Red and black buoys marking Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal were visible during the day, but invisible and quite useless at night. Soon after leaving Skagway, the Sophia found herself in the midst of a ferocious gale. Battling heavy rollers in the blinding storm, she ran aground on the reef with a grinding jolt that flung her crew about and knocked passengers from their beds.
On June 7, a team began retracing their ancestors’ steps in a centennial climb to honor the first successful summit of North America’s highest mountain, Denali. The original team included Hudson Stuck, Archdeacon of the Yukon Territory; Robert Tatum, a postulant for holy orders; Harry Karstens, an experienced outdoorsman; Walter Harper, a 21 year old Athabascan man; and two Athabascan boys, John Fredson (15 years old) and Esaias George (14 years old). The centennial team includes Dana Wright who is a direct lineal descendant of CIRI shareholder Johanna Harper and a descendant of Walter Harper, the first person to summit the mountain on June 7, 1913. In addition, Walter Harper has a significant number of descendants enrolled with CIRI, including former Shareholder Participation Committee member, Jan Harper Haines, who wrote Triumph to Tragedy: The Short Life of Walter Harper.
The 2013 Denali Centennial Climb seeks to inspire Alaska Native youth by celebrating Athabascan heroes while educating others about the history of the original climbing team. You can follow the Denali Centennial Climb online at www.denali2013.org. The May 2013 Raven’s Circle newsletter featured part one of the Triumph to Tragedy short story and is available online at www.ciri.com.
Triumph to Tragedy: The Short Life of Walter Harper, Part 2
By Jan Harper Haines, CIRI shareholder
They had no modern-day equipment; just a few photographs from a prior failed expedition, which were useless because of an earthquake that struck later. According to Walter Borneman in Alaska, Saga of a Bold Land, the quake altered the smooth ridge at Muldrow Glacier, and “Karstens and Harper (spent) an exhausting three weeks chopping a three mile long staircase in the shattered ice of the ridge.”
Excerpts from Harper’s diary:
May 10, 1913, It blew a gale all day and we had to stay in camp waiting for it to subside…. Mr. Karstens experimented with an alcohol stove…the stove burns long enough to boil a pot of tea.
May 11, 1913, The sun was shining brightly…we had heavy packs on our backs and we toiled up the ridge gasping for breath…
May 14, 1913, The weather is still uncertain… Archdeacon gave me dictation lesson from one of Shakespeare’s small pocket edition(s). Mr. Tatum had neuralgia in his jaw all day and I think if we can go out tomorrow he will be unable to go with us.
May 15, 1913, We got up at five o’clock…the sun shone brightly, beating down on the ice ridges and the snow slopes, causing many avalanches. We went up the ridge… an altitude of thirteen thousand feet.
May 17, 1913, We heard an avalanche… it was rolling down the mountainside like a roaring of thunder…. raising a cloud one thousand feet or more.
May 18, 1913, Snowing heavily. We had morning service…Today is Trinity Sunday. It has been two months and two days since we left Nenana. It is very tedious staying in the tent all day waiting for the weather to clear.
June 7, 1913, Saturday. Mr. K (Harry Karstens) had a headache and Tatum had another and the Archdeacon could not move without losing his breath and our spirits were all pretty low… It was one o’clock when we got to the top. I was ahead all day and was the first ever to set foot on Mt. Denali. We lost no time in setting up the little instrument tent and while the Archdeacon was reading the mercurial barometer I boiled the boiling point thermometer.
June 8, 1913, We took a last glimpse at the north and south peaks of Mt. Denali and turned our faces toward the lowlands.
June 9, 1913, We made our way down to the base camp and found Johnnie (John Fredson) well and happy and the dogs rolling fat…. This morning we were at the glacier camp in the season of winter and now we are at the base camp in the season of summer…
A year later, Hudson Stuck entered Harper in the Mount Hermon School for Boys in Massachusetts where he earned good marks and was a popular student. Three years later, back in Alaska, Harper contracted typhoid fever. He was treated at Fort Yukon’s Mission Hospital where he met his future wife, a young nurse named Frances Wells.
On October 23, 1918, two weeks after Walter and Frances were married, they boarded the Princess Sophia in Skagway. The Sophia would steam south through the Lynn Canal and was the last ship leaving Alaska before freeze up. Walter wanted to attend a university to fulfill his dream of a career in medicine. They boarded that evening with about 300 others: passengers and crew, plus a number of horses and dogs.
Ten ships responded to her distress call, but the Sophia’s Captain Locke realized they could crash into the Sophia and reluctantly warned them away. His remaining hope was that when the tide came in, the Sophia would float free.
Two days later, when the tide came in, however, the storm was still raging. As the Sophia lifted in the water, she spun, grinding against the rocky reef and shattering her hull. When her boiler burst, thousands of gallons of bunker oil spilled and congealed in the icy storm. Panicked passengers began leaping overboard and were instantly weighed down with the windblown oil.
Coates and Morrison wrote in “The Sinking of the Princess Sophia” that all ten lifeboats sank. The sole survivor was an English setter (dog) that managed to reach Auke Bay.
In my research, I came across three faded black and white photographs of the Sophia in her final moments. They are sobering and eerie and I felt something come over me as I studied them. The tragedy of Walter and his bride and the hundreds of others on this death ship is shocking.
Walter left a significant legacy for Alaska’s Native people. His determined ascent of Denali and his dream to serve the people of the Yukon as a medical doctor will forever mark him as an icon for achievement.
Walter’s legacy to our family is more personal. He was my mother’s uncle. He was the first love of my grandmother when she was a girl. As I look at photographs of the handsome six-footer, I have to smile. Who could blame her?
Jan Harper Haines is the author of “Cold River Spirits: Whispers from a Family’s Forgotten Past,” available for purchase at local bookstores and online at www.epicenterpress.com.