The Sourdough Expedition to Mount McKinley

(by Barry O’Flynn, September 2007)
The first ascent of Denali, a unique and extraordinary feat by a team of greenhorns with makeshift equipment succeeding where experts failed.

In 1897 Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in Alaska, was named after United States president William McKinley but with the passage of time and in line with the current practice of using native names it is now known as Denali. This is the name officially recognized by the State of Alaska: in the Athabaskan language it means ‘the high one’. Even under good conditions Denali is a serious climb. The North Peak of the mountain reaches to 19,470 feet (5,934m) and is acknowledged to be a more difficult ascent than the higher 20,320 foot (6,194m) South Peak.

In 1906 the explorer Frederick Cook asserted he had climbed the mountain, a claim subsequently disproved. Cook was a bit of a fantasist – he also insisted he was the first to reach the North Pole but an examination of his logbooks showed he did not get within a donkey’s gallop of Latitude 90 North.

In 1909 while the controversy over Cook’s claim still raged local pride, well lubricated by alcohol, was outraged. The mining community, the Sourdoughs, did not believe Cook’s story and determined that if anyone were to climb the mountain a team of prospectors would do it. The prime mover of the expedition was Tom Lloyd, a Welshman and a former sheriff in the state of Utah. He came to Alaska during the Klondike gold rush and settled in the Kantishna Hills north of Mount McKinley as it was then called. According to Lloyd ‘Bill McPhee [the bar owner] 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 ridiculed Lloyd saying that he was too old (he was fifty) and too over weight for such an undertaking to which the miner responded that for two cents he would show it could be done. To call Lloyd’s bluff, McPhee offered to pay $500 to anyone who would climb McKinley. Two other businessmen agreed to put up $500 each and Lloyd accepted the challenge. The Sourdough Expedition was on.

If you are not familiar with the poems of Robert Service or the stories of Jack London you are probably wondering who or what is a Sourdough. During the gold rushes prospectors used dough starters to make leavened bread. These starters were carefully protected and were carried by the miners from claim site to claim site. For the evening meal gold dust pans were swapped for bread pans. It was not unknown for a miner to ensure the viability of the dough by taking his crock of starter to bed with him to keep it warm on chilly frontier nights. The men with the jars of starter were called sourdoughs and eventually the words sourdough and prospector became interchangeable. From California the prospectors followed the gold to the Klondike.

In December 1909 the expedition set out. A seven-man party, later reduced to four, left Fairbanks accompanied by four horses, a mule and a dog team. The final line up consisted of Tom Lloyd, Billy Taylor, Pete Anderson, and Charles McGonagall, all miners from the Kantishna district. The Sourdoughs spent most of February establishing a series of camps in the lowlands and foothills on the north side of McKinley. During the following month they set up their base camp, which they called the Willows Camp, near the mouth of Cache Creek at an elevation of about 2,900 feet (884m). Their objective was the North Peak because the miners hoped that a fourteen-foot spruce pole with a six by twelve foot American flag that they intended to carry up the mountain would be seen from Kantishna and prove that they had made the ascent.

On the 1st March they began probing for a route upwards. Lloyd wrote ‘Anderson and McGonagall examined the glacier today. We called it the Wall Street Glacier being enclosed by exceedingly high walls on each side.’  This glacier is now known as the Muldrow Glacier. Three days later they set up their second camp. They estimated the height to be about nine or ten thousand feet but this is probably an exaggeration. The Sourdoughs went back down the mountain and for several days cut firewood which, along with a wood-burning stove, they hauled up the glacier. Lloyd’s description of the glacier says ‘For the first four or five miles there are no crevasses in sight, as they are full of blown 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 will never forget it. Most of them appear bottomless.’ As it was his first time on a high mountain we can permit Lloyd a little hyperbole in his description. The climbers did not use ropes because as Taylor said later ‘We did not need them.’ This was typical of the Sourdoughs’ style. With the exception of the fourteen-foot flagpole, they choose to travel light.

An article in the New York Times gave details of the Sourdoughs’ equipment. Home-made crampons which they called ‘creepers’, snowshoes and long poles fitted with a steel hook at one end and a spike on the other. Their clothing consisted of overalls, long underwear, parkas and mittens. For footwear they had mukluks. The Inuit developed these boots – knee high, dry-tanned with caribou skin uppers and moose hide soles. They carried wooden stakes to mark their trail and poles for crossing crevasses. If confronted by a crevasse too wide to jump they bridged it with the poles, heaped them with snow, which froze creating a bridge over the void. For food the Sourdoughs had beans, flour, bacon, sugar, dried fruit, coffee, butter and caribou meat.

On March 17th, the Sourdoughs set up their third and last camp at the head of the Muldrow Glacier which they estimated to be ‘not less than 15,000 feet.’ Later climbers established the site to be at 11,000 feet. Taking a leaf from the Inuit’s book they spent several days digging a snow tunnel for protection from the elements, ferrying supplies from the lower camps and cutting steps in the ice along the Karstens Ridge. Thanks to the snow tunnel they successfully sat out a spell of stormy weather.

The Sourdoughs made their summit attempt on 1st April but were forced back by bad weather. Two days later they tried again carrying the fourteen-foot spruce pole and food supplies consisting of doughnuts, caribou meat and three thermos flasks of hot drink. The summit party consisting of Taylor, Anderson and McGonagall set out at 3.00 a.m. – a true Alpine start. For some reason or other Lloyd had returned to Willows Camp: he may have been suffering from altitude sickness. Without the protection of a rope the three climbers surmounted the Karstens Ridge, traversed the Harper Glacier and scaled a steep couloir since known as the Sourdough Gully. Not far from the summit McGonagall stopped explaining later, ‘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.’ As with Lloyd he may have been suffering from altitude sickness. The other two, Taylor and Anderson, climbed on still lugging the flagpole. At 3.25 p.m. on April 3rd, 1910 they were standing on the North Peak. They had made the summit push from 11,000 feet (3352m). Encumbered with the flagpole they climbed more than 8,000 feet (about 2500m) and then returned to their camp site in eighteen hours. An extraordinary feat of mountaineering.

Before descending they set up the spruce pole with the American flag. Taylor said, ’We . . . built a pyramid of [rocks] about fifteen inches high and we dug down into the ice so the pole had a support of thirty inches and was held by four guy lines – just cotton ropes. We fastened the guy lines to little spurs of rock.’

Back in Kantishna the Sourdoughs were welcomed as heroes but soon doubts set in. The world could not accept that four laymen who had never been on a mountain of the size and difficulty of Mount McKinley could have succeeded where experienced climbers had failed. With no concrete proof that they had reached the summit the Sourdoughs and their flagpole was dismissed as just another frontier tall yarn no more credible than the exploits of Baron Munchausen.

When Brown and Parker attempted the climb in 1912 they reported, ‘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.’ That seemed to put paid to the Sourdoughs’ claim to have climbed the mountain but there was more to come.

After years of failed attempts by others to climb Denali an expedition led by Hudson Stuck reached the South Peak in 1913 and on their way to the top the climbers spotted the Sourdoughs’ flagpole. The Sourdoughs were vindicated and given credit for what Stuck called ‘a most extraordinary feat, the writer has no hesitation in claiming, unique in all the annals of mountaineering.’

Stuck’s party was the only expedition to verify the existence of the flagpole. From memory, I recall reading somewhere that the tattered remains of the Sourdoughs’ American flag was subsequently found by a climbing party but I cannot cite a source for this assertion. An expedition, which climbed the North Peak in 1932, found no trace of the pole but considering the climatic conditions on the mountain this is not surprising: only a miracle could have preserved it for a further nineteen years.

Nearly a hundred years have passed since the Sourdoughs climbed the North Peak of Denali and it is still a unique and extraordinary feat — a team of greenhorns with makeshift equipment succeeding where experts failed.

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