Chasing Denali – A Story of the Most Unbelievable Feat in Mountaineering
In this excerpt from his new book, “Chasing Denali: The Sourdoughs, Cheechakos and Frauds Behind the Moust Unbelievable Feat in Mountaineering,” Jon Waterman reckons with the mountain that has influenced his life more than any other, and one of the most enduring legends associated with it…
Prologue: June 2016
I pulled the balaclava down over my frosted chin, shivering, as the bottom half of Denali fell into shadow. A raven flew past holding wind in its wings and all of the mountain in its eyes. I sat fifty yards from our 14,300-foot medical camp and right next to the dead body of Pavel Michut.
Several days earlier, this Czech ski mountaineer stepped into his ski bindings halfway up an hourglass-shaped snow chute called the Messner Couloir, sixty degrees steep and rising a vertical mile to the 19,500-foot summit plateau. He made three jump turns, caught an edge, fell head over heels, and continued plummeting toward camp—knowing, in his horrified last thoughts, that dozens of climbers in the basin below were helplessly watching him fall—over rocks and cement-hard ice, until he stopped 1,500 feet later, bent and irreversibly broken. Hot sunlight reflected on the snow and burned his skin, slowly dispersing the atoms that made up his forty-five-year-old body into the mysterious universe of our beginnings.
When the clouds cleared below camp the park service helicopter would fly in from sea level and carry his remains out. I stood up and gave a respectful bow to him there on the landing pad that we had stomped out in the snow.
Death on a mountain foils all the best-laid plans. If you repeatedly spend time on Denali, it’s inevitable—lacking a near miss or even losing a friend—that you’ll witness a fatality or help with a body extraction. This can feel like the height of folly, taking on these great tests only to earn such wretched consequences. To continue amid such adversity, and to counter the perception that climbing is solely a game of risk addiction, committed climbers also depend upon camaraderie, challenge, the beauty of mountains, and inspirational legends to sustain them through both storm and sunshine.
The addiction to risk—with its brain chemistry rewards— never goes away but can be balanced and put in its corner through mastery and judiciousness. Camaraderie often vanishes outside the intensity of expedition life. Beauty can be as elusive as stormy weather in the high ranges. And even the physical challenge fades as oldsters become incapable of their once youthful feats.
With all of these shifting (and, eventually, fading) motivations that explain why I stopped mountaineering, I realized that the truly committed could never really quit. I had embarked upon a life path rather than a sport. I had also been following others who had inspired me, through what the mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the thread of the hero path.”
So this is an investigatory tale of the flagpole-carrying Sourdough heroes—Billy Taylor, Pete Anderson, Charlie McGonagall, and Tom Lloyd—whom I once revered. The example of their lofty achievement, along with their endurance and pluck, propelled me up mountains—until recently, when I began questioning whether they were for real. With the insight and skepticism that only aging can confer, I wondered whether I had merely chased idealistic, youthful dreams based upon an illusion. A myth, rather than flesh-and-blood icons.
Let me explain. Exactly four decades had elapsed since the first time I stumbled up here on the west buttress route with my scout troop from Massachusetts. In that peculiar way in which only young people can commit themselves wholesoulfully, I had found a path that gave my life meaning.
I wanted to climb mountains and run rivers and spend my days on long journeys through remote landscapes because the physical challenge of adventuring appealed to me through the blood, on a cellular level. If I wasn’t out in the mountains or planning the next trip, I succumbed to depression—like most climbers do. Life simply seemed meaningless when I was sleeping on a mattress indoors without wind in my face or untracked horizons to explore. I also believed that the legend that I was chasing had everything to do with a value system based on worshipping the wilderness and its mountains.
So I emulated that foursome of long-dead Sourdough miners, who first climbed Denali in 1910. They had launched their expedition over a bet in a Fairbanks, Alaska bar. With no mountaineering experience, they shouldered a huge pole up a steep ridge, followed by a dicey ice gully, until they planted the pole on top, tied on a big American flag and jogged back down. All in an unbeatable day, unroped, in winter, and on completely unknown terrain.
