O'Brien, Miriam (1898–1976)

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O'Brien, Miriam (1898–1976)

American mountaineer. Name variations: Miriam Underhill. Born in Forest Glen, Maryland, in 1898; died in Lancaster, New Hampshire, on January 7, 1976; daughter of a Boston newspaperman; met and married Robert Underhill, in 1932; children: two sons.

Traversed the Wellenkuppe and Obergabelhorn (1924); climbed the Dolomites and Aiguilles of Chamonix (1926); climbed the Via Miriam (named after her) on the Torre Grande in the Dolomites with her friend Margaret Helburn (1927); made first complete ascent of Les Aiguilles du Diable and was first female lead of the Grépon (1928); made first all-women's ascent of the Mer de Glace face of the Grépon (1929); made first all-women's ascent of the Matterhorn with Alice Damesme (1932).

Once considered the greatest woman climber in America, Miriam O'Brien started her climbing career on a summer foray in the foothills of the White Mountains of New Hampshire when she was six, accompanied by parental tourguides.

Following years of easy climbs in Chamonix and Switzerland, she traversed the Wellenkuppe and Obergabelhorn in 1924. On July 7, 1927, O'Brien, along with Margaret Helburn , Angelo and Antonio Dimai and Angela Dibona , climbed the Via Miriam in the Dolomites. That same year, she and Helburn made the first female ascent of the Grépon by way of the Mer de Glace face. Once again, however, O'Brien had climbed with a guide at the front, and she was becoming aware that the greatest thrill was enjoyed by the one who had the authority, made the decisions, decided the tactics, and was cognizant of the approaching weather, avalanches, stone falls, and crevasses. "I saw no reason why women, ipso facto, should be incapable of leading a good climb." But some men disagreed, and one of them did so in print:

There is more to leading than first meets the eye, a lot that must be learned, and this is best learned by watching competent leaders attentively and coming to understand their decisions. Women, however, never bother to do this. Since they know that they will never be allowed to lead anyway, they just come walking along behind, looking at the scenery. Therefore, even if they were given an opportunity to lead, they would be completely unprepared.

In 1928, after O'Brien led the attack on the Grépon with her guide as second, "The Alpine Journal wavered between incredulity and stern disapproval," wrote Dorothy Pilley , "announcing the first woman's lead of the Grépon with a hesitating 'it is reported' and declaring that 'Few ladies, even in these days, are capable of mountaineering unaccompanied.'" O'Brien then determined that if a woman were to truly lead, there should be no men in the party. The following year, on August 17, 1929, she and French climber Alice Damesme climbed, guideless and manless, the face of the Mer de Glace to the Summit of the Grépon, at one time regarded as the hardest route in the Alps. Etienne Bruhl was disconsolate: "The Grépon has disappeared," he mourned. "Of course there are still some rocks standing there, but as a climb it no longer exists. 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." In 1930, Marjorie Hurd made a manless ascent of the Torre Grande at Cortina.

In 1931 and 1932, O'Brien, along with Damesme and Jessie Whitehead , made repeated attempts to make the first all-women's ascent of the Matterhorn by the Hörnli route, but the weather prevailed. Finally, on August 13, 1932, they completed their task. Following that, O'Brien married, had children, and reserved most of her climbs for family outings.


Birkett, Bill, and Bill Peascod. Women Climbing: 200 Years of Achievement. London: A&C Black, 1989.

suggested reading:

Underhill, Miriam. Give Me the Hills. Methuen, 1956.

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O'Brien, Miriam (1898–1976)

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