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Wickersham Wall is adventurous judge's legacy

Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) In the first copy of the first newspaper to be published in Fairbanks, there was a short notice of another original undertaking.

''Within a week a party consisting of Judge James Wickersham, M.I. Stevens, George A. Jeffery and Johnnie McLeod will leave Chena on the Tanana Chief for the Kantishna River on a trip to Mt. McKinley,'' the notice said.

On May 16, 1903, the small party left Fairbanks, the first expedition to use the Interior city as base camp for such a climb.

Had the men been set on summiting more than adventuring, they might have listened to the opinion of an Athabascan man, Olyman Cheah, whom they met at an Indian camp on the lower Kantishna three days later.

Told of their mission, Olyman offered a few ''brief Indian phrases, which McLeod translated after the rude laughter had subsided, as: 'He says you are a fool.'''

Foolish or not, the men continued with the optimistic expedition, which Wickersham detailed 35 years later in his book, ''Old Yukon.''

Wickersham, the first federal District Court judge in the Interior, had recently moved his headquarters from Eagle to the new town of Fairbanks. But business was slow, so ''there was time to look around and consider what to do next,'' he wrote. ''To me the most interesting object on the horizon was the massive dome that dominates the valleys of the Tanana, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim.''

He recruited four companions for a climb, but they had no money. They decided to issue a newspaper and sell advertising. Lacking equipment but swamped with business, Wickersham reported, the crew churned out their eight-page Fairbanks Miner ''on the first printing press ever brought to the valley a typewriter.''

In that first edition, Wickersham also gave notice that he would be conducting court in the Yukon River village of Rampart on July 27. That gave the expedition about 2 1/2 months to cover a total of about 300 miles.

Just reaching the mountain's base took weeks. They rowed a boat called the Mudlark up the Kantishna and walked mules or ''white man's moose,'' as the Athabascans called them, overland. Leaving the river, they reached the toe of Chitsia Mountain, a knob at the north end of the Kantishna Hills, on May 31. By June 16, they were glassing the lower slopes of Mount McKinley and saw the first hint of the difficulties ahead.

''All the tales the Indians told us about snowslides at this season seem to be true, for the whole western face of the mountain, above the glacier, glistens with ice sheets streaked with mineral discolorations from recent slides,'' Wickersham noted.

They pushed up the glacier's central moraine, then up a smaller glacier to the left, which soon rose into a nearly perpendicular ice fall that blocked further progress. So they sat and watched the sun create avalanches on the western face, later named the Wickersham Wall.

''When it first begins to move it sends out a treacherous and sibilant sound, which increases in harshness with the increasing velocity of the gathering mass, and ends with a thundering roar as the avalanche strikes the glacier far below,'' Wickersham wrote. ''These cataracts of snow make it impossible to ascend these high walls at this time.''

Wickersham's party turned around, which is when the real adventure began.

After hiking back toward Wonder Lake, they decided to raft down the McKinley River, starting June 25. They unwisely launched in the river's gorge. Shortly after entering the river, their log platform ran under a rock shelf that ''scraped it clean.'' It then broke up in more rapids below.

None of the men drowned, and the mules, which Wickersham had decided to walk down the last stretch of gorge, survived as well. Of their gear, they found only a gun and a hand-crank drill.

Wickersham had tucked a half-sack of flour on the mules, the only food to come through. They used it to cook bannock, supplemented with mosquitoes.

''We ate pounds of these sweet song birds ... the next three days,'' he wrote, ''but did not apparently diminish the millions which sang about us at night as we tried to sleep with our heads wrapped in horse blankets, the rest of our bodies being left exposed as bait.''

They reconstructed the raft, though McLeod refused to ride. He fashioned a canoe from green spruce bark instead. They also shot a moose June 29, which solved the food problem. On July 4, they drifted past the Toklat River and the next day reached Baker Creek, just upstream from Manley Hot Springs on the Tanana River. There, they immediately started the 50-mile hike to Rampart, reaching the Yukon River town on July 7.

A friend gave Wickersham a shave and then logically disposed of the clothing worn for the past two months.

''He stepped gingerly to the bank of the Yukon and threw my cast-off clothing, with my hundred-dollar gold watch strongly attached thereto by a moosehide string, into the river, where they took up their journey seaward!'' Wickersham wrote later.

Wickersham's unsuccessful effort to climb his eponymous wall on Mount McKinley wasn't the first recorded attempt. The summer before, geologist Alfred Brooks had come over Rainy Pass and up to the wall.

The famous explorer Frederick Cook also came up from the south and poked about the wall during the same summer Wickersham was there. Later, he claimed to have reached the summit from the south side in 1906. His report was exposed as a fraud.

A group of sourdoughs out of Fairbanks, climbing from the north side, planted a pole on Mount McKinley's north peak in 1910, but the higher southern peak remained unclimbed for three more years.

After a well-planned and well-timed climb up Mount McKinley's eastern ridges, Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum stepped onto the south peak on June 7, 1913.

But it would be another 50 years before anyone reached the mountain's north peak via the Wickersham Wall, according to a National Park Service summary of climbing history.



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