Even if I was a touch obsessed about these icons, I wasn’t isolated in this thinking. “We have not even to risk the adventure alone,” as Campbell said in his book, The Power of Myth, “for the heroes of all time have gone before us.” In my mind, this spoke directly to those nameless Sourdoughs. Their story was respected by mountaineers around the world as an allegory for slaying dragons, pushing to the limit in spite of enormous odds, but still making it back down safely. After their climb, they nonchalantly disappeared back into the wilderness.
Suitably inspired that June of 1976, my pioneer-inspired dreams were briefly set back here in this same basin when I saw another corpse awaiting a helicopter, the eighteenth fatality in the mountain’s history. Like the Czech skier, it was a needless death that could have been prevented.
While I didn’t plan on risk-taking in 2016, as I climbed higher I was preoccupied about turning older. These are the thoughts, I remembered, that you have to process after a mountaineering fatality. Bury these experiences and they’ll come back to haunt you. The only alternative, for me, is to learn from them.
So while seeing lifeless bodies on a mountain is provocative and unforgettable, the experience can serve as a safety net for climbing. Because each step you or your friends takes comes with consequences. Forty years ago, we made the right decision, as weather deteriorated in the face of my high-altitude headache and nausea, to turn around before the summit. That expedition spurred me into figuring out how to reduce risk on big mountains, let alone launch a career—based on sharing lessons about safety and history—that kept me in the wilds.
Working as a guide, a filmmaker, and a park service ranger, I returned repeatedly. Ill disposed for government paperwork and uniform dress, I quit rangering and wrote three Denali books (that mentioned the Sourdoughs) to share what I had learned and then continued my career as an adventure writer.
I spent years on journeys sailing, dogsledding, skiing, ice climbing, trekking, sea kayaking, white-water boating, and backpacking. All based upon expedition skills gained on Denali.
Now, nearing sixty, I refused to accept the idea of retirement. Besides, I made my living from these trips, writing about the adventure along with history, culture, and conservation. Rather than rusting, I planned to go out dancing, despite the broken bones and surgeries and arthritic setbacks that come with letting the animal of your body love what it loves. It didn’t matter that I had lost some lung capacity and flexibility and strength. By training hard, if I couldn’t set the pace or break trail, I could at least keep younger partners in sight. Experience, technique, and knowing how to conserve energy also gave me an edge—or so I hoped on this final Denali trip.
While I planned to stay fit for another quarter century, the thought of celebrating my June 12 birthday on top, on the day that I would become a sexagenarian, seemed like a karmic invitation into disaster. So I kept this fantasy to myself. As in a new relationship, I repeatedly gazed toward the distant summit and declaimed: No expectations.
This summer of 2016, as a park service patrol volunteer, I didn’t come back to Denali simply to perform rescues. I came to revisit a mountain that had provided an outlet for my passions: laughing with teammates, climbing above clouds smoking below your feet, or lifting snow that fell as fast as we could shovel in tent-burying storms. Also, I returned because I had unfinished business with both the Sourdoughs and Denali itself.
Until recently, I had abandoned mountaineering as if it were part of a past that didn’t belong to me anymore. Aging, of course, has a way of directing you onto different paths. But I wanted to change that.
In the years that had passed since my last visit, the culture of climbing had evolved on North America’s highest mountain. My teammates were watching movies downloaded onto their cellphones, climbing traffic had nearly doubled, and in good weather, tourist-engorged, scenic-flight planes swarmed the mountain.
Climbers now pay a $365 fee, submit their registrations two months in advance, and carry park service–issued, plastic- bag lined “clean mountain cans” (CMCs) so that their feces can be disposed of in pre-marked crevasses. Only the bravest climbers carry their full CMCs all the way back down the mountain.
All of this, of course, would have been unimaginable to those Sourdough miners 116 years ago. My skepticism about their claim began a year ago while writing about another bizarre Denali legend. After weeks of research, I found that the elderly hero of my story whom I flew out to interview in Seattle was a fraud who never climbed the mountain. I initially believed his incredible tale about the first ascent of the west buttress route because he vividly described a four-foot-tall, broomstick- width flagpole on the summit in 1948. I figured there was no way—disinterested in mountaineering literature and as an outsider in the climbing community—that he would’ve known about the pole unless he’d seen it with his own eyes (the famed mountaineer Brad Washburn planted it in 1947 after climbing the long-established Muldrow Glacier Route). Yet, adventure frauds have long made deception into an art—most famously, Dr. Frederick Cook claimed to make the first ascent of Denali in 1906.
