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.


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…

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

The Climbers and the Dreamers

Wherever I go, things related to the mountains always catch my eye, even in mundane places. My doctor’s office has a small, exotic poster of Lohtse and Everest from the north hidden by the door to the lab to honor a doctor who recently passed away — it once hung in his office and I admire it every time I go for an appointment. At garage sales and used book sales I enjoy finding used climbing books (stories, guides and coffee table books). I recently stumbled upon this…

At Wolter’s Bakery (Szalay 2012)

During my brief visit to Buffalo, New York for my 10-year college reunion, I dropped into Wolter’s Bakery for a frosted sugar cookie. I found two slightlyfaded magazine clippings of Mount McKinley / Denali on a clear day. They were taped to the glass by the dining area they way a high schooler would tape up photos of his favorite celebrity.

The owner of the bakery and I spoke for a moment. She wanted to visit the mountain and Alaska but hadn’t done it yet. “It’s a life dream,” she said.

I spend a small amount of time mentally flogging myself for missing the opportunity to climb Mount Rainier a few years ago; I thought there would always be time and resources. Instead I visited Denali National Park. At least the time wasn’t completely lost.

The baker hadn’t made the pilgrimage to see the mountain for herself yet. I told her to “just go.” I should have emphasized the urgency: You never know what life might bring from new responsibilities to financial commitments that can preclude your dream from coming to fruition.

Some of us pursue the dream, some of us just dream. I hope the baker and all of you get to do a little of both.

As an aside, I spoke briefly with Joanna Croston from the Banff Centre yesterday about the Book Competition portion of the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. The review process of the nominated books is well underway. The more-than-35 pre-readers are reading over six books each and submitting their evaluations. When the finalists are announced, I look forward letting you know.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

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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Denali’s Hardest Routes


The peak formerly known as Mount McKinley. (All rights reserved)

I just learned that my favorite climbing writer, David Roberts and one of the climbers I admire most, Ed Viesturs, is coming to National Geographic headquarters this spring to talk about their new book, The Will to Climb. Edelweiss gave me my copy for Christmas. I’m pretty excited and am looking forward to going. Also — and perhaps more significantly — Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner will also be presenting on another night! But onto my main topic…

Not too long ago I was amused by a comment from Barbara Washburn — an alpinist and the wife of the late Bradford Washburn — in her book The Accidental Adventurer. She and her husband spent quite a bit of time climbing Mount McKinley/Denali around the 1950s, so she became quite familiar with it in terms of its size, mass and features. Later, when she and her husband made a pilgrimage to take-in Mount Everest, she quickly compared the two peaks and she sounded disappointed by the higher mountain.

While Everest is an impressive three-sided pyramid (in its most basic form), Denali is a mutli-faceted gemstone, with big walls, mini-big walls, numerous hanging glaciers and several knife-edge ridges. It’s complex. Like Barbara Washburn, we recognize Everest’s significance as the world’s highest point and Denali’s as one of the Seven Summits — the “roof” of North America. Both are big destinations, but Denali offers a bigger playground.

It’s also so complex that it has a spectrum of challenging routes established. While the West Buttress (Alaska Grade 2: 50 degrees 13,100 feet) is acknowledged as the most conservative route, Denali’s temptations only start there. To get a sense of the range of challenges, I wondered what were the most difficult routes on the mountain. All but one are on the massive south face:

Cassin Ridge — This route is cliche to some, partly because it was listed in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. It was listed because it offers all the elements of a great Alaskan climb! It offers 65 degree snow and ice, knife edge exposure and some 5.8 rock. The first ascent by Riccardo Cassin in 1961 pushed he and his team to their limit and it gave them a little frostbite with their glory. The Cassin Route is rated Alaska Grade 5: 5.8 65 degrees.)

Canadian Direct — This route is the newest on this list. Maxime Turgeon and Louis-Philippe “LP” Menard climbed this line in 2006. The line starts up from the Kahiltnak Glacier’s East Fork and up a pillar to the left of the Japanese Direct and right of the American Direct. The ascent is nearly 8,000 feet, and the rock quality reportedly decent (odd for much of Alaska), even though Turgeon reports seeing some rockfall. The route is rated as Alaska Grade 6: M6 5.9.

Slovak Direct — This used to be referred to as the Czech Direct and is the straightest line from base to summit on the mountain. It was first climbed in 1984 by Czecholslovakian alpinists Blazej Adam, Tono Krizo and Franktisek Korl, with the help of a support team on the south buttress. The ascent typically takes several days, and after the first two camps, the rest were mere ice ledges. More recently, the name appears to have been adjusted to reflect the climbers’ proper region and nationality. Interestingly, shortly after the climb, Adam commented that he had done harder routes in Europe. (I think Steve House would disagree.) Slovak Direct is rated Alaska Grade 6: M5 WI6 5.9, 8,500 feet.

