History

Triumph To Tragedy

Story and Media by
Jan Harper-Haines
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Jan Harper-Haines

In March of 1913, three men and two boys, led by Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, left Nenana with two dog teams, intent on reaching the base of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. One boy remained at base camp, the other returned to Nenana with one dog team, and the men tackled Denali.

On June 7, twenty-one year old Walter Harper became the first man in history to summit Denali, or The Great Mountain.

In 1992, my husband and I visited the Evergreen cemetery in Juneau, where my great uncle, Walter Harper, and his bride, Frances, are buried. The markers are concrete, flat and broken, as are many others nearby. Walter was Athabascan Indian and Irish. As such, he is referred to in history books as a half-breed.

My mother, Jane Harper Petri, was Walter’s niece. When I was very young, she told me his achievement was a major source of bragging material to her family. I heard so much about him, how my grandmother had been in love with him and a hundred other vignettes, that he seemed too famous to be real. Walter’s sister, Margaret, said, “He had personality, scads of it. Everybody liked him…the girls were crazy about him.” As it turned out, my grandmother was one of those girls.

“So why didn’t she marry him?” I asked.

Mom shrugged. “All the girls knew Archdeacon Stuck (Walter’s teacher and mentor) had plans for Walter’s education, including college. They didn’t include being burdened down by marriage and kids!”

Until he was sixteen, Walter spoke only his mother’s language, Koyukon Athabascan. Under the tutelage of Dr. Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal archdeacon, Walter learned to speak, read and write in English. When Stuck traveled to villages, Walter served as his interpreter. In the winter, he was Stuck’s dog handler and in the summer his boat engineer. Stuck said of Walter, “He was the best that the mixed blood can produce….” I try not to be offended by Stuck’s well-intentioned, but backhanded compliment. It reflected the times and racial divide even more prevalent in those years.

Stuck had assembled a mountaineering party of six, but he was the only one with climbing experience. Even then, he described himself in his book, The Ascent of Denali, as only a missionary. Walter was strong and able, but not a climber. In 2007, his nephew, Don Harper, said in a television interview, “To my knowledge, I don’t think (Walter) climbed anything (before Denali).”

The rest of the party included Robert Tatum, a postulant for holy orders, Harry Karstens, an experienced outdoorsman, and two Athabascan boys—John Fredson, fifteen and Esaias George, fourteen.

In preparation for the climb, Stuck had ordered supplies from Seattle. Only half arrived. Much of what did arrive was useless. Stuck described the ice-axes as “ridiculous gold-painted toys with detachable heads and broomstick handles…the points splintered the first time they were used.” Working with a budget of $1,000, additional money was needed to have axes, crampons and silk tents made in Fairbanks. When the heavy regulation alpine boots Stuck had ordered arrived in sizes too small, he bought rubber-soled snow packs and attached leather soles and nails. The men also wore large size moccasins along with “five pairs of socks.”

After months of preparation and caching supplies ahead on the trail by dog team and boat, the party left Nenana with fourteen dogs and two sleds. Their cached supplies in Kantishna weighed one and a half tons and it took several trips to move everything some fifty miles to the base of Denali.

There were no maps or notes from previous expeditions, just a few photographs, which were no help since an earthquake had struck after they were taken. According to Walter Borneman in his book, Alaska, Saga of a Bold Land, the quake altered the smooth ridge at Muldrow Glacier, and “Karstens and Harper (spent) an exhausting three weeks chopping a three mile long staircase in the shattered ice of the ridge.”

Excerpts from Walter’s diary:  

May 10, 1913. It blew a gale all day and we had to stay in camp waiting for it to subside…. Mr. Karstens experimented with an alcohol stove…the stove burns long enough to boil a pot of tea.

May 11, 1013. The sun was shining brightly…we had heavy packs on our backs and we toiled up the ridge gasping for breath…

May 14, 1913. The weather is still uncertain… Archdeacon gave me dictation lesson from one of Shakespeare’s small pocket edition(s). 

Mr. Tatum had neuralgia in his jaw all day and I think if we can go out tomorrow he will be unable to go with us.

May 15, 1913. We got up at five o’clock…the sun shone brightly, beating down on the ice ridges and the snow slopes, causing many avalanches. We went up the ridge… an altitude of thirteen thousand feet.

