A Good Heart and Endurance

Alumna from the Class of 1896 sought adventure in high places.

Dora Keen graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1896 with a degree in history. Given her legacy, though, geology might have been a more logical choice.

As a young woman, Keen hiked her way through Europe. “I climb for pleasure,” she wrote in the July 1911 National Geographic, “for the wonderful views and vigorous exertion, for the relaxation of a complete change for mind and body, and because of the inspiration to the spirit. To climb requires a good heart and endurance.”

Her 1912 ascent of Mount Blackburn in Alaska’s Wrangall Mountains, her second attempt on the 16,000-foot mountain, almost came to naught. Keen and a crew of seven men reached Blackburn’s 5,500-foot base in six days. At 12,400 feet, they made camp in snow caves. But a blizzard pinned them down and, with food running low, two men abandoned the effort. As the weather worsened and supplies dwindled, Keen sent three men back for provisions.

When the storms cleared, the three remaining climbers pushed on. Two of them—Keen and another climber, George Handy—summited on May 19.

The entire expedition took more than a month—22 nights of which were spent in snow caves—but Alaska wasn’t done with Keen. Two years later, she and Handy (whom she would end up marrying) headed to the Chugach Mountains, where a remote range now bears her name.

From The New York Times, May 26, 1912:

Woman Reaches Top of Alaskan Peak

Dora Keen of Philadelphia Climbs Mount Blackburn in Spite of Storms

In Peril From Snow Slides

Her Guide, John Barrett, an Experienced Alaska Miner—Caught in a Blizzard.

Special to The New York Times.

Philadelphia, May 23—The following telegrams were received in this city to-night, telling of the successful ascent of Mount Blackburn, Alaska, by Miss Dora Keen of Philadelphia.

Kennecott, Alaska, May 25.

After thirteen days’ snowstorm, spent in caves, made the summit of Mount Blackburn on May 19.

Dora Keen

Kennecott, Alaska, May 25. 

"Miss Keen won out after struggles and experiences that would have daunted many men. She is the first woman to reach the top of Mount Blackburn, and no man had ever conquered it before her." — The New York Times, May 26, 1912