Climbing-irons, pemmican and sourdough: the early quests to conquer Denali
Coastal Indians called it Traleika. Russian traders referred to it as Bulshaia Gora. Interior Indians knew it as Denali. All of those names mean virtually the same thing: the high one, the great one, the huge peak.
Denali is the name that has persisted in Alaska for North American’s loftiest peak despite its official appellation of Mount McKinley, which explorer William A. Dickey first publicly bestowed on the massif in 1897 after surveying the mountain the previous year.
“We have no doubt that this peak is the highest in North America, and estimate that it is over 20,000 feet high,” Dickey proclaimed in a Jan. 24, 1897, New York Sun account of his adventures.
Until then, 18,000-foot Mount Saint Elias was believed to be the continent’s highest point, since the continent’s second-highest peak, 19,850-foot Mount Logan, had not yet been discovered.
Dickey’s news ignited passionate interest among mountaineers bent on scaling the world’s most formidable granite and glaciers.
George Vancouver was the first European known to actually see Denali—what he referred to in his journal as a connected mountain range “bounded by distant stupendous snow mountains”—on May 6, 1794, while surveying Knik Arm. It would take another 109 years before Illinois native James Wickersham would try actually climbing the peak, calling off the attempt after reaching 8,000 feet.
Wickersham neatly penciled the following account in his battered, string-tied “Mt. McKinley Diary,” which recounted his May-July 1903 expedition from Fairbanks to Peters Glacier and the North Face with George Jeffrey, Charlie Webb, Morton Stevens and John McLeod. The men used pack horses, and their climb was the first recorded attempt by white men to reach the mountain’s summit.
The days are so hot and the temperature so productive of avalanches that we have had to do all our work at night when the heat is less liable to produce slides of snow and glacial ice. We left one high point on the mountain last night at 9 p.m. but I was then convinced that no possibility existed of our overcoming the apparent obstacles to our higher climb—we were climbing on a spur as sharp as a house roof, rapidly rising to where it was nearly perpendicular—solid glare ice, and above it rose thousands of feet of glacial ice undermined and even falling by reason of the hot weather & constant sliding out of the softer snow. I had watched this constant loss of support all day and it was so apparent to me that further effort was futile that I declined to go farther—to the evident relief of (Morton) Stevens who agreed with me that no man could reach the summit in the present condition of the mountains. It is ice encrusted from summit to base—in most places glaciers exist in every small niche, and they are so undermined now by the constant warm west winds of two or three days past—that hundreds of slides are coming down in every direction—every moment the swish of a snow avalanche, or the thunder of a glacial ice slide is heard. Even the smallest would be fatal to our whole party in the position we occupied–they were then in motion ahead, and I ordered a retreat to our camp. I offered to remain in camp & let any or all of the others make an effort, if they desired, but each personally declined to take any further risk. In the condition of the mountain an attempt in another quarter would be equally as dangerous so we abandoned the whole effort to reach the summit.
Dr. Frederick Albert Cook led an expedition to the mountain, also in 1903, from the north. He led a subsequent 1906 expedition, accompanied by miner John Dokkin, Montana horse packer Ed Barrille, Belmore Browne and Columbia University physics professor Herschel Parker. Parker left the expedition, under the impression Cook had given up on scaling the peak and Browne and Dokkin also turned back.
Cook and Barrille established a base camp 40 air miles away, started up Ruth Glacier and Cook later claimed that at 10 a.m. Sept. 16, on a 16-below-zero day, he and Barrille for 20 minutes stood atop the highest of the mountain’s two summits.
As the eye ran down we saw the upper clouds drawn out in long strings, and still farther down the big cumulus forms, and through the gap far below, seemingly in the interior of the arth, bits of rugged landscape. The frightful uncanny aspect of the outlook made us dizzy. Fifty thousand square miles of our arctic wonderland was spread out under our enlarged horizon, but we could see it only in sections ... A record of our conquest was, with a small flag, pressed into a metallic tube and left in a protected nook a short distance below the summit. A round of angles was taken with the prismatic compass. The barometers and thermometers were read, and hasty notes jotted down in our note-book. Most impressive was the curious low dark sky, the dazzling brightness of the frosted granite blocks, the neutral gray-blue of space, the frosty dark blue of the shadows, and, above all, the final picture which I took of Barrille, with the flag lashed to his axe, as the arctic air froze the impression into a relief which no words can tell.
