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How pioneer expedition a century ago cleared path for Mount McKinley aviators

Colleen Mondor
In 1932 Joe Crosson, Alaska Airways’ Chief Pilot, became the first pilot to land on Denali when he touched down on Muldrow Glacier near the 5,700 foot McGonagall Pass. Loren Holmes photo

One hundred years ago this month, Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper,  Robert G. Tatum, John Fredson, and Esaias George departed Nenana for what would become, after a herculean effort, the first successful full ascent of Mount McKinley -- just three years after the Sourdough Expedition reached the slightly lower north summit.

After more than a year of planning and logistical problems, Stuck and his party departed Nenana on March 17 with two sleds and 14 dogs. They reached Diamond City, a gold camp 90 miles away in the Kantishna area, six days later and took possession there of the ton and a half of supplies that had been delivered by boat the previous fall. From Diamond City, they began, as Stuck later wrote in "The Ascent of Denali," the real work of moving the supplies 50 miles to the base of the mountain.

“Here the relaying began, stuff being taken ahead and cached at some midway point, then another load taken right through a day’s march, and then a return made to bring up the cache. In this way we moved steadily though slowly across rolling country and upon the surface of a large lake to the McKinley Fork of the Kantishna, which drains the Muldrow Glacier, down that stream to its junction with the Clearwater Fork of the same, and up that fork, through its canyons, to the last spruce timber on it banks, and there we made a camp in an exceedingly pretty spot.”

They would not summit until June 7, more than two and half months after they began their journey. The Stuck-Karstens Expedition was in every way unprecedented and unparalleled. It proved that attaining the summit was possible, but also that it would require a level of commitment that was truly staggering.

Attention turns toward Everest

In the years that followed, there was little activity on the mountain. International attention was on Everest and the race to “conquer” the highest peak on earth (which culminated in the tragedy of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s deaths in 1924). Just getting to McKinley was difficult enough and the weather dissuaded many climbers. In 1930 Matt Nieminen and his mechanic Cecil Higgins generated interest when they flew over the summit at 20,320 feet in an Alaska Airways Fairchild Model 71 monoplane. This made the possibility of utilizing aircraft in expedition planning irresistible, and very soon a new wave of scientists and explorers began making plans.

In 1932 Joe Crosson, Alaska Airways’ chief pilot, became the first to land on Denali when he touched down on Muldrow Glacier near 5,700-foot McGonagall Pass. A year earlier, Crosson had flown a cinematographer with Fox-Movietone News over the summit as he took the first-ever photos of McKinley from the air. The 1932 Allen Carpe “Cosmic Ray” Expedition saw Crosson make more than one landing on the mountain but the expedition is also notable for one of the first tragedies there, which the aircraft could not prevent.

The National Geographic Society organized a photographic expedition in 1936 that was designed around a series of flights over both McKinley and its sister, 17,402-foot Mount Foraker. This expedition is notable not only for the photos, which remain some of the most iconic ever taken, but also the introduction of the late Bradford Washburn to McKinley lore. The relationship of Washburn, pioneeer mountaineer, cartographer, photographer with the mountain would continue for the rest of his life and result in gathering a wealth of information on the mountain as well as long-term relationships with some of Alaska’s most-famous pilots.

In the week-long 1936 Mount McKinley Flight Expedition, Pan American Airways was chartered and S.E. Robbins flew a Lockheed Electra out of Fairbanks on the trip. The aircraft’s cabin door was removed so Washburn could point an oversized Fairchild K-6 aerial camera at his subject, and ultimately he collected a series of prints that are still used by climbers. (They look spectacular in the July 1938 issue of National Geographic.) Without the perspective allowed by the aircraft, exploration on the mountain would have been held back for years, if not decades.

Retractable skis changes McKinley flying

Washburn returned to Alaska several times in the years that followed (most notably in 1947, when he saw the U.S. Air Force landed a C-45, the first and only landing of a twin-engine aircraft on the mountain). His most famous trip was in 1951 when he undertook topographic work on what was then the little-explored West Buttress, which previously had been declared unclimbable. That expedition was partly sponsored by the University of Alaska and included the cooperation of UAF president, Terry Moore, who provided air support with his new 135-horsepower Piper Super Cub. Moore’s aircraft included a new innovation, retractable skis, which he had helped design. In June, Moore made multiple trips, dropping team members on Kahiltna Glacier at the 7,400-foot elevation. Washburn could not believe the ease with which their drop-off was accomplished, writing later in National Geographic, “An hour before I had been 40 miles away at Chelatna Lake; now here I was a third of the way up Mount McKinley!”

A month later, Moore would evacuate them from the 10,100 foot level after their research was completed and the group had successfully scaled the West Buttress. The route has since become the shortest, safest and most popular route to the summit. “We had proved,” wrote Washburn, “that airplanes loaded or unloaded, could land and take off halfway up that side of the peak.”

Also in the summer of 1951, Washburn had one of the most significant meetings in Alaska climbing history when he hired Don Sheldon to fly him to the base of Ruth Glacier. In the years that followed, Sheldon would become the most famous pilot to navigate the Denali region, at one point landing at the unheard of level of 14,600 feet while on a 1960 rescue mission. He would also become the pilot Washburn turned to again and again as he surveyed McKinley.

In the forward to the book "Wager With the Wind: The Don Sheldon Story," Washburn wrote: “To mountaineers he has been the catalyst, which made possible their great pioneer ascents on the forbidding virgin walls of McKinley, Huntington, Deborah, Hunter and Logan.” The Sheldon-Washburn expeditions would write new chapters in the Denali story and be hallmarks of the mountain’s climbing future, which continues to rely heavily upon aircraft and air-taxi services.

As we celebrate the achievements of the Stuck-Karstens Expedition it is important to note that it was never duplicated because the use of the aircraft so completely transformed the McKinley climbing experience. And while there have been many great achievements -- and tragedies -- on the mountain since 1913, none of them can compare to what those six men accomplished 100 years ago -- simply because, quite frankly, none of them have had to.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)