“TO THE TOP OF DENALI is a fact-filled adventure story that chronicles the climbing history of this 20,320-foot peak, and is classic mountaineering literature in the honored tradition.
“The beauty of Sherwonit’s writing style is not flash, but rather a subtlety that renders him nearly invisible. A journalist by trade, he demonstrates considerable skill in blending voluminous prose, placing the right quotation in just the right spot. In this way he seamlessly weaves text, quotes, and journal excerpts into a wonderfully homogeneous whole. The overall effect makes the reader feel like an eyewitness to the events.”
-- Joseph Ferguson, CLIMBING
“Going to Denali? Even if you’ve already suffered upon that mountain, Bill Shewonit’s TO THE TOP OF DENALI is a compelling read. . . its no-bullshit prose and hard-won anecdotes put it in a league with such classics as [Art] Davidson’s MINUS 148.”
-- Jonathan Waterman, ROCK & ICE
THE SOURDOUGH EXPEDITION, 1910
Choosing the most significant mountaineering accomplishment in Alaska’s climbing history is an imposing, if not impossible, task.
As the late Valdez physician and climber Andy Embick once explained, “There are just so many categories to consider. Are you talking about big-wall climbs? First ascents? Solo ascents? Winter climbs? Comparing those different kinds of climbs is like comparing apples and oranges. It just can’t be done.”
Perhaps. But, believing it would be fun — and educational — to try, I conducted an informal and quite unscientific telephone poll of approximately twenty veteran Alaska mountaineers to see if those most devoted to climbing and exploring Alaska’s high places could reach some consensus. I asked participants to name the mountaineering feat(s) they considered to be the most significant or noteworthy, with no limit on the number and types of choices.
The variety of responses was enormous. More than thirty expeditions received mention. Some, such as the first winter ascent of Mount McKinley by Art Davidson, Ray Genet, and Dave Johnston in 1967, are well-publicized mountaineering masterpieces. Others, such as John Waterman’s five-month solo of Mount Hunter in 1978, have received little public attention but are considered classics within the mountaineering community. From the many opinions offered, one expedition stood out from all the rest: the Sourdough Expedition of 1910. A handful of other climbs received as much mention, but none was so enthusiastically endorsed. The Sourdoughs were the first or second choice of about a third of all those polled.
Steve Davis’s response was typical of Sourdough supporters. “It’s phenomenal, what they did,” said Davis, an Anchorage-based marine fisheries biologist and mountaineer, who has served several years on the American Alpine Club’s board of directors. “The Sourdoughs pulled off one of the best pioneering efforts ever. Their ascent (from 11,000 feet to the summit of McKinley’s 19,470-foot North Peak) was the equivalent of an alpine-style climb; they did it so quickly. And carrying a huge spruce pole, no less.”
Former McKinley guide Jim Hale added, “For those guys to reach the top with homemade equipment and so little climbing experience, while hauling a spruce pole, is just incredible. It’s superhuman by today’s standards. Those guys had to be tough as nails.”
More than any other group of climbers, past or present, the Sourdoughs seem to symbolize the pioneering spirit and adventurous nature of what is often called the Alaskan mystique. Over the past eight decades, their ascent has become the stuff of legend, and rightly so. This group of four gold miners challenged North America’s highest peak with the most rudimentary gear and no technical climbing experience, simply to disprove explorer Frederick Cook’s claim of reaching the mountain’s summit in 1906 and to demonstrate that Alaskans could outdo the exploits — whether real or imagined — of any “Easterners.”
That they succeeded in a brazen style uniquely their own delights Todd Miner, who calls their ascent a “climbing masterpiece.” “To me, one of the most appealing aspects of the expedition is that it was a bunch of locals doing it,” said Miner, a mountaineer who for several years coordinated the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s Alaska Wilderness Studies Program. “It’s a classic case of Alaskans showing Outsiders how it’s done.”
The expedition reached its literal high point on April 3, 1910, when Sourdoughs Billy Taylor and Pete Anderson reached the top of McKinley’s 19,470-foot North Peak, widely recognized as a more difficult ascent than the higher — and ultimately more prestigious — 20,320-foot South Peak. The Sourdoughs’ reason for choosing the North Peak seemed quite logical at the time; the miners hoped that the fourteen-foot spruce pole, complete with a six-by twelve-foot American flag, they’d lugged up McKinley would be seen from Kantishna, the mining community north of the mountain, and serve as visible proof of their conquest.
