New book aims to 'set the record straight' on the first successful summit of Mount McKinley

June 1, 2013 

  • AUTHOR TOM WALKER will present a talk and slide show about his book “The Seventymile Kid” at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Denali Visitor Center’s Kartsens Theater in Denali National Park and Preserve and at 7 p.m. June 20 at Loussac Library in Anchorage.

EDITOR'S NOTE: ON JUNE 7, 1913, FOUR MEN became the first climbers to reach the summit of the South Peak of Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America.

The core of the party, organized by Hudson Stuck, had left Fairbanks by dog sled on March 13. Their approach to the summit was hampered by long spells of foul weather and steep, icy terrain made even more treacherous by the rubble and fractures created by a stupendous earthquake the previous year. At the 11,500 foot level a fire wiped out critical supplies, including socks. Tempers grew short. Stuck, the oldest member of the group at age 49, was too tired to dig steps in the snow or carry much more than the clothes on his back. Another climber, Robert Tatum, was suffering from tonsillitis.

On this day, 100 years ago, the fate of the expedition rested on young Walter Harper and a tough-as-nails mail musher, Harry Karstens.

The last-named is the subject of a new book by Alaska freelance photographer and author Tom Walker. "The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley" (The Mountaineers Books, $19.95) has arrived in stores just in time for the centenary of the ascent.

A couple of years before his death, in Fairbanks in 1955, Karstens told his son, "Don't let anyone make a fuss over me."

Fortunately for readers and history, Walker has ignored that instruction and chosen to make a well-deserved fuss over this remarkable Alaskan. He calls Karstens "the actual -- if unheralded -- leader" of the expedition. His assiduously-researched and readily-readable book, amply illustrated with historic photos, does much more than recount the climb. The author, who has spent decades gathering material, says his purpose is to "set the record straight."

The book concisely tells of the earlier attempts to reach the summit. But it primarily focuses on Karstens' background and life in Alaska at the beginning of the last century. Walker, who lives near Denali National Park and Preserve, says the man's younger years paralleled those of Jack London. Both were runaways. Both came over Chilkoot Pass with the Gold Rush. They had mining claims near each other and, when starvation set in, wound up at the same Jesuit mission in Dawson. Walker thinks Karstens is the probable model for London's title character in the short story "Burning Daylight."

Walker recounts the tension between the climbers on the ascent and the bitter feud that erupted between short-tempered Karstens and egotistical Stuck after the latter gave interviews that seemed to direct the glory toward himself. He also follows up with Karstens' notable career as the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park.

Finding a stand-out passage from any good book is difficult. In this case, each chapter presents equally vivid material. But with the anniversary of the 1913 climb on this coming Friday, we are opting for Walker's description of the day when the first men made the summit.

-- Mike Dunham,

From "The Seventymile Kid," by Tom Walker

Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author.

(Excerpts from Chapter 20, "The South Summit." On June 6, 1913, the party was camped at 17,500 feet, above the feature now known as Karstens Ridge, crammed into a small tent, short on supplies, using patched-together gear, with temperatures well below zero. Hoping to start the final push at midnight, they ate a stew with flour paste.)

Within hours of dinner, everyone except (Walter) Harper was sick. Instead of sleeping, the climbers huddled around the Primus with blankets and robes wrapped around them, their stomachs churning. According to Harper, "The Archdeacon (Hudson Stuck, an Episcopalian clergyman) could not move without losing his breath and our spirits were all pretty low."

By four in the morning, the sun already blasting off the North Peak, the climbers were up, packed, and under way. "If it were not for the final climb I should have stayed in camp," (Harry) Karstens admitted, "but being the final climb and such a promising day I managed to pull through."

Since Harper was least affected, Karstens put him in the lead and "took second place on the rope so I could direct [Him] and he worked all day without a murmur," chopping steps wherever needed. Hudson Stuck was third on the rope, followed by (Robert) Tatum.

The morning temperatures dropped to -17F, a sharp north wind biting at exposed flesh. The climbers wore multiple layers, enough to sustain them on the trail at -50F, yet they were still cold. At every break, each man took time to pound some warmth into his hands and feet. Karstens stomped his feet so often and so hard that later he lost two toenails.

Karstens's chosen route led straight up a steep snow-covered ridge south of camp and then around the peak itself to a gentle incline to the summit. Even near there, earthquake damage forced the climbers off a direct line to their destination.

The altitude pummeled them all. With pounding headaches, roiling guts, and shortness of breath, they measured their progress at two steps forward, a pause for rest, a few more paces, stop again. "Altogether we were a somewhat feeble folk," Stuck acknowledged. Every four or five steps, Stuck called a halt, his lungs seemingly incapable of expanding. He thought of failure and death but prayed for triumph and life.

