Skip to main Content
Sports

Alaska Native teens get official credit for assisting historic Denali ascent

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: November 21
  • Published November 20

Robert Tatum, Esaias George, Harry Karstens, John Fredson and Walter Harper gather at base camp for a photo believed to be taken by Hudson Stuck at the start of the historic 1913 ascent of Denali. George drove a dog team back to Nenana after helping supply the expedition and Fredson kept the camp ready for the climbers' return. (Photo courtesy Denali National Park and Preserve archives)

For the second time, an Alaska Sports Hall of Fame plaque has been removed from an exhibit at the Anchorage airport in order to edit what it says.

The first time the plaque honoring the first ascent of Denali was taken down, it was to replace “Mount McKinley” with “Denali” in accordance with the mountain’s name change in 2015.

The second time was this fall, so the names of two Alaska Native teenagers could be added to the brief story about the expedition.

John Fredson and Esaias George were among six people who traveled to Denali by dog team at the start of the historic 1913 expedition. Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper and Harry Karstens began the journey in Fairbanks and picked up Robert Tatum and the two teens in Nenana along the way. Fredson’s job was to manage the base camp at Cache Creek. George’s job was to mush the dogs back to Nenana.

The climbing party consisted of Stuck, Harper, Karstens and Tatum. All four reached the summit, led by Harper, an Athabascan from the Interior.

Those four were all mentioned on the original Hall of Fame plaque. Now Fredson and George are too.

Jude Henzler of Fairbanks, whose wife is George’s niece, got the ball rolling on the latest change. In 2010, he was viewing the Hall of Fame plaques displayed at the airport and noticed that the teens were in the plaque’s photo, but they were not included in the text.

Henzler thought the boys deserved to be mentioned, so he contacted Harlow Robinson, the executive director of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

“I said, ‘You really slighted some people,’ and he said he’ll look into it,” Henzler said.

Henzler made it a mission to get the teens recognized by the Hall of Fame, and when he ran into Gov. Bill Walker this summer in Fort Yukon, he talked to Walker about it. The governor’s office called Robinson, who in the meantime had consulted a couple of climbing historians about Fredson’s and George’s roles.

Robinson said the teens weren’t originally mentioned because they weren’t part of the summit team – and because there is a limited amount of space on the plaques for text. Plaques don’t include photo captions, he said, just text.

“The problem really is we have limited space, about 150 words or so, to work with,” Robinson said. “In the original write-up only the four people who summited Denali were listed."

The Hall of Fame decided to edit the plaque, Robinson said, “because it made sense to mention them.”

So the plaque came down, the text was edited and soon it will return to the Hall of Fame exhibit at the airport, Robinson said.

Henzler, who said George died during a flu epidemic a few years after the expedition, is happy that the two young Natives are being recognized. And Robinson is happy that Alaskans are invested in their history and, by extension, the Hall of Fame.

“It’s a good example of the role the public has had over the years,” he said. “It’s really cool that they are still engaged.”

Public voting for the next class of Hall of Fame inductees is happening right now at alaskasportshall.org. Online voting – the results of which help determine Hall of Fame selections – is open until midnight on Nov. 30.

Here’s the plaque’s text as it appeared after Denali’s name was changed and the text after it was edited to include Fredson and George.

Original text

On June 7, 1913, Walter Harper, an Athabascan from Interior Alaska, became the first climber to reach the summit of 20,320-foot Denali, the tallest point on the continent. Fellow climbers Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum closely followed him.

Once climbed, no one else for 20 years made the ascent of the peak whose name in local Koyukon Athabascan language means “the great one.” Only when it was determined in 1951 the shorter way to the top was by another route did Denali begin to attract new attention. Fresh generations of mountaineers attempt Denali, every year, but the expedition led by Stuck and Karstens lives on in the hearts of climbers for its pioneering achievement.

New text

On June 7, 1913, Walter Harper, an Athabascan from Interior Alaska, became the first person to reach the summit of 20,320-foot Denali, the highest point in North America. Fellow climbers Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum closely followed him. Although they did not summit, teenagers Esaias George and John Fredson were key contributors to the expedition.

Twenty years passed before another successful ascent was accomplished. Only when it was determined in 1951 a shorter route existed did Denali begin to attract new attention. Fresh generations of mountaineers attempt the mountain every year, but the expedition led by Stuck and Karstens up the Muldrow Glacier lives on in the hearts of climbers for its pioneering achievement.

Beth Bragg is a member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame selection committee.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments