The History of Manless Climbing

This story was originally published on December 23, 2014.

On July 26, 2014, Maya Sherpa, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, and Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first all-female team to summit K2, widely regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous peaks. “For us, it was our dream come true,” Pasang Lhamu told National Geographic. “We wanted to show women that if you just follow your dreams, even if you are a woman, you can do anything.” The symbolism of their climb was complicated by the three male porters who made the climb with them, but the women’s accomplishment stands as another landmark for mountaineering women and re-ignited a conversation about what true gender equality looks like in the climbing world.

It’s fitting that 2014 is also the 80 anniversary of another climb detailed in National Geographic: In 1934, the magazine published a piece by Miriam Underhill called “Manless Alpine Climbing: The First Woman to Scale the Grépon, the Matterhorn and Other Famous Peaks Without Masculine Support.” Underhill was a pioneering mountaineer, environmentalist, and writer. She was also my grandmother—she died before I was born, but I grew up climbing Colorado’s granite peaks with my father, and on our long hikes to the base of our climbs, he told how her all-female climbs in the French and Swiss Alps made “manless climbing” a reality.

In her 1934 article, Underhill wrote:

“Very early, I realized that the person who invariably climbs behind a good leader, guide or amateur, may never really learn mountaineering at all… 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. And if he is, as he usually is, also the leader, the one who carries the responsibility for the expedition, he tastes the supreme joys.”

miriam underhill

Miriam Underhill sports the traditional “harness” of the day: a rope tied around her middle.

In Underhill’s era, climbing techniques were a far cry from today. Climbing shoes were just hiking boots with rope hand-sewn into circular patterns along their soles for better grip. There was no REI—usually climbers sewed their gear themselves. Pitons, the chunks of iron that climbers hammered into cracks in the rock to use as anchors, were a recent invention. Their spread had thrown the climbing community into an “ethical dilemma”: purists argued they were cheating and preferred to climb with only the protection afforded by the rope wrapped around their partner’s waist. Modern roped climbing and belay techniques had just been brought to the United States in 1931 by Robert Underhill, my future grandfather, but were still looked upon with suspicion by those purists. In this milieu, clad in nothing but wool sweaters, rope-soled shoes, and heavy cotton pants, Underhill decided she would push the boundaries of climbing culture a little further.

“I saw no reason why women, ipso facto, should be incapable of leading a good climb,” she wrote in her 1956 memoir Give Me The Hills. “Henry de Segogne [a fellow climber] went to some pains to explain to me why a woman could never lead a climb… I didn’t find [his] argument too convincing, but I did realize that if women were really to lead, that is, to take the entire responsibility for the climb, there couldn’t be any man at all in the party.”  

give me the hills cover       

In August 1929, Underhill and her friend Alice Damesme roped up to tackle the Aiguille du Grepon, an 11,400-foot tall granite peak in France. The Grepon was first climbed by A.F. Mummery in 1881, but remained a significant undertaking decades later.

At dawn, after hiking for three hours along a glacier through the dark, Underhill and Damesme paused for a brief breakfast and then continued up the glacier first, to the astonishment of a growing audience of unconvinced male climbers below (“They were too courteous to laugh at us outright,” Underhill later wrote). After briefly getting lost in a thick mist, the two reached the bottom of the Mummery Crack, a narrow crack between the main wall of granite and a half-detached slab that lies against it. This is the most difficult pitch on the route, and named after Mummery himself. The only way up was to jam her right hand and right foot into the crack, and shimmy slowly up.  One’s left hand—to quote Mummery—clings “to slight discolorations in the rock,” and the left foot hangs out into midair. As Alice made her way over icy and loose rocks to the start of the Crack, her husband called through the mist, “Are you up the Mummery Crack?”

“Almost!” Alice shouted back cheerfully, and proceeded to climb the crack with “poise and sangfroid.”

They summited only a few hours later. 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.”

miriam underhill again

To reach the top of this little spire in the Chamonix Aiguilles, the author climbed the ridge seen running up its center, clasping the camera in her teeth. (Photo by Florence Peabody)

I imagine that Miriam only rolled her eyes. By that time, she had set her sights on the infamous Matterhorn. As she wrote, “This famous peak is big and striking, with a formidable history and reputation. And it is a reputation on which nothing, apparently, can cast a spot of tarnish.” Over the summers of 1930 and 1931, Miriam, Alice, and another woman named Jessie Whitehead slept night after night at a hut partway up the Matterhorn, waiting for a clear day to summit. It was a raucous, crowded place full of other climbers checking the sky early every morning; these incredulous men flirted with Miriam, Alice, and Jessie and offered assistance upon learning their plan. Amidst so many summit-hungry men, the women realized that, when the weather finally cooperated, they would need to leave the summit first to that no one could later accuse them of having taken any male help. They befriended the hutkeeper, named Kronig, and over many nights explained their situation. 

“It is the hut-keeper who is in charge of the stove in the morning and who provides the climbing parties with the hot water for their tea. This morning, with everybody waiting around impatiently to be off, Kronig first served a pot of tea to Jessie and me. No one, of course, took exception to this, since we were the only party of women. Then, inexplicably, it developed that there was no more hot water. The other parties had to wait, with what good grace they could muster, while the hut-keeper stirred up the fire, chopping a little wood to do so, and finally heated water for the rest of them! This gave Jessie and me a good fifteen minutes’ start and we got away at 3:10.”

That would be a great end to the story, but in truth the weather turned nasty once again and they were forced back. It was a year later, in 1932, when Underhill and Alice Damesme finally summited the Matterhorn on an astoundingly clear day—easy as that.

Alice Damesme leads Miriam to the Matterhorn’s summit after years of waiting for a weather window.

Miriam married Robert Underhill, a frequent climbing partner, soon after. Together, they became the first climbing power couple. They established numerous first ascents in the Rockies, and Miriam’s Peak and Bob’s Towers stand next to each other in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. “Manless climbing is fun for a while, but this other arrangement is better!” she wrote in her memoir. That may have been true in her life, but her manless climbs laid the groundwork for generations of other women to follow suit with their own all-female adventures.

As a young adult, I climb predominantly with a close group of female friends. For the most part, I don’t even stop to think it should be otherwise—perhaps because my father taught me about his mother as he taught me how to climb. Or maybe it’s just a testament to how far we’ve come since Miriam’s era. Today’s girls have many other female climbing role models to look up to. Lynn Hill was the first person (man or woman) to free climb The Nose, a 2,900-foot ascent on El Capitan in Yosemite. Melissa Arnot is one of the premier Himalayan climbers and mountain guides. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has made a point of climbing all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks without men, supplemental oxygen, or high-altitude porters. Women have made extraordinary strides in the past 80 years, even as casual sexism within the community remains alive and well. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we’re only two generations away from a time when women climbing on their own was practically unheard of. Women today assume that they’ll climb whatever, and climb with whoever, they want—that is in large part due to the legacy of Miriam and the other pioneering women climbers who followed.

For more information:

• The blog “Easy Day for a Lady” is a good resource for many historical climbing women.

• Read a scanned copy of “Manless Climbing” in National Geographic. 

by Vivian Underhill
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Vivian Underhill is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who focuses on environmental and queer issues. Follow her at vivianunderhill.wordpress.com.

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