Billy Taylor, Sourdough

Publication Year: 1939.

Billy Taylor, Sourdough

Norman Bright

THE audacity of the four tillicums who, in 1910, conquered Mt. McKinley’s North Peak, has been a never-ending source of astonishment to present-day mountaineers. At that time, only one of the Great Four—McKinley, Logan, St. Elias, and Lucania— had fallen, and that, St. Elias, the third highest peak on the continent, in 1897, under the intrepid heel of the Duke of the Abruzzi.

However, several attempts had already been made to reach the summit of McKinley. Judge Wickersham, with his expedition of 1903, was the leader of the van. But he met with insuperable difficulties and returned to report that the man who expected to scale the mountain over those grim precipices would need a flying machine !

Dr. Frederick A. Cook led two expeditions and wrote the book To the Top of the Continent, in which he set forth his claims to the mountain. The book met with considerable antagonism in the North, and men who knew the country best were incensed at what they believed to be a hoax. Several, in particular, borrowed the only copy of the book available in Fairbanks and read it eagerly. Their knowledge of the range, obtained while prospecting along the spurs and foothills of the mountain itself, enabled them, they affirmed, to detect the very page wherein the fine writing began.

Thomas Lloyd, whose stoutness of build would hardly recommend him for candidacy on a climbing expedition, boasted that he could climb McKinley, and offered to lead an expedition to disprove the claims of Dr. Cook. Three pioneer saloon-keepers of Fairbanks and Chena offered to put up $500 apiece to back him. Lloyd selected his own men, one of whom was young William Taylor, stout of limb and rugged of body, as stalwart a youth as ever came to the North to seek his fortune.

An outline of the expedition is in order at this point. It was simply a long mush. The equipment consisted of their regular outfit plus a few mountaineering implements they made on the spur of the moment. They left Fairbanks in December with four horses to carry their supplies. Later they used dogs. The three camps on the mountain were at seven-mile intervals, the first ofwhich was occupied on February 27th. Much time was spent returning to the flats to hunt—they lived to a large extent off the country, killing caribou and moose—and to get firewood. Poles for the tents and for use in bridging the crevasses had also to be sledged up from timber. Frequent storms delayed progress. Thirty below weather was not unusual.

Their aim was simply to climb the mountain to show that the feats of endurance about which the cheechacos bragged, feats which they (the cheechacos) found impossible of accomplishment, were, to the sourdoughs, not only possible, but were, furthermore, the usual thing in their strenuous existence. So, with this aim, the four sourdoughs dropped their picks, and, taking along no scientific equipment, set out to take the mountain in stride. Their only camera was a $5 affair with which they took about thirty pictures, only twenty of which were any good at all.

After more than thirty days on the mountain itself, moving their supplies forward, they had established themselves at 11,000 ft., and planned to make the attack on the summit from there. On April 3d, therefore, Taylor, McGonagall, and Anderson set out for the summit, but only Taylor and Anderson arrived. Slightly handicapped by the weight of a 14-ft. spruce sapling, they nonetheless made the ascent of 9000 ft. of vertical elevation in good style. With considerable labor they set up their pole, hauled up the American flag and by nightfall they were back at the Tunnel Camp.

Immediately following the climb, while his companions remained to do their assessment work, Lloyd took several dogs and, within a week, reached Fairbanks. He announced that all in the party had reached both summits. Lloyd was the only one to keep any written record and this comprised only brief notes scribbled down in an old memorandum book in which he had written the records of other mushes. The following excerpts from that record as he dictated it to W. F. Thompson are of interest :

March 4.—Camped last night at The Willows, 2900 ft. We are camped in a pothole in the glacier in the blue balloon silk tent. The coal-oil stove is working fine.

March 7.—We hunted all day for the aneroid. [It was loaned to them by Davidson but Lloyd lost it on the way to the Pothole Camp. His elevations, therefore, are only estimates.]

March 8.—Charley and Pete spent the day hauling wood and poles from timberline on Clearwater.

March 9.—The boys are still hauling wood. I spent the day cutting stakes to stake the trail over the glacier, so that we can find our way up and back in the storm. Taylor had 50 miles to go for fish when he left us on the 2nd, a week ago, but he hasn’t returned yet.

