Belmore Browne Against Denali

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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.

The Whiteout

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).

Is that Climb Bold or Stupid?

As part of my series on the boldest ascents in Alaska, I asked several leading Alaskan climbers to give me their suggestions for the boldest ascents for me to consider and share here on TSM. I didn’t define “bold”, and asked for their take instead.

The Example of Devil’s Thumb
The attempt on the northwest face of Devil’s Thumb over the Stikine Icecap near the Alaskan-British Columbia border is a good illustration of the problem with the word “bold”… In 2003, the unclimbed wall had tempted several teams to consider being the first. Before the 2003 adventure, climbers watched the wall and considered their chances against the slope, the overhang, the rockfall, the weather, and the frequent avalanches. Half the would-be suitors usually went home without touching the face, and no one has climbed more than halfway.

In April 2003, Guy Edwards and John Millar of Vancouver ventured to southeastern Alaska and peered up the northwest face like 13 expeditions turned away before them. Only they didn’t turn around and run. Despite the conditions, the storms, the rockfall, and the avalanches they went. I heard Mike Libecki once tell an audience at National Geographic in Washington, DC that this wall might be the only wall that might never be climbed. He explained that the slight overhang accumulates such seracs and they frequently cleave off wiping the wall clean.

Edwards and Millar didn’t come home, and to the best of my knowledge their bodies have not been found.

Bold or Stupid?
John Frieh provided me a his list with a bit of a warning about his choices. He explained that he struggled with the term “bold”: “It is a fine line between bold and stupid,” he wrote.

Perhaps the difference is luck. The luck of the conditions. The fortune of unfortunate events happening away from the climbers. The outcome that was actually an outlier.

Perhaps the difference between bold and stupid is whether you survive. Had everyone on the Harvard ascent of Denali’s Wickersham Wall died in the ascent, there is no way that it would even be considered bold.

So here is the list of the bold and the stupid. I am going to go through several of the stories and rank the boldest climbs in Alaska shortly. For now, let me know what you think.

The Nominees (Updated 5/14/15)

Late 1800s

  • 1897 first ascent of St. Elias by the Duke of Abruzzi

Early 1900s

  • Sourdoughs 1910 Denali North Peak FA.
  • Dora Keen and George Handy’s 1912 ascent of the East Peak of Mount Blackburn.
  • Moore/Carpe’s FA of Fairweather 1931.

1960s-1970s

  • Wickersham Wall Direct, Denali, by Hank Abrons, Rick Millikan, John Graham, Don Jensen, David Roberts, and Chris Goetze, 1963.
  • Harvard Route, Mount Huntington, Roberts, Hale, Jensen, Bernd, 1965.
  • Allen Steck and John Evans 1965 Hummingbird Ridge FA on Logan.
  • Art Davidson’s and Rick Millikan’s 1966 first ascent of Kichatna Spire.
  • 1967 first winter ascent of Mount McKinley by Art Davidson, Ray Genet, and Dave Johnston.
  • Charlie Porter’s 1976 Solo of the Cassin.
  • Mount Emmerich, Fred Beckey, Jack Tackle, and Craig Zaspel, 1976.
  • Steve Hacketts 1976 solo 3rd ascent of Mount Igikpak (followed by paddling 365 miles back to civilization.)
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, Kennedy-Lowe, July 1977.
  • Johnny Waterman’s 1978 solo Mt Hunter Traverse.
  • North Face (“Timeless Face”) of Huntington, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, July 1978.