Cook’s claim sparked controversy almost as soon as he had telegraphed the news to a newspaper business manager friend of his in Brooklyn, on Oct. 2, 1906.
“He will have to tell me how he did it before I can believe that it was done,” Parker told the New York Times in the following days. “He may have ascended one of the peaks of the range, but I do not believe that he made the ascent of Mount McKinley.”
Cook, in 1907, left on an expedition to the Arctic. Two years later, he sent a dispatch claiming he had reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908. Explorer Robert E. Peary then insisted that he had been the first to reach the North Pole, in April 1909, and that Cook lied about reaching the Pole earlier.
Barrille then swore in a detailed affidavit published Oct. 14, 1909, in the New York Globe & Commercial Advertiser, that neither he nor Cook climbed to the top of Denali and had never been within 12 miles of the summit. Cook’s supporters said the affidavit couldn’t be trusted because it had been sworn by a man who admitted lying in the past about reaching the summit with Cook.
The Explorers Club of New York expelled Cook from the organization. It sent Parker and Browne on a 1910 expedition to find a small peak Barrille described in his affidavit, located along a tributary of Ruth Glacier, and take photographs proving that peak—rather than the summit—was actually where Cook snapped his photo of Barrille holding a flag.
Robert M. Bryce wrote an article about the men’s quest in the December 1997 edition of “Dio: The International Journal of Scientific History.”
Browne and Parker located the spot, but were unable to duplicate Cook’s photo due to deep snow, which obscured many of the important features visible four years before, and because a shift in a drifted snow cornice prevented them from standing in the position that would have allowed the same camera angle Cook had used...Browne and Parker were successful in exactly duplicating several of Cook’s other photographs, however, thus showing conclusively that they were not taken at the locations or the altitudes ascribed to them in Cook’s book or magazine article, being miles away and thousands of feet lower in altitude than those he had assigned them.
Bradford Washburn, who spent years of his life either photographing, mapping or climbing Denali, later duplicated all but two of the pictures from Cook’s book, “To the Top of the Continent.”
Washburn couldn’t duplicate Cook’s “summit” picture at the spot dubbed Fake Peak due to changes in snow cover and the loss of a rock profile that had stood just below the place where Barrille had posed.
Washburn associate Adams Carter tried in 1957 to erect a climbable 50-foot mast to place him at the right camera angle, but he failed to settle the matter when the mast left him several feet short of the place where Cook stood in 1906, the Bryce article stated.
“Thus, Cook’s photograph of Ed Barrill(e) holding the flag has been called ‘the most controversial picture in the history of exploration.’” Bryce’s article said.
In December 1909, the so-called Sourdough or Pioneer expedition made its bid to be the first party to summit Denali, leaving Fairbanks with seven men (later reduced to four), four horses, a mule and a dog team.
Tom Lloyd, Peter Anderson, Billy Taylor and Charles McGonagall—all miners from the Kantishna district—had virtually no climbing experience before spending approximately three months on the mountain.
Author Barry O’Flynn wrote about the expedition in an article for the Irish Mountaineering Club website.
An article in the New York Times gave details of the Sourdoughs’ equipment. Homemade crampons which they called ‘creepers’, snowshoes and long poles fitted with a steel hook at one end and a spike on the other. Their clothing consisted of overalls, long underwear, parkas and mittens. For footwear they had mukluks. The Inuit developed these boots–knee high, dry-tanned with caribou skin uppers and moose hide soles. They carried wooden stakes to mark their trail and poles for crossing crevasses. If confronted by a crevasse too wide to jump they bridged it with the poles, heaped them with snow, which froze creating a bridge over the void. For food the Sourdoughs had beans, flour, bacon, sugar, dried fruit, coffee, butter and caribou meat.