The crux of the Sourdoughs’ unbelievable story also hinged on a flagpole that they had supposedly planted on the summit. Only one team of climbers, friends of the Sourdoughs, claimed to have seen their flagpole. And no one produced any photographs of this fourteen-foot pole crowning the continent.
As for the Seattle hoaxer, it took a lot of time and research to debunk his claim. I published two stories about his duplicity— turned out he’d seen a picture of the 1947 Washburn flagpole in a book. Of course, he had no pictures from his own climb and while purportedly backpacking crampons all the way up North America’s iciest mountain, he made the preposterous claim that he summited without strapping them on.
Throughout that magazine assignment, I realized that Denali still had a hold over me. But it wasn’t enough to write about it like a research librarian. I had to return and spend a few weeks up high—maybe even reach the summit and find my own equivalent of the now passé pole-planting and flag-raising ritual.
After ten days on the mountain, slowly climbing up the Kahiltna Glacier, I learned that modern climbers, young and old, were still inspired by the Sourdoughs. Like most icons, they inspired us to dig in deeper and continue, even in the face of great adversity.
Hungry? Well, the Sourdoughs did their climb with just three doughnuts each.
Should we continue without a rope? The 1910 climbers didn’t have harnesses and since they didn’t know how to belay, they didn’t use ropes.
Cold? The infamous miner pioneers deliberately started their climb in winter conditions wearing heavy canvas and wool.
Despite all those who still believed the Sourdoughs, I found a few mountain guides and one park service ranger who thought that the inspirational 1910 climb was too unbelievable to be true. For starters, most every Denali gully, face, and ridge had now been climbed or skied and written up in four different guidebooks. Yet, the Sourdough route has never been fully repeated.
These beginner miners unknowingly introduced the world to fast, “alpine-style” climbing on high-altitude mountains. It was as if they had jumped into the future and skipped all the preliminaries of exploring the approach and route, or learning how to climb, or taking it slow and conservatively working their way up the mountain. Before their blitz, the mountain had never been climbed.
Today, most Denali climbers also avoid the Sourdoughs’ intemperate winter climbing strategy. The modern climbing season—blessed by warmer temperatures and Alaska’s constant summer light—runs from May until early July. In 1982, during my winter ascent of a spectacular granite ridge called “the Cassin,” surviving temperatures of fifty degrees below zero and dark conditions, barely escaping with my life, I found out how tough the Sourdoughs were. Since I needed both hands to swing the axes or grip the rock, shouldering a fourteen-foot pole was unimaginable. I also learned that in the early spring when they made their summit climb, the upper mountain is armored in blue ice and rock-hard snow, raked by frequent high wind backing the meat-freezer cold.
In winter conditions, tropospheric depressions further thin the atmosphere over the North as if the poles of the earth are being squeezed by a frigid vice. While humans thrive at low elevations surrounded by the thick-aired, protective bubble of the troposphere, atop Denali in the dark of winter only a score of climbers have pushed toward the uninhabitable stratosphere, which extends from 23,000 feet up into outer space. Compounding the tropospheric depression phenomenon, winter makes the 20,310-foot mountain a physiologic 25,000-foot Himalayan peak. Fortunately, a century ago, these four lowland miners knew nothing about high-altitude acclimatization.
In 1910, even experienced alpinists didn’t understand how to acclimate to prevent altitude sickness. It took until the latter part of the twentieth century for climbers to learn that gradual adaptation to high altitudes—resting for a few days at each new elevation gained above ten thousand feet—prevents debilitating headaches, lassitude, dizziness, nausea, pulmonary and cerebral edema, or cortical blindness. But the Sourdoughs unknowingly enacted a bold strategy that only the world’s most elite mountaineers practice today: climbing from a low elevation to the summit and back, nonstop, in a single day to outrace mountain sickness symptoms, all of which can be cured by rapid descent to a lower elevation.
