UA Journey

Early Climbers Met Denali's Challenge

The story appeared in the Feburary, 1981 issue of Now in the North.

The ascent and mapping of Denali, North America's highest peak, are the subjects of a new University of Alaska Museum exhibit and two books on the mountain's history.

"The Mapping of Denali" exhibit recounts the making of the definitive topographical map of the Alaskan mountain, known since 1896 as Mount McKinley. It will be on display through April 19 at the museum on the Fairbanks campus.

The idea of the exhibit was conceived and edited by Bradford Washburn, director of the Boston Museum of Science and foremost authority on Mount McKinley.

Washburn led seven expeditions into the area and was the chief photographer. The resulting topographical map was printed by the famed Swiss Federal Institute of Topography.

The University of Alaska Foundation purchased the exhibit for the university from the Boston Museum in 1976. It includes a scale model of McKinley and surrounding mountains, photo murals, information on the mapping process and the mapping climbs, successful and unsuccessful, made from 1903 to 1953.

The story of the first complete ascent of the mountain is told in "The Ascent of Denali", by Hudson Stuck, a book first published in 1914 and recently reprinted in paperback by The Mountaineers, a Seattle publishing house specializing in mountaineering.

The reprint includes, in addition to Stuck's original account, the diary of Walter Harper, the first man to actually reach Denali's 20,320-foot summit on the south peak.

Harper's previously unpublished diary was made available by his niece, Yvonne Mozee of Fairbanks. She has also written a biographical sketch of Harper's life, which appears in the book. Harper's father, Arthur, was an Irish-born prospector, trader and explorer of the Tanana Valley in the 1870s.

Washburn, who contributed aerial photographs and other information for this edition, describes the book as "a story of common sense, of guts and northern know-how that has rarely been equalled."

One of the highest peaks on earth from base to summit, McKinley involves 6,000 more feet of climbing than Mount Everest on the north; nearly 8,000 more on the south.

The Ascent of Denali recounts the successful 1913 climb made by a determined, but less than professional, party. Stuck, Episcopal archdeacon of the Yukon, was an experienced climber and northern traveler but had never tackled anything comparable to Denali. Stuck, 50, was accompanied by Robert Tatum, his young assistant; Harry Karstens, an experienced northern outdoorsman; Johnny and Esaias, two Indian boys aged 14 and 15, and Harper.

The 21-year-old Harper, half Athabascan, half Irish, was Stuck's student, guide, interpreter and dog team handler at the time.

The Stuck party of Alaskans struggled for three months on foot from Nenana over rivers, through forest and upland tundra, up glaciers and ridges, to their objective.

When they lost their tent and many belongings in a fire at 8,000 feet, they sewed a tent from old sled tarpaulins and continued to the summit, a feat most modern climbers would never attempt.

Mt. McKinley, The Pioneer Climbs, records the mountaineering history of Denali from its first sighting by non Natives to 1942 when the author, Terris Moore, reached the highest summit.

Moore, an explorer, lecturer and scholar who made Alaska his second home, was president of the University of Alaska from 1949-1953. His book was published by the University of Alaska Press in 1967 and will be reprinted in paperback this year by The Mountaineers.

The Pioneer Climbs is dedicated to Washburn, of the Boston Museum, whom Moore describes as a "tireless and ever-cheerful companion on many a long mountain trail."

Washburn is credited with the aerial photographs of the mountain that revealed new routes and inspired many modern climbs, expeditions not covered in Moore's work.

Central to Moore's book is the controversy and evidence relating to claims of successful McKinley climbs, particularly the expeditions of Dr. Frederick Cook, including his reported trip to the North Pole.

Moore also gives an account of Stuck's undisputed 1913 climb, an expedition mounted with $1,000, compared to the $28,000 Cook used to finance his two expeditions.

Today there are more climbers on Denali than ever before, and the mountain continues to claim the lives of the inexperienced, the unprepared, and the unwise who attempt it.

During the 1980 climbing season, eight lives were lost on Mount McKinley, another two on Mount Beard, while a reported 16 rescue operations involved 23 climbers. Fewer than half of the 659 climbers who attempted to scale McKinley during the year reached the summit.


Pre-Orientation Talk about Hudson Stuck and Sewanee, August 1994

Alaska Science Forum June 20, 1988 Archdeacon Stuck's Flood Article #878 by Sue Ann Bowling

PBS/Nova Life on Denali, A Photo Essay, 1996

University of Alaska Press, Mount McKinley, Alaska Bradford Washburn, 1990