The ‘Denali Damsels’: American Alpine Club Profiles First All-Women Expedition

While many of today’s outdoor companies now appeal to women and minorities, the cultural landscape looked a lot different in 1970.

That’s when an all-women team decided to take on Denali, the highest peak in North America (6,190m) and certainly one of its most dangerous. The landmark expedition just received the memorial treatment from American Alpine Club, which created a new exhibit for its online library.

Thanks in part to expedition photographs and gear donated by member Arlene Blum, this online celebration of the women’s achievement offers a deeper understanding of how they conquered a mountain — and shattered a glass ceiling.

“Although [not] the intention of the expedition…their journey would push the door open for future female climbers everywhere,” the exhibit said.

The gear itself appears at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, located in the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, Colorado.

denali damsels

Arlene Blum: “Margaret Clark, Dana, and I took off our outer clothes and, wearing only our powder blue insulated Duofold underwear, boots, and snowshoes, marched up the glacier.” Photo: Arlene Blum


A ‘cold and arduous expedition’

In this latest installment of the American Alpine Club’s Legacy Series, Arlene Blum talks about the difficulties of getting on — and off — Denali.

She set out in 1970 with five other climbers: Grace Hoeman, Margaret Young, Dana Isherwood, Margaret Clark, and Faye Kerr. They became the first all-female team to summit Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). A treacherous mountain, it has claimed more than 100 lives since 1903, including one earlier this year.

“Although the sport had seen its small share of women climbers, climbing was traditionally a man’s sport, and many men of the time were content to keep it that way,” the article said.

After weeks of preparation, they started the ascent on July 4, and all six of them reached the summit two days later. Yet the descent proved the more difficult part when an Alaskan storm blew in, forcing them to stay in Kahiltna Pass for several days. Eventually, on July 15, a plane brought them safely out from their base camp.

“Climbing [Denali] was an extreme meditation,” Blum wrote.

denali damsels

Said Arlene Blum: “As we descended to lower elevation, Grace became stronger. ‘Get back on the line,’ she ordered when I unclipped to take a photo. ‘It’s dangerous to unclip. I’m the leader and if anything happens to you I’m responsible.'” Photo: Arlene Blum


Profiles of the ‘Denali Damsels’

Blum went on to enjoy a long life in the mountains, which she has thoroughly chronicled on her website.

With her help, the new exhibit also offers in-depth profiles of the women involved, each of them an accomplished mountaineer. The facts read like a secret history of incredible climbers, or maybe one that just hasn’t received enough attention.

There’s team leader Grace Hoeman, who died a year after the Denali expedition in an avalanche on Eklutna Glacier. Margaret Young climbed all over the world, including first ascents. Faye Kerr survived a disastrous avalanche on Annapurna III in 1980, only to succumb to a stomach ulcer in India on the way home.

Margaret Clark also survived an avalanche that killed four members of her party in 1975. And Dana Isherwood participated in the all-women’s ascents of the Bugaboos’ Pigeon and Howser Spires in 1977.

There’s much to learn about these women climbers, who stormed distant summits more than a half-century ago. Don’t miss the chance.

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.