In 1896 a prospector named Bill Dickey was tramping around Interior Alaska looking for gold. Like everyone who sees it, Dickey was captivated by the size and magnificence of the mountain that was then variously known as Tenada, Denali, Densmore’s Mountain, Traleika, and Bulshaia.
Dickey was from Ohio, William McKinley’s home state, and a Princeton graduate in economics. When he came out of the bush and heard that McKinley had been nominated for president, he promptly renamed the mountain “McKinley,” wrote numerous articles for stateside magazines, and lobbied in Washington, D.C., in support of adoption of the name, which finally caught on after President McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
The name has been something of a sore point with Alaskans ever since, for McKinley had absolutely nothing to do with the mountain, and the more lyrical Native Alaskan names were completely ignored. Many in Alaska support renaming the peak Denali (“the high one”), a term used by Native Alaskans of the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. Unfortunately, any move to eliminate “McKinley” from maps is inevitably met by howls of protest from Ohio’s congressional delegation.
Creating a Park
Harry Karstens reached the Klondike in 1898 when he was 19, bored by Chicago and attracted by adventure and gold. Within a year he’d crossed over into U.S. territory and wound up at Seventymile, 20 miles south of Eagle. When the local mail carrier lost everything one night in a card game and committed suicide, Karstens took his place. He became proficient at dog mushing and trailblazing and within a few years was delivering mail on a primitive trail between Eagle and Valdez, a 900-mile round-trip every month (the Richardson Highway follows the same route).
Later he moved on to Fairbanks and began delivering mail to Kantishna, the mining town on what is now the west end of Denali National Prak, growing very fond of and familiar with the north side of the Alaska Range. So when a naturalist from the East Coast, Charles Sheldon, arrived in 1906 to study Dall sheep in the area, Karstens guided him around Mt. McKinley’s northern foothills, delineating the habitat of the sheep.
Karstens was also the coleader of the four-man expedition that was the first party to successfully climb the true peak of Mt. McKinley, the south summit, in 1913.
Meanwhile, Charles Sheldon was back in Washington, lobbying for national-park status for the Dall sheep habitat, and when Mt. McKinley National Park was created in 1917, Karstens was the obvious choice to become the first park superintendent. He held that post 1921–1928, patrolling the park boundaries by dogsled.
Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that created Mt. McKinley National Park, Alaska’s first, in 1917. The Park Road, begun five years later, was completed to Kantishna in 1940. In 1980, with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, McKinley Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve and expanded to nearly 6 million acres, roughly the size of Vermont.
Many pioneers and prospectors had seen the mountain and approached it, but Alfred Brooks, a member of the first U.S. Geological Survey expedition in Alaska in 1902, was the first to set foot on it. He approached it from the south and reached an elevation of 7,500 feet before running out of time. He published an article in the January 1903 issue of National Geographic in which he recommended approaching the mountain from the north.
Following that suggestion, the next attempt was from the north, led by James Wickersham, U.S. district judge for Alaska. Judge Wickersham was sent from Seattle to bring law and order to Eagle in 1900; he moved to Fairbanks in 1903. That summer, he had a spare couple of months and set out to climb the mountain, traveling more than 100 miles overland and reaching the 7,000-foot level of the north face, later named Wickersham Wall in honor of His Honor.
That same summer, Dr. Frederick Cook, who’d been with Peary’s first party to attempt to reach the north pole in 1891 and Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition of 1897, also attempted to climb the mountain from the north and reached 11,300 feet. In 1906, Cook returned to attempt Mt. McKinley from the south, but he failed to get near it. His party broke up and went their separate directions, and a month later, Cook sent a telegram to New York claiming he’d reached the peak. This was immediately doubted by the members of his party, who challenged his photographic and cartographic “evidence.”
But through public lectures and articles, Cook’s reputation as the first man to reach the peak grew. Two years later, he claimed to have reached the North Pole several months ahead of another Peary expedition, and Cook began to enjoy a cult status in the public consciousness. Simultaneously, however, his credibility among fellow explorers rapidly declined, and Cook vanished from sight. This further fueled the controversy and led to the Sourdough Expedition of 1910.
Four sourdoughs in Fairbanks simply decided to climb the mountain to validate or eviscerate Cook’s published description of his route. They left town in December and climbed to the north peak in early April. The three members who’d actually reached the peak stayed in Kantishna to take care of business, while the fourth member, Tom Lloyd, who hadn’t reached the peak, returned to Fairbanks and lied that he had.
By the time the other three returned to town in June, Lloyd’s story had already been published and widely discredited. So nobody believed the other three—especially when they claimed they’d climbed up to the north peak and down to their base camp at 11,000 feet in 18 hours, with a thermos of hot chocolate, four doughnuts, and dragging a 14-foot spruce log that they planted up top and claimed was still there.
Finally, in 1913, the Hudson Stuck–Harry Karstens expedition reached the true summit, the south peak, and could prove that they’d done so beyond a shadow of a doubt. Only then was the Sourdough Expedition vindicated: All four members of the Stuck party saw the spruce pole still standing on the north peak!
Today more than 1,000 mountaineers attempt the summit of Mt. McKinley each year, and approximately half of them actually reach the top. The youngest climbers ever to summit, a girl and a boy, were 12; the oldest man was 71, and the oldest woman 62.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition