The First Ascent of Denali
By Anne Sanders
This year, 2017, marks the 104th anniversary of the first successful ascent to the top of Denali. To be exact, on June 7th, 1913 at 1:30 p.m. Walter Harper, an Athabaskan Alaska Native, became the first man to stand upon the summit of North America’s tallest mountain. At 20,320 feet, he was soon joined by the three other members of the Stuck-Karstens Expedition: Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum. Left behind at the base camp to await the return of the four mountaineers were Johnie Fred and Esaias George.
All four members of the Denali expedition kept personal journals of their experience. The most readily available account of the journey was by the expedition’s leader, Hudson Stuck, who at the time was known as the Archdeacon of the Yukon. Stuck describes in detail the harrowing accomplishment in his book, The Ascent of Denali, detailing the three month journey to the top of Denali and their safe return.
Unlike most expeditions to the top of Denali today, the summit pioneers did not have the resource of being shuttled by plane to a base camp within 13,000 feet of the summit. Their journey began in the lower elevations, where they spent months gathering supplies, working out the logistics of transportation, and readying themselves for the endeavor of a lifetime. How should one prepare for something never accomplished before? It would have been frightening enough to venture a climb never attempted, but to know that capable men had tried and failed must have been rather intimidating. Only one year prior, the Parker-Browne Expedition came within a few hundred feet of the top, but were unable to reach the summit because of a blizzard. The weather stopped them again when they made a second attempt, and since their food had become inedible, they could not risk staying on the mountain any longer to wait for the weather to ease up.
The misfortune of the Parker-Browne Expedition and others opened the way for Stuck to gather a group of friends and trusted acquaintances to join him in his aspirations. In his book Stuck details their gathering of supplies and equipment. He mentions the setback of ordered tents not arriving from outfitters outside of Alaska, so they had to be made in Fairbanks. The boots that showed up were too small when worn with the necessary layering of multiple socks. They ended up wasting ninety-two dollars fashioning boots they never used because moccasins with five pairs of socks proved to be better. Ninety-two dollars may not sound like much, but considering the overall cost of food and equipment was a little less than a thousand dollars, the wasted money made a significant draw on their available funds. Stuck describes how the ice axes sent to them were “ridiculous gold-painted toys with detachable heads and broomstick handles.” There again they had to rely on their own devices and make their own axes that would be durable enough to withstand the climb. Imagine having to deal with the painstakingly minute details of making your own equipment as well as grappling with the overall commitment and danger of climbing an elevation of over twenty thousand feet. The team’s fortitude and dedication was remarkable.
On April 10th, 1913, Stuck and his team of volunteers caught their first look at Muldrow Glacier, which they would follow while approaching the mountain from the northeast. This route was the same one used by the Parker-Browne Expedition. Before heading out Stuck was able to gather an account of their journey along with sketches and pictures. The information he scrounged from the Parker-Browne expedition failed to save them from three weeks worth of unexpected delay. What was described as the Northeast Ridge at the head of the glacier, “was a jumbled mass of blocks of ice and rock … the floor of the glacier at its head was strewn with enormous icebergs.” It eventually dawned on the group that the ridge’s transformation had to have been caused by the earthquake that had been reported a few days after the Parker-Browne expedition made it down the mountain the previous year. As a result Stuck revealed that the northeast ridge, which took the Parker-Browne expedition only a few days to ascend “was to occupy us for three weeks while we hewed a staircase three miles long in the shattered ice.” The group had already gone through an accidental fire that burned through a supply tent at one of their lower camps on the glacier. To have another potentially expedition stopping encounter was unimaginable. Luckily they had enough provisions to last them through both major setbacks, but the occurrences had to have been disheartening.
While reading through Stuck’s account I envisioned myself, as much as possible, trudging along in the same footsteps with those brave men. I imagined the measure of anxiety there would be dodging crevasses on the glacier, hearing the thunder of avalanches nearby, and making the slow way up the “splintered backbone” of what would later be known as Karsten’s Ridge. Among so much potential for calamity it was comical to come across a section of Stuck’s book where he seemed to be just as distressed by the lack of fermentation of their sourdough, which made it impossible for them to make bread. The lack of bread didn’t leave them short on food, but it left them with an excess of unusable flour. There was also the shortage of sugar that caused many complaints throughout the group. Stuck wrote, “We speculated how our ancestors got on without sugar when it was a high-priced luxury brought painfully in small quantities from the Orient, and assured one another that is was not a necessary article of diet. At last we all agreed to Karstens’ laconic advice, ‘Forget it!” and we spoke of sugar no more.” Even in the midst of danger and the strenuous undertaking, novelties were still sorely missed. In the harsh environment simple pleasures were given much thought, even when death was a constant possibility.
On the night of June sixth, the eve of their final ascent was finally upon them. And as it turned out, the unusable flour manifested itself to cause one more bout of complaints throughout the group. According to Stuck, Walter attempted to make noodles that “wrought internal havoc upon those who partook of them.” Throughout the night, the only one who was able to sleep comfortably was Walter. The next morning “Walter was the only one feeling entirely himself, so Walter was put in the lead and in the lead he remained all day.” It’s amazing how the fate of the most pinnacle moment of the entire expedition could be determined by a failed attempt to make noodles without baking powder or sourdough.
Stuck explained how they were prepared to wait a couple weeks to guarantee their day on the summit was clear. All their preparation turned out to be unnecessary. On June 7th Stuck wrote, “It was a perfectly clear day, the sun shining brightly in the sky, and naught bounded our view save the natural limitations of vision.”
Stuck’s description of the view from the summit is telling of the amazing sight that was laid before them.
“What infinite tangle of mountain ranges filled the whole scene, until gray sky, gray mountain, and gray sea merged in the ultimate distance! The nearby peaks and ridges stood out with dazzling distinction, the glaciation, the drainage, the relation of each part to the others all revealed. The snow-covered tops of the remoter peaks, dwindling and fading, rose to our view as though floating in thin air when their bases were hidden by the haze, and the beautiful crescent curve of the whole Alaska range exhibited itself from Denali to the sea.”
Being the first to reach the summit of Denali was one of the finest achievements in the history of mountaineering. For the four men to return safely was a gift from providence, and the beginning of a legacy that continues on to this day.
Originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.
If you enjoyed this article, check out “1913 – A Very Important Year.”