Fallen heroes (and the climbing/politics/war/bias interface)
Mechanical Advantage series
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NOTE: very little climbing history here, this is a long ramble I wrote after a recent trip to USA about fallen heroes and shameful bias. For more gear history interest, may I suggest the research on 1950s steel pitons, which will be updated soon?
Author note: I have tried to keep my technological big wall climbing research distinct from the global political and often unpleasant worldviews that arise and fade in history. The great 1938 climbing achievement hailed in every history book, the North Face of the Eiger, is really a story of nationalistic pride (and hubris); movies like North Face, the German historical fiction film focused on Kurz and Hinterstoisser's attempt in 1936, which was in fact the technological breakthrough (though incomplete) ascent, cover this aspect well. The big north faces of the Alps were the most challenging, and the last to be climbed, and in this era the reputation of conquest and battle became the storylines—man (sic) verses mountain.
Now that I live in the southern hemisphere, south faces are the ones in the shade, but also the idea of “the line” verses “the mountain” has been freed in my reflections about climbing as I grow older. Perhaps I live a bit more isolated from the hype we still see today in the media interface between the public and the players. The long trains of oxygen-tanked climbers jumaring up fixed ropes on the big mountains will have to hit a breaking point at some extreme, but that is apparently what provides credibility to a current mountain person. History repeats. On the other hand, there are great stories of folks who have become artists on the biggest rock walls (which I find quite inspiring, even while accepting that I will unlikely ever find myself on another cutting-edge line that such films inspire). And then there are those pushing boundaries, with never a peep in the media—some who want a peep, and some who don’t, some who find honor in reticence and others who subtly self-sabotage. Some forms of climbing involve quite a bit of self-inflicted hardship, so the slope to glory or obscurity can be a slippery one for the ids and egos.
Looking at history, I see a great collaborative period of climbing in the 1910’s, climbers sharing tools and techniques, and figuring out new ways to explore and experience the wild vertical. Then World War I and the fun stops for a while. During the “interwar period”, starting in the mid-1920s, the doors start to open again, only to be slammed shut with another big European war, fostering new nationalistic sentiment, the tendrils of which are still present in many climbing histories.
So it almost becomes non-sensical to try to identify periods of climbing achievement without referring to the wars. Of course, the wars also had unexpected benefits to climbing, namely the materials and tools that were developed at a hyper-pace as part of the war efforts. So then the story involves wars and nationalistic attitudes. As an engineer, I’m trying to sleuth out the engineering developments and stick to verifiable evidence relative to other developments, and sometimes the shameful bias of the same developing thinkers also becomes apparent.
The current case in point is Robert Underhill, a rock climber active in the 1920s and 30s. An honored member of the climbing community, in 1983 the American Alpine Club named their most prestigious annual climbing award after him, the one given “for highest level of skill in mountaineering through the application of skill, courage, and perseverance”. Its full name became the Miriam and Robert Underhill Award, but often just spoken as the “Underhill Award” (more on Miriam later).
As chairman of the rock climbing committee of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Robert Underhill published a piece in the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1931 entitled, On the Use and Management of the Rope in Rock Work. This seminal piece is recognized as the article which created a leap in climbing standards and styles (for climbers of my generation, much as Doug Robinson’s articles on clean climbing did in 1972). It was not so much as he invented the techniques he described; in fact, his contribution was really the first English explanation of the more complex rope techniques that had been developed in the Eastern Alps in the previous three decades. But the timing and information presented in his illustrated 24-page article created a new general awareness of ropework and also exposed new realms of vertical rock that could be climbed with reasonable safeguards (Underhill was also an early proponent of the use of pitons as protection for lead climbs). The article and research in the journals provided an advancement in shared climbing knowledge that even surpassed Young’s Mountain Craft, then considered the best and most complete instructional book in English (Young was the first to document the concept of an “indirect belay”, the simple engineering fact that some sort of energy absorption must be incorporated into a belay system to prevent the loads from breaking ropes and bodies—more on this in next post).