May 17, 1913. …We heard an avalanche… it was rolling down the mountainside like a roaring of thunder…. raising a cloud one thousand feet or more.

May 18, 1913… snowing heavily. We had morning service…Today is Trinity Sunday. It has been two months and two days since we left Nenana. It is very tedious staying in the tent all day waiting for the weather to clear.

June 7, 1913, Saturday. Mr. K had a headache and Tatum had another and the Archdeacon could not move without losing his breath and our spirits were all pretty low… It was one o’clock when we got to the top. I was ahead all day and was the first ever to set foot on Mt. Denali. We lost no time in setting up the little instrument tent and while the Archdeacon was reading the mercurial barometer I boiled the boiling point thermometer.

June 8, 1913. We took a last glimpse at the north and south peaks of Mt. Denali and turned our faces toward the lowlands.

June 9, 1913…we made our way down to the base-camp and found Johnnie well and happy and the dogs rolling fat…. This morning we were at the glacier camp in the season of winter and now we are at the base camp in the season of summer…

A year later, with Hudson Stuck’s (and the Episcopal church) sponsorship, Walter entered the Mount Hermon School for Boys in Massachusetts. At first he struggled, adjusting to the white culture – discovering that debate was not disrespectful arguing (a big Athabascan no-no). Still, he learned, earned passing marks, and was popular with faculty and other students. After three years, still hoping to become a missionary doctor, Walter returned to Alaska and was tutored by Stuck in preparation for a medical education.

A year later, typhoid returned to Alaska with a vengeance. Walter wound up in Fort Yukon’s Mission Hospital. There he met Frances Wells, a young nurse from Philadelphia, and they became engaged. With her encouragement they began making plans to return to the States where he could continue his education. Archdeacon Stuck officiated at their wedding and two weeks later, in late October, 1918, Walter and Frances caught the train to Skagway.

There they boarded The Princess Sophia—the last ship leaving Alaska before freeze-up—joined by over 300 passengers and crew, plus a number of horses and dogs. The Sophia’s route south was through the Lynn Canal. It is riddled with reefs. The most dangerous, Vanderbilt Reef, is a mile wide and lies in the middle of the canal. It is marked with red and black buoys, visible during the day, but invisible at night.

A few hours out of Skagway, the Sophia found herself battling heavy rollers and ferocious gales. In the blinding storm, she struck Vanderbilt reef with a grinding jolt that flung her crew about and passengers from their beds.

Over the next several hours, ten ships responded to her distress call. It was clear, however, to the Sophia’s Captain Locke that an approaching ship could crash into the Sophia or also run aground. With reluctance, he warned them away, relaying his hope that the Sophia would float free when the tide came in.

Two days later when the tide came in, the storm was still raging. To Locke’s horror, instead of floating free, the Sophia spun, grinding and shattering her hull on the rocky reef. Thousands of gallons of bunker oil spilled when the boiler burst. In the icy storm, the wind-blown spray congealed, coating panicked passengers who were now leaping overboard. Of the ten lifeboats, all sank.

Authors Coates and Morrison wrote in The Sinking of the Princess Sophia that the sole survivor was an English setter that had made its way to Auke Bay “where residents discovered it two days later, terrified, half starved and covered with oil.” Over the next several weeks, bodies were found and taken to Juneau. There, many, including those of Walter and Frances, were buried.

As I learned more about that final day, I came across three faded black and white photographs of the Sophia in her final moments. They are sobering and eerie. The tragedy of Walter and Frances and others aboard that death ship is shocking.

Walter had tried, as many of us do, and succeeded, as some of us do. He was the first man—and Native at that—to succeed where others had failed. As I read of his trials and tribulations—struggling in school, treated as an inferior due to his race—he no longer seemed unreal, his amazing achievements no longer unbelievable. His legacy is significant. He represents life and humanity with its hopes and dreams, courage and efforts, sliding back at times, but always moving ahead.

