Antisemite mountaineer’s name is finally stripped from prestigious climbing award

Annual prize handed out in the memory of Robert L. H. Underhill eventually has name changed by American Alpine Club


A distinguished professor of philosophy at Harvard, a writer, editor and above all, a revered mountaineer; in the history of American climbing, there have been few more significant figures than Robert L. H. Underhill.

Since his death in 1983, a prestigious award has been handed out in his memory every year. However, he was also a virulent antisemite, who wanted to banish Jews from US climbing circles just as his Nazi counterparts were purging them from German and Austrian peaks. Last week, the American Alpine Club (AAC) finally announced it was changing the name of the prize named after him – a mere 14 years after letters in which Underhill expressed his bigotry were first published.

The Robert and Miriam Underhill Award (Robert’s wife, Miriam, was also a talented mountaineer, although she is not thought to have shared his repugnant views) has been given to many of America’s most famous climbers. They include Alex Honnold, the film of whose ropeless ascent of the 3,000-ft El Capitan in California, Free Solo, won an Oscar in 2019, and Lynn Hill, arguably the greatest female climber of all time.

There is no doubting Underhill’s skill and daring. In the Thirties and Forties, he was responsible for a long string of first ascents in both Europe and the Americas, and was also important as a teacher of the latest climbing techniques.

Meanwhile, Underhill was writing to friends of his disgust at meeting Jewish climbers, such as James Ramsey Ullman. In fact, Ullman was not only a capable climber but a successful author, who later would ghost-write the autobiography of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, one of the pair who made the first ascent of Everest.

To Underhill, Ullman was a “low-grade New York Jew”, and a “mutt”.

In 1939, Underhill heard that a Jewish climber had been killed falling from a rockface in upstate New York. His response was to tell a friend in a letter that Jews were “kikes” who lacked the physical and mental strength necessary to climb mountains, and were trying to “invade” what should be a Jew-free sport.

Appalling as these statements would be at any time, they were made even worse in the context of the era. Across the Atlantic, Hitler had appointed a “climbing Fuhrer”: Paul Bauer, a fanatical Nazi who saw the conquest of the world’s highest peaks as a way to restore the honour Germany had lost through defeat in the First World War. He purged Jews from every climbing club in Germany and Austria. The British Alpine Club – the world’s oldest mountaineering association – condemned Bauer’s actions unequivocally. But not Underhill.

Evidence of Underhill’s antisemitism was published in a mountaineering history book, Fallen Giants, co-written by the Jewish-American author and climber Maurice Isserman, in 2008. The book was widely and favourably reviewed. But the AAC continued to give out its Underhill award. It was only when another Jewish climber, Brad Rassler, wrote to the AAC’s chief executive, Jamie Logan, in April 2022, just after the award’s latest recipient had been announced, that the club decided it must act. Earlier this month, Logan told Rassler in an email that the prize would be renamed.

The British mountain historian and Alpine Journal editor Ed Douglas said: “Given the scale of antisemitism in climbing circles in Europe, Underhill’s opinions were not only abhorrent but significant. I must applaud the decision the AAC has taken. But Underhill will not have been the only American case – it’s likely that antisemitism did affect American Jewish climbers for a long time.”

AAC vice president Pete Ward told Rassler in an email: “The AAC staff and board are committed to a continual process of examining and shining light on all parts of our history. Including, and especially, the parts of that history that must evolve.”

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