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May 6, 2022 3:19 pm
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Discovery of Climbing Legend’s Antisemitic Views Prompts US Mountaineering Association to Change Award Name

avatar by Ben Cohen

Robert Underhill (second right) is seen with three fellow mountaineers at Mt. Whitney in California in 1931. Photo: Glen Dawson Collection / Creative Commons

One of America’s leading mountaineering associations is to rename its prestigious annual award after discovering that one of the individuals in whose honor it was created had expressed crudely antisemitic views.

The American Alpine Club (AAC) confirmed that it was renaming the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award — an annual prize that honors the memories of two leading mountaineers — after it learned that Robert Underhill had made demeaning comments about Jews in letters to friends. In an article for the latest edition of Outside magazine, journalist Brad Rassler noted that while Underhill’s antisemitism had been highlighted in two books by mountaineering historians, the AAC had not addressed the issue. However, when Rassler contacted the AAC, he received a swift response from its interim CEO, Jamie Logan, who told him that the organization had decided to rename the award.

In an email to The Algemeiner on Friday, Logan said that upon learning about Underhill’s history of antisemitism, her “immediate reaction was that we needed to rename the award and I forwarded it to the president of the board who concurred.”

Logan added that those in the “climbing community that have commented so far are universally supportive of renaming the award.” She said that AAC planned “on taking our time to further understand the history of both the award and the Underhills. We would like to be thoughtful in choosing a new name.”

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Underhill, who died in 1983, was a professor of philosophy at Harvard University who became a mountaineering legend as a result of his exploits in the Sierra Nevada range in California during the 1930s. According to Rassler, in “letters written to friends at the Sierra Club and the AAC in 1939 and 1946, respectively, he referred to Jews as ‘k*kes,’ ‘mutts,’ and ‘lowgrade.’ He implied that Jewish people didn’t belong on rock faces at all and said they lacked the character and physical traits to be successful in challenging mountain environments.” His wife Miriam, for whom the award is also named, is not known to have made similar remarks.

Past recipients of the award who spoke to Rassler expressed support for removing Underhill’s name. “I had no idea he had that past,” Lynn Hill, who won in 1984, said. “I believe that climbing is a sport that is inclusive and welcomes all races, all genders, and people who love climbing and love the earth and love nature and love humanity. And that is not humanity.”

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