The Sourdoughs’ objective was the North Peak because the miners hoped a 14-foot spruce pole with a 6-by-12-foot American flag they intended to carry up the mountain would be seen from Kantishna and prove they had made the ascent, O’Flynn’s article stated.
Surly weather turned back the Sourdoughs’ first attempt to reach the summit, on April 1.
Two days later Taylor, Anderson and McGonagall left their 11,000-foot camp at 3 a.m. and tried again, bringing with them the 14-foot spruce pole, doughnuts, caribou meat and three Thermos flasks of hot chocolate.
“Without the protection of a rope the three climbers surmounted the Karstens Ridge, traversed the Harper Glacier and scaled a steep couloir since known as the Sourdough Gully,” O’Flynn’s article stated.
McGonagall stopped short of the summit, explaining later, “No, I didn’t go clear to the top. Why should I? I’d finished my turn carrying the pole before we got there. Taylor and Pete finished the job. I sat down and rested, then went back to camp.”
Taylor and Anderson kept climbing, still hauling their flagpole. At 3:25 p.m. April 3, they scaled Mount McKinley’s North Peak and put up their flagpole near the top.
“Encumbered with the flagpole they climbed more than 8,000 feet and then returned to their camp site in eighteen hours,” O’Flynn’s article stated. “An extraordinary feat of mountaineering.”
No one believed the Sourdoughs had made it to the top until the true first ascent, in 1913.
In 1912, the Parker-Browne expedition nearly reached the summit, but horrific weather conditions and their stomachs’ rejection of the canned pemmican they had counted on for food on the mountain turned them back within a few hundred yards of success. Their failure likely saved their lives, however, because a powerful earthquake on July 6, 1912 shattered an area of the Northeast Ridge they had left just two days before.
“It was as though, as soon as the Parker-Browne party reached the foot of the mountain, the ladder by which they had ascended and descended was broken up,” climber Hudson Stuck wrote in “The Ascent of Denali.” “Had their food served they had certainly remained above, and had they remained above their bodies would be there now.”
The following year, Stuck led a party that made the first successful ascent of the higher south summit of Mount McKinley on June 7, 1913. Stuck described “hewing a staircase three miles long in the shattered ice” during the three weeks the men—clad in moccasins, heavy underwear, layers of heavy socks, sweaters, moose-hide breeches and shirts, lynx-paw mitts, furred “parkees” and climbing-irons—labored toward the top of the mountain.
The first man to reach the summit was Walter Harper, an Alaska Native. Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum also reached the summit of the mountain.
“It is difficult to describe at all the scene which the top of the mountain presented, and impossible to describe it adequately,” Stuck wrote. “One was not occupied with the thought of description but wholly possessed with the breadth and glory of it, with its sheer, amazing intensity and scope. Only once, perhaps, in any lifetime is such vision granted, certainly never before had been vouchsafed to any of us.”
The men ascended the Muldrow Glacier route pioneered by the earlier expeditions, which is still often climbed today. Stuck used binoculars to confirm the presence of the Sourdoughs’ flagpole near the North Summit.
Stuck also discovered that the 1912 Parker-Browne party was only about 200 feet of elevation short of the true summit when they turned back.
There was no pride of conquest, no trace of that exultation of victory some enjoy upon the first ascent of a lofty peak, no gloating over good fortune that had hoisted us a few hundred feet higher than others who had struggled and been discomfited. Rather was the feeling that a privileged communion with the high places of the earth had been granted; that not only had we been permitted to lift up eager eyes to these summits, secret and solitary since the world began, but to enter boldly upon them...seeing all things as they spread out from the windows of heaven itself.
Information in this article courtesy of “Denali’s West Buttress,” by Colby Coombs; diary of James Wickersham, May 16, 1903-Sept. 17, 1903; “Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali,” by Bradford Washburn and David Roberts; “The Sourdough Expedition to Mount McKinley,” by Barry O’Flynn, for the Irish Mountaineering Club website; “Crown Jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve,” by Frank Norris; “The Ascent of Denali,” by Hudson Stuck, and “The Accidental Adventurer,” by Barbara Washburn.