New account of the first ascent of Denali offers a window on our time

A Window to Heaven: The Daring First Ascent of Denali, America’s Wildest Peak

By Patrick Dean, Pegasus Books, 336 pages, 2021. $27.95

Among the events that transpired during Alaska’s pioneer days, the story of the first ascent of Denali’s southern peak remains one of the most intriguing. In 1913, four men with complex and sometimes deeply conflicting personalities, and limited to no mountaineering experience, reached the highest point in North America. No matter how many times it gets told, it never gets old. The trick, if one is to write about it, is to make it new.

Outdoors writer Patrick Dean has picked up the story and done just that in his first book, “A Window to Heaven,” casting the climb in new light.

The story in summary is this. In 1913, Stuck and his companions, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tatum, scaled the mountain with several goals in mind. Upon the mountain itself, they sought to be the first to ever reach its highest summit. All of them, and Karstens in particular, also wanted to verify claims from the now-famed Sourdough Expedition that two of them had reached the slightly lower north summit three years earlier. And they wanted to fully disprove Frederick Cook’s fraudulent claim of having climbed the mountain in 1906. They achieved all three objectives.

Stuck had other hopes in mind as well. As archdeacon of the Episcopal Church to Interior Alaska and the Yukon, he hoped to draw attention to missionary work in America’s northernmost territory. He especially wanted to highlight the needs of Alaska Natives, for whom he was a tireless advocate with views that were very progressive for his era. And he hoped that the mountain, which had been named by miners for William McKinley during the 1896 presidential campaign, would have its original Native moniker, Denali, restored (this would take another century to accomplish). In these and other ways, the story reverberates today.

Dean devotes the first half of his book to a biography of Stuck. Born in England in 1863, Stuck emigrated to the United States in 1885, first settling in Texas, where he worked as a cowboy, a school teacher, and more. Next he headed to Tennessee, where he attended the University of the South, graduating in theology. Only then did he become ordained as a priest.

After several years back in Texas, where his progressive views led to periodic conflicts with the establishment, he took the position in Alaska in 1904. Even if he had never set foot on Denali, his work there assured his place in the history books.

Stuck, as committed to outdoor adventuring as he was to ministering, immediately took to his new job. He famously traveled more than 10,000 miles by dog sled from village to village. In the process he came to see traditional Native cultures threatened by the intrusion of whites. Apart from seeking to convert Indigenous Alaskans to Christianity, he wanted to protect their ways of life and the resources they depended upon.

Stuck also had his eye on the mountain, and over the course of time he plotted a climb with Karstens, a taciturn sourdough highly regarded among pioneers. To round out the team, the two employed Harper, Stuck’s indefatigable assistant who was the son of a white father and an Athabascan mother, as well as Tatum, another Episcopal missionary.

Dean tells the story of the climb from the perspective of each member of the expedition. All kept journals along he way, and the conflicts that developed are better understood from these writings than from Stuck’s subsequent book. The primary discord was between Stuck and Karstens. At age 50, Stuck was physically challenged by the climb. Furthermore, with his head in the intellectual and spiritual clouds, he was too often prone to writing and lecturing when he needed to be working. For a man of action like Karstens, this was intolerable.

It took the team three months to get from Fairbanks to the summit of Denali, and several weeks longer to return. When the story broke, the media painted Stuck as the expedition’s sole leader. While Stuck strove to correct the record, repeatedly crediting Karstens as the true hero, and going so far as to split royalties and revenues from his writings and lectures with him, Karstens held Stuck personally responsible for the slight. After returning from the mountain, the two never spoke again.

Stuck’s reputation has taken a beating over the years for this. Many have sided with Karstens in the dispute, but Dean seeks to redeem Stuck. In presenting the climb in the broader context of Stuck’s life, he goes a long way toward doing this.

Some details are hardly denied. In accordance with Stuck’s wish that an Alaska Native be the first to attain the summit, Harper led the way on summit day. And while Stuck is controversial among climbers and others, in Native communities throughout the state, he remains widely revered. Dean zeroes in on his extensive work defending Native interests in an era when few white Alaskans could be bothered.

Dean details how Stuck’s outspoken advocacy for Alaska Natives sprang from his understanding of Christianity, which was influenced by the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. As a missionary, Stuck inevitably brought change to Alaska’s First Peoples. But he hoped to limit that change to their spiritual practices. Beyond this, he wanted them to keep their identities and cultures, which he admired, and to be able to defend their interests against settlers pouring into the region, who saw their land as up for grabs. His views on racial justice were not just progressive for the time, when racism was rampant and broadly unquestioned, but even by today’s standards. In our era, when civil rights have again become a flashpoint, Stuck provides a roadmap for religious leaders grappling with these questions.

Dean, who holds a master’s in theology, has offered not only a retelling of Stuck’s story but also a reassessment that places it in the broader stream of Alaskan and American religious history. He presents Stuck as an imperfect but still commendable model for our own times. We should pay attention.