What’s in a Name?

Denali's summit, June 2013. Photo courtesy of Kelly Greaser
Denali’s summit, June 2013. Photo courtesy of Kelly Greaser

There is an unofficial competition on Denali for best team name. It is my understanding that innuendo usually trumps all else. That being said, given that we are representing the CMC, we thought it best to go another route – pay homage to some of the pioneers of Denali climbing. To that end, one of our team members, Pat, had a brainstorm and came up with Rocky Mountain Sourdoughs.

Huh? Sourdoughs?

The 1910 Sourdough ascent is a thing of legend, and the first noted ascent of either of Denali’s summits. (The group topped out on the “north summit” at 19,470’ which is not as high as the “south summit” at 20,320’; although, the north summit is considered a more demanding climb.)

The climb was undertaken by four gold miners with little to no climbing experience. The north summit was chosen because they hoped to offer proof of the ascent by hoisting a six foot by twelve foot American flag on the summit, aiming to have it seen by those in the mining town of Kantishna which lay to the north of the mountain. They lugged up a 12’ spruce pole from which to unfurl the flag (not on my gear list… seems a bit heavy).

Billy Taylor and Pete Anderson reached the north summit on April 3, 1910, making their summit push from 11,000’. Thus, they climbed well over 7000’ vertical on summit day. They made the round trip in 18 hours. They did it with homemade equipment, no technical climbing expertise, and in very early spring with all of its fresh snow (most teams climb in June and July, today).

Why try something so brazen?

The expedition had two aims, both true to Alaska pioneering style:

  1. Prove that Frederick Cook’s claim to have made the summit in 1906 was false (later it was proven that it was indeed false);
  2. An “I dare you” bet, of course. Local business men and citizens pooled money to pay anyone who made the summit $500.

The group left Fairbanks in December 1909 (so they make the approach in the dead of winter) with four horses, a mule, and a dog team. The original group had seven members: Tom Lloyd, Billy Taylor, Pete Anderson, Charles McGonagall, C. E. Davidson, Bob Horne, and W. Lloyd. Only the first four of this list (Tom, Billy, Pete, and Charles) would do any actual climbing. The later three quit after – according to at least one account – Tom and C.E. got into a fist fight in camp (ah, Alaska).

They ascended via the Muldrow Glacier after establishing base camp at Cache Creek – at a whopping elevation of 2,900’. They set that camp in late February. By mid-March (the 17th), they had established their high camp at 11,000’,

The team ascended the crevasse-ridden glacier unroped. They simply felt that they “didn’t need [ropes],” according to Billy Taylor. The gear list consisted of snowshoes; homemade crampons, long poles with double hooks on one end and a sharp steel point on the other end (to function as ice axes). They were clothed in bib overalls, long underwear, shirts, parkas, mittens, insulated rubber boots and Eskimo-style over-the-calf moccasins.

There is a certain expression of the pioneer spirit, complete with its brazen disdain for the nuances of their endeavor, which comes shining through.

Of course, we’ll be doing things a bit differently. In fact, an attempt in the style of the Sourdoughs is anathema to my own climbing ethos and risk tolerance.

But, with tongues firmly in our cheeks, we honor the Sourdough expedition as a nod to those climbers who have come before us; some have advanced the skill and technique of climbing others simply its audacity.

Until next time, climb high and climb safely,


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