Historic Resource Study
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The dozen years that followed the Brooks Expedition would set the pieces of the frame for the Denali region's future. Three men—Judge James Wickersham, Charles Sheldon, and Harry Karstens—would emerge as the moving forces whose interaction would create the park-refuge idea, carry it through to legislative enactment, then pioneer the new park on the ground.

Wickersham made the first attempt to ascend the mountain, one year after Brooks had gazed along its precipitous slopes. In so doing, the judge launched a heroic chapter in mountaineering, peopled by literate adventurers whose exploration and climbing accounts make a fascinating history of truth, falsehood, controversy, and final summit achievement. In aggregate, their published descriptions made Mount McKinley and its game-rich forelands household symbols of the Alaskan wild.

climbing party
An early climbing party on Mount McKinley. Francis P. Farquhar Collection, UAF

The placer mining claims that Wickersham's party staked in the Kantishna Hills, on the way to the mountain, created a minor gold rush that evolved into a long-term mining community whose hospitality and knowledge of the country would support and inform successive expeditions of mountaineers, hunters, and explorers.

The isolated miners of Kantishna and neighboring mining districts would seek government assistance to make their mining profitable and their lives more civilized. These demands contributed to government development of trail, mail, and rail services in the Denali region—the basic infrastructure that would in time provide access to Mount McKinley National Park.

The shared concerns of Charles Sheldon and Harry Karstens over the market hunting of Denali's game animals to supply mining camps and future railroad construction camps translated into the threat of wholesale slaughter of North America's premier wildlife assemblage. This threat, carried to Congress by Charles Sheldon and the cohort he led, motivated the legislators to create Mount McKinley National Park. Judge Wickersham—by then Alaska's Territorial Delegate to Congress—introduced the park bill. Karstens, with backing from Sheldon and Wickersham, became the pioneer superintendent of the new park-refuge.

Thus did the years 1903 through 1914 string the woof upon the loom: committed personalities, adventure and description, mining and hunting, definition of transportation needs and routes, the park-refuge idea. The warp would follow with Congressional action and early park development and access. Intervening history, from then until now, has been and continues to be woven on that same loom, with only variations of design.

In 1900 Federal Judge James Wickersham set up District Court in Eagle, Alaska, under the terms of Alaska's new Civil Code, which followed hard upon the Gold Rush. His judicial district covered more than half of Alaska, centering upon the vast Interior. Wickersham won appointment to the judgeship after effective work as lawyer and political campaigner in Tacoma, Washington. His judicial and political career in Alaska would span more than 30 years. He helped guide Alaska's transition from orphan outpost to full territorial status in 1912, and subsequently served several terms as Alaska's Delegate to Congress. [1]

With the Fairbanks gold discoveries and stampede of 1902, the population of Wickersham's district gravitated to the new bonanza on the Tanana, and so, too, did the judge. After organizing his court and Fairbanks' civil offices in Spring 1903, Wickersham considered what to do until his court convened in the fall. For him "...the most interesting object on the horizon was the massive dome that dominates the valleys of the Tanana, the Yukon, and the Kuskokwim—the monarch of North American mountains—Mount McKinley." [2]

After assembling four kindred spirits for the expedition, the judge set out for the mountain in May 1903. The party chose to approach as closely as possible by boat, thus pioneering steamboat access up the Kantishna River. [3] This route, down the Tanana and up the Kantishna to head of navigation, would be perfected with boat landings, trails, and supply points during the Kantishna gold rush of 1905, which was inspired by the Wickersham party's staking of placer claims.

Wickersham and his companions enjoyed their trip. His account sparkles with reflections on the virgin beauty of the land they had entered, well timbered, fertile—a valley scene that resembled the lower Mississippi more than the boreal Yukon drainage. Only the distant summits of the snowy range indicated their northern latitude. [4]

Along the river they found Tena (Tanana) Indians in traditional spring hunting camps in the neighborhood of the Toklat-Kantishna confluence. These people had left their winter villages on the lower Tanana in February, hauling their gear with dogs and toboggans. Foraging through the forests and foothills, they had taken moose and caribou, and now they hunted ducks migrating into the Kantishna's river-and-lake lowlands. The Indians shared their fresh meat and their knowledge of the landscape, pointing out the easiest route for the men and mules to the base of Mount McKinley—via Chitsia Creek, the lower birch-clad slopes of the Kantishna Hills (above the swamps and deep creeks), and the gap through those hills formed by Moose Creek and Wonder Lake.

