Walter Harper, the first person to summit Denali, subject of panel discussion

Formal Portrait, Walter Harper, 1916. (Photo courtesy of UAF Rasmuson library)

A panel discussion tonight in Fairbanks examines the short life of the first person to summit Denali. Walter Harper was an Athabascan guide and mountaineer who played a critical role in the 1913 expedition that climbed to the top of North America’s tallest peak.

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Mary Ehrlander is the author of new book on Walter Harper. She said it was his subsistence skills that brought him to the attention of Episcopal missionary Hudson Stuck. She said Harper had been raised by his mother in the Athabascan tradition, and even at 16 years old, Harper exhibited determination, skill and judgement whether in school or at fish camp and hunting.

“He had been performing so well and showing so much talent and potential, that Hudson Stuck offered him the job being his riverboat pilot and trail guide,” Ehrlander said.

Stuck and Harper developed a sort of father-son bond of affection. That bond and Harper’s skill insured his place on the expedition that would make history. Ehrlander said Stuck wisely secured an experienced climber and guide Harry Karstens who co-led the Denali expedition. Ehrlander said without Harper and Karstens, it’s doubtful the venture would have succeeded.

“It was mainly Harry Karstens and Walter Harper who carved steps, a three-mile-long jumble of ice blocks, over the ridge that was pathway to the summit,” Ehrlander said.

Ehrlander said Harper’s youth and stamina put him at the head of the expedition when it made its final push to the top of Denali. Five years later, in the fall of 1918, Walter Harper’s future seemed bright. At 25, he had been accepted into medical school and married Frances Wells a missionary nurse serving in Fort Yukon. The newlyweds boarded the ill-fated Princess Sophia, heading back east. On October 25, the ship went down in Lynn Canal, claiming all aboard. Ehrlander says it was a terrible loss.

“Because he navigated so comfortably in both his traditional Athabascan world and the Western culture, had he lived, he would have been a great leader,” Ehrlander said.

Tonight’s panel discussion on Walter Harper is at 7 p.m. at Raven Landing.

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