THE GRANITE NATIONAL PARKS
MOUNT MCKINLEY NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA. AREA, ABOUT 2,200 SQUARE MILES
THE monster mountain of this continent, "the majestic, snow-crowned American monarch," as General Greeley called it, was made a national park in 1917. Mount McKinley rises 20,300 feet above tidewater, and 17,000 feet above the eyes of the beholder standing on the plateau at its base. Scenically, it is the highest mountain in the world, for those summits of the Andes and Himalayas which are loftier as measured from sea level, can be viewed closely only from valleys whose altitudes range from 10,000 to 15,000 feet. Its enormous bulk is shrouded in perpetual snow two-thirds down from its summit, and the foothills and broad plains upon its north and west are populated with mountain sheep and caribou in unprecedented numbers.
To appreciate Mount McKinley's place among national parks, one must know what it means in the anatomy of the continent. The western margin of North America is bordered by a broad mountainous belt known as the Pacific System, which extends from Mexico northwesterly into and through Alaska, to the very end of the Aleutian Islands, and includes such celebrated ranges as the Sierra Nevada, the Cascade, and the St. Elias. In Alaska, at the head of Cook Inlet, it swings a sharp curve to the southwest and becomes Alaska's mountain axis. This sharp curve, for all the world like a monstrous granite hinge connecting the northwesterly and southwesterly limbs of the System, is the gigantic Alaska Range, which is higher and broader than the Sierra Nevada, and of greater relief and extent than the Alps. Near the centre of this range, its climax in position, height, bulk, and majesty, stands Mount McKinley. Its glistening peak can be seen on clear days in most directions for two hundred miles.
For many years Mount St. Elias, with its eighteen thousand feet of altitude, was considered North America's loftiest summit. That was because it stands in that part of Alaska which was first developed. The Klondike region, far northward, was well on the way to development before McKinley became officially recognized as the mountain climax of the continent. But that does not mean that it remained unknown. The natives of the Cook Inlet country on the east knew it as Doleika, and tell you that it is the rock which a god threw at his eloping wife. They say it was once a volcano, which is not the fact. The Aleutes on the south called it Traleika, the big mountain. The natives of the Kuskokwim country on the west knew it as Denalai, the god, father of the great range. The Russians who established the first permanent white settlement in Alaska on Kodiak Island knew it as Bulshia Gora, the great mountain. Captain Cook, who in 1778 explored the inlet which since has borne his name, does not mention it, but Vancouver in 1794 unquestionably meant it in his reference to "distant stupendous mountains."
After the United States acquired Alaska, in 1867, there is little mention of it for some years. But Frank Densmore, an explorer of 1889, entered the Kuskokwim region, and took such glowing accounts of its magnificence back to the Yukon that for years it was known through the settlements as Densmore's Mountain. In 1885 Lieutenant Henry C. Allen, U. S. A., made a sketch of the range from his skin boat on the Tanana River, a hundred and fifty miles away, which is the earliest known picture of McKinley.
Meantime the neighborhood was invaded by prospectors from both sides. The Cook Inlet gold fields were exploited in 1894. Two years later W. A. Dickey and his partner, Monks, two young Princeton graduates, exploring north from their workings, recognized the mountain's commanding proportions and named it Mount McKinley, by which it rapidly became known, and was entered on the early maps. With crude instruments improvised on the spot, Dickey estimated the mountain's height as twenty thousand feeta real achievement. When Belmore Browne, who climbed the great peak in 1912, asked Dickey why he chose the name, Dickey told him that he was so disgusted with the free-silver arguments of men travelling with him that he named the mountain after the most ardent gold-standard man he knew.
The War Department sent several parties to the region during the next few years to explore, and the United States Geological Survey, beginning in 1898 with the Eldridge-Muldrow party, has had topographical and geological parties in the region almost continuously since. In 1915 the Government began the railroad from Seward to Fairbanks. Its course lies from Cook Inlet up the Susitna River to the headwaters of the Nenana River, where it crosses the range. This will make access to the region easy and comfortable. It was to safeguard the enormous game herds from the hordes of hunters which the railroad was expected to bring rather than to conserve an alpine region scenically unequalled that Congress set aside twenty-two hundred square miles under the name of the Mount McKinley National Park.
