How To Climb "Manless"

Miriam O'Brien Underhill at the crag somewhere near Boston, courtesy Ed Webster Collection

Not so long ago, the idea that a woman was neither physically nor mentally capable of leading a climb was accepted by the majority of prominent mountaineers. Not cool, old dudes, not cool.

Miriam O'Brien was a refreshing drink of stiff whiskey amidst that narrow-minded cadre. She became a serious alpinist in 1926, and proceeded to climb the Matterhorn, do first ascents in the Dolomites, and dominate the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where she ultimately tied the knot (literally) with prolific climber Robert Underhill. She penned the term "manless climbing" where one could experience the full responsibility of climbing on the mountain, gender transcendent.

In 1929, she teamed up with French female climber Alice Damesme to lead an all-woman climb of Aiguille du Grépon. Their success was met with this complaint from Étienne Bruhl:

"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".

Étienne was not in a celebratory mood. But Miriam continued undaunted, and climbed around the world. Here's a great passage from Miriam's essay Manless Alpine Climbing for National Geographic in 1934:

"This is a lot of fun, and I saw no reason why this pleasure should be closed to women, although some of my friends among the French mountaineers tried patiently to explain to me why it was theoretically impossible for a woman to lead a mountain climb, taking the entire responsibility herself without at least masculine “moral support.” I was unconvinced, however, and I persisted in my determination to do a big climb sans hommes."

Want to learn more about the legendary Miriam? Here's a few links:

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