Interestingly, as I just posted in my last article with the 1932 AAJ photo of carabiners in the Max Stumia article, in 1931 Underhill did not mention karabiners, as they were starting to be known then, in his 1931 article (though he wrote a piece that included basic info on pitons and carabiners for the 1932 Canadian Alpine Journal), but the publication of “New Helps for Climbers” by Strumia with more complete information on the tools of the trade really opened peoples eyes to what was possible with pitons. With the publication of these articles: one that offered the techniques, and one that offered the tools, climbing in North America underwent a huge boom in big wall climbing standards in the 1930s—Shiprock, Great White Throne, Waddington, Higher Cathedral Spire in Yosemite, new routes on the Tetons and Devil’s Tower, to name a few, were all climbed using the newly accepted and practiced tools and techniques.
Thus, Underhill's widespread recognition with climbing clubs: the American Alpine Club, the Canadian Alpine Club, the Sierra Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club all refer to his contributions. History books such as Yankee Rock and Ice (1993) by Laura and Guy Waterman are full of references to Underhill’s climbing accomplishments, noted there as the “most important climber” of 1920s Northeastern climbing. He was involved with many of the hardest climbs of the period and was noted as a mentor to a whole generation of climbers in the 1930s.
Now, with research into his life and views, there is evidence of his shameful bias and he wrote disparaging generalizations of Jewish climbers. Here is the article in Outside: Antisemitic Statements by a Climbing Pioneer Prompt the American Alpine Club to Rename a Prestigious Honor.
I agree that once such evidence is presented, individuals need to be considered in terms of any pedestals we place the characters in our histories. Many of the prior Underhill Award’s recipients hardly know anything about the Awards’ eponym. But that is also a function of the increasing public hype in climbing; for example, Reinhold Messner is globally known as a great 8000m peak climber, but fewer know he also pioneered some of the boldest bigwall free climbs in his early years as well, decades before the big wall free wave in Yosemite, and which arguably led to the opportunity for his subsequent adventures on the big mountains. Heroes are heroes, well, often because everyone else thinks of that person as a hero, even though sometimes only the most minimal awareness of their achievements (or of their character as a person) is known.
Australia has a sort of built-in mechanism to combat this. It is called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, named after an event in Greek histories, when a ruler wordlessly signaled an order for the execution of the elite by symbolically slicing the heads off the tallest poppies in his garden. It feels different in America, where the impulse to have the highest pedestal always occupied means that even morally suspect individuals sometimes become the only choice.
We have “fair go” here in Australia. I was at first surprised at election time when I heard all sides of politics use the term “fairness” in their campaigns—a word rarely spoken in the marketing of some political parties in the USA. Still, I had to grow a thick skin on my first trip to Australia in 1981, where I experienced new levels of “taking the piss out of someone”. As a “yank”, I was sandbagged on routes and my habits became running jokes. But I was also welcomed by the many communities, and in fact, was given a “fair go”. It is why I always wanted to come back—our family immigrated to Tasmania in 2008.
We have statues here too. I recently read a critical report in the local news of the “American style of statue removal” (as if there could be a “style” for these matters), for a medical doctor named William Crowther who was celebrated in Hobartown—his story is included here:
Crowther was known to have decapitated and stolen a skull from William Lanney’s deceased body, to further his career as a medical scientist (in the mid-19th century, First Nations people’s bones from Australia were in demand by international scientists and sold for a high price). William Laney first-encountered the early Tasmanian settlers at a young age, and he integrated into Tasmania society for many years. King Billy, as he was known when he met the Queen of England, was well-respected by his friends and community, but the scientific establishment still considered him a specimen.
Crowther died in 1885, and when his completed statue arrived from London in Hobart in 1887, it was erected in Franklin Square, a small greenspace in the middle of the city, sandwiched between the two busiest streets in Hobart (a main bus stop area where after-school high school kids gather and sometimes fight—my son just told me of a bust-up just yesterday). The statue’s plaque reads, “From a grateful public” for Crowther’s political and professional services in the colony (with the timing he might have also been part of the statue’s procurement). Just yesterday, the council voted for the statue to be removed, but questions remain unanswered as to what’s next. Our local cartoonist, Jon Kudelka, drew what many were thinking:
For Crowther as with Underhill, the responses range from ignoring the issue altogether (the “head-in-sand” defence), to per contra questions: "Can we recognize contributions from individuals even though they perpetrated immoral language, views, or deeds?” or "The true character of that individual has been exposed, and thus implicated in heinous actions that arose from those attitudes, and it is time to erase that individual from history and any recognition”.
