Forgotten Hero of Denali

Alaska native son Walter Harper was the first to ascend North America’s highest peak, but his fame—and life as a physician—were cut short by tragedy.

Although Alaskan native Walter Harper helped lead his mentor Episcopal archdeacon and educator Dr. Hudson Stuck to the top of Denali, aka Mt. McKinley, on June 7, 1913, becoming the first to the summit, it was not his greatest accomplishment. The first high school graduate in his family, the son of an Irish trapper and an Athabascan mother, was going to be a physician, before he and his bride were tragically killed in the sinking of the SS Sophia Princess five years later.
– Courtesy University of Alaska, Fairbanks, no. 2002-0098-00013 –

Every year roughly 1,200 climbers register with the U.S. National Park Service to climb Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali, North America’s highest peak. A little over half make it to the top.

Those who scale her battle minus-30-degree temperatures and 150 mph winds. The first man to reach the top was 21-year-old Alaska native Walter Harper who stood on the summit in 1913—without oxygen—reaching for the hand of an ailing Dr. Hudson Stuck so he could, too, achieve his dream of standing on the highest peak in North America.

In the spring of 1913, Deacon Hudson Stuck recruited Walter Harper and Harry Karstens to help lead and guide his expedition across Muldrow Glacier to the summit of Denali.
– Courtesy University of Alaska, Fairbanks, no. 1991-0046-00490 –

Harper was born in 1893, the youngest child of Jenny Albert and legendary prospector Arthur Harper, who abandoned them shortly after his birth. Walter was raised in an Athabascan village until he was 17. Dr. Stuck, an Episcopal missionary, hired him as a trail guide.

Walter Harper was 16 when he met missionary Hudson Stuck at the Tortella School, an Episcopal boarding school founded by St. Mark’s Mission in Nenana. Stuck believed the boy had a great deal of promise and asked him to accompany him on his 1913 expedition to summit Denali.
– Photo Courtesy University of Alaska-Fairbanks, no. 1991-0046-00531 /News Clipping “The Gazette,” Montreal, Quebec, June 21, 1913, Courtesy Newspapers.com

The two traveled to missions getting to know each other. When Stuck decided to tackle Denali’s summit, Walter was invited along. As they scaled the peak, Stuck’s health declined. Walter and guide Harry Karstens did most of the work. The two spent three weeks chopping a three-mile-long staircase over one ridge and then set up five high camps. Finally, as they reached the rocky pinnacle, Walter stepped on top at 1:30 p.m. on June 7, 1913, grasping Stuck’s frail hand, guiding him to the summit.

While he played a key role in one of Alaska’s historical highs, Harper also became an unwitting participant in one of Alaska’s historical lows, the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia.

While Deacon Hudson Stuck’s expedition was the first to summit Denali, he and his team did not receive the fanfare typically given their peer adventurers. Undaunted, Stuck continued his mission work across Alaska, including his mentorship of Walter Harper, who accompanied him on many trips across the Alaskan wilderness. Stuck, who never married, considered Harper an adopted son and never fully recovered from Harper’s untimely death.
– True West Archives –

Stuck had encouraged Walter to pursue a medical career. He had been accepted to medical school in Philadelphia at the same time he married Frances Wells in Fort Yukon on September 4, 1918. They would honeymoon on the Princess Sophia on their way to Seattle to catch an eastbound train.

They found Skagway a wild scene. The night before the ship was to embark, the town hosted the Sourdough Dance for newly enlisted troops from Ruby, Alaska, practically the town’s entire male population.

Harry Karstens, future first superintendent of Denali National Park (formerly Mt. McKinley), was a key guide and team member of the Hudson Stuck expedition that summited McKinley with Walter Harper and Robert G. Tatum.
– True West Archives –

The newlyweds boarded on October 23. The ship left Skagway at 10 p.m., three hours behind schedule. Within four hours, the vessel found itself in a blinding snowstorm, more than a mile off course, and aground on Vanderbilt Reef.

After being married on September 4, 1918, in Fort Yukon, Alaska, newlyweds Walter Harper and Frances Wells Harper arrived on October 22 to the overcrowded, bustling port city of Skagway (above). The next day they boarded the SS Princess Sophia bound for Seattle and medical school for Walter with their future in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ahead of them.
– Courtesy Beinecke Library, Yale University –

Rescue ships could not get close enough to the vessel because of gale force winds and towering waves. The Princess Sophia’s captain hampered efforts by radioing the ship was in no immediate danger. Then a northern gale struck the ship, her bottom grated off by the reef and she broke apart and sank on October 25, taking the Harpers, 266 other passengers and the crew of 75 to the bottom.

The SS Princess Sophia was steaming south from Skagway through the Lynn Canal in Chatham Strait toward Juneau when a terrible blizzard pushed the ship a mile off-course onto rocks near the Vanderbilt Reef. Before rescue operations could commence or lifeboats were launched, a northern gale sent the ship into the reef, with all hands and passengers killed, including Walter and Frances Wells Harper.
– Photo of SS Princess Courtesy True West Archives/News Clipping “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” Brooklyn, NY, October 27, 1918, Courtesy Newspaper.com –

The Harpers’ bodies were recovered, and the couple was buried side by side in Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery. Their marker reads: “Here Lie the Bodies of Walter Harper and Frances Wells, His Wife, Drowned on the Princess Sophia, 25th October 1918. May Light Perpetually Shine on Them. They were Lovely and Pleasant in Their Lives, And in Death They Were Not Divided.”

Mike Coppock was born and raised in Western Oklahoma. After graduating from Phillips University in Enid, he has lived in Alaska off and on since 1985. While in Alaska, he taught history in an Alaska Bush community, worked as an editor of two Alaskan newspapers and was a flight specialist for the FAA. He is currently a historical interpreter at Denali National Park.

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