The Sourdough Denali On-Sight

My family and I will be flying to Upstate New York soon for my 10-year college reunion. I have positive feelings about it — or else I probably wouldn’t be going. However, I’m not entirely sure why I’m going. A little reflecting on this time seems appropriate since this is a milestone that might be more significant than turning… say 30. But I think the reconnecting might be the best part. In that way it’s not just about the past.

I chose my school for a lot of reasons, but mountains had nothing to do with them. During college, I treated hiking and climbing activities in an almost secretive way. I certainly didn’t blog about my passion then. I shared my interest with very few people. I think I liked it that way. It set me apart, even if only in my own self image; while I went about a “normal” college life I was doing something else entirely on the weekends and breaks.

I dreamed about working a job as a professional most of the year and then putting on the crampons and carrying my axe to scale some Alaskan peak on long weekends and paid vacations. The Smash and Grab short film resonates here. But guys like John Frieh, Mike Burdick, Zac West and even the likes of Ed Viesturs, when they were young, were in a better position to play in and get experience in the mountains than me. Still, I thought I could climb peaks in the wilderness — whether they were firsts or not — in an organic fashion. I would climb by sheer willpower and persistence; luck and bullheadedness rather than experience and skill. I thought I could be like the Sourdoughs on Denali.

Great climbers these days get started at an early age, climb with climbers better than them, earn their requisite ten thousand hours on the rope, and push their comfort zone. But that wasn’t always the case. The first ascents in the Alps were done through stubborn determination and grit. They didn’t have experience or mentors to glean anything. Neither did the Sourdoughs for the most part.

The story begins with Frederick Cook. Jonathan Waterman gives a great description in High Alaska, but I’ll paraphrase. Cook alleged to have bagged the first ascent of Denali in 1907. His story was a bit outrageous yet many to this day insist the mountain was first climbed by Cook.

Flip forward to the fall of 1909 in a bar in Fairbanks. There, Tom Lloyd bet Bill McPhee two cents that he was neither too old (49) nor too heavy to climb Denali. Then, McPhee offered $500 to help prove Frederick Cook never set foot on top. Two more Alaskans contributed funds and the whole venture seemed possible.

The expedition team was made of tough Alaskan miners — sourdoughs — whom had absolutely no experience climbing mountains. In addition to Lloyd, Peter Anderson (47), Billy Taylor (27), and Charles McGonagall (40) rounded up the older team. They left Fairbanks in the dark of an Alaskan winter in December with four horses and a sled dog team and didn’t make their first camp until late February. Then they spent the next month establishing camp at 11,000 ft.

On April 3rd, they packed thermoses and doughnuts, wore creepers and carried alpine poles as well as a fourteen-foot long spruce pole. Planted the pole at 19,000 ft. to prove they were there and continued to the North Summit at 19,470 ft.

The true summit however is the South Summit, which wasn’t visible from Fairbanks, so they seemed to ignore it. They probably saw that it was higher. But if conditions weren’t right, perhaps they couldn’t see it two-miles away.

Regardless, their ascent was remarkable. As Waterman writes, “These men unknowingly matched the fast-and-light standards which only highly trained alpinists would apply more than a half century later. Their nonchalance, and lack of ropes or climbing experience, made their climb all the more remarkable.”

It wasn’t this story that actually created my notion of the bullheaded, organic alpinist sprouting up, but it bolstered it. But as ten years have gone by, I don’t know anyone that climbs at that level that hasn’t been living the life of a professional climber, either through guiding or grants and that weren’t climbing at a young age.

The Sourdoughs weren’t young. It’s just a different era. I know and I am enjoying waiting for whatever comes next…

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2 thoughts on “The Sourdough Denali On-Sight

  1. I love the sourdoughs! Especially after reading a bunch of them spent a few days in something like -184 F on Denali….with really totally inadequate outfits and supplies. If you remember the name of this particular book please let me know, since I only vaguely remember its being mentioned in one of David Robert’s picture books,and a climbing anthology. But I would like to read it in its entirety.

  2. The book was High Alaska by Jonathan Waterman. I think it is available for free on Google Books. It covers all the first ascents on Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter in the central Alaska Range. Enjoy!

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