Beverly Johnson Was a Badass

This Yorktown High School legend was a fearless adventurer. She died doing what she loved.

Beverly Johnson in Yosemite Valley in 1978. AP Photo/Zebowski.

 

Photo courtesy of Yorktown High School Yearbook.

With perfectly coiffed hair and a half-smile, Beverly Johnson looked like a typical teenager in her 1965 Yorktown High School yearbook picture. But that’s not how her classmates remember her. “She was fearless,” says John Reeder, Johnson’s teammate for two years on Yorktown’s gymnastics team. “Bev would attempt anything. It didn’t surprise me that she became a famous mountain climber.”

Some would call Johnson one of the most daring adventurers of our time. In 1973, she was part of the first all-female ascent of Yosemite’s notorious El Capitan. Five years later she became the first woman to solo-climb El Capitan’s nearly 3,000-foot-high vertical rock face. “Rocks make no compromise for sex,” she told Sports Illustrated. “On a rock, everything is equal.”

Johnson continued to break barriers. She was Yosemite’s first female crew boss firefighter, and the first person—male or female—to paddle an open kayak alone through the Strait of Magellan. Next, she was the first to fly a gyrocopter solo in Antarctica. She also windsurfed across the Bering Strait, trekked through Greenland, skied across the Arctic and parachuted into the highlands of New Guinea. An acclaimed documentarian, she covered the 1980s Soviet-Afghan war with her husband, Mike Hoover, on location for CBS—a pursuit that earned them an Emmy.

The daughter of a Navy officer, Johnson was born in Annapolis and later moved with her family to Arlington, where she attended Williamsburg Junior High and Yorktown High. During her senior year, to appease her mother, she made her “debut” at the Arlington Holly Ball. Johnson later jokingly told a newspaper that she was “raised in 22-button society”—a reference to the opera gloves she was forced to wear for the occasion.

But she always had a daredevil streak. Her childhood friend Julia Norris (maiden name Burroughs) still recalls how the two would take long walks along dark, unbeaten paths from Arlington to Georgetown—something Norris wouldn’t have dared to do alone. “To me, she was glamorous and exotic,” says Norris, now 71 and living in Boca Raton, Florida. “She was always more of a risk taker than me.”

In April 1994, Johnson and Hoover set off on a heli-skiing vacation in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains with a group that included Frank G. Wells, then-president of the Walt Disney Company, and actor Clint Eastwood (whom Hoover had befriended while playing his stunt double in a movie). It was late afternoon on April 3 when two helicopters came to retrieve their group in a remote area of the mountains. A squall moved in, bringing howling wind and blinding snow, and the helicopter ferrying Hoover, Wells, Johnson and two others went down in a fiery crash. Only Hoover survived.

Today, Johnson is memorialized in Yorktown’s Hall of Fame, where a plaque highlights her many feats before her death at age 47. “I guess when you live on the edge, those are the risks you take,” Norris says, “but, by golly, [she] crossed the Strait of Magellan and the Bering Strait. Wow!”


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