Peak Experience: Group Summits Denali, Retracing Steps of Ancestors
Standing several thousand feet above a blanket of clouds on June 28, Dana Wright, Ken Karstens, Sam Alexander and Dan Hopkins did more than match their forebears when they roped up in that precise order to push the final yards to reach the tallest peak in North America—the summit of Alaska’s mighty Denali.
These four climbers, white and Alaska Native, are descendants of the first party ever to scale Denali. And, they not only climbed the continent’s highest mountain in old-school fashion—retracing the original route—but also are healing a rift from 100 years ago between pioneer climbers Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens which, on the moral plane, elevates them a little higher than the spike that marks the physical summit.
Along the way they fell into crevasses, battled blisters and altitude-induced headaches, were delivered an inspirational message by a raven at 14,000 feet. And at the end, Hopkins, a descendant of Hudson Stuck, stood next to Ken Karstens at the graveside of Harry Karstens, forging anew the unity that made the first ascent of Denali possible.
Back in 1913 Walter Harper, a relentlessly cheerful and powerfully strong Athabascan Indian was the first human ever to stand atop the mountain’s 20,320-foot summit. But by the time the group got back down the two leaders, Stuck and Karstens, were on the outs and never spoke to each other again. The lack of a unified voice may have been among the factors that kept this feat from being as celebrated as the first ascent of Everest. Even the descendants didn’t know the richness of their own shared story until the various families began—separately—planning centennial climbs and were reconnected, in part, by Denali National Park’s Mountaineering Ranger Roger Robinson.
And so it led to the chill morning in June, 100 years and three weeks after history was made, that Dana Wright, a great-grandnephew of Harper’s, and himself an adventurous backcountry snowboarder from Anchorage, was granted the distinction of being first to summit even though he had started out in the fifth spot that morning and was chugging along trying to ignore the intense cold.
“I didn’t really want to stop, it’s so cold up there,” Wright said. But his rope team of two guides (Hunter Dahlberg and Dustin English), himself and Karstens bumped into the leading team of guide Elliott Caddy, Hopkins and Alexander just yards shy of the actual summit.
“I was tired and somewhat out of it, being at altitude, and I’m like, ‘What did we stop here for?’” Wright said. “And they’re like, ‘First things first, you need to get up there.’ It hadn’t even dawned on me. At that point ... I wasn’t really concerned about being first,” he said.
But the team reconfigured. The guides from Alaska Mountaineering School hung back. The four descendants stepped into historic order.
Following Wright was Ken Karstens, in the same slot as his great-grandfather Harry. Last up was Dan Hopkins, from which place in 1913 his great-great uncle Hudson Stuck, who was barely able to breathe by that point, was hauled up by his companions. Stuck died from pneumonia in 1920.
“We stopped the ropes and we made sure we put Dana in front of the line. We kept as close as we could to historical re-creation,” Karstens said. “And it helped that Dana was a powerhouse the entire way just like Walter. He earned his place at the front of the line. It was very fitting.”
“It was really cool, and it meant a lot to me that they all waited,” Wright said.
A spell of clear weather was ending and the forecast calling for a wave of storms—which might strand them on Denali for a week—prompted the party to push from 17,200 feet to the summit instead of taking a planned rest day. The view, Wright and Karstens said, was of clouds far below, like looking out of a jetliner, and more coming in.
“It was clouds forever,” Karstens said. “It was heavenly, of course, but it was anvil clouds, and storms rolling in.”
Third up in 1913 was adventurer Robert Tatum, who had signed on as cook. One of his descendants, Sam Tatum, was in the centennial party but had to turn back in the second week due to persistent foot problems. So ascending in the third spot this year was Sam Alexander, a member of the Gwich’in Nation from Fort Yukon, Alaska, who has strong spiritual and cultural ties to the original climb.
Fort Yukon is not only where Stuck, who was Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, is buried, but was also home to one of Stuck’s Native protegés, John Fredson. As a 14-year-old, Fredson tended base camp alone for a month in 1913. Fredson later became the first Alaska Native to graduate from university and grew into a powerful political leader fighting for indigenous rights.
He was successful in each of the divergent worlds of white and indigenous cultures, which was the reason Stuck chose to mentor bright young Natives like Harper, Fredson and Esias George, who were all in the 1913 expedition, at a time when their worlds were changing.
Honoring that legacy was a driving force for Alexander. “I felt that it was important to be part of the team to represent the spirit of the original climb—which was Hudson Stuck wanting to use the climb as a platform to speak on behalf of Alaska Natives, to make the world recognize Native people and their indigenous rights to hunting and fishing,” he said. “I felt if I hadn’t climbed, the climb would be just a memorial climb—which is still important, these guys honoring their ancestors. [But] I wanted it to be more than that.”