March 10.—Going across the glacier … on the first 4 or 5 miles there are no crevasses … but the next eight are terrible for crevasses.… The route is practically E. and W. until we turned close to McKinley. Then the trail turned to the S… The stove would sink, naturally, from the heat, and we had to keep digging down and lowering our beds to keep on the level with the stove.

March 17.—The next camp will be our last sleeping camp. The trail is 8 miles long, and we are staking all of it. We would mush on each day … and drop back at night to the Pothole Camp until we had finally established our last camp… It has been very soft in places and very dangerous on the trail, but we can travel it now with the assistance of our poles and with roughlocks on our snowshoes. [Each man had a long pike pole which he carried in a horizontal position so that whenever he fell into a crevasse, the ends of the pole caught on either side and saved him from injury.] We would throw the poles across the crevasse, throw snow on the poles until it “stood up” and fill in until we could snowshoe across.

March 20.—We had travelled so much on the trail with snow- shoes that it had hardened enough to hold up the dogs.

March 22.—On this trip we were always praying for the thermomenter to drop, so that it couldn’t snow any more… After we had driven that tunnel we climbed onto the roof of the ridge, which was about 50 ft. above the roof of the tunnel, and looked over the other side. If we had driven the tunnel a little further in, so as to have a back door to our home, and had opened that back door, we would have found ourselves looking down a precipice which stood at about 80° to perpendicular.

March 27.—While the boys above us are cutting the final steps to the summit today, Taylor and I go back to the Willow Camp for wood… Talking of McKinley we call it “Mac.”

Then follows Lloyd’s fictitious account of the ascent of the South Peak on the 2nd, and “the last ascent” to place the flag onthe top of the North Peak, the following day, April 3d. After his narration of the two ascents, Lloyd observes, “But for their help, I never could have done half of even what I did do. The trouble with me principally, was that I was mostly too fat for climbing mountains, but I lost 30 pounds on the trip.”

Had Lloyd, on returning to Fairbanks, told the simple truth, instead of padding his story so that all would get credit for the first ascent, there would have been no question concerning the validity of their claims. As it was, not until three years later was any credence given to the Sourdoughs’ just claim to the North Peak. Credit for the verification of their climb should go to the eagle- eyed Walter Harper, halfbreed native boy, who, climbed toward the S. summit with Archdeacon Stuck in 1913, described, on the apex of the North Peak, the flagpole put there three years before by Billy Taylor and Pete Anderson. Save for the splendid eyesight of this Indian lad, and for the fact that the pole had withstood the storms of three years, their climb would remain today merely as a mountaineering legend instead of as mountaineering history, and Billy Taylor’s recollections of the expedition would be regarded as pleasant fiction. For the flagpole has disappeared long since.

Now, twenty-seven years later, let us meet Mr. William R. Taylor, youngest member of Tom Lloyd’s “Sourdough” Expedition.

It was suppertime on a hot mid July day in 1937. The doors of the roadhouse at McKinley Park Station were open and a refreshing breeze swept through the sultry kitchen. At the kitchen counter sat several men tardily devouring the last of an excellent meal. The lady of the house was busy with the dishes. Outside, a man was putting up his dogs. As he entered, removed his coat, and found a stool next to mine, the proprietress and several of the oldtimers greeted him with unaffected enthusiasm and affection.

Busy reading a mountaineering book, a treat which I had anticipated all day, I simply looked up, then continued reading. I supposed him to be an oldtimer himself as everyone seemed to know him.

“Is that a map of Alaska?” he asked, referring to the Alaska Steamship Company map marking my place.

“Yes,” I answered, handing it to him.

“That’s the book I was talking to you about,” remarked the proprietress as she put the newly baked bread to cool and came to stand before him.

The Ascent of Denali, I said as I flipped the cover into view and then continued reading.

“Well, this is the Mr. William Taylor mentioned in the book,” she announced.

I hadn’t read of Mr. William Taylor being in Stuck’s party. I was frankly puzzled.

“How far up the mountain did you get?” I blundered.

“To the top,” he said calmly.

“What is your name again?” I asked excitedly.

“Billy Taylor,” he replied, giving the nickname which everyone in the North affectionately uses.

