UA museum exhibit marks centennial of first successful Mt. McKinley summit

Guest curator Angela Linn displays the original journal of Harry Karstens.
   FAIRBANKS — Pulling on a pair of purple, sterilized, rubber gloves, Angela Linn delicately picked up a small, wallet-sized notebook and opened it to reveal neat handwriting filling the tiny pages.

   “The paper is super sensitive to the oils in your hand, and I want to make sure I don’t transfer any oils to the paper,” said Linn, a curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, explaining the reason for the gloves.


   The small notebook she held in her hand was the original journal of Harry Karstens, one of the four men who became the first to stand on top of North America’s tallest peak, Mount McKinley, in 1913.

   “It even has the original pencil,” Linn said, pointing a gloved finger at a small pencil slid into a band on the side of the notebook. “That’s pretty cool.”

   Carefully flipping the pages, Linn stopped to show different sketches that Karstens had drawn in the little book during the three-month expedition.

   “He’s the only one who did any drawing in his journal,” she said.

   Karstens’ journal, as well as the journals of the three other climbers on the trip, is among the items featured in an exhibit at the museum to commemorate the historic climb by Karstens and his companions, the legendary Alaska missionary, Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper and Robert Tatum, who became the first climbers to stand on top of 20,320-foot Denali on June 7, 1913.

   The exhibit, titled “Denali Legacy: 100 Years on the Mountain,” opened Saturday and will be on display for 11 months at the museum on campus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

   Journals on loan

   Linn, who is the museum’s collections manager for ethnology and history, has spent the past year and a half preparing the exhibit. The first step was acquiring the journals each climber kept during the expedition.

   The American Geographical Society in New York agreed to let the museum borrow Stuck’s two journals, while the American Alpine Club in Colorado did the same for the small one Karstens kept. UAF already had Harper’s journal, which is stored at the Alaska Polar Regions Collection and Archive, and the University of Tennessee agreed to loan Tatum’s journal for the exhibit.

   Visitors won’t be able to flip through the pages of the journals — they will displayed inside a locked, glass case — but the exhibit will give them a feel for what’s inside them.

   Daily excerpts from the diaries are mounted along a jagged blue timeline that runs around the walls of the exhibit room. The “ascent line,” as Linn called it, tracks the climbing party’s daily progress up and down the mountain during the 60-day expedition. In addition to daily diary accounts, the timeline features audio recordings by family descendants and actors reading excerpts from the diaries, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Stuck during the climb.

   The real story

   While Stuck’s 1918 book, “Ascent of Denali,” told the story of the first successful climb of North America’s tallest peak, it didn’t tell the whole story. Stuck’s book was written solely from Stuck’s point of view, Linn said. The journals of Karstens, Harper and Tatum paint a different picture, she said.

   “We have known of this story only in the words of Hudson Stuck and there were four other guys up there and they had their own perception of what happened,” said Linn, who read each journal in its entirety and is the one who selected the excerpts for the timeline. “Stuck didn’t talk about the human drama — the bickering, the fighting, the uneven distribution of work.”

   The journal of the fifth member of the party, John Fredson, a young Native man who stayed behind at base camp to care for the group’s seven sled dogs, was never found and was probably lost during the 1967 flood in Fairbanks, Linn said.

   Though Stuck was primarily the one who got credit for leading the expedition, it was Karstens and Harper who did most of the physical work, Linn said. The fact that Stuck was considered the leader of the expedition never sat well with Karstens. After the climb, for example, Karstens and Stuck never spoke again, though Stuck sent Karstens several letters in an attempt to communicate.

   “That’s the kind of thing you get from the journals,” she said. “It humanizes the story. You get to understand who they are as people, what their concerns were, what they were scared of, what happens after they come home.

   “You really do feel like you’re opening up somebody’s diary and reading something you really weren’t intended to read,” Linn said.

   Expedition artifacts

   In addition to the journals, the exhibit features several other artifacts from the 1913 expedition that families of the climbers or the National Park Service loaned to UAF. 

  The artifacts include the flag that Tatum fabricated from two silk handkerchiefs and the lining of a padded noodle can. The climbers flew the flag on the summit. Tatum’s great-grandnephew found the flag “all wadded up in a shoe box,” Linn said.

    “Getting ahold of that was a big coup,” she said.

   Other artifacts from the climb include Karstens’ ice ax; one of the tie pins Stuck had made for each member of the party by Tiffany & Co. with granite the climbers collected on the mountain; a leather satchel that Karstens took to the summit; a communion kit that Stuck, an Episcopal archdeacon, carried with him on the mountain; and a thermometer in a wooden case with Stuck’s name on it that Stuck left on the mountain. It was found by another expedition 20 years later.

   “These artifacts will allow visitors to connect with the climbers in a way that simple words on paper cannot,” Linn said.

   Climbing history

   The exhibit also features an interactive scale model of Denali built from thin strips of laser-cut birch plywood. The mountain lights up with a touch of a screen, showing the 16 different climbing routes on the mountain, a short description of the routes, the number of climbers who have attempted to climb the mountain each year and the corresponding success rates. The animated information is accompanied by sound recordings taken on the mountain by the National Park Service to give visitors a sense of what it would be like to stand in a particular place.

   “We’re really only focusing on the 1913 climb in the exhibit,” Linn said. “This is where people can get into the history of climbing on the mountain.”

  While the exhibit, which was funded by a $50,000 donation by the National Park Service, is specific to the 1913 climb, it does feature other aspects about the history of the mountain, including photographs by and information about cartographer Bradford Washburn, who pioneered the West Buttress route. There is also history and artifacts from the 1910 Sourdough Expedition, a group of four Fairbanksans with no climbing experience who reached the shorter north peak of the mountain.


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