1980s-1990s

  • Southwest face of Denali, Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts, June 1980.
  • 1981 East Face of Moose’s Tooth by Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell.
  • Southeast Spur, Mount Hunter, Alpine style by Glenn Randall, Peter Metcalf, and Peter Athens, 1981.
  • Moonflower 1981 FA by Mugs Stump.
  • Andy Politz’s 1984 FA of St. Elias South Face.
  • Naomi Uemura’s 1984 solo winter ascent of Mount McKinley.
  • East Face of Mount Hunter by Jim Donini and Jack Tackle in 1985.
  • Wine Bottle, Mount Dickey, Orgler, Bonapace, 1988.
  • East Face, Mount Russell, Charlie Townsend and Dave Auble, 1989.
  • Phil Kaufmann’s. Steve Carroll’s, and Patrick Simmons’ 1995 first (and to date only) ascent of Mount Orville.
  • East Butt of University Peak by Buhler/Sassara in 1997.
  • Thomas Bubendorfer’s 1997 solo first ascent of Mount Laurens.

2000s-present

  • Slovak Direct, Denali, House, Twight, Backes, 2000.
  • Blood from the Stone, Mount Dickey, Ueli Steck and Sean Easton, 2001.
  • Infinite Spur, Foraker, House and Garibotti, 2001.
  • Mount Augusta’s North Face by Jack Tackle and Charlie Sassara, 2002.
  • Entropy Wall on Mount Moffit, climbed in 2007 by Jed Brown and Colin Haley.
  • Linkup of the third ascent of Denali’s Isis Face and the fourth ascent of the Slovak Direct by Katsutaka Yokoyama, Yusuke Sato, and Fumitaka Ichimura, 2008.
  • Haley and Aartun’s Dracula Route on Mount Foraker, 2010.
  • Kevin Cooper’s and Ryan Jennings’ ascent of “Stairway to Heaven” on Mount Johnson in 2014.
  • Ryan Fisher’s and Nathan Lane’s 2014 first ascent of Mount Muir from tidewater.

I would love to know if you have anything that I ought to add to this list of ascents. Feel free to leave me a comment or contact me via email (on the About page), Twitter, or Facebook.

[Read the next post in this series, here, which includes the updated list of nominees.]

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Why Isn’t Lonnie Dupre Getting the Glory?

You might have missed the news from Denali with all of the light shined on the Dawn Wall project in Yosemite. Of course, the Dawn Wall project was a brilliant effort. Seven years worth of perseverance, problem solving, and transformation for Tommy Caldwell. Five for Kevin Jorgeson.

I have been a Caldwell fan since sometime before he was kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan. I also remembered thinking his career would never be the same again when I learned he cut off his finger. I thought that his traverse of the Fitz Roy massif with Alex Honnold might be his most memorable accomplishment.

The media focus on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall route these past three weeks has been impressive. It was the 2015 equivalent of setting up your picnic under the Eiger’s north face to watch the first attempts unfold through binoculars. It gave me the opportunity to talk about (and explain) climbing to people I wouldn’t normally.

Still, I felt like one of my secret treasures was suddenly exposed. I was proud but part of me wanted to put it back in its box.

Also during the same last three weeks, another milestone climb with a story of perseverance was unfolding in the far north, on Mount McKinley/Denali: Lonnie Dupre made his fourth attempt in five years to climb Denali alone in January. He summited on January 11, 2015 around 2:15 p.m. local time.

Why hasn’t Dupre received more attention? I mean, like Caldwell and Jorgeson, Dupre wasn’t the first to climb their route. El Capitan has been summited hundreds of times and same with Denali. However, the numbers dwindle when you consider how they climbed their line. For Dupre, 16 people have summited Denali in winter already. But no one has topped out alone in January, the heart of the coldest season.

Until now. But I wouldn’t want Lonnie Dupre to get the same treatment as Caldwell and Jorgeson. Could he? Should he?

Of course, Caldwell and Jorgeson are both extroverted with strong sponsors. While on the other hand, Dupre takes a different approach to his fundraising and promotion. It’s more in tune with the climbing and adventure audience (well, at least it’s in tune with some purists). Plus, Alaska is much more remote that is Yosemite Valley. CNN wouldn’t travel so far, I don’t think.

Climbers know what Dupre did even if the world didn’t focus on it. And I’m okay with that.

So congratulations to Lonnie, Tommy and Kevin. Thanks for sharing your journeys with me.

