Of all the legends from Alaska’s pioneer era, few if any are as beloved and revered as the tale of the Sourdough Expedition.
Details differ and have since news of the event first emerged. But the essential story is that, in 1910, a group of four miners from Fairbanks who had never climbed mountains were the first to scale Denali. Two of them reached the northern summit (the lower of the two mountain’s peaks), a point previously unattained by experienced climbers. The legend is further amplified by their claim to have hauled with them a 15-foot spruce pole that they erected near the peak and to which they attached an American flag. And on top of that, they ascended from their 11,000-foot high base camp to the 19,450-foot high summit and came back down in an 18-hour marathon scramble, with doughnuts and hot chocolate to meet their caloric needs.
For more than a century, this story has been told and retold countless times, laid out as an example of Alaskan hardiness and chutzpah that shames the efforts of Outsiders. It’s an all but unbelievable accomplishment. Which is why many people over the years have never believed it.
So did it happen, or did the men fall short of their goal and then come back and make a false claim? This is the question Jon Waterman addresses in his latest book “Chasing Denali.”
If anyone is qualified to suss out truth from tall tale on this story, Waterman would be the one. Few people have spent as much time on North America’s highest peak as he has, and none have written about it with his combination of elegance and cynicism. “In the Shadow of Denali,” his 1993 book, remains a modern classic and stands alongside the works of Hudson Stuck and Bradford Washburn as an essential text on Denali mountaineering. He’s climbed, guided, been a ranger, and worked rescues on the mountain. So when he starts questioning the validity of the 1910 expedition, it’s wise to listen.
In his prologue, which also recounts his 2016 climb that coincided with his 60th birthday (a story he takes up twice more in this book), Watermen explains how he has long had doubts about the famous story:
“The first time I saw their route, in late May 1983 while traversing over the mountain, streaks of steep, blue ice surrounded the bottom of that final, unrepeated couloir. Seeing it again in June 1993, three weeks out after dog mushing into the Muldrow Glacier from their mining district of Kantishna and having spent a week climbing the knife-edged ridge below it, I couldn’t imagine how they had made such short work of it all. Their climb had to be a myth.”
His skepticism dogged him for decades, and ultimately Waterman went looking for details, most of which argue against the feat.
Foremost, the story of the climb itself is surrounded in dishonesty. After coming off the mountain, three of the four men returned to their claims in Kantishna, while Thomas Lloyd, who had organized the expedition, went straight to Fairbanks and began spinning stories, excitedly stating that they had reached both summits. His claims, initially printed in the highly supportive Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, soon made their way to the New York Times, and Lloyd, previously best known for his drinking and braggadocio, was briefly a national sensation.
When the others arrived in Fairbanks, however, stories began to conflict. The trio said the obese and aging Lloyd had remained at base camp while they went for the summit. Charles McGonagall, who had designed the innovative crampons they used, was said to have stopped short of the peak, weakened by altitude sickness. Having done his share of the spruce pole hauling, he turned back. This left Peter Anderson and William Taylor to make the final push, and no proof. In little time they found themselves lumped in with Frederick Cook, who had lied about reaching the summit in 1906. They became public frauds.
Three years later their fortunes changed when Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, Hudson Stuck and Robert Tatum successfully reached the south summit. Along the way, Harper spotted the spruce pole on a far ridge. All four men saw it with binoculars, and the Sourdoughs were at least partially redeemed.
The tale entered Alaska history, but many climbers since have questioned it. Waterman assembles here the considerable evidence that it didn’t happen. No pictures were taken; only the Karstens-Stuck Expedition ever saw the pole, and they were all friends of the Sourdoughs; the route has never been replicated; the climb took place in late winter, well before what’s now considered the optimal season; other than Lloyd, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut or his stories straight, the other Sourdoughs rarely discussed their experiences; they had absolutely no high altitude experience; they weren’t roped in on ridges others have plunged to their deaths from; their rapid ascent from basecamp was the sort of climb that no alpinists even thought of attempting until decades later; their equipment was primitive and much of it handcrafted. And on it goes.
And yet a few nagging details remain. If Karstens and company were lying about spotting the pole, then all four of them had to agree to maintain the ruse. More telling, while McGonagall, Anderson and Taylor rarely discussed the climb in the years after completing it, they did on occasion offer accounts, and the details they did provide were remarkably accurate if they were fabricated.
In the end, Waterman resorts to some digital age sleuthing, and that combined with his examination of one critical piece of physical evidence recovered from the Muldrow Glacier decades after the expedition leads him to his decisive conclusion.
What is his judgment? Sorry, no spoilers. Read the book for yourself. It’s a fine work of history written with brevity and lyricism, one that parts the clouds long obscuring the most legendary Alaskan climb ever.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.