Feat or fraud? Western Slope climber, author explores heroes’ experiences on Denali
December 19, 2018
Carbondale mountaineer and author Jon Waterman first set foot on North America’s highest peak in 1976, then immersed himself in the following decades in all things Denali.
He has studied its expansive features and various climbing routes. He has spent extensive time on its slopes as a climber, guide and volunteer ranger with the U.S. Park Service. He has helped with medical evacuations and body retrievals. It almost became his own tomb during a 1982 expedition.
Being a curious type, he has also delved into Denali’s rich climbing history.
“I’ve always been interested in the lore of mountaineering,” he said.
That led him to the Sourdough saga. Four tough mining men were supposedly the first to the summit the north peak in 1910. They were dubbed Sourdoughs on the assumption they carried sourdough bread with them at all times.
At first, they were his heroes for an almost unbelievable feat with no mountaineering experience. They claimed to climb 8,000 feet and descend in a single day during wintertime conditions. The north peak is slightly lower than the South Summit at 20,310 feet, but they were still regarded as the groundbreakers. Alaskans of their era were proud that some of their own conquered the mountain rather than outsiders or Cheechakos.
While little is known of three of the four men, they were likable because they were woodsmen and mushers who didn’t climb for fame or fortune. Their journey was prompted by bar talk.
“These guys were men of the trail,” Waterman said. “They didn’t care what anybody thought. They were just tough SOBs.”
But the more Waterman learned about Denali through his own climbs and the more he consulted with other climbers, he began to fear that his heroes were hucksters.
That led him to seek out the truth — or the best that he could ascertain — for what would be his 13th book. “Chasing Denali: The Sourdoughs, Cheechakos and Frauds Behind the Most Unbelievable Feat in Mountaineering” came out in November.
“I tried to turn over every rock I could find,” Waterman said.
He spent extensive time researching newspaper articles about the 1910 trip, going over journals of men who encountered some of the four Sourdoughs in later years, and raking over field notes of expeditions that tried to confirm the Sourdoughs’ journey in the years immediately following. Waterman also went back to Denali in summer 2016 as a volunteer with the Park Service and made the summit while celebrating his 60th birthday.
“It was a challenge, for sure,” he said.
His team members were all younger and fit. He was afraid he wouldn’t make it. Waterman doesn’t get into many details of his own final summit. Instead he uses the experience as a “time machine” back to the Sourdoughs’ journey.
On a prior trip, he had ventured the same route as the Sourdoughs. Scaling the mountain as those pioneers did requires covering extensive ground through so many different ecosystems. There are river crossings, dense forests and, depending on the season, hordes of mosquitoes just to approach the slopes. Then there are crevasses, avalanches, tough climbs up ice-covered gullies where one slip can be fatal.
The Sourdoughs picked a route that many climbers avoid and, when it is attempted, still presents challenges more than a century later.
“It’s not only the climbing route of a lifetime. It’s the adventure route of a lifetime,” Waterman said.
He approached the project doubting that his heroes could have pulled off such an extreme mountaineering feat without better equipment and training.
The book wrote itself, he said. He simply laid out the evidence as he saw it. It’s a quick, entertaining read at 126 pages.
Waterman reached his personal conclusions based on his work. Others might weigh the evidence differently.
“The beauty of the book is it leaves it up to the readers,” he said.
“Chasing Denali” is available or can be ordered from bookstores around the Roaring Fork Valley and found online.