Having off-loaded from their steamer, Tanana Chief, the men progressed with mules, backpacks, and a poling boat, Mudlark, which they had found and reconditioned near the mouth of the Kantishna. They encountered first one, then two more white trappers scouting the country for furbearers. The latter two had portaged from the Kuskokwim and after a year in the wilderness were en route to the Tanana trading posts with their furs. [5] Already the patterns of trade and transportation were being traced across a country unknown to white men just a few years earlier.

At the Telida Indian camp called Anotoktilon, near the mouth of Bearpaw River, Wickersham's party met Chief Sesui, rescuer of the Herron party. This band of hunters regularly pursued caribou and sheep on the plateau and in the headwater canyons below the Denali-McKinley massif. They gave detailed instructions for reaching the glaciers that descend from Denali's summit. They recommended that the poling boat be cached at this point for the trip across the foothills. [6]

The cross-country march took Wickersham and his companions past lakes alive with waterfowl and on to the flank of Chitsia Mountain, which they would climb for a magnificent view of the country. Chitsia or Heart Mountain (so-called because it is shaped like a moose heart) was a sacred place of the Tena Indians. During Wickersham's visit with them a few days earlier their blind shaman, Koonah, had told him of Yako, the Tena's origin hero. Yako had fathered the Tena people in the ancient past. He had magically created the Denali massif from giant sea waves sent to destroy him by Totson the Raven Chief. During a later struggle, Tebay the White Sheep Chief had climbed to his Chitsia Mountain lookout to direct the enemies of Yako to his village on the banks of the Yukon. There the treacherous warriors from the southern sea were vanquished by Yako and his children so the Tena could live in peace. [7]

From Tebay's lookout, Wickersham describes the scene:

The little peak stands in the forefront of the mountain mass, the descent to the valley is abrupt; the Toclat spreads out at its base on the eastern slope, and is in view from the mountains in the south to its confluence with the Kantishna. Far to the east we can see the bluffs at Chena, and beyond, Fairbanks; the Tanana and the Tolovana hills are in view across the northern horizon, while the Nuchusala hills in the west rise hardly to our level. Minchumina Lake lies to the westward and glistens like silver in the sunlight. The view continues far south of Minchumina to the massive McKinley range. We can trace the course of the Kuskokwim into the Bull Moose hills and the portage from Minchumina lake to that river. The valley view from the Tebay's aerie is a widespread panorama of forest, lake, and river, stretching from the distant eastern horizon around by north and west to the western flanks of Mount McKinley due south of us. This three-quarters of a circle is a wide, flat valley, carpeted with an evergreen forest, marked by rivers and dotted with lakes. The sun shone in glorious radiance over Yako's land, and we now understood and better appreciated the vivid description of it given to us by Koonah, the blind shaman of lowland Kantishna. [8]

In succeeding days the party hunted and jerked caribou, found colors and staked claims on Chitsia Creek (the first mining claims in the Kantishna district), passed through the Moose Creek-Wonder Lake gap, and crossed the bars and channels of McKinley River, its silt and gravel plucked by Muldrow Glacier from the high walls of the mountain that now hung over them. [9]

The mountaineers set up base camp on the lower reaches of Peters Glacier. Ascending its main course they aimed for the northwest buttress of McKinley's North Peak as their route to the top. Turned by a chaotic icefall, crevasses, and sheer cliffs where Peters Glacier plunges through narrowed walls, Wickersham bore left up smaller Jeffery Glacier, which, in the towering topography and obscuring walls, seemed to offer access to the ascent ridge. After hours of careful toil avoiding crevasses and gingerly crossing snow bridges,

. . . we reached an arete or sharp ridge of bare rock at the extreme upper end of the bench glacier, and found, to our intense disappointment, that the glacier did not connect with the high ridge we were seeking to reach, which yet seemed as far above us as when we began the ascent. We are now about 10,000 feet above sea-level on a sharp ridge of rock. Here our bench glacier roadway ends, for over this arete which juts out from the mountain wall, the descent is almost perpendicular to the great bergs of the main glacier, far below as they crowd over each other to enter the narrow gorge. Here is a tremendous precipice beyond which we cannot go. Our only line of further ascent would be to climb the vertical wall of the mountain at our left, and that is impossible. [10]

That vertical wall, now known as Wickersham Wall, rises 14,000 feet from Peters Glacier to McKinley's North Peak.

