Spotlight on Adventure – Dora Keen’s First Ascent of Mt. Blackburn!

Today’s Spotlight on Adventure is a little different than our typical spotlight. We’re spotlighting an adventure that occurred way back in 1912, a year after the Copper River and Northwestern Railway was completed. It just took us this long to write it… (just kidding).

alaska mt blackburn with glacier1912 marks the first ascent of Mt. Blackburn, the 16,390 ft crown jewel of the Kennicott Valley. It was climbed by Dora Keen, a well-to-do gal from Philadelphia, who was 40 at the time. At this point, the only other Alaska mountain to be climbed was Mt. St. Elias (by the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1897). Dora had climbing experience all over the world and had attempted Mt. Blackburn a year prior in 1911. However, this unsuccessful attempt occurred in August, and the poor snow quality (and weak snow bridges) convinced Dora that a spring expedition would be more likely to succeed. Therefore, in late April 1912, she set off from McCarthy with her team of 7 local prospectors.

Here are some fun facts about Dora’s 1912 expedition:

  • The expedition lasted 33 days, with 26 days of climbing, and 22 nights spent sheltered in snow caves.
  • They weathered a 13-day storm which dropped an estimated 20 feet of snow.
  • It was the first expedition to utilize sled dogs, the first expedition to succeed without Swiss guides, and the first expedition to do a prolonged night ascent (taking advantage of better snow conditions).
  • It also was the only Alaska ascent at that time in which a woman took part. (Gracious as ever, Dora did say “to the credit of the men, it be said,” and lauded their strength, determination, and local knowledge.)

Dora reached the summit on May 19th, 1912 with one other climbing partner, George Handy (whom she eventually married). After a safe descent, Dora immediately set off on a 300-mile trip to the Yukon River over Skolai Pass and continued to live a life of adventure. She died in Hong Kong in 1962 at the age of 91, while doing a world tour.

Comparing Dora’s ascent to the way we climb Blackburn today only makes it more impressive. These days, we climb Mt. Blackburn from the north side, getting dropped off by bush plane around 8,000 feet. In comparison, Dora climbed the mountain from the technical south side, beginning 25 miles away in McCarthy at an elevation of 1,500 feet.

In the 1960s, the USGS determined that the highest summit of Mt. Blackburn is actually the western summit, about 200-ft higher than the eastern summit that Dora attained. We don’t care… we think she earned it.

Skip to content