Now that 400-700 people reach the summit of Denali annually, it’s hard to imagine that just four people made the first climb to the top. And while adventurers had been trying since at least 1903, the first ascent of Mount McKinley didn’t happen until 1913. Back then, the peak still had the name it had been given by a fan of president-elect William McKinley in 1897. The summit is 20,320 feet, the tallest point in North America.
The missionary mountain climber
The leader of the first expedition was an unlikely candidate for such a momentous achievement. While McKinley is in Alaska, this fellow, Hudson Stuck, was British born. And though his day job wasn’t as odd as Sir Edmund Hillary’s, who was a beekeeper, Stuck was an Episcopalian minister. Not just a low-level chaplain, either: he was the archdeacon in Yukon, Alaska. Nonetheless, the missionary/amateur mountain climber was able to put together a group of friends and reach the top of North America’s tallest mountain. While Stuck and Harry Karstens were co-leaders, an Alaskan native, Walter Harper, was the first of the four climbers to touch foot on the South peak.
A 10-week trek to the top of North America
While McKinley was nowhere near as daunting as peaks like Mount Everest, the trek was still fraught with danger. The men set out in March 1913, making a slow approach from the north. Their nearly three-month journey included setbacks like bad weather and a fire that destroyed much of their supplies and equipment. And yet, they persisted. Four years after this first ascent of McKinley, the peak and the wildland surrounding it became Mount McKinley National Park. Karstens was appointed a superintendent. But neither he nor any other mountain climbing parties attempted to duplicate that first ascent. It would be another 20 years before another group reached the Mount McKinley summit. In 1951, a more accessible route offered a shorter option and increased the wannabes. Sadly, though, it also increased the number of adventurers who perished on the peak. More than 100 have died trying to reach the top. Here’s to hoping more will make it to the top!