The Wickersham climb, and another attempt the same year by Frederick Cook, served well as reconnaissance ventures. They showed that Peters Glacier was a dead end, at least for the pioneer climbers. The way to the top in the early days of Mount McKinley mountaineering awaited discovery of the ridge-hidden Muldrow Glacier route.

Wickersham's party returned to civilization, by raft, boat, and steamboat after a glorious summer adventure. They had probed and mapped the approaches to the mountain. They had found traces of gold, and when they filed their claims at the Rampart recorder's office on the Yukon, they assured that others would come in force to the virgin lands of the Kantishna.

By 1903 Dr. Frederick A. Cook—a self-made man, medical doctor, and courageous member of four Arctic and Antarctic expeditions since 1901—had established impeccable credentials as an explorer. Among his admirers and former expedition colleagues were Robert E. Peary and Roald Amundsen of polar discovery fame.

Cook's 1903 attempt to climb Mount McKinley foundered in the maze of cliffs and drop-offs surrounding Peters Glacier and its upper basin, as had Wickersham's 2 months earlier. Cook and his companions managed to surmount the ice fall in the Peters Glacier canyon that had blocked the earlier party, and finally reached an elevation of about 11,000 feet on the North Peak's northwest buttress. From their highest camp, a hole chopped in a blue-ice precipice, the ridge

. . .led with an ever-increasing slope to a granite cliff which did not appear unclimbable from below. But at close range and in a good light we could see that farther progress . . . was impossible. There were successive cliffs for four thousand feet. [11]

Acknowledging defeat, the party cached its extra food and fuel to lighten packs, then dashed 29 miles to the face of Peters Glacier.

Despite the mountain's dominance Cook's expedition that year brought richly deserved acclaim as a feat of exploration. His was the first circumnavigation of the McKinley massif. Paralleling Brooks' 1902 route from Tyonek, across the range, then along its northwest slope—with the climbing interlude at Peters Glacier—Cook scouted the unexplored heights northeasterly of Muldrow Glacier. There he found a pass negotiable by the party's pack horses via the extreme headwaters and intervening glaciers of the Toklat and Chulitna rivers. Thence, after abandoning the horses, the party rafted down the main courses of the Chulitna and the Susitna to Susitna Station and eventually came back to Tyonek. [12]

Had Doctor Cook ended his Mount McKinley career with this 3-month, 1,000-mile trek—its northern pass-finding arc through unexplored mountains—he would have capped a remarkable saga of exploration. But the lure of the mountain and the glory he sought would lead him to make false claims 3 years later to the destruction of his reputation. [13]

Cook's expedition demonstrated the terrible toll of even approaching the isolated mountain, much less climbing it. Moreover, the narrow window imposed by subarctic seasons and weather nearly closed on Cook and his men as winter marched in step with them during their September dash across the range and down the Susitna.

Robert Dunn, a Harvard-educated journalist, accompanied Cook in 1903. Cook appointed him to a role best described as operational chief of the expedition, thus he labored and led the crew as a sweating participant, not as an observing reporter. Dunn's mentor, editor Lincoln Steffens, had charged him to write a completely truthful account of an exploring expedition—an expose of the rows, bickering, dissents, and demoralizations usually hidden behind the heroic prose of the exploring fraternity. [14]

Route of the 1903 Cook Expedition. Robert Dunn, The Shamless Diary of an Explorer, 1907.

The pages of Dunn's The Shameless Diary of an Explorer fulfilled that charge. They painted an ambivalent picture of Doctor Cook: sometimes hero, usually kind though often petulant, sometimes indecisive, on-again off-again as a leader and technically competent wilderness man. Dunn's descriptions of trail conditions, mishaps, and smoldering enmities amongst the party depict the attrition, physical and mental, of men and animals marooned except for their own unceasing labors in a wilderness beyond help of others.