Denali Diamond — The route was founded in 1983 by Rolf Graage who felt he had a lot to prove to himself as an alpinist. Graage and guide Bryan Becker climbed for 37 pitches including a 25-foot A3 roof. In 2002, Ian Parnell and Kenton Cool (who sent the first tweet from Everest’s summit, incidentally) did the second ascent in five days — much shorter than the first assault at 17 days. Only a handful of teams have completed the line since because it’s clearly committing and only the experienced or insanely ambitious (I think you can be both) make the attempt. It’s rated Alaska Grade 6: 5.9 A3, 7,800 feet.

Harvard Route — This is — in my assessment — the most dangerous route on the mountain. If the conditions are right, and it’s climbed competently, it might not deserve to be on the list with Slovak Direct and Denali Diamond. But the Harvard Route on Denali has not been repeated. The route is on the north face — on the Wickersham Wall, one of the largest continuous walls in the world. The Harvard Route is unstable. It’s subject to significant rockfall and frequent avalanches. The team that climbed it, from the Harvard Mountaineering Club, climbed in a pleasant state of being naïve to the real dangers. They had never been on a big mountain before and thought the hazards they observed were just all part of the adventure! The route is rated Alaska Grade 4+: 5.5, A1 50 degrees, 14,900 feet.

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Sources: 1) Waterman, Jonathan, High Alaska: A Historical Guide to Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter, AAC Press, 1996; 2) Beckwith, Christian, “Denali Diamond; The New Cassin?” Alpinist July 6, 2007; 3) Turgeon, Maxime, “Mt. Foraker and Denali,” Alpinist, November 27, 2006.

Denali’s Southeast Spur and Boyd N. Everett, Jr.


Denali Rising Stark. (All rights reserved)

It’s a shame that when I’m researching a particular climber the only thing that routinely comes to the forefront are brief reports of his untimely death. In these instances remembering that our sport is hardly mainstream and most people do not care to the degree I do. But the public’s attention is usually brief and dismissive of climbers accomplishments and art except when tragedy strikes.

So be it. We get it.

But Boyd N. Everett, Jr. didn’t settle for that.

Everett was an alpinist that, according to his friends that knew him, wanted the community to know about and understand more about climbing. He was a nerdy, reserved securities analyst for the Lehman Corporation from New York City by day, and a frequent visitor to the ‘Gunks and organizer of aggressive mountaineering expeditions on his days off. He also taught climbing lessons to youth groups, shared countless slide shows to church groups and other audiences, and later made films of his climbs.

He was an unassuming presence most people never took seriously as a climber if you hadn’t climbed with him. In fact, even in Talkeetna he was the subject of ridicule prior to his historic first ascent of Denali’s Southeast Spur in 1962. He carried around his briefcase in town for days until the weather cleared and his team could attack. Many others in New York had no idea of his climbing interest and accomplishments until late in his life. It seems he started coming into his own then.

His accomplishment on the new route on Denali was a remarkable feat in logistics and bullheadedness. They dealt with hard ice, tunneling and rough weather. The route require endless step chopping, rock climbing, climbing cornices and seracs at 10,800 ft. (a section known as “The Fluting,”) and overcoming an overhanging ice wall . One pitch at 10,700 ft. took the group all day to overcome because of the hollow snow and difficulty in setting up protection. At the end of the Spur, the team, knowing they didn’t have sufficient food supplies for all, sent Everett and partner Sam Cochrane to the South Summit.

Everett wrote the quintessential treatise on climbing in Alaska in those days, The Organization of an Alaskan Expedition, which, according to Jonathan Waterman, was copied by untold numbers of dreamers and climbers that wanted to do something big. His leadership and vision also took himself and his teams of climbers to the four highest mountains in North America and to an attempt on Dhaulagiri (26,795 ft./8,167 m.) It was the 1969 attempt on a new route on Dhaulagiri in the Himalayas that cut his life short in an avalanche around 16,500 ft. along with six of his teammates.

There are two records that I am quite impressed by and one I’ve always wanted to duplicate. Everett held the world’s highest recorded game of bridge on Mount Logan (19,551 ft./5,959 m.) He also hit one heck of a golf drive over the side of Mount St. Elias! I’ve always wanted to carry a ball and a club up to the top of some peak and whack it for everything I could in some sort of sense of victory, freedom, and endless space. I can imagine how Everett might have felt in his follow through.

Everett has a memorial fund established in his name that is now part of the ongoing American Alpine Club Mountaineering Fellowship Fund Grant. It was initiated from an endowment from his estate. It’s a fitting way for this man to allow his life to contribute more to climbing, just as he wanted others to know more about and understand climbing better.

Thanks for coming by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Sources: 1) Waterman, Jonathan, High Alaska: A Historical Guide to Denali, Mount Foraker, & Mount Hunter, American Alpine Club Press, 1999; 2) 1964 American Alpine Journal, pp. 167-8; 3) 1968 American Alpine Journal, pp. 498-500.