I knew then that I was talking to one of the members of the 1910 Expedition, and one who had succeeded in conquering the North Peak. My amazement at finding one of the “old” sourdoughs still alive and not yet showing even the traces of senility did not prevent me from finding out everything I could from him, between the moment of the introduction a bit after 6 p.m. and the time he put his dogs on the freight and clambered aboard himself, 11.30 p.m.

The first part of the interview was carried on while Bill gave his three dogs, Mickey, Spot and Ace, their suppers. Mickey, who is with Billy in the picture, is part wolf and part malamute, weighs 100 lbs., is the most powerful dog Taylor has ever had. The snapshot of him and his dog was taken at 6.30 p.m. but the Alaskan sun was till high above the horizon.

After the dogs had been attended to, we went out to the bunk house where Billy rested on the sleeping-bag on top of my bunk and answered questions. When he took a few minutes recess to say goodbye to his friends in the roadhouse, I wrote out a list of more than thirty questions. He returned and answered six of them. A half hour later, so as not to keep the other occupants of the bunkhouse awake, we moved to the blacksmith shop across from the station. A fire still burned in the forge. Billy found a seat on a workbench while I chose an anvil near the flame where I could see to write. At question number nineteen we heard the train whistle, and, on the run back to the roadhouse to get the dogs, I asked the remaining questions.

Affable describes Billy Taylor. He answered my questions for almost five hours ! The fact that everyone calls him Billy is only one indication which leads one to believe that Lloyd was sincere when he declared : “Taylor and I have been partners for years and (I don’t claim that is because of any good qualities of mine) I have never had words with him. He is beyond question one of the finest men you ever met.” Tom Lloyd was simply making a statement which many since must have corroborated.

As to physical attributes, Lloyd described him as ‘‘a big man and strong as a horse.” He has a massive frame with tremendous shoulders, the widest I have ever seen. At twenty-two he must have been exceedingly strong. His weight now is around 250 lbs. He wears false teeth which are especially noticeable when he talks. At twenty-two (see photograph) his hairline was high. Now, at forty-nine it is a trifle thin. His right thumb is cut off at the first joint ; he must have lost it since the expedition, as his right hand, which rests on Lloyd’s shoulder (1910 photograph) seems to be whole. He wore loose bib-overalls, a soiled shirt much wrinkled at the elbows, a blue blazer, shoepacks and a battered hat. His outfit consisted of a home-made packboard.

This huge man with his jovial laugh, for all the world like the fat plumber I knew in Fairbanks was the conqueror of McKinley. He was the embodiment of those hearty wights of massive build to whom Shakespeare attributed the most abundant good nature.

Twenty-seven years before, this man who now wheezed when he ran had dropped his mining for a few months to make a matter- of-fact mush to the top of McKinley’s North Peak. In so doing he and his companion, Pete Anderson, had unsuspectingly performed the greatest tour dc force in the annals of mountaineering on this continent—the amazing feat of climbing from 11,000 ft. to the top and back in one day !

From this man I wished to learn : (1) What kind of men were the Sourdoughs? (2) How did the idea of the climb originate? (3) How were the climbers selected? (4) What was their previous experience? (5) Of what their equipment consisted. (6) His own story of the climb.


Who were the members of the expedition? Thomas Lloyd, he was the leader, Charley McGonagall, Pete Anderson, and myself.

How did the idea get started? It got started through Cook’s claims and everyone thought it was a fake. Lloyd was backed by Fairbanks men, three, I think it was. He said he could pick men who could climb it and they put up the money.

Who were the backers? Gus Peterson, E. W. Griffin, and W. H. (Bill) McPhee.

Arc any of them living? Well, darned if I know. McPhee is dead, I know. Griffin, I don’t know, I “kinda” think he is. But Peterson’s alive. Leastwise, he was a year ago.

Where is he living? He’s outside someplace. He was located in Yakima. He had a ranch there. Haven’t heard of him for two or three years. But his brother was in Fairbanks a year ago.

How old were you when you went on the expedition? I think I was eighteen but I’m not rightly sure.

When were you horn? March 15th, 1888. [He was twenty- one when he joined the expedition, spent his twenty-second birthday on the glacier.]

Where? Ontario, Canada.

When did you come to Alaska? 1901 or 1902, I don’t rightly remember. [Mildly irritated, at himself, not me.] Goddamit! I never kept a diary. [He must have been only thirteen or fourteen when he came North to make his own living.]

