Dora Keen: A Pioneer of Mountaineering

April 9, 2020
AMC Library & ArchivesDora Keen on the annual AMC Snow-Shoe Section Trip to the White Mountains in 1914

In the first half of the 19th century, mountaineering in the Western world was largely dominated by male naturalists and explorers. Women were excluded from the sport primarily because they were believed to be too fragile for outdoor activities. Over time, a number of women broke these gender norms and began mountain climbing. Through hiking, many found the personal freedom that was largely denied them in other aspects of life. Among these female pioneers was Dora Keen, one of the first people to climb Mount Blackburn in Alaska.

In the first half of the 19th century, mountaineering in the Western world was largely dominated by male naturalists and explorers.

Dora Keen grew up with what her father called a “thirst for adventure.” Her father, W.W. Keen, was a brain surgeon who traveled around the world with Dora by his side. These experiences helped instill in her a courageous spirit. She developed an interest in hiking during her childhood through visits to the White Mountains and the Adirondacks. As an adult, Dora climbed several mountains, beginning with her first ascent of the Swiss Alps in 1909. Over the next two years, Dora would climb 20 peaks, including Mount Blanc, the Weisshorn, the Matterhorn, and most notably, Mount Blackburn.

She developed an interest in hiking during her childhood through visits to the White Mountains and the Adirondacks.

In 1911, Dora Keen went to visit Alaska. She planned to just to see the sights by train and by boat, but her enthusiasm for adventure got the best of her. After climbing a couple of 5,000 and 6,000-foot mountains, Dora heard about Blackburn. At 16,140 feet and never officially ascended, it was considered the highest peak of the Wrangell Mountains and “worthy of the hardiest mountaineer” by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Mount Blackburn in the Wrangell Mountains

At 16,140 feet and never officially ascended, it was considered the highest peak of the Wrangell Mountains and “worthy of the hardiest mountaineer” by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The mystery and remoteness of the mountain captured Dora’s imagination, and she decided to climb it. She knew the Alaskan terrain would be unlike any other she had climbed – it was far icier and snowier – so she traveled to the mining outpost of Kennecott to enlist a team to help her. Dora also commissioned some of the local blacksmiths to make ice axes and crampons. With her newly formed crew of seven, a dogsled carrying half a ton of gear, and a group of horses, Dora set out for her twelve-day adventure. But very quickly, Blackburn’s terrain proved more difficult than Dora had originally thought. The team faced walls of snow and constant avalanches for days. Eventually blizzard conditions forced their retreat.

National Park ServiceThe mining town of Kennecott

She knew the Alaskan terrain would be unlike any other she had climbed – it was far icier and snowier – so she traveled to the mining outpost of Kennecott to enlist a team to help her.

Despite a difficult first attempt, Dora wasn’t ready to give up on summiting the mountain. She returned to the base of Blackburn one year later, much to the dismay of her peers. Once again, she enlisted the help of a few miners and a German adventurer named George Handy from a nearby Alaskan port town. They lugged their gear up the mountain, beginning their ascent at three in the morning each day to avoid the afternoon avalanches. Unfortunately, once they reached the top of the gully at 12,400 feet, another blizzard arrived, trapping them in their caves for three days with limited food and no bedding. The team retreated back to the base where they waited for the storms to subside. Some of the team members, fearing that the mountain was too dangerous, stayed behind for good.

University of WashingtonDora Keen on a dogsled near her basecamp on Mount Blackburn in 1911

Dora, George, and a prospector named Bill Lang were the only ones who continued. For days, they climbed and burrowed themselves in caves, watching the avalanches around them. When they were close to the summit, Bill Lang became ill and turned back. Dora Keen and George Handy persevered and finally reached the summit on May 12, 1912. Dora described the summit as “the most superb view of [her] life.” In total, the trek took 33 days, with 22 days spent in snow caves.

Dora described the summit as “the most superb view of [her] life.”

Years later, Dora Keen and George Handy got married within view of Mount Blackburn in McCarthy, Alaska. They ran a farm together in Vermont until they divorced sixteen year later. Dora started a new career selling insurance and her home became a popular destination for whitewater canoeists from the Appalachian Mountain Club, who would stop by to warm up after taking a run on the river. Dora never lost her sense of adventure, traveling all around the world, and acting as a pioneer for the generations of women who would later follow in her footsteps.

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