From the white sides of McKinley and his giant neighbors descend glaciers of enormous bulk and great length. Their waters drain on the east and south, through the Susitna River and its tributaries, into the Pacific; and on the north and west, through tributaries of the Yukon and Kuskokwim, into Bering Sea.
The south side of McKinley is forbidding in the extreme, but its north and west fronts pass abruptly into a plateau of gravels, sands, and silts twenty-five hundred to three thousand feet in altitude, whose gentle valleys lead the traveller up to the very sides of the granite monster, and whose mosses and grasses pasture the caribou.
The national park boundaries enclose immense areas of this plateau. The contours of its rounded rolling elevations mark the courses of innumerable streams, and occasionally abut upon great sweeping glaciers. Low as it is, the plateau is generally above timber-line. The day will come when roads will wind through its valleys, and hotels and camps will nestle in its sheltered hollows; while the great herds of caribou, more than one of which has been estimated at fifteen hundred animals, will pasture like sheep within close range of the camera. For the wild animals of McKinley National Park, having never been hunted, were fearless of the explorers, and now will never learn to fear man. The same is true in lesser measure of the more timid mountain sheep which frequent the foot-hills in numbers not known elsewhere. Charles Sheldon counted more than five hundred in one ordinary day's foot journey through the valleys.
The magic of summer life on this sunlit plateau, with its limitless distances, its rushing streams, its enormous crawling glaciers, its waving grasses, its sweeping gentle valleys, its myriad friendly animals, and, back of all and commanding all, its never-forgotten and ever-controlling presence, the shining Range and Master Mountain, powerfully grip imagination and memory. One never can look long away from the mountain, whose delicate rose tint differentiates it from other great mountains. Here is ever present an intimate sense of the infinite, which is reminiscent of that pang which sometimes one may get by gazing long into the starry zenith. From many points of view McKinley looks its giant size. As the climber ascends the basal ridges there are places where its height and bulk appall.
Along the northern edge of the park lies the Kantishna mining district. In 1906 there was a wild stampede to this region. Diamond City, Bearpaw City, Glacier City, McKinley City, Roosevelt, and other rude mining settlements came into rapid existence. Results did not adequately reward the thousands who flocked to the new field, and the "cities" were abandoned. A hundred or two miners remain, scattered thinly over a large area, which is forested here and there with scrubby growths, and, in localities, is remarkably productive of cultivated fruits and vegetables.
Few know and few will know Mount McKinley. It is too monstrous for any but the hardiest to discover its ice-protected secrets. The South Peak, which is the summit, has been climbed twice, once by the Parker-Browne party in 1912, after two previous unsuccessful expeditions, and once, the year following, by the party of Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who gratified an ambition which had arisen out of his many years of strenuous missionary work among the Alaskan Indians. From the records of these two parties we gather nearly all that is known of the mountain. The North Peak, which is several hundred feet lower, was climbed by Anderson and Taylor of the Tom Lloyd party, in 1913.
From each of these peaks an enormous buttressing ridge sweeps northward until it merges into the foothills and the great plain. These ridges are roughly parallel, and carry between them the Denali Glacier, to adopt Belmore Browne's suggested name, and its forks and tributaries. Up this glacier is the difficult passage to the summit. Tremendous as it is, the greatest perhaps of the north side, the Denali Glacier by no means compares with the giants which flow from the southern front.
In 1903 Judge James Wickersham, afterward Delegate to Congress from Alaska, made the first attempt to climb McKinley; it failed through his underestimation of the extensive equipment necessary. In 1906 Doctor Frederick A. Cook, who meantime also had made an unsuccessful attempt from the north side, led an expedition from the south which included Professor Herschel Parker of Columbia University, and Mr. Belmore Browne, artist, explorer, and big game hunter. Ascending the Yentna River, it reached a point upon the Tokositna Glacier beyond which progress was impossible, and returned to Cook Inlet and disbanded. Parker returned to New York, and Cook proposed that Browne should lay in a needed supply of game while he, with a packer named Barrill, should make what he described as a rapid reconnaissance preparatory to a further attempt upon the summit the following year. Browne wanted to accompany him, but was overpersuaded. Cook and Barrill then ascended the Susitna, struck into the country due south of McKinley, and returned to Tyonik with the announcement that they had reached the summit. Cook exhibited a photograph of Barrill standing upon a crag, which he said was the summit. A long and painful controversy followed upon Cook's return east with this claim.
