Eagle County hiking group forms unbreakable bond
Vail CO, Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” When Jane Healy moved to East Vail from Ohio 17 years ago, she craved female companionship.
“I was at loose ends when I moved here because I always had close women friends and I had this terminal lack in my life,” she recalls.
She found friendship in an all-female, informal hiking group that scaled 14,000-foot mountains and braved blizzards. One day, Healy offered a name for the group ” Dauntless Dames ” and it stuck.
“In a woman’s life, she needs to be a little dauntless,” she explained.
Over the years, the dames have learned what it means to be intrepid on and off the mountain.
On a recent afternoon, the matriarch of the Dauntless Dames, 76-year-old Ruth Moran, cracks open a scrapbook inside her Gypsum home.
Adorned with a pair of tiny snowshoes on the cover, the book chronicles the evolution of the dames.
In the late 1970s, Moran was among a group of women who struck out on their own after taking a cross-country skiing class together through Colorado Mountain College. It started with about a dozen women who explored trails across Eagle County.
Faded pictures show the women eating gourmet meals on red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. Moran said the women would stay up until midnight before skiing trips, cooking quiche or peanut butter balls to tuck in their backpacks.
During lunches high in the mountains, the women chatted about “a little of everything” ” food, the weather, men, children, Moran recalls.
“We don’t talk religion and we don’t talk politics,” she laughed.
In 1980, the women published their own cookbook called “Red Checkered Picnics.” It featured trailside entrees like stacked crepes and miniature egg rolls.
Over the years, red-and-white-checkered napkins the women brought on their adventures came to symbolize their friendship.
“If you get a red-checkered napkin, it means you are part of the group, kind of like a sorority pin,” Eagle-Vail hiker Elizabeth Keay explained.
The group soon branched into hiking, snowshoeing and hut trips. One pictures shows Moran sporting a red cocktail dress with a matching boa. She said the women often packed evening gowns in their backpacks to wear during their legendary hut trips.
In recent years, the women have adopted the motto “An eating group with a hiking problem” and have raised more than $3,000 for Habitat for Humanity by auctioning off gourmet meals.
Today, the Dauntless Dames consist of about 30 women between the ages of 56 and 76 who unite for weekly hikes or snowshoeing excursions in the Vail Valley.
For the women, the weekly adventues offer a chance to form sisterly bonds.
“As much as we love our significant others, it’s nice to have a place where it’s just women and you can talk about anything and no one is going to give you grief about anything,” said Maddy Kleinman, a 60-year-old West Vail resident.
When Edwards resident Stephanie Gillis lost her husband, the dames mobilized to plan the funeral reception.
“They just took over and they were there for me and they really were instrumental in getting me through a tough time,” Gillis recalled.
As Maryanne Metternick battled breast cancer, fellow dames appeared at her Wolcott home with gourmet meals.
And when Keay needed an extra push to reach the summit of Colorado’s highest peak, the dames stepped in with some tough love.
Keay was about 61 years old and in good shape when she tackled Mt. Elbert in the mid 1990s, but she knew the trail would test her strength. About three quarters of the way to the top, her legs and lungs started to burn.
“I was the very last one and I kept yelling at one of the women who was ahead of me and telling her, ‘Fran, Fran, I’m going to turn around. I can’t make it.'”
But her friend refused to acknowledge her pleas, forcing Keay to find the strength to keep going. When she reached the 14,400-foot summit, relief rushed through her. She was grateful for her friends for coaxing her to the top.
“You feel like you’ve conquered the world,” she recalled.
This is what it means to be a dame. The women say they support one another in difficult and happy times. To celebrate Moran’s 70th birthday, the dames created a scrapbook honoring the group’s history.
“We really needed to do something special for Ruth, who’s really the mother of us all,” Keay said.
Over the years, the faces have changed. Some of the original dames have moved out of town or passed away.
A news article tucked in the scrapbook remembers Mary Lynn Smith Perkins, a Vail resident who died of a heart attack at the age of 68.
“It was like an earthquake,” Keay recalled. “Here she was ” always in the lead. She would do these long, difficult hills, then go home and swim a bunch of laps.”
“It leaves a hole in your heat,” Kleinman added.
Yet as the dames lost members, they also celebrate new ones. At 56, Gillis is the youngest member of the dames. Gillis said the dames have been close companions as she raised her children.
“Being the youngest in the group was quite fortuitious for me, as not only had I gained lifelong friends, but also a group of somewhat surrogate moms!,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Presently the dames are not accepting new members, but Moran says she hopes the tradition continues.
“My hope is that it continues and we start getting some young blood in the group,” she said.
High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or email@example.com.
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