Happy Birthday Miriam Underhill!
Born July 22, 1898, in Forest Glen, Maryland, Miriam Underhill was a force to be reckoned with from the beginning. At age 16, she visited the Alps for the first time on a family vacation, where she would complete an introductory climb near Chamonix. Despite her thirst for climbing she went to Bryn Mawr College to complete bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics. Underhill continued straight on to complete a master’s in psychology from Bryn Mawr College in 1921. All the while she visited the Alps and other mountains during her summers off from school and stayed an active member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. The only thing holding back Underhill was the fact that she was a woman.
But Underhill was unconcerned. She began to realize that climbing behind a man was not satisfying enough,
“Very early I realized that the person who invariably climbs behind a good leader, guide or amateur, may never really learn mountaineering at all, and in any case enjoys only a part of all the varied delights and rewards of climbing. He has, of course, the glorious mountain scenery, the exhilaration of physical acrobatics, the pleasure that comes from the exercise of skill, and these acrobatics often require skill to a considerable degree. But he is, after all, only following. The one who goes up first on the rope has even more fun, as he solves the immediate problems of technique, tactics and strategy as they occur…I saw no reason, why women, ipso facto, should be incapable of leading a good climb. They had, as a matter of fact, already done so, on some few scattered occasions. But why not make it a regular thing, on the usual climbs of the day?…I decided to try some climbs not only guideless, but manless.”
After Underhill decided she did not need a man to climb, she set out to prove it. Along with her various climbing partners, Winifred Marples and Alice Damesme, 1927 became the year she began her manless climbing adventures. They added many iconic peaks to their climbing resume, many climbs were the first all female, unsupported climbs ever done on those mountains. One climb was the treacherous Aiguille Du Grépon, the 11,400-foot tall granite peak in France that intimidated men and women alike.
A crowd of mostly men grew below Underhill and Damesme as they ascended. After completing the intense climb many still tried to discredit them, “upon their return, Étienne Bruhl, a male climber in their community, complained, “The Grépon has disappeared. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.” And the Alpine Journal treated their accomplishment as an odd exception to the rule: “Few ladies, even in these days, are even capable of mountaineering unaccompanied.”
Next on the list of summits to tackle was the Matterhorn, and in 1932 Underhill and Damesme accomplished it as the first all women’s team. In 1934, Underhill wrote an article for The National Geographic Magazine detailing her climb, “Manless Alpine Climbing: The First Woman to Scale the Grépon, the Matterhorn, and Other Famous Peaks Without Masculine Support Relates Her Adventures”. You can check it out here! After this publication she continued to write, her autobiography was published in London in 1956 and she worked as an editor at the Appalachian Mountain Club journal, Appalachia, from 1956-1961 and 1968.
She married a fellow mountaineer and Harvard professor in 1932, Robert L. M. Underhill. Together they had two sons. Having a family did not slow down Underhill’s adventurous spirit. Her and her husband were charter members of a section of the Appalachian Mountain Club. The requirements to be a part of this club were to climb all 48 four thousand foot peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Underhill and her husband became the first to complete the climb of all these peaks during winter in 1960. Underhill never stopped being an inspirational trailblazer; advancing the place of women in an arena they had been shunned for decades.
Happy Birthday Miriam Underhill!