Women who are strong and brave enough to challenge convention have always fascinated me. Whatever their motivation in refusing to adhere to the status quo, women like Marie Curie, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, Julia Child and Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, an African American physician who was among the scientists to pioneer chemotherapy as a treatment for cancer, all helped change the world and the way the world views women.
In honor of March being Women’s History Month and because I love hiking and mountains I wanted to write a post about one of my favorite female pioneers, Miriam O’Brien Underhill.
A New England native, Miriam was born in Lisbon, New Hampshire, in July 1898 and grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. At a time when few women attended college, she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1920. She completed graduate work in physics at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland in 1925. After leaving Johns Hopkins, Miriam began a career in medical research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston.
As impressive as this is, it’s not what Miriam is known for. Although she died in 1976, Miriam O’Brien Underhill is still considered by many to be one of the most gifted mountaineers of all time.
Most of Miriam’s early climbs were in the Alps, where she was among the first group of people to climb several challenging peaks beginning in 1926. These include the 11,184-foot Aiguille de Roc in Chamonix, France, and the triple-peaked Torre Grande in the Italian Dolomites, where the route she climbed is named Via Miriam in her honor. She is perhaps best known, though, for being the first woman to climb mountains “manless.”
After several years of climbing with male friends and guides, Miriam decided that in order to truly develop her skills as a climber and leader she would have to undertake some difficult ascents without any men present. She did this beginning in 1929, when she traversed the double peaks of the Aiguille du Grepon in Chamonix with French climber and friend Alice Damesme. Miriam’s other female-only climbs would include the Monch and Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps in 1931, and the 14,692 ft. Matterhorn in the Swiss and Italian Alps in 1932.
In 1933, Miriam married fellow mountaineer and Harvard University professor Robert L.M. Underhill, who became her climbing partner for the rest of her life. They raised two sons, Robert and Brian, born in 1936 and 1939, and made several more first ascents, this time of mountains in the American West, including peaks in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range and Montana’s Mission, Beartooth and Swan ranges. Most of these climbs were made without the aid of cut trails, maps, or guides, as there were none.
In addition to climbing, Miriam was also a prolific writer and talented photographer, contributing several articles to National Geographic magazine and serving as editor of Appalachia, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), for six years. Her autobiography, Give Me the Hills, was published in London in 1956 by Methuen & Co. Publishing, and was released in the U.S. by The Chatham Press in 1971.
A scientist by training, Miriam never lost her curiosity. During her climbs, she discovered numerous new species of alpine wildflowers. Several of her photographs illustrate the AMC Field Guide to Mountain Flowers of New England, published by the AMC in 1964.
When Robert Underhill retired, he and Miriam moved to Randolph, New Hampshire, where they were among the first people to climb all of the White Mountains’ 4,000-footers (46 of them were known at the time). They helped establish the AMC’s Four Thousand Footer Club after reading a 1931 Appalachia article by Dartmouth College librarian Nathaniel Goodrich, who described a similar practice by European climbers in the Alps.
When Robert was in his early 70s and Miriam in her early 60s, they became the first people to climb all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers during the winter, an undertaking that Miriam felt was more “sporting” than climbing them in the summertime due to freezing temperatures and deep snow.
During the late 1950s, when they were making their winter climbs, few roads in the White Mountains were plowed, adding many additional miles to their hikes and often requiring the couple to camp overnight. The Underhills completed the winter 4,000-footers on Mount Jefferson on Dec. 31, 1960. The temperature was minus 18 F and the wind speed was 72 mph.
The next time you’re out on the trail, raise your water bottle in a toast to Miriam.
Note: A version of this essay appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine.