Mislabeled photos, newly discovered at UAF, bolster 1910 Denali summit claim

Denali photos
Professor of geophysics Matthew Sturm points to the Sourdough Expedition’s path in summiting Denali 1910 from studying newly found photographs located at the Elmber E. Rasmuson Library archives. (JR Ancheta/UAF-GI)

There’s new proof of the success of a pioneering ascent of Denali. Historic photographs from the 1910 Sourdough Expedition were found this fall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The black-and-white images provide hard copy evidence that Alaskans Pete Anderson, Billy Taylor, Charlie McGonagall and Tom Lloyd — known as the Sourdough Expedition — got members to the top of Denali’s 19,400-foot North Peak in April 1910 — a feat that’s long been subject to skepticism.

“They went,” said UAF geophysics professer Matthew Sturm, who found the photos. “They did the climb, but they were not good about documenting it.”

Denali climbers
In this photo, previously unpublished as far as is known, Charlie McGonagal, left, and Pete Anderson, two of the four-man Sourdough Expedition that ascended Denali’s North Peak, are shown in a mislabeled photograph. (Photo from UAF Rasmuson Library archive)

Sturm says he came across the Sourdough expedition photos in October while doing research for an unrelated mountaineering book at the UAF Rasmuson Library archive. He says he was looking through a box of materials and found a folder with a label that included the words 1911 McKinley climb.

He said he “got a tingly sense that maybe something good could come of this,” even though the date on the folder was off by a year.

Denali archivists
Museum of the North Director Pat Druckenmiller and Senior Collections Manager Angela Linn with the alpine stock used by Pete Anderson and Bill Taylor 1920 ascent. (JR Ancheta/UAF-GI)

Sturm says one of the photos in the folder shows two climbers he immediately recognized.

“I’m a bit of an amateur history buff for climbing in Alaska and the Yukon, and I thought — whoa, that’s Charlie McGonagall and Pete Anderson from the Sourdough climb,” he said.

Sturm says he worked with University of Alaska Fairbanks archive and Museum of the North staff to confirm the identities of the pictured Sourdough climbers, including Taylor and Anderson, who he says made it to the north peak’s summit.  He says he figured out where the photos were taken by comparing them with modern images of the mountain.

“We could place them quite high on the route,” he said. “The highest one is near around 16,000 — and we’d never been able to place them anywhere near that before — for marvelous sort of insight into an event that has been revered by some climbers and doubted by others for a hundred and ten years.”  

Sturm says the photos add to another piece of evidence that the Sourdough expedition climbed Denali’s North peak: a spruce flag pole the climbers set up a little below the summit, which members of the 1913 Hudson Stuck expedition reported seeing. They were the first to reach the top of Denali’s higher south peak.

“I think it moves it from shadowy, maybe it did or didn’t happen, right into the mainstream,” he said. “It happened.”

Sturm says the Sourdough Expedition photos were donated to the UAF archive in the 1980s by the daughter of an early 19 hundreds Fairbanks newspaper editor who was friends with Sourdough expedition climber Billy Taylor.

Denali photo
A climber is seen in the distance at about 13,000 feet on what today is known as Karstens Ridge. Indentations to the left are believed to be from a 14-foot spruce flagpole. (Photo from UAF Rasmuson Library archive)

“She donated a lot stuff to the archives, and they logged it in, and it would have taken an expert to know what it was,” he said.

Sturm says it remains a mystery why the photos weren’t used by expedition members to prove their summit claim. Sturm plans to write an article for a mountaineering journal about the photos.

Denali photo
This photograph, made at about 16,500 feet, looks down the 20,310-foot mountain. Matthew Sturm and colleague Philip Marshall used maps and digital software to pinpoint the locations where the photographs were made. This photo is mislabeled as March 1911. (Photo from UAF Rasmuson Library archive)

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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