Taylor and Anderson made their summit push from 11,000 feet. Hauling their flagpole, they climbed more than 8,000 vertical feet and then descended to camp in eighteen hours’ time — an outstanding feat by any mountaineering standard. (By comparison, most present-day McKinley expeditions climb no more than 3,000 to 4,000 vertical feet on summit day, which typically lasts ten to fifteen hours.) Yet the Sourdoughs’ final incredible ascent is merely one chapter in an altogether remarkable story that for many years was steeped in controversy and, as historian Terrence Cole notes, “is still shrouded in mystery.”
As seems to be the case with so many legendary Alaskan adventures, the Sourdough Expedition began with some barroom braggadocio. Or so the story goes. The expedition’s leader and instigator was Tom Lloyd, a Welshman and former Utah sheriff who came to Alaska during the Klondike gold rush, eventually settling in the Kantishna Hills north of Mount McKinley.
In the fall of 1909, Lloyd and several other patrons of a Fairbanks bar joined in a discussion that focused on Frederick Cook’s claim that he’d reached McKinley’s summit in 1906. As the Fairbanks Daily Times noted in 1909, “Ever since Dr. Cook described his ascent of Mount McKinley, Alaskans have been suspicious of the accuracy of this explorer.” Although Cook’s account was later demonstrated to be a hoax, in 1909 there was still no definitive proof that he’d lied.
According to Lloyd’s official account of the Sourdough Expedition, which appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on June 5, 1910, “[Bar owner] Bill McPhee and me were talking one day of the possibility of getting to the summit of Mount McKinley and I said I thought if anyone could make the climb there were several pioneers of my acquaintance who could. Bill said he didn’t believe that any living man could make the ascent.”
McPhee argued that the fifty-year-old Lloyd was too old and overweight for such an undertaking, to which the miner responded that “for two cents” he’d show it could be done. To call Lloyd’s bluff, McPhee offered to pay $500 to anyone who would climb McKinley and “prove whether that fellow Cook made the climb or not.”
After two other businessmen agreed to put up $500 each, Lloyd accepted the challenge. The proposed expedition was big news in Fairbanks, and before long it made local headlines. In his official account, Lloyd admitted, “Of course, after the papers got hold of the story we hated the idea of ever coming back here defeated.”
A seven-man party left Fairbanks in December 1909, accompanied by four horses, a mule, and a dog team. Their send-off included an editorial in the Fairbanks Daily Times, which promised, “Our boys will succeed . . . and they’ll show up Dr. Cook and the other ‘Outside’ doctors and expeditions.”
Original team members included Tom Lloyd, Billy Taylor, Pete Anderson, Charles McGonagall, C. E. Davidson, Bob Horne, and a person identified as W. Lloyd. But the latter three men quit before the actual climbing began, following a dispute between Tom Lloyd and Davidson, a talented surveyor/photographer whose role with the expedition, according to Cole, was “to map the route and keep track of elevations.”
In his account of the Sourdough Expedition, Terris Moore writes that Lloyd antagonized Davidson after the first of the team’s mountain camps had been established, further noting that one report mentions a fistfight. After that confrontation, Davidson departed for Fairbanks accompanied by Horne and W. Lloyd. The expedition was left with four members, all miners from the Kantishna District: Taylor was Lloyd’s mining partner; McGonagall and Anderson each had worked several years for the two property owners.
The Sourdoughs spent most of February establishing a series of camps in the lowlands and foothills on the north side of McKinley. By the end of the month, they’d set up their mountain base of operations near the mouth of Cache Creek at an elevation of about 2,900 feet, which they called the Willows Camp.
On March 1, the team began “prospecting for the big climb,” Lloyd wrote in his expedition diary. “Anderson and McGonagall examined the [Muldrow] glacier today. We call it the ‘Wall Street Glacier,’ being enclosed by exceedingly high walls on each side.” Three days later, they set up their first glacier camp. Lloyd, who’d lost the barometer loaned him by Davidson, estimated the camp’s elevation at 9,000 to 10,000 feet, but it was probably much lower. Team members then descended and spent the next several days cutting firewood and hauling it up the glacier, along with a wood-burning stove.