In the case of the Sourdoughs, they climbed from 11,000 feet to the 19,450-foot North Peak and back in a lightning-fast 18 hours. Or so they claimed.
The north side’s Harper Glacier that the Sourdoughs walked across is also known for a venturi-wind phenomenon, created by air roaring through the constricted Denali Pass and funneling downhill with otherworldly, shrieking gales that have repeatedly lifted up, blown away, buried, killed, or severely frostbitten scores of modern summertime climbers equipped with radioed weather reports and state-of-the-art gear.
They left mountain historians precious little to go on, aside from their word. Their contradictory stories and retractions added further confusion. Nor did it help that three of the four were unlettered and reticent pioneers of the North, without diaries or memoirs or children to advance their legacies. While other mountaineers wrote books and articles and snatched a lifetime’s worth of bar boasting for lesser achievements, three of the Sourdoughs mostly refused to even mention their climb.
The first time I saw their route, in late May 1983 while traversing over the mountain, streaks of steep, blue ice surrounded the bottom of that final, unrepeated couloir. Seeing it again in June 1993, three weeks out after dog mushing into the Muldrow Glacier from their mining district of Kantishna and having spent a week climbing the knife-edged ridge below it, I couldn’t imagine how they made such short work of it all. Their climb had to be a myth.
On my 2016 Denali climb as a park service volunteer, two of my six companions—all half my age—had been here before. We spent a full week acclimating at 14,300 feet, frequently hiking or skiing a thousand feet higher to accustom our bodies to the altitude. We treated, then evacuated, two frost-bite victims from our medical tent. We posted daily weather forecasts, advised climbers, played Yahtzee, and read books.
On the day that we left for the 17,200-foot, west buttress high camp, it appeared that no one in the group had anything to prove. Worried about being the pensioner slowing down young teammates, I had trained up to twenty hours a week through uphill running or cross-country skiing in Colorado. Rather than ordinary workouts, I went alone up a cold mountain and repeatedly pushed myself to exhaustion and beyond. Then, week after week—listening to my body—I extended these limits with a tolerance for suffering that I’d learned through decades of conditioning outside the gym. I had to keep up with companions a lot younger than me.
As the saying goes in Alaskan mountaineering, there are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers. So those partners (particularly youthful ones) who claim that they don’t consider the possibility of dying or getting hurt on a mountain like Denali are climbers whom you should never rope up with. Fear—of falling, being avalanched, hit by a sudden storm, dropping into a crevasse, or contracting altitude sickness—tends to sharpen your focus and make you pay more attention. Still, since vigilance, luck, or all the experience in the world can’t stop a falling rock or any number of other random hazards, I had prepared and left a will with my family in Colorado.
I could accept not making the top again. I’d turned back repeatedly because I preferred a hollow sense of incompletion to more frostbitten digits or the prospect of others risking their lives to rescue me. Or worse. Also, this time, as a soon-to-be sixty-year-old, I had good excuses in case I failed.
Complicating matters, on past trips to these uninviting elevations I had been clobbered with headaches, vomiting, forgetting partners’ names, battling insomnia, and nearly drowning in my own fluids—regardless of acclimatization. My family ancestry didn’t include high-altitude genes.
Fortunately, compared to the Sourdough route, the west buttress is a relative walk-up, given several days of good weather (uncommonly found up high) on Denali. But below the fixed ropes, parboiling in a snow basin that resembles a fry pan, I developed urgent misgivings.
Being towed up at the end of a rope, breathing hard and sweating profusely felt miserable. Plus, we were queuing up for a mountain that I’d never seen lines on. At least a hundred other climbers were heading up this day.
What am I doing here? I thought. I had two young sons who had tried to convince me that I was too old for Denali. While my role modeling might show them how to deal with their own aging, they would never talk to me again if I didn’t come home. This was prompted, of course, by imagining how wrecked the ski mountaineer Pavel Michut’s family would be.
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To read the rest of Jon Waterman’s investigation into and personal reckoning with the Sourdough legend, pick up a copy of Chasing Denali: The Sourdoughs, Cheechakos, and Frauds behind the Most Unbelievable Feat in Mountaineering, published by Lyons. Available now!