Walter Harper Day commemorates first person to summit Denali

From Hudson Stuck’s “The Ascent of Denali” (Project Gutenberg)

Today is Walter Harper Day — honoring the mountaineer and guide who was the first person to climb to Denali’s highest summit. Alaskans are celebrating the day with work on a new statue of Harper and a special episode of the “Molly of Denali” TV show.

This is the second annual Walter Harper Day – it was passed into legislation in April 2020.

“Walter Harper left an indelible mark on Alaska history when, at the young age of 20, became the first person to stand atop the summit of Denali on June 7, 1913,” said Sen. Click Bishop who sponsored the bill.

Formal Portrait, Walter Harper, 1916.
(courtesy UAF Rasmuson Library)

Alaska historian Mary Ehrlander stumbled on Harper’s story when researching Hudson Stuck, the English immigrant, cowboy and Episcopal archdeacon of the Yukon River. But it was Harper’s story, she thought, that needed telling.

​“I thought, this is a spectacular story! We will need to know about him. Every school kid should learn about Walter Harper,” she said.

Ehrlander wrote “Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son,” published in 2017. Ehrlander was the director of Arctic and Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In 1913, expedition co-leaders Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens put together a team of Robert Tatum, Walter Harper — who was Stuck’s Athabascan guide — and two 15-year-olds, John Fredson and Esaias George. It took about three months to get from Fairbanks to the top. Fredson and George maintained the base camp for four weeks while the expedition team summited Denali. It was Stuck who thought that an Athabascan should be the first to step on to the taller, southern summit.

A group of Alaskans formed the Walter Harper Project at the time of the centennial of the first summiting, in 2013. They have a website, WalterHaper.org and are taking donations there to help erect a statue. Earlier this spring, Doyon Ltd. put $25,000 in the pot. Spokesperson Sarah Obed says that’s because Native history matters.

“We really hope to educate the public about Walter Harper and his accomplishments and his life, we believe his leadership is something to emulate,” she said.

Beginning the descent of the ridge, looking down 4,000 feet upon the Muldrow Glacier. From Hudson Stuck’s “The Ascent of Denali” (Project Gutenberg)

Obed says Doyon has also offered a home for the statue, near the Chena River.

“It’s a prominent landmark here in Fairbanks, and homeland of the Athabascan people, and it will be a really great place for community members and visitors to learn about this part of our history.”

The committee has selected Gary Lee Price to design the Walter Harper statue, which is scheduled for unveiling a year from now on Walter Harper Day, 2022. Fairbankans may be familiar with Price’s work, as he did the sculpture of children in front of Denali School on Lathrop Street in Fairbanks.

Historian Ehlander says one of the models for that sculpture was Mike Harper, Walter’s grand-nephew.

“We loved the movement in that sculpture, and just how lifelike the children were. And we wanted to convey that energy and enthusiasm and love of life and love of nature that Walter had,” she said.

There’s also a special one-hour episode of the children’s animated series “Molly of Denali” marking the day, airing today on PBS Kids. That’s at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on KUAC-TV.​

Ehrlander says it is not just the summiting of Denali that makes Harper remarkable, but his complement of subsistence skills and character traits.

“Here’s a guy who is universally admirable, whom every Alaskan could feel proud of,” she said.

Harper was only 25 when he and his wife, Frances Wells, died on the steamer Princess Sophia when it ran aground in Lynn Canal on Oct. 25, 1918. The couple were on their way to the Lower 48 so Harper could attend medical school.

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