In that vein, this year’s climbers are also stepping up to reinforce another legacy from the 1913 team: Insisting the federal government recognize the mountain as Denali, not Mount McKinley.
Stuck never called the mountain McKinley in any of his books or magazine stories about the climb (Some publishers added the name parenthetically on the cover). He wrote that he objected to the cynical politics behind the name, and insisted that the mountain that so dominates the horizons of the Alaska interior maintain its designation as “The Great One” given by the people who lived near it for 10,000 years.
Alaska officially changed the name to Denali in 1975, but a parallel national effort has been blocked ever since by members of the Ohio (McKinley’s home state) Congressional delegation. Even as the expedition was scaling the mountain on June 18, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was able to pass a bill (SB 155) out of committee that would effect a name change. Whether it will be heard by the full Senate is uncertain.
Even though Denali is thronged during the short climbing season—this year saw 1,151 attempt the summit, with a record 787 making the top and only one death—it’s still a gruelling challenge as the climbers were shouldering 100-pound packs and hauling sleds with additional gear.
In addition to Sam Tatum turning back, Ray Schuenemann, a cousin of Ken Karstens and great-grandson of Harry Karstens, was debilitated by altitude sickness as the climbers passed 16,500 feet. On summit day, he remained in camp with guide Paige Brady.
Two other aspiring team members also didn’t make the mountain. Mark Lattime, the Episcopal Bishop of Alaska (who would have been Stuck’s boss back in the day) gave up his slot to Tatum. Documentary filmmaker Elia Saikaly was caught up in the alpinist/sherpa conflict on Everest this spring, which disrupted his scheduled participation at Denali.
There was a Plan B for the documentary. Lattime said some of the climbers were given GoPro cameras so there is still footage from the mountain, and school presentations aimed largely at Native youth are still being planned.
“One of the things a lot of our Native youth are struggling with is having one foot in two different cultural realities. There’s the tradition of their elders and then there’s the impact of Western cultural society,” Lattime said, saying the stories of Walter Harper (who died in a shipwreck a few years after summiting) and John Fredson—or Sam Alexander and Dana Wright for that matter—show, “you can be true to your heritage and you can thrive” in the dominant culture.
In the materials, “We are able to talk about some of the environmental concerns that were very much a part of the conscience of the original climb that are still problems we are facing today,” Lattime said, citing political threats to sovereignty and environmental threats to subsistence hunting and fishing. “I’m very delighted that Sam Alexander is part of this because I know both he and Dana will have the opportunity to be a presence in classrooms around Alaska.”
Wright said this larger significance gave him serious pause about participating.
“I knew it would be a pretty high-profile climb, and what I really had to ask myself was ‘Are you willing to be a role model? Are you willing to represent your family and Walter Harper? Or are you going to show how the generations have declined and are not nearly as tough?’ It really helped me keep focus and I worked as hard as I could each day,” Wright said.
Just following the original route, which starts at about 2,000 feet, crosses rivers and innumerable rivulets, traverses a crevasse-riddled glacier and a knife-edge ridge, was a hard slog. Today, almost all climbers fly to a base camp at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier to summit via the West Buttress Route, pioneered in 1951.
The original is “A difficult climb. Simply the approach, you are hiking 25 miles just to get to the glacier,” said Hopkins, who also summited Denali in 2008 via the West Buttress after he learned of his family connection to the peak. The original route starts with a long trek over wet, mossy, spongy terrain—often bush-whacking without a trail—in hard mountaineering boots while loaded with 100-pound packs. Blistered feet affected many on the team, Sam Tatum so severely he had to turn back.
Then there was the Muldrow Glacier where every team member fell into crevasses when snow or ice bridges gave way.
“It was like a trap door,” Ken Karstens said.
After the glacier came the nervy two-mile walk along the balance beam of Karstens Ridge with a 1,000-foot fall on one side and a 5,000-foot drop on the other. Schuenemann and Alexander tumbled off—but were held by being roped to others—when slushy snow sagged away beneath them.
On the glacier, “We all fell into our knees,” Karstens said of hidden crevasses. “I fell into my waist five or six times, and then I would fall into my chest two or three times and over my head twice. We were towing sleds behind us and my sled was 10 feet in a hole. And I was 10 feet below my sled. I spent a lot of time in crevasses. I got quite a reputation as a crack-finder.”
Wright said, “We were joking at the end that if we weren’t sure [about secure footing], send Ken over and if he doesn’t fall in we’re good!”
Mental as well as physical challenges mounted with the altitude, and everyone seemed to have private moments of darkness and doubt, Hopkins said. The energy of the team was beginning to fray under the strain. But then came the raven that stole the team’s bacon, but delivered an important message.