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Triumph To Tragedy

History

Author

Jan Harper-Haines

Jan Harper-Haines enjoyed gathering the oral stories of her Athabascan mother and grandmother and their lives on the Yukon. Her book, COLD RIVER SPIRITS, Whispers From A Family’s Forgotten Past, grew out of these early stories. She is a graduate of Anchorage High School and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. She is a former secondary education teacher and has had a twenty-year career in advertising and marketing.

In March of 1913, three men and two boys, led by Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, left Nenana with two dog teams, intent on reaching the base of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. One boy remained at base camp, the other returned to Nenana with one dog team, and the men tackled Denali.

On June 7, twenty-one year old Walter Harper became the first man in history to summit Denali, or The Great Mountain.

In 1992, my husband and I visited the Evergreen cemetery in Juneau, where my great uncle, Walter Harper, and his bride, Frances, are buried. The markers are concrete, flat and broken, as are many others nearby. Walter was Athabascan Indian and Irish. As such, he is referred to in history books as a half-breed.

My mother, Jane Harper Petri, was Walter’s niece. When I was very young, she told me his achievement was a major source of bragging material to her family. I heard so much about him, how my grandmother had been in love with him and a hundred other vignettes, that he seemed too famous to be real. Walter’s sister, Margaret, said, “He had personality, scads of it. Everybody liked him…the girls were crazy about him.” As it turned out, my grandmother was one of those girls.

“So why didn’t she marry him?” I asked.

Mom shrugged. “All the girls knew Archdeacon Stuck (Walter’s teacher and mentor) had plans for Walter’s education, including college. They didn’t include being burdened down by marriage and kids!”

Until he was sixteen, Walter spoke only his mother’s language, Koyukon Athabascan. Under the tutelage of Dr. Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal archdeacon, Walter learned to speak, read and write in English. When Stuck traveled to villages, Walter served as his interpreter. In the winter, he was Stuck’s dog handler and in the summer his boat engineer. Stuck said of Walter, “He was the best that the mixed blood can produce….” I try not to be offended by Stuck’s well-intentioned, but backhanded compliment. It reflected the times and racial divide even more prevalent in those years.

Stuck had assembled a mountaineering party of six, but he was the only one with climbing experience. Even then, he described himself in his book, The Ascent of Denali, as only a missionary. Walter was strong and able, but not a climber. In 2007, his nephew, Don Harper, said in a television interview, “To my knowledge, I don’t think (Walter) climbed anything (before Denali).”

The rest of the party included Robert Tatum, a postulant for holy orders, Harry Karstens, an experienced outdoorsman, and two Athabascan boys—John Fredson, fifteen and Esaias George, fourteen.

In preparation for the climb, Stuck had ordered supplies from Seattle. Only half arrived. Much of what did arrive was useless. Stuck described the ice-axes as “ridiculous gold-painted toys with detachable heads and broomstick handles…the points splintered the first time they were used.” Working with a budget of $1,000, additional money was needed to have axes, crampons and silk tents made in Fairbanks. When the heavy regulation alpine boots Stuck had ordered arrived in sizes too small, he bought rubber-soled snow packs and attached leather soles and nails. The men also wore large size moccasins along with “five pairs of socks.”

After months of preparation and caching supplies ahead on the trail by dog team and boat, the party left Nenana with fourteen dogs and two sleds. Their cached supplies in Kantishna weighed one and a half tons and it took several trips to move everything some fifty miles to the base of Denali.

There were no maps or notes from previous expeditions, just a few photographs, which were no help since an earthquake had struck after they were taken. According to Walter Borneman in his book, Alaska, Saga of a Bold Land, the quake altered the smooth ridge at Muldrow Glacier, and “Karstens and Harper (spent) an exhausting three weeks chopping a three mile long staircase in the shattered ice of the ridge.”

Excerpts from Walter’s diary:  

May 10, 1913. It blew a gale all day and we had to stay in camp waiting for it to subside…. Mr. Karstens experimented with an alcohol stove…the stove burns long enough to boil a pot of tea.

May 11, 1013. The sun was shining brightly…we had heavy packs on our backs and we toiled up the ridge gasping for breath…

May 14, 1913. The weather is still uncertain… Archdeacon gave me dictation lesson from one of Shakespeare’s small pocket edition(s). 

Mr. Tatum had neuralgia in his jaw all day and I think if we can go out tomorrow he will be unable to go with us.