So there you have it. Crowther probably did contribute to the scientific community in Hobart, a city which has become one of Australia’s scientific centers (with CSIRO and Antarctic research centres). But he was also completely contemptuous in beheading Lanney, so perhaps the fair answer is that the disrespect should be paid in kind.
Yesterday one of my children, waking up a little grumpy, threw out a hurtful comment that in most times would be ignored, but the timing hit deep, and my other child ran to her room tearful, and closed the door for a while. There was an apology, but perhaps without full understanding of the reason for the “fuss”. I tried to explain it is not the words that are said, but more important is to understand how you make people feel. He made her feel bad, so that should be the focus and the impetus for reparation, not to justify the non-chalant nature of the actual words. I tried to clarify. “If I ever make someone feel bad, I do want to know, so I can apologise, learn, and be better, as hurting people as you go through life rarely if ever has any justification, no matter what you are ‘doing’ for your conception of ‘good’”. Sometimes it’s hard to talk with a teenager; we get along well, but I suspect all I say is viewed through a “boomer” lens (actually, he tells me so sometimes).
It brings up another past experience I have long pondered—the loss of a close friendship because of a disagreement on climbing ethics—in this case, of passing slower parties on climbs. A friend had once been party to an accident that seriously maimed another person. He spent a lot of energy justifying his “right” to pass, as if the better climber just automatically has senior rights. My stance was and has always been, that we were all beginners once, and watching someone solo can be scary, especially if on the same route (John Stannard soloed a lot at Carderrock when I was first learning, and we watched in admiration and fear). To me, first-on-route has natural first rights, though it’s always possible to suss the situation to see if it’s possible to politely pass (I soloed a lot in Yosemite, and never had an issue). He could never bring himself to feel sorry or contrite about the effect of the accident his actions caused years before, and our friendship ended after an incident where he got in a shouting match with climbers on the Nutcracker (John Bachar and I were also there at Ranger Rock, but we opted for a harder and less traveled route to solo), and I refused to take his side on the ethics of passing slower parties. For some, being right trumps being contrite, it seems.
So back to Underhill— the privileged Harvard-educated guy whose views were probably common among many thought-leaders in the era of global rising fascism and damaging ‘scientific’ notions of eugenics (e.g. Nobel-laureate William Shockley)—is complicit because as a respected leader, who was known to privately express the need to exclude a generalised group of people, is he complicit in the tragedies of humankind that arose from such attitudes. That is the current view of the American Alpine Club, as even his public silence is considered complicit (Jamie Logan of the AAC responded quickly and appropriately). And as Brad Rassler points out in the Outside article, Underhill’s antisemitic views which he still expressed in 1946 are inexcusable marginalized generalizations, as the racial extermination practices in Europe had been uncovered after the Soviets moved through Poland in 1945 and discovered some of the worst atrocities that took place. At some point, the connection between words and events needs to be awknowledged, then shared and expressed by positive thought leaders.
Then there is Miriam O’Brien, who was one of the best climbers of the 1920s, and who married Robert Underhill in 1933-- is she complicit too, and implicated in the shameful bias? She once noted Hitler as a "great" in her memoirs, but it might have been in a facetious context (as no one thought Hitler as great in 1956, did they?), and no other indication of her views on such matters is evident. Miriam brought a huge amount of respect to women's climbing. Should that balance any doubt? Her name is being removed from the AAC award as well.
Sallie Greenwood clarifies (2022): Miriam and Hitler: the only reference is to Bob sharing an elevator with Hitler in 1932 and that she translated a conversation between Mussolini and her father in 1924, and that "This is not the only contact with the 'great' that our family has had." Miriam Underhill, Give Me the Hills (1956), p. 41. So her idea of Hitler being great was definitely facetious.
