Despite what his biography says on his official website, today Belmore Browne is better known as an artist than as a mountaineer. Perhaps that wasn’t always the case. But Browne seems to have been mostly neglected except for a handful of recent articulate pieces from an Alaskan newspaper and a few mentions in some recent books.
It’s Browne’s involvement with the history of the attempts that lead up to the first ascent of Denali that interest me; his role and accomplishments should put him in our collective memory more often.
Alaska’s Greatest Challenge
Denali’s summit was first reached in 1913 by Hudson Stuck, the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, and Harry Karsten, the “Seventy-Mile Kid,” Robert Tatum, and Walter Harper. Before that it may as well have been the last great problem on earth. Judge James Wickersham stood at the north face and dared to attempt it’s flank in 1903, though he soon declared that wall impassible.
Then in 1906 Frederick Cook returned to the mountain after circumnavigating it in 1903 and came with Herschel Parker and several other Alaskan adventurers. Cook and Parker lead a cross country expedition that took them across Western Alaska, into the Alaska Range and to the a glacier that Cook named for his daughter, Ruth. Crevasses severely broke up the frozen river that season and stopped the exploratory group in their tracks. They turned around going back west to return home.
Shortly before completing the return journey to their starting point, Cook announced he was returning immediately to climb the mountain with one other team member. Belmore Browne, who was among Cook’s and Parker’s men, looked on skeptically with Parker and Cook departed. Cook left, with some gear, but noticeably to both, without a rope, a key piece for safety and moving himself and equipment over glaciers and up slopes. Browne and Parker returned to civilization, with the seed of plans to return.
A Hoax as Big as Alaska
Cook returned announcing that he had climbed the mountain. And he had a traditional summit photo to prove it. Cook was celebrated for his vision, bravery, and the grand accomplishment.
However, Browne and Parker didn’t just doubt Cook, they flat out didn’t believe him. They had seen and been to the Alaska Range. They knew what a concerted attempt would require in time and energy. Denali was too expansive and too treacherous to have permitted Cook such swift access to the top in the time frame he claimed. In addition, Browne and Parker had traveled for weeks with Cook before being sent away and determined that Cook wasn’t trustworthy.
Although Cook’s alleged ascent of Denali is widely discredited as a hoax, the Frederick A. Cook Society continues to promote Cook’s many accomplishments, including being the first person to stand atop Denali, as bona fide truth.
For Browne, Denali hadn’t been climbed yet and still required someone to finish the job. By 1910, in fact, after four years of addressing Cook’s claims, the only way to clear things up was to disprove Cook’s summit photo and dash for the top himself. Browne recruited Parker to help him go for the summit, after they duplicated Cook’s summit photo — wherever it was taken.
Browne and Belmore knew the general return path Cook would have made back to Denali after they separated so they started there and looked to match the features in the photo with their limited maps and their view of the landscape. Then, they found it. Twenty miles southeast from Denali, at an insignificant nub at a mere 5,300 feet above sea level. This was almost 15,000 feet below the summit and nowhere near it. While they managed to prove no one had climbed the mountain yet, their attempt to get to the top was unsuccessful.
Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker returned to climb Denali in 1912. Unlike any previous attempt, they found a route, and broke the altitude record for the mountain. Bound for the south summit (the highest point), walking up a modest snow field, they entered an absolute white out. The summit was hidden. The return route wasn’t even certain. And the mountain turned away Browne and Parker for good.
Browne would write about his three expeditions in a book first published in 1913, The Conquest of Mount McKinley. Browne also became a renounced painter, and an Alaskan political leader that even helped Alaska achieve statehood.
Browne’s efforts protected the integrity of Denali’s early climbs, laying the groundwork for Hudson Stuck to make his bid. Browne may be better known as an artist today, and he is a better known climber than a politician. Though, maybe he ought to be better known in full.
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Sources: 1) Anchorage Daily News; 2) BelmoreBrowne.com; and 3) David Roberts, The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).