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.”
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.
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.
“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.