Walter Harper

Walter Harper (1893 – October 25, 1918) (Koyukon) was an Alaska Native mountain climber and guide. On Saturday, 7 June 1913, he was the first person to reach the summit of Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest mountain in North America.[1] He was followed by the other members of the small expedition team, guide Harry Karstens, Episcopal archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who had organized the effort, and Episcopal missionary Robert Tatum.

Walter Harper
Walter harper.jpg
Harper in 1913
Personal information
Main disciplineMountain climber
DiedOctober 25, 1918 (1918-10-26) (aged 25)
Lynn Canal, Alaska
Starting age20
Notable ascentsDenali (June 7, 1913)

After gaining more formal education, Harper married in 1918 and planned to go to medical school in Philadelphia. He and his wife took the steamer SS Princess Sophia from Skagway to Seattle for their honeymoon before setting off cross-country. The ship ran aground on a reef in a snowstorm, and was broken up in a gale, sinking on October 25. All 268 passengers and 75 crew were lost.

Early life and educationEdit

The youngest of eight children, Walter Harper was born in 1893 as the son of Jennie Seentahna (née Bosco) Harper, of the Koyukon people from the Koyukuk region, and Arthur Harper, an immigrant from County Antrim, Ireland. They married in 1874 when Harper was 39 and Jennie was 14, at Koyukuk. Harper and his partner Al Mayo founded a trading post in Tanana, near the Athabascan site of Nuklukayet. Harper also did some mining there, after years of experience in California and British Columbia. Mayo married Margaret, a cousin of Jennie.[2]

The couple separated permanently in 1895, and Arthur Harper left the area. He died of tuberculosis in 1897. Jennie reared Walter as traditional Koyukon. All the older Harper children had been sent for education to boarding schools "Outside", mostly in San Francisco, California. Harper's partners also followed this practice for their mixed-race children.[2]

At the age of 16, Walter Harper started going to Tortella School, an Episcopal boarding school associated with St. Marks Mission in Nenana, Alaska.[3] There he met Hudson Stuck, Episcopal archdeacon of the Yukon, who served a large area of the Interior as a missionary.[4] Stuck was impressed by Harper's intelligence, manners, and skills in fishing, tracking, trapping, fire-building, and dog handling.[5] He hired him to work as his interpreter, guide, and dog driver. He also encouraged him to continue with his formal education.[2][6]:6[7]

Denali expeditionEdit

Stuck invited Harper, then 20, to be part of his 1913 expedition to climb Denali. Others in the party were the chief guide and co-leader Harry Peter Karstens; Robert Tatum, an Episcopal missionary, who served as cook;[8] and two Gwich'inn teenagers, Johnny Fredson and Esaias George,[9] who helped prepare and maintain the base camp. This pair also brought the dog teams down when the terrain became too rough for their use.[8]

On March 17, 1913, the expedition left from Nenana to climb Denali. The first day, they hiked 30 miles (48 km) along the Tanana River valley with two sleds of supplies, pulled by fourteen dogs. The 110-mile (180 km) trip up the river to Eureka took eight days; there, they replenished supplies and celebrated Easter.[9]

It took them weeks to reach their final camp. Their journey had been much longer than expected. They had made it through the steep, crevasse-filled Muldrow Glacier; and a tent fire. But it took them three weeks to get through the Karstens Ridge, where the trail was blocked by huge rocks and blocks of ice thrown up by an earthquake the year before. They also survived a 50-foot (15 m) icefall. On June 6, they arrived at their final camp, at an elevation of 18,000 feet (5,500 m), the highest camp ever established in North America.[9]

At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, the climbers left camp for their final summit push. At 1:30 p.m., the party reached the top of Denali, an elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190 m).[10] Harper was the first to gain the summit. They spent an hour and a half on the summit, during which Tatum planted a flag he had made earlier from handkerchiefs. He compared the view to "looking out of a window of heaven."[9] Stuck ensured they also put up a six-foot cross.[11]

After taking readings from their instruments to establish the height of the mountain, the party began the descent. Compared to the 50-day journey up the mountain, it took them just two days to make it back to base camp. The expedition returned to Tanana on June 20, three months and four days since they left.[9]

Later lifeEdit

Encouraged by Stuck, Harper gained an education in Alaska, while continuing to work on the frontier. He planned to go to medical school in Philadelphia. On September 1, 1918, he married Frances Wells in Fort Yukon, with Archdeacon Stuck officiating. For their honeymoon, the couple took the SS Princess Sophia from Skagway to Seattle. From there, they would travel to Philadelphia, where Harper had been admitted to medical school, and his wife planned to join the Red Cross. They embarked on October 23 at Skagway, and the four-year-old Scottish steamer left at 10:00 that night.

