Forgotten Hero of Denali
True West|February - March 2021
Alaska native son Walter Harper was the first to ascend North America’s highest peak, but his fame—and life as a physician—were cut short by tragedy.
MIKE COPPOCK

Although Alaskan native Walter Harper helped lead his mentor Episcopal archdeacon and educator Dr. Hudson Stuck to the top of Denali, aka Mt. McKinley, on June 7, 1913, becoming the fi rst to the summit, it was not his greatest accomplishment. The fi rst high school graduate in his family, the son of an Irish trapper and an Athabascan mother, was going to be a physician, before he and his bride were tragically killed in the sinking of the SS Sophia Princess fi ve years later. – COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA, FAIRBANKS, NO. 2002-0098-00013 –

Every year roughly 1,200 climbers register with the U.S. National Park Service to climb Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali, North America’s highest peak. A little over half make it to the top.

Those who scale her battle minus-30degree temperatures and 150 mph winds. The first man to reach the top was 21-year old Alaska native Walter Harper who stood on the summit in 1913—without oxygen— reaching for the hand of an ailing Dr. Hudson Stuck so he could, too, achieve his dream of standing on the highest peak in North America.

Harper was born in 1893, the youngest child of Jenny Albert and legendary prospector Arthur Harper, who abandoned them shortly after his birth. Walter was raised in an Athabascan village until he was 17. Dr. Stuck, an Episcopal missionary, hired him as a trail guide.

The two traveled to missions getting to know each other. When Stuck decided to tackle Denali’s summit, Walter was invited along. As they scaled the peak, Stuck’s health declined. Walter and guide Harry Karstens did most of the work. The two spent three weeks chopping a three-milelong staircase over one ridge and then set up fi ve high camps. Finally, as they reached the rocky pinnacle, Walter stepped on top at 1:30 p.m. on June 7, 1913, grasping Stuck’s frail hand, guiding him to the summit.

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