I had no idea that the first ascent of Mt. McKinley was surrounded by so much drama. Let me give you a little back story:
As you may know, Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America. It has a higher rise than Mt. Everest, although Everest’s peak is at a higher elevation. It’s located in Denali National Park in Alaska (which wasn’t a state at the time, and wouldn’t become a state for another 49 years). It has two peaks, known as the Northern peak and Southern peak. The Southern peak is the highest.
A few years before this article was written, in 1906, a guy named Frederick Cook claimed that he was the first person to summit Mt. McKinley. A couple years later, Cook also claimed that he reached the North Pole, another first. In fact, he did neither. But in 1909, a guy named Robert Peary really did reach the North Pole, and he publicly challenged Cook’s claim to have gotten there first. This put Cook and his wild claims in the spotlight.
Meanwhile, in Alaska, four local gold miners with no mountain climbing experience were sitting in a bar. They heard about Cook’s McKinley claim, and they were unconvinced that he reached the summit. They furthermore figured that an Alaskan could climb that mountain better than any outsider could. The bar owner heard their boast and bet them $500 that they couldn’t climb Mt. McKinley.
Can you guess what happened next?
And so, in mid-February, 1910, those four miners with no hiking experience set out to climb Mt McKinley. And on April 3, they made it to the top of the North peak where they planted a flag.
Or so they said.
On April 16, the New York Times ran an article (pdf) in which naturalist Charles Sheldon suggested everyone just hold off on the accolades until this story is verified. There was good reason to be skeptical. These climbers were middle aged, overweight, had no real climbing experience, and made claims of feats even experienced climbers wouldn’t attempt (for example, they said they climbed the last 8,000 feet in one day; modern McKinley hikers typically save the last 3,000 to 4,000 for one day, taking 10 to 15 hours to do it). And even though they brought a camera, none of the photos they took provided evidence of having been taken on the summit.
A couple weeks later, on June 5 the New York Times Magazine ran a story in which expedition leader Thomas Lloyd told the whole story of his climb, in his own words. It filled three pages, all of which are included in the PDF link at the top of this blog post. It included notes from his journal, and transcribed recollections, including how his party reached both of McKinley’s peaks.
But this article didn’t end the controversy. It wasn’t until 1913 that another expedition on McKinley finally was able to verify Lloyd’s story. They reached the North summit and found the flag that Lloyd’s party had planted. Vindication at last!
The strangest thing to me about this whole saga is the fact that Thomas Lloyd really did lie about one thing: he claimed that his party reached both peaks when in fact they only reached the North summit. I think that lie was completely unnecessary. His story was incredible enough as it was.
Note: This excerpt from a book about Mt. McKinley was very helpful in researching this post.
FIRST ACCOUNT OF THE CONQUERING OF MT. McKINLEY: Pete Andersen, the Intrepid Swede, Is Given the Honor of Hoisting the American Flag On the Highest Peak, Where It Still Flies (PDF)
From June 5, 1910