Traversing the Muldrow proved to be quite intimidating. As Lloyd explained in his diary:
"For the first four or five miles there are no crevasses in sight, as they have been blown full of snow, but the next eight miles are terrible for crevasses. You can look down in them for distances stretching from 100 feet to Hades or China. Look down one of them and you never will forget it. . . . Most of them appear to be bottomless. These are not good things to look at."
Despite the danger of a crevasse fall, the climbers traveled unroped, a practice most contemporary McKinley mountaineers would consider foolhardy. There’s no way to know whether the Sourdoughs’ decision was made in ignorance or disdain for such protection. Years later, when asked why the team chose not to use climbing ropes, Taylor simply answered, “Didn’t need them.” Such an attitude seems to reflect the Sourdoughs’ style. With the notable exception of their fourteen-foot flagpole, they chose to travel light.
The team had “less ‘junk’ with them than an Eastern excursion party would take along for a one-day’s outing in the hills,” wrote W. F. Thompson, editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, who prepared Lloyd’s story for publication in The New York Times. The Sourdoughs’ climbing gear consisted of only the bare essentials: snowshoes; homemade crampons, which they called creepers; and crude ice axes, which Lloyd described as “long poles with double hooks on one end — hooks made of steel — and a sharp steel point on the other end.” Their high-altitude food supplies included bacon, beans, flour, sugar, dried fruits, butter, coffee, hot chocolate, and caribou meat. To endure the subzero cold, they simply wore bib overalls, long underwear, shirts, parkas, mittens, shoepacs (insulated rubber boots), and Indian moccasins. (The moccasins that the pioneer McKinley climbers wore were like Eskimo mukluks: tall, above-the-calf footwear, dry-tanned, with a moose-hide sole and caribou-skin uppers. Worn with insoles and at least three pairs of wool socks, they were reportedly very warm and provided plenty of support.
Even their reading material was limited. The climbers brought only one magazine, which they read from end to end. “I don’t remember the name of the magazine,” Lloyd later commented, “but in our estimation it is the best magazine published in the world.”
Other essentials included wooden stakes for trail marking and poles for crevasse crossings. The poles were placed across crevasses too wide to jump; the men then piled snow between the poles, which hardened and froze, creating a bridge over which the climbers could travel on snowshoes.
The team reached the site of its third and final camp on March 17, at the head of the Muldrow Glacier. Lloyd estimated the elevation at “not less than 15,000 feet,” though later McKinley explorers determined the camp’s altitude could have been no higher than 11,000 feet. The climbers spent the next several days digging a protective tunnel into the snow, relaying supplies from lower camps, cutting steps into the ice along what is now called Karstens Ridge, and enduring stormy weather.
On April 1, the Sourdoughs made their first summit attempt. But they were forced by stormy weather to turn back. Two days later, they tried again. Outfitted with a bag of doughnuts, three thermos bottles of hot chocolate (and caribou meat, according to some accounts), and their fourteen-foot spruce pole, Taylor, Anderson, and McGonagall headed for the summit at 3:00 A.M. Lloyd apparently had moved down to the Willows Camp; exactly why isn’t clear, but he may have been suffering from altitude sickness. Unroped, without the benefit of any climbing aid other than their crude homemade crampons and ice axes, the three climbers ascended Karstens Ridge, crossed the Grand Basin — later to be named the Harper Glacier — and headed up a steep couloir now known as the Sourdough Gully.
A few hundred feet below the summit, McGonagall stopped. Years later, in a conversation with alpine historian Francis Farquhar, he explained, “No, I didn’t go clear to the top — why should I? I’d finished my turn carrying the pole before we got there. Taylor and Pete finished the job — I sat down and rested, then went back to camp.” Grant Pearson suggests otherwise in his book My Life of High Adventure, claiming that McGonagall fell victim to altitude sickness.
Taylor and Anderson continued on, however, still hauling their spruce pole. And sometime late in the afternoon, they concluded their unprecedented ascent by standing atop the North Peak’s summit.
Twenty-seven years later, in an interview eventually published in The American Alpine Journal, Taylor recalled that he and Anderson spent two and a half hours on top of the mountain, though the temperature reached as low as --–30°F that day. “It was colder than hell,” he reported. “Mitts and everything was all ice.”