First on the trail through the Skwentna River swamps:

By noon, it seemed that we'd been traveling a year, hewing down, down, stem by stem, among the iron-limbed alders. Winter snows flatten, toughen, bind, and bend them into tempered springs. You can't move an inch without an axe, or getting gouged in the face. And then to drive fourteen, exhausted, half-wild bronchos, stampeding, snorting, as you hear the whooping-screeching rip of canvas—see the cinches dangling from the brush! Oh, our hot oaths as we hunt and gather the packs, chopping a clear place to pack, fighting mosquitoes! And for every foot the beasts travel we cover forty, dashing forward to head them, unsnarl, drag from the mud.


We reached a big crick paralleling the river. The banks were slewed and clogged with drift and willows. We were an hour crossing and ploughing through the quicksands, finding the lead for trail beyond....


Cutting trail with me on the other side and piling brush to keep the beasts from jumping into the crick where it turned and gouged the bank, Jack suddenly lost his temper for no reason I could see, and hurled off his axe murderously into the brush. Then he snagged his eye, and sat down, quivering for ten minutes on the sand-bar, his head in his hands, so no one dared to speak to him. [15]

Next, a moment of inspiration on a highpoint overlooking Peters Glacier:

The dizzy unworldliness of it all was intensified, compressed by perspective. You seemed suspended in air, infinitely near, yet infinitely far from ice or rock wall. The sky overhead was blue-black. The haze had dissolved, leaving rainbow islands of cloud at succeeding spheres of the shadowy cut, casting down abnormal shadows, swift darknesses, blazing revelations. Think of it—this mile-wide trail [Peters Glacier], unknown miles long, hemmed by one wall a mile high, another three sheer miles, and so straight you can hit its base with a snowball, as you look up at its summit, the apex of North America. Somewhere a snow-slide thunders, a tiny white cloud of fuzz like the puff from ten thousand cannon blurs the wall, its whisper dies away into the pre-creative silence. [16]

Finally, the doubt before choosing the doubtful exit from their plight, across the range and down the Susitna:

We've been discussing how to get out of the country, for ice is beginning to rim the river slews at night. Twelve days' rafting down the Peters stream should bring us to Tanana river and a Yukon trading post. But northeast stretches mile on mile, white with 10,000-foot alps, and the flat avenues of the world's biggest inland glaciers, ramifying like the tentacles of a cuttle-fish this supreme American range. And it is all unmapped, undiscovered, bleak and shriveled under the breath of autumn. And south across these mountains, to the Sushitna River and Cook Inlet, the Government Survey report we read between chapters of our one and only Tom Sawyer, says with familiar triteness that it is "extremely doubtful" if any pass exists. [17]

One of the true heroes of McKinley mountaineering was Belmore Browne. He was a man for all seasons: lumberjack, explorer, artist, hunter, artful writer, scholar, and right arm to Charles Sheldon in the political struggles of the McKinley park movement. Except for a sudden storm at the last moment and final steps of a great climb in 1912, he would have been the first man to achieve McKinley's summit. His love of Alaska took him to its farthest reaches over many decades, beginning as an 8-year-old boy in 1888. His career mingled with that of Doctor Cook, as colleague, then as critic. Regretfully, Browne and his partner Herschel Parker, would prove the falsehood of Cook's claim to conquest of the mountain in 1906. [18]

Browne's three expeditions to Mount McKinley during the period 1906-1912 gave him profound understanding of the mountain's challenge—particularly in the pre-aircraft era of the pioneer climbs. His book, The Conquest of Mount McKinley (1913), captures the perspective of that era—picturing the great mountain barricaded by distance, labyrinthine terrain, and arctic weather from those tiny mortals who stood at its base and longed to reach its top.

He describes the mountain as ". . . a gigantic mass of granite that was forced upward through the stratum of slate that overlaid it." The slate survives on the lower peaks, giving them "a strange, black-capped appearance."