How did you make a living? Driving teams. Owned my own teams. Sold out and went to Kantishna. [He pronounced it with one more syllable than its spelling indicates—“Kantishina,” the way nearly everyone says it.] Had pack-horses first. Sold them and got dogs.

How did you happen to he selected? Well, Lloyd just selected me. He knew me and he knew of me. (!)

Do you know how he picked his men? He just knew fellers who were pretty skookum. He had been around the camps a good deal and picked one here and one there.

What can you tell me about Lloyd? He was probably close to sixty—well, in the fifties anyhow. I imagine he was damn close to sixty. He’a been dead close to fifteen years, I guess. Died soon after the ascent—in ’14 or ’15. I know I went “outside” and when I came back he was dead. He was awful fat. Had kind of a nervous breakdown and just keeled over.

What sort was he? He was fine in his way, but he was lookin' for too much fame. He conflicted his stories by telling his intimate friends he didn’t climb it and told others he was at the top. We didn’t get out till June and, then, they didn’t believe any of us had climbed it. But Stuck verified the climb. He found the pole. The halfbreed was the first one to see it.

Did Lloyd make anything from the story? Not that Ï know of. Because he couldn’t sell the story after he balled it up. We had to take care of our assessments. He was the head of the party and we never dreamed he wouldn’t give a straight story. I wish to God we “hadda” been there. Of course our intimate friends believed us. But there was no proof until Stuck verified the pole two years later. Lloyd was no writer. He took the data. A fellow by the name W. F. Thompson, newswriter, editor of the Fairbanks News-Miner wrote the story.

Was it published? Just in the local paper. He didn’t write the whole story. He kept that to sell to a syndicate. After Lloyd balled the thing up, he quit in disgust.

What sort of a fellow was Pete Anderson? Big husky Swede. Hell of a good fellow on the trail. Him and I’d go along and never have no trouble at all. He was a husky “sonofagun.” We done all the work but we never got credit for nothin’. None of those points was named after us. I had implicit confidence in Lloyd so I never kept no data on it at all.

How old a man was Pete? He was in his prime then. I think Pete must be ten years older than me, anyway.

Where does he live? Nenana. He has a tinsmith shop. He’s only home nights. Between jobs he’s always building a stove or some goddam thing.

And McGonagall? Well, he—I don’t know how old Johnny [he must have said “Charley”] was at that time, but he used to mush dogs on the “trail” to Valdez [now the Richardson Highway] and he’s been prospecting and doing all sorts of work before and since. I haven’t seen him for several years.

[McGonagall, whom I met in Fairbanks this summer, admits sixty-eight years, although his friend, Harry Karstens, who lives a few doors from him says Charley is fudging two years, that he is seventy, ten years older than Karstens. So McGonagall must have been over forty in 1910.]

I heard that he pioneered the mail service on “The Trail?” A man by the name of Ben Downing (?) did, I think and him and Karstens were his drivers. Karstens was with Stuck. He [Kar-stens] used to be superintendent of the park here—just before Liek. I imagine him and Pete was close to the same age. [If so, Pete was about thirty-two at the time of the climb.]

What were you doing the winter of 1909? Prospecting.

Where? Kantishna.

When did you start on the expedition? We left Fairbanks with four head of horses the 22nd December, 1909.

What kind of supplies did you take? Oh, bacon, beans, flour, sugar, dried fruits, butter, and a general outfit.

Did you have any special high altitude rations? No. Just bacon and beans. Had doughnuts on the highest. That’s all we took up with us—and hot chocolate—a thermos bottle apiece. Just took a half a dozen doughnuts in a sack and started out. I had three left when I got back. That is, from the 11,000-ft. level. Of course up to that time we used caribou meat from the country.

Did you, like Stuck, make pemmican? No, we just had steaks and stews. They took two weeks on the trip that we made in eighteen hours. No, a month, I think. Well, we made it all in one day, by God ! Just breaking day, a little after three, when we started, and I know it was dark—getting dusk—when we got back. I know it was an even eighteen hours. I don’t know the exact time. We never paid no attention to that.

[At this point, Taylor went in to the roadhouse for a few minutes to bid his friends goodbye.]

