On June 7, 1913, Walter Harper became the first to set foot atop North America’s highest peak.
Alaska native Walter Harper and his new bride were on the SS Princess Sophia bound for Seattle as Harper (pictured below) was making his way to medical school in Philadelphia. The ship suddenly jerked backward. It had grounded itself on Vanderbilt Reef south of Skagway. The ship rested on the flat rock and the captain signaled he was in no immediate danger. Then suddenly a storm came up, hurling the ship, Harper and his bride, and 362 others to the bottom of the sea. All perished. It was October 25, 1918.
The event was a low moment in Alaska history. But before his short life ended tragically, Harper had participated in one of Alaska’s high points: the conquest of Denali.
At age 21, five years before his death, Harper had become the first man to stand on the continent’s highest peak on June 7, 1913.
According to the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society, Walter Harper was born in 1892, “the son of the legendary gold rush prospector and trader Arthur Harper and the Athabaskan Jennie Albert Harper. ... [Raised] according to his mother’s traditions, the young Harper developed a broad set of subsistence skills in his youth that, along with his pleasing disposition, led the Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck to select him as his trail assistant and interpreter. ... [Stuck] became Harper’s tutor, mentor, and surrogate father. Their dream was that Harper would become a missionary doctor and serve his mother’s people from St. Stephen’s Hospital at Fort Yukon.”
Stuck also dreamed of summiting the peak then better known as Mount McKinley. A British-born reformer and mountaineer, he hoped that the climb would bring attention to the rights of Alaska Natives. And so the team of climb organizer Stuck, climb leader (and future first superintendent of Denali National Park) Harry P. Karstens (pictured left with Stuck), the young mountain climber and Episcopal priest Robert Tatum, and Harper set out to do what had never successfully been done: conquering the 20,310-foot summit.
They crossed country by dog team then began their ascent via the South Summit. Harper helped the now-frail missionary up the mountain’s icefields. At long last, when they finally approached the top of the peak, Harper stepped ahead of the party, standing on the summit first, then helping Stuck up onto the rocky outcropping.
Read a brief account of the climb here.