Before descending back to camp, the Sourdoughs planted their pole, complete with American flag. Said Taylor, “We . . . built a pyramid of [rocks] about fifteen inches high and we dug down in the ice so the pole had a support of about thirty inches and was held by four guy lines — just cotton ropes. We fastened the guy lines to little spurs of rock.” Though they’d planned to leave their flagpole at the summit, the climbers were forced to plant it on the highest available rock outcropping, located a few hundred feet below the top.
Taylor and Anderson returned to the high camp late that night, completing their climb in eighteen hours. The next day, all members of the party were reunited at the Willows Camp. No attempt to climb the South Peak was made.
Their mission accomplished, Taylor, Anderson, and McGonagall returned to Kantishna. Lloyd, meanwhile, traveled to Fairbanks with news of the history-making ascent. Unfortunately, the Sourdough Expedition’s team leader decided to mix fantasy with fact, and the team’s true feat was transformed into an Alaskan tall tale. Returning to a hero’s welcome on April 11, Lloyd proclaimed that the entire party had reached the summits of both the North and South peaks. Furthermore, they’d found no evidence to substantiate Cook’s claims.
Word of the team’s success quickly spread. On April 12, the Fairbanks Daily Times published an account of the historic climb, and the story quickly made headlines around the country. According to historian Cole, “Congratulations poured in, including a telegram from President William Howard Taft.”
Not everyone took Lloyd’s word at face value, however. On April 16, The New York Times ran a story in which naturalist/explorer Charles Sheldon challenged Lloyd’s claims: "It is clearly the duty of the press . . . not to encourage full credibility in the reports of the alleged ascent until the facts and details are authoritatively published. Only Tom Lloyd apparently brought out the report, the other members of the party having remained in the Kantishna District 150 miles away; so we haven’t had their corroborative evidence."
Despite such published doubts, The New York Times successfully bid for first rights to a detailed report of the climb. And on June 5, the newspaper devoted three pages of its Sunday magazine section to the Sourdough Expedition; the package included a story of the ascent written by W. F. Thompson plus Lloyd’s own firsthand account, which featured entries from his daily record. A day later, the story ran in London’s Daily Telegraph.
Even as Thompson was preparing his New York Times article, the challenges to Lloyd’s account increased. Other evidence of the ascent was demanded, but photos taken during the expedition proved unsatisfactory. Lloyd felt enough pressure that he asked Taylor, Anderson, and McGonagall to repeat the climb and secure additional photos. In a little-known but fascinating adventure, the three climbers reascended McKinley in May. They reached Denali Pass (elevation about 18,200 feet) and took additional photographs of the mountain. Nearly forty years later, McGonagall recalled: “We didn’t camp — we just kept going for three days — it was light enough and we were all skookum [an Indian word meaning strong or heroic].” The photos resulting from the second climb remain one of the Sourdough Expedition’s many mysteries, because apparently they were never published.
With no solid proof to back up Lloyd’s boasts, skepticism continued to build, such doubts being reinforced in part by the Sourdough leader’s age and overweight condition; according to Taylor, Lloyd was “awful fat.” Before long, the Sourdoughs were looked on no more favorably than Cook, the man they’d hoped to discredit. According to Cole, "The contradictions in [Lloyd’s] story and the fact that he supposedly admitted in private to some of his friends that he had not climbed the mountain himself, eventually discredited the entire expedition. Soon the Sourdoughs and their flagpole were regarded as just one more fascinating frontier tale, about as believable as an exploit of Paul Bunyan."
Back in Kantishna, the other Sourdough team members were unaware that Lloyd’s false claims had caused their mountaineering feat to fall into disrepute. When interviewed in 1937, Taylor said, “He [Lloyd] 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. . . . We didn’t get out till June and then they didn’t believe any of us had climbed it.” Taylor also said that he didn‘t give prior approval to Lloyd’s account of the climb that appeared in The New York Times. Yet on June 11, each of the Sourdoughs signed a notarized statement that “a party of four in number known as the Lloyd party” had reached the North Peak at 3:25 P.M. on April 3, 1910. Whether they knew in advance of Lloyd’s fictitious account, or chose to go along with his claims because of some misplaced loyalty, none of the Sourdoughs publicly challenged their leader’s story until years later.