What kind of mountaineering and personal equipment did you take along? Gumshoes. [Taylor refers to the shoepacks which are worn universally in the North. They are waterproof, made of rubber with a leather top, lacing like a boot, generally around 12 inches high.] We put on moccasins when we put on our creepers. We had pole-axes and double-bitted axes for chopping wood. We started out cutting wood with the pole-axe but finally quit it, and took our climbing poles and creepers and walked right over everything and forgot about steps. Carried knapsacks, but we had nothing to pack but a little grub, thermos bottle, rope, candles, camera. [Taylor is speaking of the final ascent.]

What did you wear? Any special mountaineering clothes? No, just bib-overalls, shirt, winter underwear, parkee and mitts.

What did you use for bedding? Down sleeping-bags. I had a wolfskin robe. [Lloyd says: “We had two caribou hides for beds and mattresses for four of us. They are the clear quill to puton the ice and snow. Pete had a sheepkin sleeping-bag as well, and besides that we had three robes in all for the four of us—one of them was not much good—and a piece of canvas to throw over them all. You want to be sure to keep the snow and ice from thawing underneath you. We had no discomfort in sleeping at all. McGonagall and I each had a pillow, but Bill Taylor was never known to carry a pillow; neither was the Swede.”]

Where did you outfit? In Fairbanks.

What kind of parkas did you have? Light duck parkees—not furlined.

Do you still have any of the equipment left from the expedition? I have a pair of creepers. I have an alpine pole somewhere in Fairbanks. I don't know where it is : Left it with Abe Stines. I don’t know where Abe is now. I think he’s “outside” somewhere.

What do you consider the toughest part of the climb? From the bottom to the Grand Basin to the top of the North Peak. You come to places like a knife blade and you can see down for thousands of feet below you. It’s a steep climb from 11,000 ft., too, but you haven’t that steep ridge to contend with.

Why didn’t you use climbing ropes? Didn’t need ’em.

What did you leave at the top? A 14-ft. pole 4 inches at the top end—dry spruce. We packed it and pulled it up. Where we couldn’t pack it, we pulled it up on a line. And a little piece of box-board, about 8 inches square, and we put all the names of the party on it. [Lloyd says the names of the members of the party and the date was written on a board from a candle box and that “over the face of this board … we nailed another board and said, in writing, upon it, ‘Open and look inside. Lloyd Party.’ ” Lloyd says the pole was 4 inches at the bottom, tapering symmetrically to 2.5 inches at the top.]

Do you think it is still there? [The Lindley-Liek expedition reported no trace of it when they ascended the North Peak in 1932.] Well, it’s wherever the pole is unless it got knocked off. [That’s logic for you! Billy told me they chose the N. summit to put the flagpole on because the coast (S.) summit could not be seen from Fairbanks.]

Did you write anything else? Yes, the date of the ascent.

What was there at the top? Little pinnacles of rock from 4 to 6 inches high. But generally speaking, it was just a mass of ice.

Did you build a cairn? Oh yes, we dug down in the ice with a little axe we had and built a pyramid of 15 inches high and we dug down in the ice so the pole had a support of about 30 inches and it was held by four guy-lines—just cotton ropes. We fastened the guy-lines to little spurs of rocks.

How did it feel to stand on the top of the highest mountain of North America and know the whole continent was beneath you? Well, of course, the altitude made you feel light-like. You had to watch yourself or your feet would come up quick.

How long did you stay on the top? Between two and two and a half hours, if I remember rightly.

What were the weather conditions like while you were on the top? Sunshine on top but cloudy below us. It shut off a lot of the view.

Did you recognize any points? No. At first it was fine and you could see streaks of timber and the creeks and rivers. But on the first trip—April 1st—we had to stop four hours from the top. Had to turn back—saw a storm coming. Stormed all that night and all the next day [This was the day that Lloyd says they climbed the South Peak.]

Did you see Mt. Foraker? Oh yes, we could see Foraker sticking up through the clouds.

How were the weather conditions during the entire expedition? We had some awful cold weather when we started, and that day we was up there, it was thirty below. I know it was colder than hell. Mitts and everything was all ice.

Did you let your beard grow to protect your face? No. [Spits.] Didn’t have long to grow anyway.

Did you have many storms? Just the one on the mountain. Oh yes, down on the flats freightin’ in. It was some winter all right down there! But not after we got up onto the mountain. Oh, once or twice up on Muldrow Glacier.