In all probability the object of the Parker-Browne expedition of 1910 was as much to follow Cook's course and check his claim as to reach the summit. The first object was attained, and Herman L. Tucker, a national forester, was photographed standing on the identical crag upon which Cook had photographed Barrill four years before. This crag was found miles south of McKinley, with other peaks higher than its own intervening. From here the party advanced up a glacier of enormous size to the very foot of the upper reaches of the mountain's south side, but was stopped by gigantic snow walls, which defeated every attempt to cross. "At the slightest touch of the sun," writes Browne, "the great cliffs literally smoke with avalanches."
The Parker-Browne expedition undertaken in 1912 for purposes of exploration, also approached from the south, but, following the Susitna River farther up, crossed the Alaska Range with dog trains to the north side at a hitherto unexplored point. Just before crossing the divide it entered what five years later became the Mount McKinley National Park, and, against an April blizzard, descended into a land of many gorgeous glaciers, "We were now," writes Belmore Browne, "in a wilderness paradise. The mountains had a wild, picturesque look, due to their bare rock summits, and big game was abundant. We were wild with enthusiasm over the beauty of it all, and every few minutes as we jogged along some one would gaze fondly at the surrounding mountains and ejaculate: 'This is sure a white man's country.'"
Of these "happy hunting grounds," as Browne chapters the park country in his book, Stephen R. Capps of the United States Geological Survey says in his report:
"Probably no part of America is so well supplied with wild game, unprotected by reserves, as the area on the north slope of the Alaska Range, west of the Nanana River. This region has been so little visited by white men that the game herds have, until recent years, been little molested by hunters. The white mountain sheep are particularly abundant in the main Alaska Range, and in the more rugged foot-hills. Caribou are plentiful throughout the entire area, and were seen in bands numbering many hundred individuals. Moose are numerous in the lowlands, and range over all the area in which timber occurs. Black bears may be seen in or near timbered lands, and grizzly bears range from the rugged mountains to the lowlands. Rabbits and ptarmigan are at times remarkably numerous."
Parker and Browne camped along the Muldrow Glacier, now a magnificent central feature of the park. Then they made for McKinley summit. Striking the Denali Glacier, they ascended it with a dog train to an altitude of eleven thousand feet, where they made a base camp and went on afoot, packing provisions and camp outfit on their backs. At one place they ascended an incoming glacier over ice cascades, four thousand feet high. From their last camp they cut steps in the ice for more than three thousand feet of final ascent, and attained the top on July 1 in the face of a blizzard. On the northeastern end of the level summit, and only five minutes' walk from the little hillock which forms the supreme summit, the blizzard completely blinded them. It was impossible to go on, and to wait meant rapid death by freezing; with extreme difficulty they returned to their camp. Two days later they made a second attempt, but were again enveloped in an ice storm that rendered progress impossible. Exhaustion of supplies forbade another try, and saved their lives, for a few days later a violent earthquake shook McKinley to its summit. Later on Mr. Browne identified this earthquake as concurrent with the terrific explosive eruption which blew off the top of Mount Katmai, on the south coast of Alaska.
The following spring the Stuck-Karstens party made the summit upon that rarest of occasions with Mount McKinley, a perfect day. Archdeacon Stuck describes the "actual summit" as "a little crater-like snow basin, sixty or sixty-five feet long, and twenty to twenty-five feet wide, with a hay-cock of snow at either endthe south one a little higher than the north." Ignoring official and recognized nomenclature, and calling McKinley and Foraker by their Kuskokwim Indian names, he writes of Mount Foraker: "Denali's Wife does not appear at all save from the actual summit of Denali, for she is completely hidden by his South Peak, until the moment when his South Peak is surmounted. And never was nobler sight displayed to man than that great isolated mountain spread out completely, with all its spurs and ridges, its cliffs and its glaciers, lofty and mighty, and yet far beneath us."
