Duke of Abruzzi versus Interior Alaska

Don’t worry; you didn’t miss it. My posts on K2’s earliest photos haven’t been published yet. They are slowly being developed. So check back for that in a bit.

But in the course of looking at K2 and its related topics I’ve had several thoughts about one of its most famous explorers. He was made famous before his K2 expedition for climbing what was believed to be the highest mountain in North America.

In 1897, the elevations of certain peaks were not certain and word that Mount McKinley/Denali was the highest only started making its way around certain circles early in the year. By the spring, Luigi Amedeo, a.k.a. the Duke of Abruzzi, was en route with a large entourage under his leadership to reach the summit of Mount St. Elias (18,008 ft./5,489 m.) He and his people traveled across the Atlantic to America, went cross country to Seattle where they chartered a boat, before chartering smaller boats to take them to the shore off of Mount St. Elias and hiking the remaining distance.

He and his large team struggled upward for about a month before making the mountain’s very first ascent. A formidable accomplishment done with no beta and mostly grit and determination.

I can’t help but wonder if the Duke had set his heart on summitting Denali instead, could he and his men have done it?

Traveling across Alaska’s interior is, in many ways, a different challenge than managing the coastal areas. The scope is much larger, even without established paths. The first inhabitants of Alaska laid relatively few trails cross country and what trails that existed were only occasionally used for trading and hunting. Even if the roads were navigatable, river crossings could be like an impenetrable obstacle depending on conditions. Railroads, highways, ferries and bridges wouldn’t be built until shortly after the Duke’s adventure.

An example of a cross country journey of this magnitude came only a few years later with no new infrastructure to help: In 1902 a U.S. Geological Survey team of nine traveled to Rainy Pass (which is about 125 miles northwest of Anchorage and part of the southwestern arm of the Alaska Range.) It took them 105 days to cover the 80 miles to the Pass from Cook Inlet.

This means the Duke’s relatively short journey inland to Mount St. Elias was easy and brief compared to what might have been required to get to Denali. Mount St. Elias is a mere 10 mi./16 km. from the Taan Fjord off Icy Bay. If the Duke and his party could have made it from Anchorage to the Alaska Range around Denali, he and his party would have had to navigate getting to the mountain, which is most easily accessible from the north, not the south, where they would have likely started such an expedition.

The Duke and his men would have had to start their journey to America sooner than they had and been prepared to start their journey as early as March or April — the edge of winter — just to allow sufficient time to reach the range and explore its defenses and navigate the passes.

On his Mount St. Elias expedition, the Duke is also remembered for taking a brass bed frame with him to sleep in at base camp. Years later, when he explored the Korakorum to attempt K2, he left it behind. He must have realized the effort involved to move it was great. There is an anecdote from the approach to Mount St. Elias where he scolds photographer Victorio Sella for having a porter carry his camera equipment; the Duke made it a policy that each man must carry his own gear (though the bed must have been considered part of the camp equipment). It seems this policy was wise but not yet take to its logical extreme as it was on the K2 expedition. Perhaps the bed would have been left behind in the Alaska Interior for some future prospector or lazy bear.

Now, assuming the Alaskan Interior made for a difficult journey and that the expedition came prepared for the hard slog, he would have come to the southern side of the Alaska Range, still far from the top, in summer time with less stable ice and snow conditions, and no beta on what route would suit his team’s skills and abilities best. But that’s for my next post…

As always, I’m glad you dropped by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Like you, I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Sources: 1) National Parks Service; 2) Waterman, Jonathan, A Most Hostile Mountain, 1997

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