“I always believe they bring us messages,” Hopkins said, who also had a raven encounter Denali in 2008, losing a sock liner to one at 17,000 feet.
This time, “We were coming down Karstens Ridge after putting a cache in up at 14,000 and the raven landed on the cornice of the ridge and clawed in right beside me. It stared right at me and then took off.”
The team had seemed disjointed, not moving well while roped together. There were some blunt critiques from the guides and an emerging sliver of doubt they’d all make the summit. “We came back and the raven had ransacked the camp and got most of the bacon and butter. That evening is when our group conversations broke out, where we really started to come together,” Hopkins said. “I think the raven gave us a bit of a shakeup and said, ‘Look, you guys are doing some neat things here but you’ve got to reorganize if you want to get to the summit.’”
The raven hung around the team’s kitchen for another day or so but, “He never trashed anything again after that,” Hopkins said.
There were other messages on the wind. While the team was on the mountain, Lattime had flown to Fort Yukon and participated with villagers in the prayerful First Salmon Ceremony as this year’s kings (chinook salmon) were running the Yukon River on their 2,000-mile homeward journey. But the people on the riverbank also took a moment to gaze up at Denali and offer prayers for the climbers.
And the day after the team reached the summit, “I went to pay a visit to Hudson Stuck’s gravesite,” Lattime said. “Things had grown little bit wild, so I went and borrowed a weed whacker and trimmed things up. It was actually a really spiritual moment to be there and I found myself chatting to Hudson while I was cleaning the grave and I told him I thought he would be pretty proud to know a Stuck was standing on Denali again, and probably even more happy to know there’s a Harper and someone from Fort Yukon, and a Karstens. That was significant to me. I thought it was important to share.“
Indeed, one of the more important accomplishments of the centennial team is that the descendants of Stuck and the descendants of Karstens have embraced each other once again.
A new book, “The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley” by Alaska author Tom Walker, came out just before the centennial. On his website, Walker calls Karstens "the actual—if unheralded—leader" of the expedition.
Hopkins, the descendant of Stuck, doesn’t disagree. “I reread Stuck’s book three times up there on the mountain, and he praises Harry so much ... in one line he’s like ‘In the face of adversity and danger, Harry is the true leader of the expedition.’” Hopkins said.
He does take issue with the tone of ripping Stuck, using journal entries.
“I had great conversations with Tom Walker and Ken when we got off the mountain. I don’t know what’s really going to happen from here on in, but basically it was, the more we argue over who did more, who carried water, who was this or who was that, we undermine our forefathers’ legacy,” Hopkins said. “I’ve climbed that mountain from two sides now. And every time I get up there I’m blown away by how much I think [the 1913 climbers] are just incredible. We can’t take that away from anybody by taking a line out of a journal that is a personal thought of somebody back in the day, and defining somebody now 100 years later because of something that was written. We’re taking away from, I believe, the overall legacy of the Alaska Natives and the entire expedition and what they really accomplished.
“When we focus more on those beautiful parts, we really allow them to be living legends,” he said.
After the group came off the mountain, Hopkins found himself delayed by wildfires in Fort Yukon. When he finally did get to Fairbanks on his way home, he serendipitously bumped into Ken Karstens who was just leaving Denali National Park.
“We were driving in the car on the way to dinner and Ken asked if we could take a detour. And I said, ‘Harry’s grave?’ And he said, ‘Yep.’ And we went up there,” Hopkins said. “We knew it was time to go.”
A Stuck and a Karstens side-by-side in harmony. It was a top-o-the-world moment.
The Most Recent Climbers:
Dana Wright, 27 - great-grandnephew of Walter Harper Ken Karstens, 35 - great-grandson of Harry Karstens
Sam Alexander, 34 - Gwich’in from Fort Yukon Dan Hopkins, 41 - great-great-nephew of Hudson Stuck
*Ray Schuenemann, 27 - great-grandson of Harry Karstens
*Sam Tatum, 22 - great-nephew of Robert Tatum
*Schuenemann and Tatum did not summit.
Also on the team, but not on the mountain
Mark Lattime, 47 - Episcopal Bishop of Alaska. Gave his slot to Tatum
Elia Saikaly, 34 - High-altitude documentary filmmaker. Delayed on Everest
The Original Party
Hudson Stuck, Archdeacon of the Yukon, 49
Harry Karstens, pioneer, musher and park ranger, 34
Walter Harper, Athabascan Indian, 21
*John Fredson, Gwi’chin Indian, 14
*Esias George, Athabascan Indian, 14
Robert Tatum, cook, 21
*Fredson tended base camp alone for a month. George, by himself, mushed most of the dogs about 200 miles back to Nenana.