Climbers’ descendants mark Denali centennial

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Though it was his dream to do so, archdeacon Hudson Stuck never got a chance to celebrate communion on top of Mount McKinley when he and two other men, Harry Karstens and Walter Harper, became the first men to stand on the south peak of North America’s tallest mountain back in 1913.

One theory is that the climbers weren’t able to find the small communion kit that Stuck had packed to the top of the mountain. The other is that Stuck was so out of breath in the high altitude that he physically couldn’t perform the ceremony.

The latter might be the case when — and if — Mark Lattime reaches the south peak of Denali this summer, but Lattime will be carrying the same communion kit Stuck hauled to the top of the mountain 100 years ago in hopes of doing what his predecessor was unable to.

“I think it would be an extraordinary way to celebrate the spiritual significance of what happened in 1913,” Lattime, the Episcopal bishop of Alaska and reverend at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks, said during a news conference Tuesday to announce the Denali 2013 Centennial Climb.

Lattime, 46, will join four descendants of Stuck, Karstens and Harper this summer to recreate the climb and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the historic first ascent of Mount McKinley, or Denali as it commonly is called in Alaska.

“Some would say here is where it all started,” Lattime said during Tuesday’s press conference, standing at the altar of the church where Stuck, Karstens and Harper began their journey in March of 1913.

In addition to Lattime, the climbing party for the Denali 2013 Centennial Climb includes Dana Wright, a 27-year-old Alaska Native who was born and raised in Fairbanks and is the great-grandnephew of Walter Harper, who was the first person to stand on Denali’s 20,320-foot south peak; Dan Hopkins, a 41-year-old building contractor from Ottawa, Ontario, who is the great-great-nephew of Stuck; Ken Karstens, a 35-year-old stay-at-home dad from Colorado; and Ray Schuenemann, a 27-year-old security company owner from Dallas, Texas. Karstens and Scheuenemann are great-grandsons of Karstens, who went on after the climb to become the first superintendent of what today is Denali National Park and Preserve.

Black-and-white photos of the 1913 Stuck expedition served as a backdrop to Tuesday’s news conference, including a blown-up front page of the June 21 edition of the Fairbanks Daily Times with a two-deck headline that read “Stuck Climbers Reach Summit of South Peak.”

A missionary for the Episcopal church who came to Alaska in 1904, Stuck was already a legendary figure in Alaska known for traveling long distances by dog sled to reach parishes in Native villages around the Interior before his trip up Denali. He wrote a book, “The Ascent of Denali,” following the expedition.

The goal of the centennial climb is to tell “the untold legend” by highlighting the contributions by Harper and fellow Alaska Native John Fredson, a 16-year-old Athabascan who lived off the land for more than a month while caring for a team of sled dogs and the base camp while waiting for the three climbers to return.

“There’s a lot of things that weren’t said right about the first climb,” said Hopkins, without going into detail. “We want to make sure credit is given where credit was due.

“I feel the real untold story is that of Walter Harper and what he accomplished getting Karstens and Stuck to the top,” he said. “What the Alaska Native contribution was to that climb is a big deal.”

Two Fairbanks miners in 1910 reached the 19,470-foot north peak of Denali and left a spruce pole, which members of the Stuck expedition saw as they passed by on the way to the taller south peak.

The Denali 2013 Centennial Climb team members will be accompanied by a minimum of three professional guides from the Alaska Mountaineering School, one of six mountaineering concessionaires permitted by the National Park Service to operate on Denali. They’ll follow the same route to the summit that their predecessors did, traveling up the north side of the mountain through McGonagall Pass, up the Muldrow Glacier and along Karstens Ridge.

Instead of mushing dogs from Fairbanks to McGonagall Pass with all their gear, as Stuck, Karstens and Harper did, the centennial climbers will fly to Kantishna and start from there. Most of their gear will have been flown or carried in by dog sled for them.

Their launch date of June 7 coincides with the date that Harper, Karstens and Stuck reached the south peak of Denali.

The climbers say they have been training individually for the past two years to prepare for the arduous climb. Hopkins is the only one of the five climbers with any real climbing experience, having climbed the south peak with a guiding company in 2008 to honor Stuck.

“It was one of the most trying experiences in my life,” he said, while at the same time describing the trip as “amazing.”

It was on that trip that Hopkins realized how little was known about the first successful ascent of Denali and set him on a path to organize an expedition for descendants of the original team members. When Hopkins told his guides who he was and why he was climbing the mountain, only one of them knew that Stuck, Harper and Karstens were the first to reach the taller south summit.

“A lot of them thought it was Bradford Washburn who climbed it first,” Hopkins said of the man who later pioneered the West Buttress route to the south summit. “They had no idea who was the first person to step on top. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Wright, an avid backcountry snowboarder who works as a production manager at an auto body shop in Anchorage, said he jumped at the chance to join the climb when told about it a year ago.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” he said. “I really feel like I have a connection with Walter, being the only one born and raised in Alaska.”

The climbers have partnered with FindingLife, a nonprofit organization that specializes in combining adventure, education, technology, film and charitable initiatives to inspire young people to create positive change.

Filmmaker Elia Saikaly, who founded FindingLife, plans to accompany the climbers on the expedition and video the climb. Schoolchildren in Alaska and around the world will be able to follow the expedition live by interacting online with team members, tracking their progress via GPS and watching video webisodes produced during the climb, said Saikaly, who also is hoping to produce a documentary about the centennial expedition.

The climb has been endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaska State Board of Education.

The climbers still are raising funds for the climb. The guiding fees alone for the trip are $60,000, Schuenemann said.

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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