride alone. I feel like I’m capable and I know my own limits. I don’t have to wait for other people, but I’m not trying to prove solo solo, solo.