Dora Keen had already impressed the climbing world before she became the first woman to mountaineer in Alaska in 1911. Among the world’s first female climbers, she had summited peaks in Ecuador, Norway, and Canada’s Selkirks. In 1909 and 1910, in her late thirties, she spent two months in the high Alps, climbing Mount Blanc, the Matterhorn, and eight others. She wrote about her climbs in popular magazines such as Harpers and the Saturday Evening Post.
The daughter of a famous brain surgeon, Dora Keen had a comfortable upbringing in Philadelphia. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College, she worked in philanthropic organizations supporting fair labor and protection of children against violence. She also developed a life-long love for world travel and adventure.
Traveling alone to Alaska in 1911, she didn’t intend to tackle any high peaks. But while camping and climbing mountains on the Kenai Peninsula, she read a description of 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn, the highest peak in the Wrangells. It had reportedly never been climbed, and its glaciers and remoteness captured her imagination. She abruptly decided to climb it and traveled to the mining outpost of Kennicott, thirty miles from the base of Mount Blackburn in what is now Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. The mountain, originally named K’a’si Tl’aadi – “the one at cold headwaters” – lies within the traditional lands of the Ahtna and Upper Tanana Athabaskin people.
Her adventures on Blackburn, in the Chugach Mountains, along the Yukon River, and elsewhere occurred in an Alaska that no longer exists.
Blackburn was like nothing she had climbed. Treeline was far lower than in the Alps, meaning extended exposure on rock and ice. It also required vastly more self-reliance, with no guides, huts or lodges. No one knew of routes up the mountain or was even sure of its exact height. Added to it all, Dora Keen was forty.
It’s fair to say Keen got spanked on her first attempt. Already mid-summer, she had hastily assembled the expedition, hiring four local prospectors and a tough German with some climbing experience. With horses and dog teams, they lugged their provisions twenty-five grueling miles up the Kennicott Glacier to Blackburn’s base. They struggled upward through soft snow, threading bottomless crevasses, walls of ice, and constant avalanches. Near 9,000 feet, perilously low on food, they eyed a route to the summit. But then a blizzard swallowed the mountain, forcing a retreat.
The experience only invigorated Dora Keen, giving her “a new standard of courage.” She returned to Kennicott the following April. This time she hired seven men, mostly miners and a German adventurer named George Handy from the Alaskan port town of Cordova. It was a skeletal crew compared to the veritable armies of doctors, guides and others that accompanied many of the era’s climbers.
Spring came early in 1912 and the avalanche season was fully underway as the team and their dogs relayed 2,000 pounds of food and gear up the Kennicott Glacier, reaching Blackburn’s 5,500-foot base in six days. They left the dogs and one man at the base and relayed their gear to 9,000 feet, beginning travel at three each morning to beat the snow-softening sun. By day, they ate, slept, and watched avalanches scour the mountainside.
At 9,000 feet they determined the best way forward was up a 3,500-foot gully that averaged sixty degrees below towering pillars of ice and snow. They packed light, hoping to minimize time in the gully and from its top make a quick run for the summit.
They trudged to the top of the gully at 12,400 feet, scoped a line to the summit, and made camp in snow caves. But the next morning, a pummeling blizzard pinned them in their caves for three days, with no stoves and limited bedding. For water, they used candles to melt snow in tin cups. When they ran out of food, they retreated down the gully in driving snow to their previous camp. Shaken, two men bolted back to Kennicott.
Twenty feet of snow fell during the next thirteen days, not unheard-of for the Wrangells. When an avalanche’s powder blast swept through camp, the climbers abandoned their tents and burrowed into chilly snow caves. Blizzards buried them each night and two more men abandoned the effort, leaving Keen, Handy, and prospector Bill Lang.
When the storms subsided, the three remaining climbers returned to the steep gulch. Over four nights they ferried their gear to its top as avalanches roared around them. At 12,400 feet, they dug 12 steps downward through new snow to reclaim their previous caves. Then they wallowed upward through knee-deep snow and slept in another cave at 14,000 feet, then another at 15,000 feet. It was windy and frigid, but Keen wrote excitedly about “the most superb view of my life.”
On their summit day, Lang at first climbed ahead, but grew ill and returned to camp just 500 feet from the top. Dora Keen and George Handy persevered and early on May 19 reached the summit. They spent nearly five hours there in an icy gale, enjoying the view and roaming the summit’s plateau until they determined they had reached its highest point.
It took Keen, Handy and Lang a week to get back to Kennicott. In all, the climb took 33 days, with 22 nights spent in snow caves. Not long after, Keen and Handy embarked on a 300-mile traverse of interior Alaska to the Yukon River. Two years later they led a small crew into an unexplored corner of the Chugach Mountains above Prince William Sound, where a remote range now bears Keen’s name.
Dora Keen and George Handy were married in 1916 in McCarthy, Alaska, within view of Mount Blackburn. Their honeymoon was a two-month trek through the Alaskan wilderness. Afterward, they settled on a farm in Vermont. Keen wrote and lectured about her adventures and once shared the stage with Sir Ernest Shackleton and Admiral Robert Peary. She also continued her philanthropic work and advocated for women’s suffrage.
Dora Keen and George Handy divorced after sixteen years, but Keen never lost her love of travel and adventure. Through her 80s, she left Vermont winters to travel the world. In late 1962, at age 91, she embarked on a final tour of the world, stopping first in Alaska, where she joked with reporters that people wouldn’t let her climb mountains at her age. From there she continued to Tokyo, then Hong Kong, where she died in early 1963.
In 1960, the U.S. Geological Survey determined Mount Blackburn’s true summit is on a peak 200 feet higher than the one Keen and Handy reached. Today, most climbers reach the true summit via the mountain’s north ridge, avoiding Keen’s more difficult southeasterly approach. Most climbers also take an air taxi to 7,200 feet, avoiding Keen’s long and difficult approach to the mountain’s base.
Like her more obscure route up Blackburn, Dora Keen’s story is not well-known. But it’s nonetheless remarkable. Her adventures on Blackburn, in the Chugach Mountains, along the Yukon River, and elsewhere occurred in an Alaska that no longer exists. Without plane support, satellite phones, GPS, guides or guide books, she explored a true last frontier wilderness, one that demanded endurance, determination and self-reliance on a scale hard to imagine today.
Words by Tim Lydon