A principal difficulty for the mountaineer is the low altitude from which the mountain rises. The plateaus of South America and Tibet allow climbers to hike halfway up to the peaks they seek to climb. But ascent of McKinley begins near sea level. After 30 miles of difficult ice-and snow traverse on the glacial avenues that offer the only access through the gorges to the climbing heights—carrying all supplies in backpacks—the climber still looks up at 3 vertical miles of ice, snow, and forbidding cliffs, toward a peak still 10 or 12 miles distant, rimmed by sub-peaks and huge buttresses, which in themselves are major challenges, and beyond which (in those foot-slogging days without aerial reconnaissance) lie unseen gorges and ridges that may foil the climber's planned route. Even on the glacier approach polar equipment is mandatory, and the time required for the climb and weather delays demands mountains of supplies. All this just to climb the mountain. Getting to the mountain, geographically placed "in the most inaccessible position obtainable," was the other half of the struggle. [19] Until the Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923 and glacier piloting began in 1932, approach logistics consumed such prodigious energies and supplies that many expeditions were whipped before they started the ascent.

With such depletions in mind, the mountain's other challenges, beyond technical mountaineering, came to the fore: perennial arctic conditions above 10,000 feet-constant cold at subzero temperatures; sudden storms, blinding snow, hurricane winds, causing wind-chill factors well below minus 100 degrees; tents and equipment ripped, lost, buried; trails laboriously broken, then erased by drifts, to be found and broken again by people breathing and pumping like hummingbirds, counting to ten between each step; climbers exhausted, disabled or dying from altitude sickness or hypothermia; the loss of a mitt or a wet sock the difference between life and death. All of this beyond avalanches, falls, crevasse disappearances, and the terrible toil of simply moving upward in air nearly devoid of oxygen. These hazards still obtain, as the mountain's constantly growing death toll demonstrates and despite modern improvements of aircraft and high-tech mountaineering, medical, and rescue operations. That the pioneer climbers incrementally discovered the way up, made their ascents, and came back to tell their stories is a testimonial to grit, frontier improvisation, and luck. [20]

Terris Moore's history of the pioneer climbs cites 11 distinct mountaineering expeditions, beginning with Wickersham's, leading to the first completely successful ascent of Mount McKinley in 1913. Only highlights of the balance of these efforts can be presented in the context of this regional history.

Doctor Cook returned to Mount McKinley in 1906 in company with Herschel C. Parker, professor of physics at Columbia University, and Belmore Browne, artist, among others. This expedition resulted in a valuable reconnaissance and mapping of the southern approaches to the mountain. The party used a pack train and a motor launch to investigate the Susitna's tributaries and their heading glaciers on McKinley's south flank. After 2 months of intense work without finding a route to the top, the party returned to Cook Inlet, and its members went their separate ways. Doctor Cook remained in the vicinity, and in early September with horse-packer Robert Barrill made . . . A LAST DESPERATE ATTEMPT ON MOUNT MCKINLEY," [21] as Cook phrased it in a dramatic telegram to Eastern backers. His subsequent claim that he had dashed to the top and back in less than 2 weeks via Ruth Glacier inspired instant skepticism amongst those familiar with the country, including Parker and Browne. What came to be known as the Fake Ascent spawned a controversy between Cook loyalists and mountaineering detectives that even now sputters on, despite overwhelming evidence that Cook lied.

Browne's The Conquest of Mount McKinley recounts his and Professor Parker's sleuthing that identified a rock pinnacle in a side basin halfway up Ruth Glacier as the site of Cook's famous "summit" photograph. This point is about 5,300 feet above the sea and some 19 miles from McKinley's summit on a straight line. Cook trapped himself with his own photography in a preliminary article and in his later book, To the Top of the Continent. The book's unretouched summit photo, which shows a back ground peak (not shown in the retouched article photo), plus contextual photos of the side basin (claimed by Cook to be thousands of feet above its actual elevation) allowed Parker and Browne to pinpoint the rock pinnacle on the ground in 1910. Barrill, sworn to silence by Cook, later revealed the hoax in an affidavit, stating that Cook had dictated false entries for Barrill's diary. Brad Washburn assembled and critiqued all available evidence, including his own ground proofing, in his 1958 American Alpine Journal article, "Doctor Cook and Mount McKinley." Despite frost-action crumbling of the rotten rock pinnacle, which had altered its profile as shown in Cook's photos, the photos in Washburn's article show key remaining features of the pinnacle, and the tale-tale background mountain in a comparative photo essay. It was the "fingerprint" of this mountain (as Browne said, "No man can lie topographically") that had guided Parker and Browne to the pinnacle in 1910. Aside from all this physical evidence, the timetables, distances, logistics, and the route to the top described and mapped by Doctor Cook seemed immediately and were later proved incredible. After their own experiences with Cook earlier that summer of 1906, probing up the great tendril glaciers of McKinley's weather flank, Parker and Browne could not buy the 12-day up-and-back story from their first hearing of it.