(There’s an interesting historical sidenote to the Sourdough Expedition. At least partly because of embarrassment about its role in the promotion of Lloyd’s story, the Fairbanks Daily Times organized its own McKinley expedition in 1912. Led by Ralph Cairns, the newspaper’s telegraph editor, the party reached McKinley’s base in late February. The climbers failed to find McGonagall Pass, which provides the easiest access to the Muldrow Glacier, and instead set up base camp on the Peters Glacier, following a similar route to that taken by Wickersham in 1903. Like the Wickersham party, the Cairns Expedition was turned back at about 10,000 feet by apparently unclimbable ice walls. On April 10, 1912, the Times ran a front-page story reporting the team’s failure.)
A final blow to the Sourdoughs’ believability was struck in 1912, when Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker reported that they saw no evidence of the fourteen-foot flagpole during their attempt to climb McKinley. Because Browne and Parker carefully documented their own ascent, great credibility was given to their point of view. In his report of the 1912 climb, Browne wrote, "On our journey up the glacier from below we had begun to study the North Peak. . . . Every rock and snow slope of that approach had come into the field of our powerful binoculars. We not only saw no sign of the flagpole, but it is our concerted opinion that the northern peak is more inaccessible than its higher southern sister."
Though Browne intended only to disprove the Sourdoughs’ claims, he ultimately paid them a great compliment by noting the greater difficulty faced in climbing the North Peak. Parker, meanwhile, was quoted as saying, “Dr. Cook didn’t have anything on the Lloyd party when it comes to fabrications.” Case closed. Or so it seemed at the time. The Sourdough story became generally accepted as nothing more than an Alaskan tale, until the following year.
In 1913, after a decade of seemingly unsuccessful attempts to reach the pinnacle of North America, an expedition led by Episcopal missionary Hudson Stuck placed all four of its members on McKinley’s 20,320-foot summit. And en route to the top, they spotted the Sourdoughs’ flagpole. The climbers made their exciting discovery from the Grand Basin, located between the North and South Peaks. In his mountaineering classic, The Ascent of Denali, Stuck recalls, "While we were resting. . . we fell to talking about the pioneer climbers of this mountain who claimed to have set a flagstaff near the summit of the North Peak — as to which feat a great deal of incredulity existed in Alaska for several reasons — and we renewed our determination that if the weather permitted when we had reached our goal and ascended the South Peak, we would climb the North Peak also to seek for traces of this earlier exploit on Denali. . . . All at once Walter [Harper] cried out: ‘I see the flagstaff!’
Eagerly pointing to the rocky prominence nearest the summit — the summit itself covered with snow — he added: ‘I see it plainly!’ [Harry] Karstens, looking where he pointed, saw it also and, whipping out the field glasses, one by one we all looked, and saw it distinctly standing out against the sky. With the naked eye I was never able to see it unmistakably, but through the glasses it stood out, sturdy and strong, one side covered with crusted snow. We were greatly rejoiced that we could carry down positive confirmation of this matter.
When Stuck returned to Kantishna and told members of the Sourdough party about his team’s sighting, “there was a feeling expressed that the climbing party of the previous summer [Belmore and Parker’s group] must have seen it also and had suppressed mention of it.” But Stuck concluded. "There is no ground for such a damaging assumption. It would never be seen with the naked eye save by those who were intently searching for it. Professor Parker and Mr. Belmore Browne entertained the pretty general incredulity about the ‘Pioneer’ ascent, perhaps too readily, certainly too confidently; but the men themselves must bear the chief blame for that. The writer and his party, knowing these men much better, have never [doubted] that some of them had accomplished what was claimed, and these details have been gone into for no other reason than that the honor may at least be given where honor is due."
It’s especially worth noting that Stuck’s party was the only group ever to verify the flagpole’s existence. The next expedition to climb the North Peak, two decades later in 1932, failed to find any evidence of the pole.
Except for the one chance sighting, the Sourdoughs’ story might always have been regarded as a tall tale. But thanks to the efforts of the 1913 expedition this group of skookum miners was finally and deservedly given credit for what Stuck called “a most extraordinary feat, unique — the writer has no hesitation in claiming — in all the annals of mountaineering.”
Eighty years later, the Sourdoughs’ achievement is still recognized as extraordinary. And certainly unique.
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