Paul asked me the other day, “What if one day there is incontrovertible proof eating sentient beings is seen as barbaric in the same realm as cannibalism?” and that all past meat eaters will be wholly condemned. Certainly possible, but for now, there is no excuse for generalized attitudes that can so obviously lead to harm to human life and shared liberty. My best explanation to my children is always to remember that diversity is the most important value we have as a society, all great civilizations began with diversity, and that throughout history, discrimination and generalizations always lead to worse outcomes to all but a few. And to recognize that unconscious bias is everywhere and always has been and that it is easier to see the sawdust in someone else’s eye than the 2 x 4 beam in one’s own (“woke” to me seems just being aware, so I don’t mind the term at all; in fact, to me it’s the best single-word representation of the caution expressed in Matthew 7:3).
Like in all things, there is probably a middle path to be found—something distinct from ‘culture wars’ involving whitewashing history (very interesting study of the Tasmanian History Wars), or full dénouements and erasures of the past. Perhaps “truth-telling” (the title of Henry Reynolds latest book) describes the middle path. These are things I think about every time I open an old classic reference or translate an online journal on the development of climbing. But it is important to look for the motivations of people in the past—some were looking for glory, some were looking for a spiritual experience, some just interested in the engineering aspect of vertical ascent and rescue, all pursued within the same activity of climbing rocks with all its games climbers play. So with the researched revelations of Underhill’s mindset, his contributions will be considered in this light as encounter these issues, as the grey often involves both good and bad ideas for the table.
In a way, it is a choice we all have—would we rather have our persona be remembered or our ideas? Personally, outside of close friends or family, the ideas choice seems better, especially if those ideas have the potential to make the world a better place. So it only makes sense to be open and share positive ideas—perhaps some good ones will filter out into the wild.
So back to the 1920s Americana Big Wall Climbing History Research—next post will cover early American steel pitons and early big walls— probably a couple of weeks out.
ciao for now.
John Middendorf, Hobart, Tasmania (August 11, 2022)
ps: this post has been about processing thoughts as I creep ever-closer to role of a historian (distinct from the theoretical role of a researcher, which I prefer), so when I go into the more cut-and-dried engineering history of big wall tools and techniques, I can focus on the developments rather than what was considered the big news, and perhaps resist the historian’s temptation to promote or demote one’s favourite individuals as a researcher of the history of climbing. There are plenty of books like that with all flavors of heroes, so please, dear reader, let me know if I fall into any of those pitfalls as I write about all the amazing early USA climbers who were ‘getting after it’ on the early North American big walls. The lines are what inspire—as only an occasional climber these days, it is still natural to gaze at every cliff or vertical expanse, and not wonder which route would be the most elegant and possible, even though my skills are far behind me to climb such things.
COMMENT FROM MAURICE ISSERMAN
I have been communicating with Maurice Isserman, author of an important historical view of American Mountaineering: Continental Divide (2016). Maurice provided me with broader view on the matter of “fallen heros”, with succinct interpretation with concrete examples which makes the path forward more clear as a writer of history:
As someone teaching US history to undergraduates, I am always wrestling with the issue of fallen heroes. Unavoidable. Our founding Declaration of Independence begins with the observation that all men are created equal. Coming from a slaveowner, who bought and sold men, women, and children throughout his life, and freed very few of them (and those tending to be blood relations) Thomas Jefferson is a problematic founding father, to say the least. Of course, Jefferson was, at the same time, a man of the enlightenment, a defender of religious tolerance, and -- by the standards of the 18th century -- a radical egalitarian. And subsequent generations of more genuinely radical thinkers – suffragists, abolitionists, and others – would adopt and give new and deeper meaning to Jefferson’s understanding of natural law and human equality.
We can't overlook Jefferson’s flaws, excusing them because "he was a product of his times" -- because others of that time, including close personal friends of his like the Polish military engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who made a singular contribution to American victory in its war for independence, was very anti-slavery, and hoped to win Jefferson to his point of view.