A day later, as the ship was passing through Lynn Canal en route to Juneau, she encountered a strong gale and heavy snow. Princess Sophia went 1 mile (1.6 km) off course and ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef, the flat, rocky tip of an underwater mountain. Initially the sea was calm, but another gale came in. The ship asked by radio for help, but neither ships nor small boats could get close enough to rescue the people aboard because of the dangerous conditions. After about 40 hours, Princess Sophia broke apart and sank on October 25, killing all 268 passengers and 75 crew, a total of 343 persons lost.[12]

After the Harpers' bodies were recovered, the couple was buried side by side in Juneau.[5]:70–71[13]


  • In 1913, Stuck named Harper Glacier after the first man to reach the summit. The 4-mile-long (6.4 km) glacier runs from Denali Pass on Denali to the Great Icefall before becoming Muldrow Glacier.[14] It was also named for Walter's father Arthur.[6]:121
  • On June 7, 2012, the 99th anniversary of the first ascent, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced bill S. 2273, to "designate the Talkeetna Ranger Station in Talkeetna, Alaska, as the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station."[15][16]


  1. ^ "Yukon Indian opens Coney Island eyes" (PDF). The New York Times. June 1, 1914. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  2. ^ a b c Bundtzen, Thomas K.; Hawley, Charles C. (2009). "Arthur Harper". Alaska Mining Hall of Fame. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  3. ^ Guide to Collection: St. Mark's Mission, Nenana, Alaska; "Biographical/Historical Note", 2010, State of Alaska Library, accessed 22 September 2013
  4. ^ "Dr. Stuck scales Mount M'Kinley" (PDF). The New York Times. June 21, 1913. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  5. ^ a b Haines, Jan Harper (2000). Cold River Spirits: The Legacy of an Athabascan-Irish Family from Alaska's Yukon River. Epicenter Press. ISBN 978-0-945397-85-4. Retrieved 22 July 2013.
  6. ^ a b Stuck, Hudson (1918). The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley): A Narrative of the First Complete Ascent of the Highest Peak in North America. C. Scribner's sons.
  7. ^ "Early Climbers Met Denali's Challenge". Now in the North. University of Alaska. February 1981. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  8. ^ a b Beckey, Fred (1993). Mount McKinley: Icy Crown of North America. The Mountaineers Books. pp. 118–119. ISBN 0-89886-362-7.
  9. ^ a b c d e Moutoux, John T. (May 22, 1932). "Ascending the steep roof of the continent Just to 'look out the windows of heaven'". The Knoxville News-Sentinel. Denali 2013. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
  10. ^ Newell, Mark (September 2, 2015). "New Elevation for Nation's Highest Peak" (Press release). USGS. Retrieved August 23, 2017.
  11. ^ "Dr. Stuck scales Mount M'Kinley" (PDF). The New York Times. June 21, 1913. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  12. ^ "C.P. Liner Founders In Alaska Gale; 343 Persons Aboard Lost With Her" (PDF). The New York Times. October 27, 1918. Retrieved 22 July 2013.
  13. ^ O'Keefe, Betty; MacDonald, Ian (1998). The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia: Did They All Have to Die?. Heritage House Publishing Co. p. 60. ISBN 978-1-895811-64-3.
  14. ^   This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Geological Survey document: "Feature Detail Report for: Harper Glacier". Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  15. ^ "Bill Text 112th Congress (2011–2012) S.2273.IS". THOMAS. Library of Congress. March 29, 2012. Retrieved 22 July 2013.
  16. ^ "On 99th Anniversary of Summit, Murkowski Requests Hearing on Bill to Name Ranger Station for Athabascan Climber". Alaska Business Monthly. June 7, 2012. Retrieved July 22, 2013.

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