As the Mount McKinley controversy grew riper, Doctor Cook threw another bombshell. In 1908 he claimed to have reached the North Pole, beating his former leader Robert Peary to the prize. This claim was immediately challenged by Peary and others, and another controversy erupted. This claim too was later disproved.

The combination of claims, suspicions, and rebuttals finally impelled the Explorers Club to call Doctor Cook before a committee of peers to clear himself. He refused to testify and disappeared. The Explorers Club, of which Doctor Cook had been president, expelled him in late 1909. He was also dropped from the rolls of the American Alpine Club and various geographical and learned societies.

Then followed several mountaineering expeditions to Mount McKinley in 1910, both to attempt the ascent and to test Cook's claims. Two of these came back with authoritative evidence. Parker and Browne led the Explorers Club-American Geographical Society party that discovered the false peak. The distinguished experts who made up this expedition had been charged to find solid proof one way or the other respecting Cook's claim to have climbed the mountain. For the Cook controversies—both McKinley and North Pole—had turned ugly. The public suspected that Cook, their popular hero, was the victim of individual and institutional jealousies. Reputations were at stake—including those of such eminent third parties as Charles Sheldon and Alfred Hulse Brooks. who had contributed technical appendices to Cook's book, thereby implicitly endorsing his claims.

On the approach to Ruth Glacier in 1910, Parker and Browne encountered C.E. Rusk leader of the Portland, Oregon Mazama Mountaineering Club expedition. The Mazamas wanted to track Cook's route as described in his writings and on his 1907 map. In this way they would assess his claims on the ground. Their sympathies lay with Cook but objectivity was their guide. The two expeditions joined in the quest for truth but proceeded separately. Weeks of hard hiking and glacier hazards, encumbered with polar equipment and supplies, brought the Mazamas up Ruth Glacier's vast trench to its great amphitheater and upper branches. At this point Rusk and his companions saw that Cook's map was the product of his imagination, for it matched in no way the actual scene before them. Cook had described a valley glacier route giving access northward to Muldrow Glacier, and thence to the top. A maze of mountains and glacial box canyons enclosed by cliffs greeted the Mazamas. Rusk would later close his meticulous report with this sad statement: [22]

Dr. Cook had many admirers who would have rejoiced to see his claims vindicated, and I too would have been glad to add my mite in clearing his name. But it could not be. Of his courage and resolution there can be no doubt. He is described as absolutely fearless. He is also considered as always willing to do his share and as an-all-around good fellow to be out with. His explorations around Mount McKinley were extensive. They were of interest and value to the world. Had he persevered, he doubtless would have reached the summit on some future expedition. He was the first to demonstrate the possibility of launch navigation up the Susitna and Chulitna Rivers. And that one trip alone—when with a single companion he braved the awful solitude of Ruth Glacier and penetrated the wild, crag-guarded region near the foot of McKinley—should have made him famous. But as we gazed upon the forbidding crags of the great mountain from far up the Ruth Glacier at the point of (Cook's and Barrill's) farthest advance and realized that it would require perhaps weeks or months more in which to explore a route to the summit, we realized how utterly impossible and absurd was the story of this man who, carrying a single pack, claims to have started from the Tokositna on the eighth of September, and to have stood on the highest point of McKinley on the sixteenth of the month. The man does not live who can perform such a feat. Let us draw the mantle of charity around him and believe, if we can, that there is a thread of insanity running through the woof of his brilliant mind... If he is not mentally imbalanced, he is entitled to the pity of mankind. If he is not, there is no corner of the earth where he can hide from his past.

In mountaineering circles, the Cook controversy generated a mythos and a literature similar to the Custeriana that followed and still follows the Battle of the Little Bighorn. [23] But this study must move on, drawing once more the mantle of charity over a man whose genuine exploits and deserved reputation dissolved in falsehoods meant to enhance them.

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004