American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Elizabeth Knowlton, 1895-1989

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989


With the death of Elizabeth Knowlton on January 26, 1989, we have lost one of our most distinguished lady mountaineers. She was bom on October 25, 1895 in Springfield, Massachusetts to Marcus Perrin Knowlton, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts and Rose (Ladd) Knowlton. She grew up in Springfield, where she attended the Elms and then went to Vassar College, where she obtained her AB degree in 1916. The following year, she earned an MA from Radcliffe College.

Although she had accompanied her mother on summer trips to various mountain regions of this country and abroad and had made many minor ascents in the White Mountains and elsewhere, it was not until she completed her education that she made her first climbs in the higher ranges, starting in 1918 with the ascent of several peaks in the Selkirks and the Lake Louise region of the Canadian Rockies. In 1921 she joined the Appalachian Mountain Club and began an association with other climbers which lasted throughout her life. She took an active part especially in rock climbing in the twenties and thirties. During that time she was extremely active in both the Canadian Rockies and the Alps. The list of her climbs is too long to enumerate here, but many of the routes she climbed in the Pennine and French Alps and the Dolomites were of great severity and earned her the respect and admiration of those who came to know her. The quality of those climbs was sufficient to have her invited to join the rather exclusive Groupe de Haute Montagne. She was one of the two American members, and the only woman, on the 1932 German-American Expedition to Nanga Parbat, on which she reached an altitude of 20,800 feet. Her book on this expedition, The Naked Mountain, was widely acclaimed at the time and served to establish her reputation as an author.

She wrote many articles on climbing both in mountaineering journals and in magazines of a more general nature such as The Atlantic. She was a most meticulous writer and resented any editorial changes, as many an editor will testify.

She climbed often with guides as that seemed the easiest way to find a companion but did not hesitate to take part in guideless climbing. She participated in an all-woman expedition of 1938 to Mount Confederation, although sickness in the party frustrated a successful conclusion. After the war, in 1947, she made an expedition to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, where she climbed several of the highest summits. She also climbed in Mexico in this period.

She retained an active interest in mountaineering in the Alps, Himalaya and Andes until her death and was usually found at the annual meetings of the American Alpine Club, which she joined in 1928.

Kenneth A. Henderson

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