Duke of Abruzzi versus Denali

This is the continuation of my previous post about whether Luigi Amedeo, the Duke of Abruzzi, and his men would have been able to meet the challenge of summitting the true high point of North America, Mount McKinley/Denali (20,320 ft./ 6,196 m.) instead of the peak that was believed to be the roof of the continent, Mount St. Elias (18,008 ft./5,489 m.) The Duke made it to the top of Mount St. Elias in the summer of 1897.

Assuming that the Duke would manage to reach the Alaska Range, which would be not easy feat considering the obstacles and the territory they would have to cover cross country, he would likely have arrived on the southern side of the range. Denali is most easily accessible. From the north, the mountain is defended by fewer foothills, lengthy glaciers and other significant mountain peaks, which would seem immense by themselves in most other mountain ranges, such as Mount Huntington. Choosing the right path may or may not have appeared obvious. The Ruth and Tokositna Glaciers run north to south and lead from the southern forests to the range, with the former providing the most efficient route. However, both were over 40 miles (65 kilometers) long at that time. To the best of my knowledge (so far), only the Russians had tried previously to investigate the greater area back in 1834, but they turned back before anything substantively could be accomplished.

Once on the glaciers, the Duke’s team would be there for two or more months, most likely. Finding their way through the glacier- and silt-filled valleys, peaks, talus and rock walls would require some luck, especially in terms of weather, both to allow mobility and for reference navigation.

Alternatively, if the Duke’s team had sufficient resources and willpower, they might have been able to walk east of the range, to the point where the current NP office headquarters is and walk around the range on more level ground. They would then proceed westward to the mountain, which would be in plain view in decent weather. If they were to take the most direct route to the mountain, they would most likely go straight to it’s north face. Of course, this is the less direct and longer route.

The north face of Denali was the site of the true first attempt to climb the mountain in 1903. After some intelligence from a USGS surveyor that wrote and article on the possibility of climbing Denali, Judge James Wickersham and four others went to the base of the north face and stood in awe. They witnessed recurrences of frightening avalanches and frequent rock fall. They did muster up enough courage (or bullheadedness) to climb the wall; they made it to 8,100 ft. before retreating because of those horrible conditions typical on the face. I suspect that the Duke’s team would also have also been deterred around this point, in part because the pace of climbing of the day was hardly fast and light; the siege style employed would have enhanced the risks.

Whether the Duke attempted to climb from the north or the south (perhaps by the Southeast Spur if the approach came from the south), the challenge could have been. Many attempts that failed in the years to come were by small teams, like Judge Wickersham’s. The Duke’s team was larger and quite determined. Even then, inexperienced teams with tenacity and grit (perhaps stubbornness too) like Hudson Stuck’s and the Sourdoughs, made it high on the mountain.

If Duke of Abruzzi set his sights on Denali instead of Mount St. Elias, I think the real determinant of whether he would have reached the summit in 1897 would have been a matter of timing and how they well he and his men could travel cross country. They would have bushwhacked a significant portion of the way and would have had to manage several river crossings — that would be high with spring runoff. In order to reach the mountain by about June to make a real attempt and have sufficiently good weather during their return to the coast, the expedition would have had to leave earlier than they had, possibly even at the end of winter. There likely would not have been time to sight see the gold mines, which they visited on the St. Elias expedition.

I don’t know whether the Duke had any true beta on the Alaska interior. If he didn’t, he probably would have underestimated the terrain; today hikers are told to double the expected time of travel over a certain distance. For example, I can cover four miles an hour at my normal walking pace. There I shouldn’t expect to gain more than two. I believe the Duke could have reached Denali and climbed it; he had the vast resources, including manpower for a seige attempt, the planning and advisers necessary.

Let me explain that last part: The Duke wasn’t the sole decision maker and thinker on his expeditions. At least one of his advisers was someone best known today for his photography: Victorio Sella. On the relatively brief journey inland to Mount St. Elias, a sudden and rare clear day, the Duke and his men saw the mountain in surreal perfection and became quite excited. The Duke summoned his people to break camp and announced that they would start work on the route immediately as the mountain was as if it just before them. Sella realized that it was an optical allusion because of the clear skies and that the mountain wasn’t merely a mile or two away but several. Any effort to reach the mountain now would fatigue and demoralize the expedition. Speaking up took courage. The Duke was reported to have been appeared visibly disappointed. The Duke retreated from the group for a period. When he returned he declared that all routefinding decisions going forward would be made by Sella.

The Duke of Abruzzi was successful in part because he had smart people with him and they also had the courage to speak up. I believe that it’s this dynamic that lead to the Duke’s success as an explorer. He may have gotten the praise, but his men enabled his success. I think the same would have been true in attempting Denali, if he attempted to climb it in 1897.

Once more, thank you for stopping by for a read. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter, because, like you, I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

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