Dora Keen Handy, 1871-1963

Publication Year: 1963.


Mrs. Handy died January 31, 1963, in Hong Kong on a journey around the world, active to the end and doing just what she wanted to. Only a year before she had told a friend that when her time came she would want it that way, which was typical of her. Her father was the famous Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. W. W. Keen, a climber who registered in Riffelberg Visiters Book on August 8, 1865 only three weeks after the Matterhorn accident. She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1896. She had been a member of the A. A.C. since 1907 and attended the Annual Dinner less than two months before her death.

At a time when few women climbed, at the turn of the century, she had begun to attract attention with her climbing in the Alps and else where and had at least one illustrated article in The National Geographic Magazine as a result. Hardly five feet tall, she nevertheless had done many of the good climbs in the Alps with her guide Ed Cupelin, who was well over six feet.

In 1911 Alaska fascinated her. On the Kenai Peninsula, where she went to see some of the huge Kodiak bears, she found in a prospector’s cabin a copy of a U. S. Geological Survey report in which Mount Blackburn (16,140 feet) was referred to as "never ascended and . . . worthy of the hardiest mountaineer.” This was enough for her. Only Mount St. Elias of the great Alaskan peaks had so far been climbed. The new Copper River Railway (the subject of a novel by Rex Beach, The Iron Trail) from Cordova, had just been finished to the important copper deposits at Kennicott only 35 miles from Mount Blackburn. There she went in all haste and persuaded several local men to join her in the first attempt on the huge, ice covered, extinct volcano. Taking provisions for twelve days, starting at 1500 feet, they relayed up Kennicott Glacier, delayed constantly by crevasses and soft snow, finally reaching 8700 feet amid the roar of avalanches. Realizing that much longer would be needed, she gave up for that season.

April, 1912, found her back again at Cordova, where she met George W. Handy, in whom she had confidence, and invited him to join the party. With six other men and dog sledges they started up Kennicott Glacier on the 22nd. This time she was determined and would not be stopped if it were humanly possible to succeed. Thirty-three days altogether were spent on the snow and ice, 22 without tents and 10 almost without food. Caves dug in the snow provided shelter up to 12,000 feet. From there, in weather clearing after a succession of severe storms, she and Handy reached the summit on May 19, 8:30 a.m. It had taken four weeks. The view was perfect in every direction for up to 200 miles. The return took three days to Base Camp and two more to Kennicott.

Later she and George Handy were married and visited other parts of remote Alaska, finally settling on a farm in Vermont. After some years they were divorced. For a while she sold insurance. In later years she liked nothing better than to correspond with and meet members of parties headed for the mountains of Alaska and to hear of their subsequent experiences. My wife and I spent an hour with her last spring. She was alert, in full possession of her faculties, and looking forward to plans for the future which included travel, probably alone. She liked her independence. She was a remarkable little person, full of confidence and wanting no one to worry about her—she could manage quite well by herself.

Henry S. Hall, Jr.