Impossible Heights: The Alaskan Miners Who Conquered Mount McKinley | HistoryNet

Impossible Heights: The Alaskan Miners Who Conquered Mount McKinley

By Jason Strykowski
10/5/2017 • Wild West Magazine

The Sourdough Expedition was a sweet success—sort of.

Following his departure from Fairbanks, Alaska, in December 1909, miner Thomas Lloyd had sent only one communication out of the frigid Alaskan interior. The short message, delivered by a fellow miner sometime later, conveyed only that Lloyd had lost some weight and that his expedition was in fine shape. When Lloyd himself finally emerged from the woods in April of the following year, he was greeted with great enthusiasm and even greater curiosity. The people of Fairbanks, their patience exhausted, wanted to know if he had reached the top of North America’s greatest peak— Mount McKinley. In response, Lloyd told them a tale so fantastic that some found it nearly unbelievable, and others outright rejected it.

Thanks to the exploits of Frederick Cook, a New York physician and explorer best known for traversing the arctic in frantic competition with Robert Peary, the summit of Mount McKinley dominated conversations at Alaskan diggings and towns years before Lloyd made his fateful trip. In 1903 and again in 1906,

Cook made summit bids. After the 1906 trip Cook claimed victory and then quickly rushed an adventure log of the climb into print. The book catapulted Cook into fame and made him a figure of international controversy. Cook’s boast fascinated some Alaskans and perturbed others. That an Easterner, unaccustomed to Alaska’s harsh conditions, could saunter into the most remote wilderness and take the summit as a prize seemed unfathomable. Skeptical Alaskans soon had their suspicions confirmed when doubts surfaced concerning Cook’s photographs from the trip.

One man who took a doubtful view of Cook’s claim was Thomas Lloyd. As he sat in a Fairbanks saloon one day in November 1909 discussing Cook’s debacle with bartender Bill McPhee, their conversation drifted toward the difficulty of a McKinley ascent. Egging on Lloyd, the bartender wagered he couldn’t make it to the top. Out of shape and more than 50 years old, Lloyd seemed to have little chance of success, despite his insistence he had recently ventured up much of the mountain. Still, Lloyd took the bet. He would risk his life for a matter of pride and a 2-cent wager, although McPhee and others would later contribute some $1,500 to fund the trip.

Lloyd went about assembling the finest group of local mountaineers he could find. A far cry from the elite explorers of Cook’s caliber, Lloyd chose a crew of hardened local miners accustomed to the Alaskan woods though not necessarily to high-altitude exploration. Worse yet, only one of the three miners Lloyd convinced to make the summit attempt was under age 40: Billy Taylor was 27. Charley McGonagall and Pete Anderson were 40 and 42 years old, respectively. The older mining vets, especially those who had worked in the Lower 48, were known as “Sourdoughs,” a nod to their penchant for using sourdough to make bread. Thirty years after the climb, when asked why Lloyd chose these men to accompany him, Taylor replied, “He just knew fellers who were pretty skookum.”

What the miners lacked in physical ability they made up for in local knowledge. Like many in the region, Lloyd and his compatriots came to the Fairbanks area on the heels of yet another gold rush. This one brought men to the foothills of Mount McKinley around 1903, where gold deposits led to placer and hardrock mining. Each of Lloyd’s compatriots had years of experience in the mines around McKinley, so they felt confident they could handle the unforgiving terrain and freezing conditions on the mountain. They also had practice hunting and dogsledding in the Alaskan tundra—skills that would aid them on the long approach.

Accordingly, the Sourdoughs prepared with remarkable insight—or perhaps foolish arrogance. On their dogsleds they packed only the bare essentials, including dried fruit, dried meat, coffee and, of course, doughnuts. They brought scant climbing gear. Even the best equipment from that era fell far short of the quality gear available today, but the Sourdoughs carried little more than homemade crampons and rudimentary down sleeping bags. They were quick and unencumbered, save for a 14-foot spruce pole topped by a 6-by- 12-foot American flag they hoped to plant on the summit.

Thus supplied and rationed, the men struck out in the dead of winter, likely to capitalize on the relatively stable ice and snow conditions. The other seasons, while more temperate, also experience shifting glaciers and ice fields, making for a dangerous ascent.The Sourdough party mushed out of Fairbanks and into the forbidding Denali foothills on a journey that would last nearly four months.

When Lloyd returned to Fairbanks in April 1910—the other Sourdoughs having returned to their respective hometowns —he greeted admiring citizens with a tale well worth the wait. Despite the cold and heights, he claimed, his team had reached the peak and raised the flagpole.

Trouble was, nobody could see the pole, not even with a telescope. This lack of evidence, coupled with Lloyd’s outlandish claim that the team had ascended both McKinley’s North and South summits, made Alaskans suspicious. McKinley is massive, and it would require superhuman endurance to push up both summits in a single ascent, as Lloyd claimed to have done in an article published in The New York Times.

Lloyd’s story came under fire, and in short order multiple renditions of the Sourdough Expedition were circulating through Fairbanks. Perhaps due to Lloyd’s own admissions to friends, some in Alaska suspected he had not reached either summit, staying at 11,000 feet to nurse a cold or perhaps altitude sickness, but that Taylor and Anderson had made it to the North Summit (19,470 feet). If that was the case, the Sourdoughs fell just 850 feet shy of reaching the top of North America. For their part, Taylor, McGonagall and Anderson made a pact to let Lloyd do the talking, perhaps out of respect for his role as organizer and in recognition of his need for attention. Only after Lloyd’s death, or in the presence of friends, did Taylor, McGonagall or Anderson amend Lloyd’s account.

As plausible as this more modest summit may have seemed, Lloyd had still lost credibility among peers due to his vanity and exaggerations. Just as Alaskans dismissed Cook’s story, they soon counted Lloyd’s account as another piece of unlikely fiction. In support of Lloyd, Taylor, McGonagall and Anderson went so far as to retrace part of the climb to take more photographs; the first prints were indecipherable, as no one on the expedition could use the new Kodak. But it was too late. The greatest mountaineering feat yet achieved by some of America’s toughest laborers had become little but a fanciful yarn.

The succeeding century has held the achievement of the Sourdough Expedition to a height it may never have reached. While many Alaskans were quick to assume that Lloyd was yet another grand standing showman, the fledgling mountaineering community rallied around him and soon furnished evidence to partially support his story. In June 1913 Hudson Stuck, an archdeacon and explorer, made the first undisputed climb to Mount McKinley’s true summit, the South Summit. Along the way he spotted the flagpole Lloyd’s crew had erected. Although Stuck did not photograph the pole, he wrote, “Taylor and Anderson reached the top (about 20,000 feet above the sea) and firmly planted the flagstaff, which is there yet.” He heralded the Sourdough summit as a “most extraordinary feat, unique…in all the annals of mountaineering.”

For his part, Lloyd went to his deathbed claiming that members of his Sourdough Expedition had reached the top of McKinley and planted a flagpole. But over time the other members of the group told conflicting stories to friends and writers. They eventually admitted that only Taylor and Anderson had reached the North Summit and that none of them had reached the South Summit, but they fervently maintained they had conquered the tallest mountain in the United States. McGonagall even made the peculiar boast that he too could have reached the North Summit but had opted to wait below, as it was not his turn to carry the pole. In later interviews the men insisted they had selected the lower summit only because that peak was more demanding and more visible from Fairbanks. The exact ground the Sourdough climbers covered remains unknown.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.  

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