American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

1910. Mt. McKinley's North Peak

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  • Publication Year: 2002

1910. Mt. McKinley’s North Peak

Dee Molenaar

At first the reported ascent of Mt. McKinley’s North Peak by three miners from Fairbanks was dismissed as a tall tale from fertile boomtown imaginations. Eventually it was deemed one of the greatest feats in mountaineering history. The heroic ascent by the hardy “sourdoughs” is unique, even though they scaled the 19,470-foot North Peak rather than McKinley’s true summit, the 20,320-foot South Peak.

The Sourdough climb was preceded by two expeditions, the first in 1903 to attempt the north wall (Wickersham Wall) by a five-man group led by Judge James Wickersham. The other, in 1906, was the infamous hoax perpetrated by Dr. Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached the summit from the southeast. His “summit” was shortly proven to be a 5,000-foot foothill now called Fake Peak. Believing that the great McKinley should be climbed first by the territory's locals rather than by “outsiders,” the Sourdough party was led by Thomas Lloyd and included miners Pete Anderson, Charlie McGonagall, and Billy Taylor, along with E.C. Davidson (a licensed surveyor) and two of his friends. But the latter three left the party after a heated argument with Tom Lloyd, and with them went the party’s photographic expertise.

Departing Fairbanks in late December 1909 with two dog teams and adequate food supplies—but without a climbing rope or any knowledge of how one is used—they fought their way across swamps and muskeg and several glacier streams before reaching McGonagall Pass, which McGonagall had discovered during a solo hike years earlier. Wearing bib overalls, home-made crampons, alpenstocks, and using double-edged hatchets for ice axes, they carried a 14-foot spruce pole as an aid in crossing snow-bridged crevasses and to plant on the summit with the American flag. They then pioneered a route up the Muldrow Glacier and Karstens Ridge to the Harper Glacier above.

From their foreshortened perspective they believed the North Peak to be the true sum-

mit—and more likely to be visible from the Fairbanks saloon. So they climbed directly up from the Harper Glacier via a steep snow slope between rock ribs that dominated the south flank of the North Peak. On April 3, 1910, while McGonagall dropped back to plant the flagpole in the last rocks below the top— and to care for frost-nipped feet—Taylor and Anderson continued on the snow crest to the top of the North Peak.

The climb involved an amazing single 8000-foot push from their highest camp at 11,000 feet above the Muldrow Glacier, and the descent was made without problems. But en route home, while the others inspected mining claims in the foothills, Lloyd reached Fairbanks alone and announced they had all had reached the summit. The news was spread from the Fairbanks paper to the outside world via the New York Times. However, when the others arrived with the full story, which included the fact that the overweight and middle-aged Lloyd had only reached the base of the mountain, the veracity of the entire enterprise was questioned, especially since there were no photographs to support their claim. To add to the confusion, Lloyd later reported that the other three returned to the mountain and climbed to 18,200-foot Denali Pass, while another story had them returning to the flagpole. By then the claimed ascents were treated as another Alaskan tall tale.

The Sourdough Party's ascent was confirmed in 1912 when their flag-draped pole was spotted clearly against the deep-blue sky by members of the Hudson Stuck party during the first ascent of the peak's true (South) summit.

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