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Belmore Browne was the first to nearly climb Alaska's Mount McKinley. Then he got lost.

Craig Medred
Courtesy Brian Okonek

One hundred years ago an artist by the name of Belmore Browne came within 300 yards of becoming the first person to stand atop North America's tallest peak. And then he got lost. Not in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense. Browne slipped away into a historical dustbin between the legendary Sourdough Expedition of 1910 and the first successful climb of Mount McKinley by Walter Harper, Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum and in 1913.

Now another mountaineer, Talkeetna's Brian Okonek, is trying to bring Browne's legacy back to life. They are two men similar in nature but divided by time. Both were born with the adventure gene. Both fell in love with photography. Both came to Alaska at an early age. For Browne, it was when he was an eight-year-old on a family trip in 1888. Okonek, oddly enough, arrived North at the same age. His father, Jim, who was destined to become a well known McKinley glacier pilot, moved the family to Anchorage when Brian was eight.

Okonek grew up in the city and helped found the West High School Mountaineering Club when he was a sophomore. Thus began a long career in Alaska mountaineering that would see him help put up a number of notable first ascents and aid in the development of the McKinley guiding business from something of an oddity to a mainstay of the summer tourist season in Talkeetna. Some 1,200 to 1,300 people a year now take a run at McKinley's 20,320-foot summit. Tens of thousands more journey to Talkeetna to experience the atmosphere the climbers bring to the old Alaska Railroad stop.

When Okonek was on the mountain for the first time as a high school junior in 1973, only 203 climbers registered with the National Park Service to climb, and Talkeetna was a sleepy community 14 miles off what until only a couple of years earlier had been a road to nowhere. The Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway, now the George Parks Highway, had been punched through the Alaska Range only two years earlier. Parts of it were still rough gravel in 1973. The Talkeenta Roadhouse and the Fairview Inn, still landmarks, were there, but the population numbered in the dozens, not the hundreds of today.

And the hippies drawn to the area with the idea of settling on free state land out along the railroad tracks in Chase outnumbered the tourists. But that was a whole lot more than was there in Browne's day. He didn't have the luxury of a road to get him close to the base of McKinley or a community from which to stage an expedition.

Why didn't more die?

Browne's McKinley climb started in the port of Seward, and just getting to the base of the mountain was an expedition, as Okonek pointed out to a crowd that packed the Indigo Tea Lounge in Anchorage on Friday night to listen to his Browne show, which is -- in turn -- a good recap of the amazing history of exploration in and around McKinley. After listening to Okonek recount the hell the early explorers endured just trying to get into position to make an attempt at the summit of McKinley, one woman in the audience was moved to ask an obvious question:

Why didn't more of them die?

Okonek, who has witnessed a fair number of deaths like most who survive past middle-age adventuring in the mountains of Alaska, provided the all too obvious answer: Because they were tough, skilled and lucky. He did not add, though he probably should have, that the first two contribute greatly to the making of the latter. It's something Okonek, as with others like him, intrinsically understands. It's what fuels the fascination with Browne and other early Alaska explorers.

Okonek used the words "incredible" and "unbelievable" a fair bit in his Browne lectures, which have been supported by the Alaska Humanities Forum. The forum helped finance Okonek's research and a trip to Dartmouth University back East to dig through the Belmore Browne Archives.

"It was just a treasure trove," Okonek said. “The pictures, I think, will say a thousand words."

Among the pictures, as Okonek calls them, are 153 glass slides that started out as black-and-white photographs but were then hand-colored by Browne, a noted artist. He used the slides to illustrate the lectures he delivered to audiences across the country after his near ascent of the continent's tallest peak. It followed the now more famous exploits of the Sourdoughs, a collection of Alaska miners who dragged a spruce pole to near the north peak of McKinley and summitted there, not realizing that the south peak was the higher spot.

They were all from Fairbanks. The north peak looks higher from that vantage point. Everyone now agrees it would have been easy, or comparatively so given what the miners had already done, to trek across the top of the mountain to the hiker peak, but they didn't do it. Still, they got closer than Dr. Frederick Cook, who had claimed to have reached the top of McKinley in 1906.

Browne had been along on that expedition, but wasn't in on the summit bid. And he didn't believe it. Neither did most others, and so Browne came back to see if he could get there. It would take him eight months to get within 300 yards of the top himself.