When Harper topped an incline thought to be the summit but pointed ahead to yet another rise, Stuck almost quit. "I confess my heart sank, for I had realized all day that I was very near my altitude limit," he confessed, "and had been apprehensive that I might be physically unable to get to the top."

Harper doubled back to where Stuck knelt in the snow and took the mercurial barometer, the last item in the archdeacon's pack. All Stuck had to do now was keep moving.

Just past midday, Walter Harper stopped. After weeks of toil, he had reached the summit of North America's tallest mountain. Karstens was right behind him, followed by Tatum, with Stuck last on the rope.

"I had to be hauled, puffing and panting into the hitherto secret place of the greatest mountain of the continent," Stuck remembered. Reaching the summit, he collapsed "in enthusiasm and excitement somewhat over passing [my] narrow wind margin." Later he would muse, "Have I climbed a mountain? I climbed it largely by [Harper's] legs."

Despite the piercing cold and pounding fatigue, the climbers exulted in the panorama. "To the south and east ... the near-by peaks and ridges stood out with dazzling distinction," Stuck wrote, "and the beautiful crescent curve of the Alaskan range exhibited itself from Denali to the Sea."

On one side of the range, the great drainages rolled south to Cook Inlet and the North Pacific; on the other, the rivers pulsed to the Yukon and on to the Bering Sea. Wildfire haze obscured the lowlands to the north.

No other humans had ever seen these stupendous sights and, not surprisingly, the Archdeacon of the Yukon beheld the power of God. "Yet the chief impression was not of our connection with the earth so far below, its rivers and its seas," he remembered, "but rather of detachment from it. ... Above us the sky took a blue so deep that none of us had ever gazed upon a midday sky like it before... it seemed like special news of God."

Before beginning his scientific measurements, Stuck gathered his companions for prayers of thanksgiving. They then pitched the tiny instrument tent with Tatum's hand-sewn American flag streaming from the top. Inside, Stuck read the boiling-point thermometer and mercurial barometer. Outside, Tatum took reading with the prismatic compass.

Once the tent was struck, Harper fashioned a cross from the tent pole, and he and Karstens planted it at the highest point. Then everyone gathered around for the "Te Deum," a Christian hymn of praise. A number of photographs were taken, but at -4F, with a hard wind blowing, numb fingers fumbled the controls and almost all of the summit pictures were double and triple exposed.

"The miserable limitations of the flesh gave us continual warning to depart," Stuck recalled. "We grew ... still more wretchedly cold." In all, they spent an hour and a half on the summit before starting down.

The descent was a "long weary grind." Thirteen hours after leaving camp, the climbers returned "tired but happy."

In the tent that evening, Hudson Stuck considered his ailments. "My throat is hard and dry and my whole abdomen is sore from my continual panting and I twice lost consciousness for a moment. How much further I could have gone I do not know."

He fully recognized that he never would have achieved the summit without Karstens and Harper. "There seemed no reason why Karstens and Walter .... should not go another ten thousand feet, were there mountains in the world ten thousand feet higher than Denali," he acknowledged.

One modern climbing analyst has concluded that the climbers, especially Stuck, were suffering from "acute altitude sickness." But were they really? That night, all of them slept peacefully and soundly, their minds finally at peace.

They rose late the next day without mention of any indisposition of any kind.

Controversial names and claims

The history of Mount McKinley ascents is weighted with controversy. Frederick Cook announced that he reached the summit in 1906, a claim ultimately discredited by most authorities on the mountain. Sourdoughs Pete Anderson and William Taylor thought they had made it to the top in 1910, but while they indeed reached the North Peak, they passed by the slightly higher South Peak. In 1912, a well-prepared attempt by Belmont Browne and Herschel Parker was turned back by storms a few hundred feet short of the goal.

(Turning back probably saved their lives, says author Tom Walker. The earthquake that sent incalculable amounts of ice and rock barrelling down the slopes a few days later would likely have killed them had they still been at the highest elevations.)

Even the name causes quarrels. Officially, it remains a tribute to President William McKinley. The two summits -- the Churchill Peaks -- honor British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Alaskans like "Denali," an Anglicized spelling of the Koyukon name, but ignore the names used by Native people on the east, west and south side of the mountain -- "Dghelay Ka'a" (Denai'ina), "Dengadhiy" (Deg Xinag), "Dghelaay Ce'e" (Ahtna).

It's almost impossible to speak about the mountain without wallowing into historical and political asides that have nothing to do with the peak, a feature so majestic that it arguably defies any attempt at conveyance in any human language.

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