Did you know the other summit was higher? Looking across the two of them, it didn’t seem to have any elevation more, but they claim it is 300 ft. higher.

About how far is it to the other summit? Between 2 and 3 miles somewheres.

What was the reason that you did not climb the South Peak? We set out to climb the North Peak. That’s the toughest peak to climb—the North.

When did McGonagall and Lloyd learn of your success? [Taylor says that only he and Pete Anderson reached the top. McGonagall was outdistanced around 18,000 or 19,000 ft, while Lloyd did not go beyond the 11,000-ft. level.] McGonagall was at the 11,000-ft. level the night of the 3d. We saw Lloyd the next day— the 4th. That night we camped at the second camp below 11,000 ft. [The Willows.]

What did you have to eat the night after the climb? Beans. Meat with ’em. And bread. We made it at the lower camp on the flats. Lloyd was a pretty good baker. He done most of the cooking. Had it frozen and thawed it out when we used it.

How many days did yon take in the descent? We made the descent down to 11,000 ft. in 18 hours and on the day of the 4th came down to where Lloyd was camped—the Willow Camp.

What were the names of your camps? The last camp was at 11,000 ft. The next to the last was about 8 miles from the head of Muldrow Glacier. I don’t know whether we called it Muldrow Camp or Glacier Camp. I’ve forgotten. [This was what Lloyd called the Pothole Camp.] Then Willow Camp. Then below that was out on the flats. The willows was the last vegetation about 4 miles below the McPhee Pass—we called it. Stuck called it the McGonagall Pass.

[Just then we heard the distant whistle of a train. We both jumped. It was as dark outside as the night of the murder in Macbeth. The remainder of the interview took place on the run. He had to fetch his dogs.]

Did your parents learn of your climb? No, my parents were dead when I left home.

What stands out most strongly in your mind concerning the climb? I can see the whole route all the way up. It was grand ! Did the climb have ill effects on you? No, none at all.

Did you OK the newspaper story? [New York Times, June 6th, 1910.] No.

What is your present address? Diamond, Alaska.

You are about the same age now as Liek was when he climbed it. [Liek was forty-seven as to forty-nine for Taylor. Stuck was fifty.]

Would you consider climbing the mountain again if you had the chance? Yes, if there was enough money in it. But not just forsport. [He put his dogs into a boxcar and climbed on board the freight.]

“Have you any more questions?” he asked, anxious to help me as much as he could. “No, that’s all, thanks,” I answered. “I’m certainly glad to have met you. I had taken it for granted that the members of the old Sourdough Expedition were dead long ago. Now that you’re fixed up, I’ll say goodbye and I hope to see you again.” “Goodbye, Norman.” “Take good care of the dogs.” “Oh, I will,” he laughed.

The moon broke through the clouds and sailed swiftly across the sky. As I took the road back to the bunkhouse Taylor’s words. “I can see the whole route. It was grand!” rang in my ears. He will always carry with him the memory of that magnificent climb, and of himself and Anderson fighting the altitude and cold to place the American flag on McKinley’s northern summit. How appropriate that the trunk of a spruce-tree—indigenous all over the north—was used as the rude standard on which to raise the stars and stripes, and how fitting that two sourdoughs still living in sight of the mountain were its first conquerors and the first to point out the only route by which it has ever been climbed !

Note.—Readers will be interested in a few remarks made by Charles McGonagall of Fairbanks whom I met this fall on my way here. He says that he, as well as Stuck, was hardened to travel with dogs and that the experience stood them in good stead when they came to grips with the mountain. McGonagall describes Lloyd as a “good beer drinker and teller of tall stories.” He declares that he himself “got nothing out of it but a lot of hard work.” Says that he “didn’t want to go in the first place.” He maintains that he reached the top. I did not press the point nor inquire into details. McGonagall was a pioneer in carrying the mail by dogsled. Some of his contracts were: over the Trail (Valdez to Fairbanks), from Dawson to Circle, and from Valdez to Circle by the Copper River route.

There you have it—Lloyd claimed victory for four: McGonagall, for three; and Taylor, for two. I will not be satisfied until I can get over to Nenana to find what Pete Anderson has to say.

N. B


Thompson, W. F., New York Times. June 6th, 1910.

Stuck, H., The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley), Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1915.