Thinking about the past, we have to accept contradiction, without excusing evil. Jefferson, like the country he founded, combined good and evil traits, wisdom and folly, tolerance and prejudice, and he was hardly alone in that. We also need to bear in mind that future generations will undoubtedly look back on people of our own times as equally benighted, for our meat-eating, our carbon fuel burning, and who knows what other behaviors and beliefs whose evil we are blind to today.
I don't think there's a general rule for dealing with flawed ancestors. I’m in favor of taking down all the monuments to Confederate generals, because they represent treason in defense of slavery. I’m not in favor of tearing down the Jefferson memorial or Monticello, because Jefferson stood for some admirable principles, and made a critical contribution to the American Revolution, and to the spread of democratic principles in his own time and in years following his death. We should, however, say what needs to be said, about his terrible shortcomings. Similarly, the Sierra Club, of which I'm a member, should continue to honor John Muir as a founder, a mountaineer, and an environmentalist, while noting his blind spots regarding Native Americans in his vision of wilderness preservation. And Planned Parenthood, of which I am a supporter, should continue to honor Margaret Sanger, as a founder, advocate of reproductive rights (also a socialist, which is often forgotten), but note her wanderings into the racist and nativist thickets associated with the eugenics movement in later years. And so on.
Robert Underhill’s case, in the current controversy surrounding the prize which, until this year, the American Alpine Club awarded in his name, is a little different. He wasn't a founder of the AAC, or even closely identified with the organization (as he was with the Appalachian Mountain Club.) The Underhill award was of relatively recent invention. In this case, renaming the award, and foregoing any continuing association with his memory and legacy (which, unfortunately means ditching Miriam as well, since a Miriam Underhill award would merely remind everyone of her now unmentioned husband) seems to me the right and proper thing to do.
By the way, while I’m on the topic of Underhill, I suspect there are other, as yet undiscovered examples of his unworthiness as an honored climbing ancestor. Both times when I came across his anti-semitic musings, first in the AAC library in Colorado, and second in Berkeley’s Bancroft library, I wasn't even trying to find materials related to him; there just happened to be a letter from him speaking ill of James Ramsey Ullman in the Henry Hall papers at the AAC, and then another letter speaking ill of a Jewish climber who died of a climbing accident in Dick Leonard's papers in the Sierra Club archive at Berkeley. He obviously didn't have any hesitation expressing his anti-semitic views to various friends and acquaintances, without feeling any shame in doing so. I wonder how many other such letters -- unexploded ordnance, as it were -- lay buried in various other archives, as yet undisturbed, but ready to blow up again and again in years to come.
Appendix: Typical Trails and Timberline report (1930)
Carl Blaurock, Stephen H. Hart and W. F. Ervin made the first ascent of “Mt. Lindbergh,” an attractive prong on a western spur of the Continental Divide above Monarch Lake, on September 2d. The outstanding feat of the summer was the victory of Kenneth A. Henderson and R. L. M. Underhill over the east ridge of the Grand Teton, which undoubtedly will take rank as one of the finest climbs in the Rockies. Various climbers have tried to find a new route up this superb pyramid for the past six years, but have repeatedly been defeated by ice and snow, weather conditions or accidents, and anyone who has played around on that east ridge at all will testify that Messrs. Henderson and Underhill have put no mean accomplishment to their credit. The same party reached two new summits in the Wind River range and found new courses up four others, including the handsome northeast face of Gannett Peak. F. M. Fryxell was also busy in the Teton range, for the third season, and registered first ascents of several interesting peaks between the Grand Teton and Mt. Moran, as well as the first ascent of the Middle Teton by its steep east ridge.
Another case in point is Lindbergh peak, named in 1930 for his aviation accomplishments, one of the earlier technical routes in North America, but renamed later after Lindbergh chose to be affiliated with the Nazis. Katie Sauter correction: Lindbergh Peak, my understanding has always been that they had to rename it because the geographic board told them that no geographical feature can be named for a living person (which is still a rule). So they went with his nickname Lone Eagle instead.