As many before and since, Browne had figured out that winter is the best time to travel in Alaska. The land locked in ice and snow is cold and inhospitable, but nearly as inhospitable when it is a tangle of alders and a morass of swamps, not to mention when an unfriendly grizzly bear or two isn't hibernating. Browne and his climbing team started converging on Seward in January, Okonek said. The Iditarod Trail would lead them at least part way from there to their goal.

Problems began almost immediately. They got a mail carrier to haul them and their gear to Portage, tried to go by boat to Knik, and nearly died paddling in shifting tidal ice flows not far from present-day Anchorage. "They finally gave up on that," Okonek said, and retreated to Girdwood. There they got back on the Iditarod Trial over Crow Pass to the Eagle River Roadhouse in a someday-to-be Anchorage suburb that didn't yet exist, and finally mushed on through Knik to Susitna Station on the Susitna River.

"At this point," Okonek said, "they left the Iditarod Trail," and started working their way upriver to Talkeetna. "Nobody was living there," Okonek said. There were some cabins, but they were empty. Browne and his team did not linger long and continued ferrying supplies up the Chulitna River with their five-dog teams. It was nothing like the dog mushing depicted by the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race these days. The men spent most of their time on snowshoes either packing in trails for the dogs, or walking behind them guiding the sled with a gee pole. It was slow travel.

Having left Seward at the end of January, they started over the Alaska range in April, Okonek said. They picked a bad pass, too, and got to the top only to find a near vertical drop into the valley below. They threw a bunch of their gear over the side, and then started belaying the dogs and sleds down the slope.

"It was just unbelievable," Okonek said. "They got really lucky. They didn't destroy any gear. They didn't lose any gear."

They still had all their fingers and toes

Once north of the range, they pulled into a hunting camp on the McKinley River and started looking for big game animals to kill so they could eat. They spent almost a month there recovering and trying to determine the best route up McKinley's north side.

"They didn't know exactly where the sourdoughs had gone," Okonek said. They had no maps, let alone GPS or a fancy survival watch with which to call for help if necessary. They were on their own in a vast wilderness. They started up the Muldrow Glacier with the dogs. A team fell through a crevasse. Two of the dogs were unconscious when pulled out but somehow miraculously recovered.

Later, Okonek said, one of the climbers went through a crevasse. He was roped, but it was unclear how the Browne expedition was going to pull anyone out of a crevasse. Fortunately, the climber landed on a ledge in the crevasse, and the ledge angled up to where he could walk out.

By early June, Okonek said, the Browne expedition had pioneered a route across the Muldrow and were ready to start for the summit. As with the Sourdoughs' expedition, they had to basically chop their way up Karsten's Ridge. Their foot gear was primitive, so they had to cut steps in the ice. The weather was challenging the whole way.

"They did suffer mightily from the cold," Okonek said. "They were sleeping really, really cold."

He blames their diet of pemmican, which is hard to digest at altitude. It didn't matter. They kept going. They were closing in on the summit when the infamous McKinley winds started to blow. Soon they were in a ground blizzard, the visibility pushing near zero. The winds got so bad, Okonek said, "they couldn't really go forward." They huddled and decided their choice was simple: They could descend or they could die.

They turn around and luckily were able to follow their wind scoured tracks a good part of the way back to high camp. There, Okonek said, they took a day's rest and planned to try again.

Then, he said, "the winds came in and drove them back again."

He believes the team reached an elevation of 20,020 feet just 300 yards from the summit. And there they finally gave up.

"They were hungry," Okonek said. "They were cold. They'd given it their best. They still had all their fingers and toes."

And they were lucky. They couldn't see the future, but that decision to turn around when they did probably saved their lives.

"They got down off the mountain on July 4," Okonek said. Two days later a massive earthquake shook the Alaska Range. Miles from the mountain by then, the tents of Browne's team were showered with spindrift. Avalanches came down all over the mountain. Cracks opened in the earth. Hot muds started flowing. When the Stuck expedition started up the mountain next year, leader Hudson Stuck reported the earthquake was so powerful it altered the shape of the mountain. 

"They probably would have all been killed," Okonek said, but they survived.

They hiked out to the Kantishna mining district in what is now Denali National Park and Preserve. There they met one of the climbers from the Sourdough expedition, who told them about an abandoned boat on a nearby river. They found it, fixed it up and floated down the Kantishna River to the Tanana River and down the Tanana to the village of the same name on the north bank of the Yukon River. There they caught a steamboat to Dawson, Yukon Territory, and finally a train to Skagway to catch a ship to Seattle.

"Almost 8 months on the trail," Okonek said, "it was definitely a different time."

He sounded almost like he wished he'd been along.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com