"Above us," he writes a few pages later, "the sky took on a blue so deep that none of us had ever gazed upon a midday sky like it before. It was deep, rich, lustrous, transparent blue, as dark as Prussian blue, but intensely blue; a hue so strange, so increasingly impressive, that to one at least it 'seemed like special news of God,' as a new poet sings. We first noticed the darkening tint of the upper sky in the Grand Basin, and it deepened as we rose." Tyndall observed and discussed this phenomenon in the Alps, but it seems scarcely to have been mentioned since.
A couple of months before the Parker-Browne party started for the top, there was an ascent of the lower North Peak which, for sheer daring and endurance must rank high in the history of adventure. Four prospectors and miners from the Kantishna region organized by Tom Lloyd, took advantage of the hard ice of May, and an idle dog team, to make for the summit. Their motive seems to have been little more than to plant a pole where it could be seen by telescope, as they thought, from Fairbanks; that was why they chose the North Peak. They used no ropes, alpenstocks, or scientific equipment of any sort, and carried only one camera, the chance possession of McGonagall.
They made their last camp at an altitude of eleven thousand feet. Here Lloyd remained, while Anderson, Taylor, and McGonagall attempted the summit in one day's supreme effort. Near the top McGonagall was overcome by mountain sickness. Anderson and Taylor went on and planted their pole near the North summit, where the Stuck-Karstens party saw it a year later in their ascent of the South Peak.
So extraordinary a feat of strength and endurance will hardly be accomplished again unless, perhaps, by hardy miners of the arctic wilderness. "The North Pole's nothing to fellows like us," one of them said later on; "once strike gold there, and we'll build a town on it in a month."
The published records of the Parker-Browne and Stuck-Karstens expeditions emphasize the laborious nature of the climbing. The very isolation which gives McKinley its spectacular elevation multiplies the difficulties of ascent by lowering the snow line thousands of feet below the snow line of the Himalayas and Andes with their loftier surrounding valleys. Travel on the glaciers was trying in the extreme, for much of the way had to be sounded for hidden crevasses, and, after the selection of each new camping place, the extensive outfit must be returned for and sledded or carried up. Frequent barriers, often of great height, had to be surmounted by tortuous and exhausting detours over icy cliffs and soft snow. And always special care must be taken against avalanches; the roar of avalanches for much of the latter journey was almost continuous.
Toward the end, the thermometer was rarely above zero, and at night far below; but the heat and glare of the sun was stifling and blinding during much of the day; often they perspired profusely under their crushing burdens, with the thermometer nearly at zero. Snow fell daily, and often several times a day.
It is probable that no other of the world's mountain giants presents climbing conditions so strenuous. Farming is successfully carried on in the Himalayas far above McKinley's level of perpetual snow, and Tucker reports having climbed a twenty-thousand-foot peak in the Andes with less exertion than it cost the Parker-Browne party, of which he had been a member, to mount the first forty-five hundred feet of McKinley.
While McKinley will be climbed again and again in the future, the feat will scarcely be one of the popular amusements of the national park.
Yet Mount McKinley is the northern landmark of an immense unexplored mountain region south of the national park, which very far surpasses the Alps in every feature that has made the Alps world-famous. Of this region A. H. Brooks, Chief of the Alaska Division of the United States Geological Survey, writes:
"Here lies a rugged highland area far greater in extent than all of Switzerland, a virgin field for explorers and mountaineers. He who would master unattained summits, explore unknown rivers, or traverse untrodden glaciers in a region whose scenic beauties are hardly equalled, has not to seek them in South America or Central Asia, for generations will pass before the possibilities of the Alaskan Range are exhausted. But this is not Switzerland, with its hotels, railways, trained guides, and well-worn paths. It will appeal only to him who prefers to strike out for himself, who can break his own trail through trackless wilds, can throw the diamond hitch, and will take the chances of life and limb so dear to the heart of the true explorer."
The hotels will come in time to the Mount McKinley National Park, and perhaps they will come also to the Alaskan Alps. Perhaps it is not straining the credulity of an age like ours to suggest that McKinley's commanding summit may be attained some day by aeroplane, with many of the joys and none of the distressing hardships endured by the weary climber. When this time comes, if it does come, there will be added merely another extraordinary experience to the very many unique and pleasurable experiences of a visit to the Mount McKinley National Park.
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009