It’s the 1920s. A budding adventurer spends weekends and summers tromping through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, dashing up and down the Presidentials, scrambling up Tuckerman and Huntington ravines, and learning to ski on long wooden skis with leather boots and bindings.
These local adventures hone the young charger’s confidence and mountain skills and earn credibility with the nascent network of New England mountaineers. Credibility leads to trip invitations, which ingratiate the climber to the beating heart of outdoor sports everywhere: a community of like-minded people.
New England is home, but it’s the intoxicating summer trips to the sky-scraping granite of Chamonix and the Dolomites that capture the climber’s mind and heart. Annual family pilgrimages to the European mountains provide plentiful exploration opportunities, further whetting an already sharp thirst for the alpine world.
Life couldn’t get much more perfect, save for one perpetually maddening twist of genetic fate—the climber was named Miriam O’Brien (1898-1976) and she was a woman living in the first half of the 20th century. Sure, she possessed that innate drive to push herself physically and emotionally for no reward other than the summit. But according to the rules of the day, she “needed” a man to show her where that summit was.
This struck her as a load of total bullshit.
Each summer O’Brien added new summits to her growing resume: the first-ever traverse from the Aiguilles du Diable to Mont Blanc du Tacul, a climb requiring five separate summits each above 4,000 meters; the third-ever ascent of the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn, the famous peak’s most difficult route. These summits earned the respect of the best Italian and Swiss guides, while her kind and generous attitude gained the friendship of the old men who ran the alpine huts.
Her fire for adventure burned red hot, stoked as much by successfully reaching a summit as by each failed attempt, and it proved nearly impossible to douse. Climbing iconic peaks in the Alps, such as the Matterhorn, was all well and good, but Miriam O’Brien wasn’t satisfied to simply follow a male guide. Eventually, even leading a climb wasn’t satisfying enough for O’Brien if a man was holding the belay.
“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.”
So she did. By the late 1920s, O’Brien had the confidence, skill, and network to shatter climbing’s male-dominated boundaries. In 1927, she and her climbing partner, Winifred Marples, climbed Chamonix’s iconic Aiguille du Peigne alone and unsupported. Three days later, she and Alice Damesme made the first women-only traverse of the Grépon, a stunningly steep and beautiful thrust of granite long considered one of the toughest climbs in the Alps. That very evening, upon word of their success, French alpinist, Étienne Bruhl forever cemented his leadership position in the male-chauvinist-pig-hall-of-fame by declaring, “The Grépon has disappeared. Of course, there are still some rocks standing there, but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that is 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.”
In the early 1930s, O’Brien and her partners added several more peaks to the list poor old Étienne Bruhl could no longer count as real mountains: the sprawling, glaciated Jungfrau and its neighbor the Mönch, the square grey rock of Cinque Terri’s tallest spire, the Torre Grande, and the 13,800-foot Alphubel, via the more difficult west route up the Rotgrat.
O’Brien’s big goal to climb the Matterhorn took a few seasons to materialize. Weather delays frustrated several attempts throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. Finally, on August 13th, 1932, O’Brien and Alice Damesme laced up their leather hobnailed boots, loaded their hemp ropes, their “scarpa da gattos” or “cat shoes” made of layers of stitched woolen cloth, their sack lunches, and heavy woolen clothes and headed out into the dark European morning. O’Brien carried a flashlight – at times in her hands, at times in her mouth—and picked their route across the glaciers toward the peak. They summited without incident at 8:30 a.m.
Friends in Chamonix organized a reception, complete with a band, flowers, and orations, to celebrate O’Brien’s accomplishment. In the perfect snapshot of her relationship with mountaineering, O’Brien skipped the party altogether and went climbing with her future husband, Robert Underhill.
That she opted to go climbing instead of attending her own party is telling. O’Brien was, by all measure, a privileged one-percenter, living in a time when gender roles and stereotypes were arguably as rigid as they’d ever been. Her life could have been relatively simple, certainly easy, and most likely very safe, but she wholeheartedly rejected that path. Yes, she was rebelling against the chauvinism of the time, but she also simply loved climbing and the mountains. It was important to O’Brien to be capable in every aspect of the adventure. From hiring mules for the slog from lowland train stations to alpine huts, to pounding in a perfectly placed piton, she needed to be an expert and entirely competent on her own.
Miriam and Robert married in 1932 and went on to explore the Mission and Beaverhead ranges in Montana, the Wind Rivers in Wyoming, and the Sawtooths in Idaho. They put up first ascents and provided trip reports that climbers still use today. They helped found the 4,000 Footer Club, part of the Appalachian Mountain Club that requires participants to summit all 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. True to form, the Underhills took it a step further by establishing the Winter 4,000 Footer Club, and climbed all the peaks in winter.
Her essay, Manless Alpine Climbing: The First Woman to Scale the Grépon, the Matterhorn, and Other Famous Peaks Without Masculine Support Relates Her Adventures, was published in National Geographic in 1934. No doubt, that essay and her memoir, Give Me the Hills, have provided inspiration for generations of outdoor athletes who have pushed their sports’ boundaries – whether women or men. While she proved that men are neither a required, nor particularly necessary, component of adventure, her outdoor legacy is more layered than simply the blasting of prevailing cultural norms. At her very roots, O’Brien was both grounded and encouraged by the simple joy of being in the mountains.
1965 photo courtesy Forest History Society.