May 15, 1913. We got up at five o’clock…the sun shone brightly, beating down on the ice ridges and the snow slopes, causing many avalanches. We went up the ridge… an altitude of thirteen thousand feet.

May 17, 1913. …We heard an avalanche… it was rolling down the mountainside like a roaring of thunder…. raising a cloud one thousand feet or more.

May 18, 1913… snowing heavily. We had morning service…Today is Trinity Sunday. It has been two months and two days since we left Nenana. It is very tedious staying in the tent all day waiting for the weather to clear.

June 7, 1913, Saturday. Mr. K had a headache and Tatum had another and the Archdeacon could not move without losing his breath and our spirits were all pretty low… It was one o’clock when we got to the top. I was ahead all day and was the first ever to set foot on Mt. Denali. We lost no time in setting up the little instrument tent and while the Archdeacon was reading the mercurial barometer I boiled the boiling point thermometer.

June 8, 1913. We took a last glimpse at the north and south peaks of Mt. Denali and turned our faces toward the lowlands.

June 9, 1913…we made our way down to the base-camp and found Johnnie well and happy and the dogs rolling fat…. This morning we were at the glacier camp in the season of winter and now we are at the base camp in the season of summer…

A year later, with Hudson Stuck’s (and the Episcopal church) sponsorship, Walter entered the Mount Hermon School for Boys in Massachusetts. At first he struggled, adjusting to the white culture – discovering that debate was not disrespectful arguing (a big Athabascan no-no). Still, he learned, earned passing marks, and was popular with faculty and other students. After three years, still hoping to become a missionary doctor, Walter returned to Alaska and was tutored by Stuck in preparation for a medical education.

A year later, typhoid returned to Alaska with a vengeance. Walter wound up in Fort Yukon’s Mission Hospital. There he met Frances Wells, a young nurse from Philadelphia, and they became engaged. With her encouragement they began making plans to return to the States where he could continue his education. Archdeacon Stuck officiated at their wedding and two weeks later, in late October, 1918, Walter and Frances caught the train to Skagway.

There they boarded The Princess Sophia—the last ship leaving Alaska before freeze-up—joined by over 300 passengers and crew, plus a number of horses and dogs. The Sophia’s route south was through the Lynn Canal. It is riddled with reefs. The most dangerous, Vanderbilt Reef, is a mile wide and lies in the middle of the canal. It is marked with red and black buoys, visible during the day, but invisible at night.

A few hours out of Skagway, the Sophia found herself battling heavy rollers and ferocious gales. In the blinding storm, she struck Vanderbilt reef with a grinding jolt that flung her crew about and passengers from their beds.

Over the next several hours, ten ships responded to her distress call. It was clear, however, to the Sophia’s Captain Locke that an approaching ship could crash into the Sophia or also run aground. With reluctance, he warned them away, relaying his hope that the Sophia would float free when the tide came in.

Two days later when the tide came in, the storm was still raging. To Locke’s horror, instead of floating free, the Sophia spun, grinding and shattering her hull on the rocky reef. Thousands of gallons of bunker oil spilled when the boiler burst. In the icy storm, the wind-blown spray congealed, coating panicked passengers who were now leaping overboard. Of the ten lifeboats, all sank.

Authors Coates and Morrison wrote in The Sinking of the Princess Sophia that the sole survivor was an English setter that had made its way to Auke Bay “where residents discovered it two days later, terrified, half starved and covered with oil.” Over the next several weeks, bodies were found and taken to Juneau. There, many, including those of Walter and Frances, were buried.

As I learned more about that final day, I came across three faded black and white photographs of the Sophia in her final moments. They are sobering and eerie. The tragedy of Walter and Frances and others aboard that death ship is shocking.

Walter had tried, as many of us do, and succeeded, as some of us do. He was the first man—and Native at that—to succeed where others had failed. As I read of his trials and tribulations—struggling in school, treated as an inferior due to his race—he no longer seemed unreal, his amazing achievements no longer unbelievable. His legacy is significant. He represents life and humanity with its hopes and dreams, courage and efforts, sliding back at times, but always moving ahead.

No items found.

Author

Jan Harper-Haines

Author & Media

Jan Harper-Haines

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