Knoxvillian Among Party that Made First Ascent of Denali, 100 Years Ago

Diary of that climb belongs to UT Libraries

Tatum’s diary of the Denali ascent (UAMN Photo)

Tatum’s diary of the Denali ascent (UAMN Photo)

On June 7, 1913, four climbers reached the south summit of Denali (better known, at the time, as Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America. It was the first successful ascent to the pinnacle. The handmade American flag that was raised on the Alaskan summit that day had been stitched together during the ascent using materials from the climbers’ gear — bits of silk, strips of cotton, even a shoelace. It was the creation of Robert Tatum, a young Episcopal missionary from Knoxville, Tennessee.

A diary kept during that arduous expedition has lain in a small box of Robert Tatum’s personal papers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Libraries for more than half a century. That diary will play a small role in this year’s centennial celebration of the first ascent of Denali.

Flag made by Robert Tatum and raised on summit of Denali,  June 7, 1913 (UAMN Photo)

Flag made by Robert Tatum and raised on summit of Denali,
June 7, 1913 (UAMN Photo)

Robert Tatum’s flag and diary, along with other relics of that first ascent, are on loan to the University of Alaska Museum of the North as part of a special exhibit, “Denali Legacy: 100 Years on the Mountain.”

The team that summited Denali in 1913 included Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Tatum. The curator of the “Denali Legacy” exhibit was able to track down and borrow the diaries of all four climbers who reached the summit on June 7. Thanks to the internet and to archives, libraries, and climbers’ descendants who preserved the cherished journals and other keepsakes, “Denali Legacy” tells the story of the first ascent through the words of the intrepid adventurers and some of the objects they carried on the historic climb.

Robert Tatum raising the Stars and Stripes on the highest point in North America (Photo: Hudson Stuck)

Robert Tatum raising the Stars and Stripes on the
highest point in North America (Photo: Hudson Stuck)

Robert Tatum narrates the team’s arrival at the summit in these words:

    Today stands a big red letter in my life as our party of four, Hudson Stuck, Harry Phillipp Karstens, Walter Harper & myself reached the summit of Mount McKinley…

I had made a flag and raised it. First of all after we all shook hands with congratulations, Arch deacon [Hudson Stuck] offered a prayer of thanks. Then the instruments were read and I raised the flag and Arch d photographed it

Then while I took some angles with the prismatic compass, W. [Walter Harper] & Mr. K [Harry Karstens] erected a cross. And set it up. And we all gathered around it and said the “Te Deum.”

—Entry dated Saturday, June 7, 1913

An online search by the “Denali Legacy” curator chanced upon “The Robert G. Tatum Papers” at UT’s Special Collections. A request from the Museum of the North to borrow Tatum’s journal of the climb prompted Special Collections to scan Tatum’s diaries (the Denali diary and five other small diaries that chronicle Tatum’s experiences as a priest) and a photo album to create a digital collection. “The Robert G. Tatum Digital Collection” is viewable online at digital.lib.utk.edu/tatum.

With a summit elevation of 20,320 feet above sea level and a greater base-to-peak height than Mount Everest, Denali is considered one of the most difficult climbs in the world.

Hudson Stuck, then Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, had followed the exploits of mountaineers who made forays on Denali, and he decided to make his own essay of the imposing massif. Stuck had climbed in the Alps and Rockies, and as a missionary to the native peoples of Alaska had traveled widely by dog sled.

Harry Karstens (later to become the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park) had been a Klondiker during the Alaska gold rush and gained fame as a fearless long-distance dog-musher. Walter Harper was a young man of mixed Scottish and Athabascan descent who accompanied Stuck on his many travels.

The 21 year-old Tatum, a postulant for holy orders, was teaching at the Episcopal mission school at Nenana, Alaska, when he met Stuck on one of the Archdeacon’s regular visits to the mission. Stuck enlisted Tatum as the camp cook for a planned ascent of Denali the next year. Even a trek to base camp would be a mountaineering feat. Tatum, the only inexperienced climber in the party, trained by hiking more than a thousand miles during the winter months that preceded the expedition. It was mere happenstance that Tatum joined the climb to the top. Just one week before the scheduled departure, Stuck invited Tatum to replace another climber who was unable to join the team.

The intrepid trekkers: Robert Tatum, Esaias George, Harry Karstens, Johnny Fredson, Walter Harper (Photo: Hudson Stuck)

The intrepid trekkers: Robert Tatum, Esaias George, Harry Karstens, Johnny Fredson,
Walter Harper (Photo: Hudson Stuck)

The team set out from Nenana in mid-March. Assisted by two Athabascan boys, the adventurers relayed supplies over 100 miles by dog sled before beginning their climb. Over twelve weeks, they braved bitter cold, altitude sickness, treacherous crevasses, and the constant threat of avalanches to reach the summit. To the ordinary mortal, it would seem an almost unimaginable ordeal.

At one point, traversing the Muldrow Glacier, Tatum slipped and plunged into a crevasse. He was saved by the rope that tied the climbing companions together. Many years later he recounted this mishap to a Knoxville News Sentinel reporter, yet, apparently, at the time he did not think the incident worth recording in his diary.

Another potentially fatal accident occurred while crossing the rain-swollen McKinley Fork. Two of the sled dogs shied in the rushing waters and turned back to shore, entangling Tatum’s legs and dragging him under the icy, waist-deep stream. In recording the incident, Tatum barely departs from his customary stoicism:

As we were crossing the river which I had so long dreaded and as Arch deacon had to be carried across, I took Walters dog. Johnnie [one of the Athabascan boys] had quite a hard time making his dog go forward so I was pushing him and after he started on I lost hold on my ice axe and my two dogs started across stream and pulled me over. Then they threw me on my back and splashed my face full of water and I lost my breath. The current was very strong and the water filed upon me. Mr. K rushed to me and just before I was about to go under he grabbed my hand and saved me. Walter came over too and took my pack. Mr K & Johnnie led me over as my breath was very short and I was weak. When I reached shore I fell on the ground and wept for thanks.

—Entry dated Thursday, June 12, 1913

By contrast, numerous diary entries record his feelings of homesickness. On successfully reaching the summit, he thinks of his family:

Very tired but happy and expect to move back downward tomorrow. I thought of those at home and would have reread Papas letter on top had it not have been so cold.

—Entry dated Saturday, June 7, 1913

Equally numerous are entries noting observance of religious services or transcribing points of theology learned from Archdeacon Stuck’s tutoring along the way. Easter Sunday falls one week after their departure from Nenana:

Went over land about 4 mi from Moose to Glacier City where we spent Easter Sunday. Had four more visitors had service. I started hymn 12 “Jesus Christ is risen today” very high. Archdeacon sang base. I got mixed in the reading of the Psalms & the “Passover,” to my sorrow. [Archdeacon Stuck] preached very impassioned sermon on the flowers, what they mean to man Even the Crocus that is found in the early Spring the pleasure it gives to man and its value and the love [flowers] create in man.

—Entry dated Sunday, March 23, 1913

Tatum was ordained as priest in the Episcopal Church on June 7, 1922 in Nenana and later returned to Knoxville to minister there for the next 42 years. He passed away on January 26, 1964, and is buried in the Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville. Mount Tatum in Denali National Park and Preserve, named in his honor, is his memorial.

Read Robert Tatum’s diary of the Denali ascent at digital.lib.utk.edu/denali.