Nutso 1910 attempt to plant a flag on Denali’s summit – in winter

The claim was a violation of Alaska and the frontier spirit. The mere idea that a certain Dr. Frederick Cook—from New York City, no less—had scaled the highest peak in the territory, and he demanded a full-blooded response.

Alaskans would have to climb the mountain to make things right, and Tom Lloyd said he would do just that. Not only would he personally lead a team to the top of the continent, he proclaimed loudly in the streets and saloons of Fairbanks, but he would plant a flag at the summit to prove it. Lloyd was a mining impresario who blazed trails across Alaska and claimed to have chased Butch Cassidy through half of Utah, but at 50 he was well above his fighting weight and long past his prime. He could talk to the best of them, though, and found just the men to back up his words—tough Alaskan prospectors who knew how to live off the wild country.

None of the men he chose had climbed a mountain before, let alone a 20,000-foot peak in winter.

A trio of saloon keepers backed Lloyd’s bid at $500 apiece, and he quickly assembled his team. Charles McGonagall was a tough 43-year-old, and Peter Anderson a rugged Swede of about 30. The youngest member of the party was William “Billy” Taylor, then just 21 and already known for his great strength and pleasant demeanor.

Billy Taylor and the Sourdough

“He has a massive frame with enormous shoulders, the broadest I have ever seen. At 22 he must have been exceedingly strong,” wrote Norman Bright in the paper American Alpine Journal of his chance meeting with Taylor in 1937. Bright took the opportunity to question Taylor for five hours, bringing some clarity to the story of an expedition that had become almost as controversial as the one that inspired it.

The sourdough in a publicity photo taken after their return from Denali in 1910. Photo courtesy of Denali National Park

There was no big secret to how Lloyd picked his team, Taylor said. “He just knew people who were quite schookum. He had been around the camps quite a bit, picking one here and one there.” None of the men he chose had climbed a mountain before, let alone a 20,000-foot peak in winter. But all had prospected along the Kantishna River within sight of Denali and knew the land well.

Regarding the expedition as little more than a long gruel, they left Fairbanks in December 1909 with four horses, a mule and a team of dogs. They brought bacon, beans, flour, dried fruit and coffee, although they would mostly survive on fish and reindeer, which they hunted in the lowlands and hauled to their three mountain camps. The highest of these was at about 11,000 feet, at the base of a three-mile fin of ice that ramped toward the summit. “It was like a knife blade and you can see down thousands of feet below you,” Taylor recalled of the feature, now known as Karstens Ridge.

The men reached the mountain in February and began climbing in earnest in March. They spent weeks cutting steps into the ice with coal shovels, preparing to climb from their high camp to Denali’s 19,470-foot north summit and back again in a single day.

They wore rompers, woolen long johns and “striped cotton parkas made of ticking mattress,” writes Jonathan Waterman, author of Chasing Denali: The Sourdough, Cheechakos and Fraud Behind the Most Incredible Mountaineering Feat. They climbed without ropes, with moose skin moccasins and rudimentary crampons they fashioned from sheet metal. Instead of ice axes, they used eight-foot poles with steel hooks. And as promised, they carried a 14-foot spruce flagpole to travel atop as proof of their achievement.

Frederick Cook published this photograph in Harper’s Magazine in 1907, claiming it was taken on top of Denali. Scientists in 1997 proved that it was taken on Ruth Glacier, about 19 miles south and 15,000 vertical feet below the summit of Denali. Wikimedia Commons.

Taylor, Anderson, and McGonagall started for the summit on the gray morning of April 3, 1910, with a bag of doughnuts, a thermos of hot chocolate, and the 25-pound flagpole. “They climbed without ropes, an amazing bravado that got so much space under their feet. A single misplaced step on the steep, snow-covered east face of the ridge would have sent them in bouncing arcs more than a kilometer down to the Tralieka Glacier,” writes Waterman.

Controversial Denali summit

Lloyd stayed in the camp and McGonagall bowed out near the northern summit. After completing his turn carrying the flagpole, the practical frontiersman saw no point in continuing to the top. Anderson and Taylor pressed on to the north summit, about three miles north and 700 vertical feet lower than the true summit. It is not clear whether they knew which was higher, but only the north peak was visible from Fairbanks, so that is the one they climbed.

According to Taylor’s account, they peaked that afternoon. “It was sunny at the top, but cloudy below us. It blocks the view a lot,” he said. He and Anderson spent about two hours there building a cairn and cutting a hole in the ice for the flagpole. They secured it with cotton cords and went down. “We did it all in one day, by God!” he told Bright. “It was just a wedding day, a little past three, when we started, and I know it was dark—about dusk – when we got back. I know it was even eighteen hours.”

The next day they went further down and met Lloyd, who ran to Fairbanks alone to share the news. There he announced that all four men—including himself—had been at both summits, a lie he embellished in considerable detail for a New York Times report published two months later.

Karstens Ridge in 2013. NPS Photo – Mark Westman

Soon the same people who had questioned Cook’s claims began to ask about Lloyd’s. “He was looking for too much fame,” Taylor said. “He contradicted his stories by telling his intimate friends that he did not climb it, and told others that he was on the summit. We did not come out until June, and then they did not believe that any of us had climbed it.”

Doubts would persist until Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens—he of the Knife-Cut Ridge—led an expedition to Denali’s south summit in 1913. The party returned with photographs and ample documentation of their first ascent—and an incredible detail contributed by Walter Harper, the sharp-eyed Irish-Athabascan who was the first to stand on North America’s highest summit. From the high point he looked over to the north summit and spotted the lone spruce pole Taylor and Anderson had raised three years before.

It is difficult for modern climbers to understand that anyone could climb Denali without any climbing experience and equipped as they were

Few doubt Harper’s testimony, but even today the 1910 rise is shrouded in mystery and a fair amount of doubt. Aside from Lloyd’s wonder and the puzzling lack of detail (none of the others kept a journal of the climb), it’s hard for modern climbers to understand that anyone could climb Denali with no climbing experience and the equipment they were—let alone push from 11,000 foot to the top and back in just 18 hours. “More than eight thousand feet, round trip, at high altitude and in winter conditions. Up and down a steep, hard ice bay and snow ridge with no ropes or knowledge of climbing techniques,” Waterman marvels. No wonder the climb has never been repeated .Although the best modern professional alpinists have the skills to climb the route without ropes, they also have the good sense not to try.

Top photo: Members of the Stuck expedition on the Karstens Ridge, 1913

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