Excerpt: Meet the Ragtag Crew that Were the First to Summit Denali

The climbers and adventurers who sought the new and the unexplored in the 19th and 20th centuries were usually well-financed members of elite society—men and women of means and a desire to etch their names in history. The first European Americans to reach the summit of Alaska’s Denali in 1913, were not that. Alaska natives, an expat, and a traveling minister looked up at the awesome slopes of Denali and decided, hell with it, they were going for the top.

Patrick Dean’s new book, A Window To Heaven: The Daring First Ascent Of Denali, America’s Wildest Peak, is their story. Much of the book focuses on Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal Archdeacon who moved to Alaska in 1904 and a decade later stoop atop the continent’s tallest peak. He had fallen in love with the north, and greatly admired Indigenous Alaskans for their grit and ability to thrive in brutal conditions. Stuck largely planned the first successful climb of Denali, and his story, as well as that of his companions, as told by Dean, is a fun read, and a look at a different sort of mountaineering crew, far from the genteel nationalists who were busily planting flags around the world’s hardest to reach places.

Below is an excerpt from the prologue.

Hudson Stuck could barely breathe. A tough and experienced outdoorsman who had spent the last decade dogsledding and tramping across Alaska and the Yukon, Stuck nevertheless gasped in the high, thin air 20,000 feet above sea level.

He and his three companions stood just below the summit ridge of Denali, the highest peak in North America, on a clear, windy, 4°-below day. Stuck wore six pairs of socks inside his leather moccasins, with iron “ice-creepers” or crampons attached to the bottom. Immense lynx-fur-lined mitts covered inner Scotch-wool gloves, and his torso was layered beneath a fur-hooded Alaskan parka. “Yet,” Stuck wrote, “until high noon feet were like lumps of iron.”

Behind them stretched what Stuck called the “dim blue lowlands” of the future Denali National Park, “with threads of stream and patches of lake that still carry ice along their banks.” A few smaller peaks squatted off to the northeast. In every other direction, the immensity of the mountain they perched on blocked their views of Mount Foraker and the other peaks in the Alaska Range. Above them, just a few hundred more yards of climbing and the prize—to be the first humans to set foot atop Denali—would be theirs.

It was June 7th, 1913. They were Stuck, Episcopal Archdeacon of Alaska and the Yukon, the oldest of the group at nearly fifty years old, short and wiry, his neatly-trimmed beard the only one among the four; Walter Harper, the youngest at age twenty, half Alaskan Native, fit and confident; Harry Karstens, thirty-four, calmly competent from his years in the Alaskan backcountry; and Robert Tatum, twenty-one, the greenest member of the team. They had launched this expedition eight weeks earlier, enduring bitter cold, severe altitude, and the loss of key supplies to a camp fire.

The team had arrived at their last camp, just below 18,000 feet, the night before. Awakening to a brilliant, bitterly cold morning, the party had reached the summit slope after eight grueling hours, with Harper in the lead. Surrounded by nothing but snow and ice, their toes and fingers numb, they approached the final ridge to the summit.

Though all the men were unable to fully take in air—“it was curious to see every man’s mouth open for breathing,” Stuck would later write—it was hardest for him. Everything kept turning black for Stuck as he choked and gasped, almost unable to get any breath at all. The missionary’s load had already been reduced; the other members had divided up the contents of his pack, leaving him only the bulky mercurial barometer he had stubbornly carried up the mountain to make scientific observations on the summit. Now he struggled even under the barometer’s weight. Finally, Harper, the youngest and strongest member of the expedition on this day, doubled back to where Stuck knelt in the snow, took the barometer and hoisted it onto his back.

Harper’s presence on the mountain was important to Stuck for more than just his youthful vigor and physical strength. Since coming to Alaska in 1904 to become Archdeacon of Alaska and the Yukon, Stuck had become a fervent champion of the rights of the Native people. In the Alaska of this era, a raucous and deeply unsettled meeting point between traditional Native ways and the modern white culture—“a center of feverish trade and feverish vice,” in Stuck’s words—Stuck spent most of his time ministering to the Athabascan peoples in his region. He bore no illusions that their lives would be improved by the onslaught of Western ways.

Harper, who was half Athabascan and half Irish, represented Stuck’s aspirations for the Natives of the Far North. Walter’s father, Arthur Harper, a distant figure in his life, was a pioneer in the history of white Alaska, the first to imagine gold in the Yukon, where he met Walter’s mother. Walter was raised by his mother in an Athabascan village and at sixteen met Stuck at the mission school in Tenana. They forged a lifelong connection. On Denali, in Stuck’s words, Harper “ran Karstens close in strength, pluck, and endurance.”

Robert Tatum was a Tennessean who had come to Alaska to study for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. He had proved himself the previous winter by joining a heroic relief effort, helping deliver by dogsled desperately-needed supplies to two women missionaries down the dangerous ice of the frozen Tanana River. His experience with surveying tools and other scientific instruments and his willingness to serve as the cook for the expedition, along with what Stuck termed “his consistent courtesy and considerateness,” made Tatum “a very pleasant comrade.”

Harry Karstens had been in Alaska for almost two decades, and learned its often-harsh lessons first-hand. He had earned the right to be considered a “Sourdough”—a term derived from prospectors’ habit of carrying a starter of sourdough bread in a pouch around their neck, later expanded to describe those who’d been in the Far North long enough to prove themselves. He had made his reputation in the backcountry since the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, making his reputation on the mail routes, prospectors’ streams, and hunting expeditions of early-1900s Alaska. Stuck explicitly relied on Karstens for his outdoor skills and experience, as well as his toughness.

Patrick Dean.

Karstens, on the other hand, had less sympathy than Harper for Stuck’s difficulties. To Karstens, a hardened miner and backwoodsman, Stuck’s insistence on spending time with the books and writing materials he brought to Denali—not to mention the burden that carrying such extra weight imposed on everyone—amounted to little more than “lying in the tent.” Karstens’s antagonism toward Stuck, which increased with each step up the mountain, was fated to flare into far worse.

For his part, Stuck had always admired Karstens, describing him as “strong, competent, and resourceful, the true leader of the expedition in the face of difficulty and danger.” He would never understand his former partner’s antagonism in the wake of the expedition’s success and fame. But for now, Stuck and the others had to put all animosities aside, and focus on putting one foot in front of the other, slowly and deliberately gasping, and grasping, for the summit.

How did an Episcopal Archdeacon, well into middle age by the standards of the time, come to find himself in the freezing final summit push on the highest, coldest peak on the continent? The answer lay in two equally potent forces, woven into his being. Just as strong as Hudson Stuck’s belief in doing good—“I am sorry for a life in which there is no usefulness to others,” he once wrote—was his love of wild places. He had grown up reading the exploits of the polar explorers, thanks to the library of a relative lost at sea. As a youth Hudson Stuck had explored the mountains of his native England, including the Lake District peaks Scafell Pike (the highest mountain in England, at 3200 feet), Skiddaw, and Helvellyn. Although they weren’t much more than scrambles, much less technical climbs, they gave the youthful Stuck a glimpse of what could be found in the world’s high, wild places.

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