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Undaunted by the Wickersham Wall

Long before Yosemite was a climbing destination and Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall Project was drawing the mainstream media to the Valley, climbing was a wilderness experience in the alpine. One of the greatest challenges of the 20th Century was the north face of Denali (20,237 ft./6,168 m.)

In a 2013 article of Harvard Magazine proudly proclaimed”Seven Harvardian’s Denali feat still unmatched 50 years later.” Rightfully so. The 1963 ascent of Denali that the article referred to filled many of my daydreams when I was in high school. It’s possible few climbs will surpass that ascent in greatness.

The students from Harvard, from its own Harvard Mountaineering Club, successfully scaled the Wickersham Wall. The name itself stung like a whip. It’s name given to the gargantuan north face of Denali. The wall rises from an ice fall, of cleaved glacial fissures, at a mere 5,000 feet, and then rises in a steep, and steady slope for 15,000 feet to the mountain’s modestly junior north summit.

The name of that wall was not merely to honor Alaska’s first federal circuit judge and one of its popular policymakers, but to honor the same man who was an Alaskan pioneer.

Ten years prior to Hudson Stuck’s first successful ascent of Denali and just shortly before Frederick Cooke tried to fool the world as the greatest explorer the globe had seen, James Wickersham organized a daunting quest to climb to the top of Denali. It was 1903 and the roads were far, the trails were not obvious, and the equipment was practical but may not have been efficiently functional.

The way up, it seemed to Wickersham, was a straight line up the north face from where the Peter’s Glacier ended. At first glance the path was simple and uncomplicated.

I have long speculated the feelings Wickersham and his four men, who threatened to flea several times, were thinking standing at the base of the north face. Despite witnessing rock fall and avalanches, they climbed to 8,100 feet on the Jeffrey Spur (named for one of Wickersham’s team members). Those same conditions pushed the determined, but inexperienced adventurers back to civilization.

When the Harvard Mountaineering Group traveled from Boston to the great north face, they climbed, as Harvard climber and respected climbing author David Roberts later explained, in a state of naivety. The avalanches and rock fall persisted, despite Bradford Washburn’s recommendation of a line that might be sheltered from them. But when the inexperienced college-aged climbers arrived, they didn’t know that the amount of rockfall and avalanches nearby were reasons to retreat. In reality, they scathed death.

I suspect that the route will one day be climbed again, but the conditions will have to be such to allow it and the climbers will have to accept more risk than the average climber would on a normal alpine route.

It still makes up my daydreams, but today, instead of thinking of climbing it myself, I consider what else is as challenging or as bold as the 1963 ascent of Denali. I’ll be looking…

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Riccardo Cassin: One of the Greatest Climbers of All Time

RICCARDO CASSIN — 1909-2009. Italian.

No. 3

Like many great climbers, Riccardo Cassin had a restlessness and independent quality that suited him for vigorous activity and creativity. He fought in the resistance to the fascists in Italy in the 1940s. He boxed ceaselessly, that is, until he discovered climbing. What followed was a lengthy career in the mountains.

In 1935, Cassin and Vittorio Ratti climbed the north face of the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo in the Dolomites.

Cassin made the first ascent of the one of the six great north faces in the Alps, the north ridge of the Piz Badile in 1937.

In 1938, he lead the first ascent of the Walker Spur up to the Grand Jorasses’ Point Walker.

In 1961, Cassin lead five teammates up the south face of Denali, to establish an Alaska test-piece, today known as the Cassin Ridge.

In 1958, he lead an expedition that included Walter Bonatti to Gasherbrum IV (26,001 ft./7,925 m.) in the Karakorum. It is the 17th highest mountain the world and has been called more dangerous than K2. The summit attempt was successful and has rarely been repeated.

He continued to climb very late into his century among us.

This post is part a culmination of a series of posts that considered Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

For some more information, please see his obituary from The Guardian.

And click here to see who was ranked at number two.

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.

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