American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Robert Lindley Murray Underhill, 1889-1983

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984



With Robert Underhill’s death on May 11, 1983, after a short illness, America lost one of its pioneers in the advancement of technical climbing. A quiet and unassuming person, he never advertised his exploits but rather let them speak for themselves. He was always ready to provide information or a helping hand to aspiring climbers. The information he brought to western climbers in his 1931 trip with the Sierra Club was used by them to good effect as is attested to by the present development of rock climbing in Yosemite.

Robert L. M. Underhill was born March 3, 1889 in Sing Sing, New York, a town the citizens of which later changed its name to Ossining to remove any imputation of any connection with the nearby state prison. Following his graduation with an A.B. degree from Haverford in 1909, he started climbing in the Alps and while acquiring an A.M. in 1911 and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1916, continued to make more climbs in various parts of the Alps. A part of this period was spent studying in Germany, which made the Alps even more accessible, and also made him thoroughly acquainted with the German language. He served for a short while in 1918 as instructor in mathematics at Harvard and later as tutor in the Philosophy Department from 1925 to 1931 and as instructor in that department from 1928 to 1931. He left Harvard in June 1931 and six months later, on January 28, 1932, married Miriam O’Brien, with whom most of his later climbs both in this country and the Alps were made.

He made many outstanding climbs in the Alps, often led or guideless, among them the Brenva and Peuterey ridges and the first descent of the Innominata ridge of Mont Blanc, all these when climbs in the south face were few and far between. Among his climbs in the Pennine Alps were the east face of the Dom, Matterhorn guideless, and the Viereselgrat on the Dent Blanche. He made the second ascent of the west face of the Piz Bernina and in the Dolomites a guideless ascent of the Schmit Kamin of the Fünffingerspitze. The single-day traverse of the Aiguilles du Diable in the Mont Blanc region with Miriam is legendary.

My first association with Bob was through the Harvard Mountaineering Club and the rock climbers of the Appalachian Mountain Club during his teaching years at Harvard. My description of the fine snow-and-ice face of Gannett Peak and the excellent climbing in the Wind River and Teton Ranges led to our planning a trip there with Henry Hall in 1929 which culminated in climbs of all but one of the peaks in the Dinwoody cirque in the Wind Rivers as first ascents, new routes or first traverses. We then went to the Tetons where we first climbed the Grand Teton by the “Owen” route to check out its difficulties largely perhaps because of the Owen-Langford controversy of which we had been apprised by Francis Farquhar, who had compiled a rather complete book of the material on it. We then climbed the east ridge of the mountain, the first new route to be done. Upon hearing of this, F.M. Fryxell, the ranger-naturalist of the newly established Grand Teton National Park, asked us to come back the following year to climb Mount Owen, which had been tried many times without success. We did return the next year after a two-week sojourn in the west side of the Wind River Range during which we made many first ascents, and with Fryxell and Phil Smith, another ranger, made the first ascent of Mount Owen, discovering two routes on the final summit knob. Later Underhill and I made the first ascent of Teepe’s Pillar and attempted the southeast ridge of the Grand but were thwarted by thunderstorms of long duration. The next year Underhill returned alone and completed the ascent of that ridge and with Fryxell made the first ascent of the north ridge. That same year Underhill accepted the invitation of Francis Farquhar to join the Sierra Club on its annual High Sierra trip, during which he imparted much of the lore of European climbers to the active leaders of the Sierra Club. With Norman Clyde, and two young eager climbers, Jules Eichhorn and Glen Dawson, he made the first ascent of the east face of Mount Whitney, thus breaking the myth that the face was a sheer unclimbable wall.

Following his marriage, he spent an increasing amount of time on the preparation of his long contemplated book on Logic, but found time to make a number of trips with his wife, Miriam, to the various ranges of the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana and to write articles on them to help others find the best possibilities of the region. Together Bob and Miriam made many first ascents on these ranges. After their removal to Randolph, N.H. they started a project of climbing all the 4000-foot peaks in the White Mountains in winter, a feat which they completed in 1960.

In 1928 Underhill acceded to the request of Dean Peabody, then President of the Appalachian Mountain Club, to assume the editorship of Appalachia, the journal of that organization, which had not been published for several years. He set new high standards for contents and regularity of publication over the next six years, only retiring from the post at the end of 1934 when it was a flourishing journal. His experience in that position made him an invaluable advisor to subsequent editors, one of whom was his wife, Miriam. During all those years when he was actively rock-or ice-climbing in the White Mountains or Katahdin, or mountaineering in the western cordillera, or climbing in the Alps, he still spent an enormous amount of time in research for his long contemplated book on Logic, and after accumulating prodigious files of notes completed the writing some three years ago. Ever the perfectionist, he continued to edit and revise the manuscript with a view to its eventual posthumous publication. Considering the time, care, and attention which he devoted to its production, its publication should assure him as outstanding place in the field of Philosphy as he has already achieved in mountaineering.

Kenneth A. Henderson

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