On June 7, 1913, at 20,310 feet, Walter Harper stood on the top of the North American continent alone. Since early morning, he had led his partners up a snowy crest, at times cutting steps with a hickory-handled axe. Far from the alpine centers of Europe, they lashed iron crampons to moccasins instead of boots, encasing their feet in thick layers of socks. The son of an Irish immigrant and a Koyukon Athabascan woman, Harper was the sole Alaska Native on the summit bid. It seemed fitting, expedition leader Archdeacon Stuck later recounted, that Harper should reach the apex of Denali before anyone else.
For a while, only the gusts of the north wind shook the bright, icy air–and beneath its roar, perhaps, the rhythm of the climbers’ heavy breaths, of footfalls silenced in soft drifts. Below them, now, the summit of Sultana unfurled its gleaming ridges and hanging glaciers. Peak after peak arced suspended above a smoky haze, while the skies rose into ever-darker shades of blue. During the weeks on the Muldrow Glacier, Harper had helped find a route through a maze of earthquake-shattered ice, crossing slopes of loose snow, and teetering over a chaos of frozen pinnacles and blocks. For days, blizzards whirled through the air, filling in carved steps that Harper laboriously dug back out. In Cold River Spirits: Whispers from a Family’s Forgotten Past (2012), his grandniece Jan Harper-Haines described how Harper knew, since youth, to make his way through a whiteout and start a fire in a storm. “Throughout the centuries,” she wrote of her family, “those who lived along the Yukon learned ways to heal themselves with the help of nature…. They honored nature and the spirit world.”
Within his diary, Harper marveled at the avalanches that rattled the glacier, “rolling down the mountainside like a roaring thunder and afterwards raising a cloud one thousand feet or more up in the air.” At 16,500 feet, he told Stuck that he heard the sounds of familiar songbirds through a fog of snow.
Archdeacon Stuck’s 1914 Ascent of Denali began with an appeal: “Forefront in this book, because forefront in the author’s heart and desire, must stand a plea for the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of its immemorial native name.” But for another century and more, Denali–from the word for “The High One,” in the language of Harper’s ancestors–was replaced on American maps by the official designation of Mt. McKinley, which a non-Native gold prospector had chosen for the peak in 1896.
In The New Nature of Maps (2001), the map historian J.B. Harley proposed, “It would be possible to construct a broader typology of silences.” There are gaps between what can and cannot be represented on paper. There are details that cartographers withhold to emphasize features they deem more meaningful. There are mysteries that individuals decide to preserve, hidden wildwoods of human mind and memory. There are charts of the “New World” that imperial governments once kept secret, concealing key trade and military routes from rivals. And there are, most hauntingly, suppressions of traces of prior human presence, first with blanks on the maps, and later with colonial boundaries and names.
As Harley and other historians have noted, most of the early printed maps of America conceal faint layers of Indigenous cartographies. When European Americans began venturing across Western ranges, many of them relied on “ephemeral maps” drawn by Native Americans on birch bark, animal skins and campfire ashes–detailed lines of peaks and waterways later inked into expedition reports. Captain Meriwether Lewis wrote in his 1805 journal of watching a Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, create an elaborate relief model of the Rockies, sculpting river sand into “vast mountains of rock eternally covered with snow.”
Even when nineteenth-century mountaineers set out to claim unclimbed peaks, they found stone structures and arrowheads on some iconic summits as high as 14,000 feet. Legends tell of Arapaho hunters trapping eagles on the top of Longs Peak. In 1872, when James Stevenson and Nathaniel Langford scrambled up the Enclosure in the Tetons, they came across a circle of rocks filled in with broken shards. “This was probably done hundreds of years ago,” Langford wrote in his diary, “for hundreds of years must have been required to fill this space with granite fragments small as these.”
In the introduction to Pioneering Ascents (1991),an anthology of early American mountaineering stories, David Mazel acknowledged, “The period covered by this anthology, 1642 to 1873, is in some ways arbitrary. Mountaineering in the New World actually started much earlier, with its native inhabitants.” What is remarkable is the extent to which–in many mainstream histories–these older climbs have been relegated to margins or simply blotted out.
By now, it seems traditional to start accounts of American mountaineering in 1642, with the first documented ascent of Agiocochook, later renamed Mt. Washington, in what is now the state of New Hampshire. According to John Winthrop’s journal, colonial settler Darby Field and his unnamed Abenaki guides canoed inland from the mouth of the Saco River. At an Abenaki village near the base of the peak, Field hired more guides. Around eight miles from the top, most of the party stopped, and Field and his original guides continued through a layer of dense clouds to a broad and stony summit. After gazing north into a seemingly fathomless chasm, Field cut pieces of glasslike mica to take back. A month later, he made a second ascent. “They brought some stones which they supposed had been diamonds,” Winthrop concluded, “but they were most crystal.”
Not much more is known about Field, as Maurice Isserman points out in his 2016 book, Continental Divide; historians have long debated Field’s motivations. But Field is named, and he remains the protagonist of most published stories of the ascent. Colonial accounts left no record of the names or desires of his Abenaki guides. Winthrop insisted that Abenaki people were reluctant to accompany Field because they were afraid. Rhonda Besaw, a modern Abenaki artist, explains a more complex view, “We believe that [the mountain] is where the spirits reside, quite a powerful place which should not be disturbed.”
Well into the nineteenth century, other Indigenous guides led explorers and recreational climbers over passes and occasionally summits in many North American ranges. An unnamed “Indian of the Penobscots” appears in William Clark Larrabee’s account of an 1837 geological expedition to Katahdin, reprinted in the 1926 Appalachia. The party had left behind the last shelter of the krummholz trees, scrambling over steep bare rocks, even as clouds swept up the mountain flanks and covered the summit in a dark mist. From the top, as Larrabee began to descend into a whiteout, the Penobscot man called him back–Larrabee had been about to wander off a cliff. Noting the coming blizzard (and his clients’ determination to ignore it), the guide had steadily placed cairns to mark the way back. “A prudent expedient that never occurred to the rest of us,” Larrabee admitted.
In Maine Woods (1864), during his own venture north, Massachusetts philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote of meeting one Penobscot man, Louis Neptune, who had taken several white visitors to the top of Katahdin, each time leaving an offering for Pamola, a spirit rendered angry by ascents. It was likely, Thoreau surmised, that Neptune had accompanied the 1837 geological expedition. To him and to other Penobscot hunting and trekking guides Thoreau met, the land was not a desolate or sublime empty wasteland. Crisscrossed with familiar pathways, the forests and waters teemed with old names and stories as abundant as the rocks, the stars and the leaves.
So much of mountaineering literature deals with notions of priority. Climbers who make first recorded ascents often assert the right to name–or rename–a peak. Wanderers in search of struggle or communion with “the wild” frequently long for “pure” landscapes, free from signs of human passage, “a manuscript written by the hand of Nature alone,” as John Muir liked to envision it. In The Mountains of California (1894), Muir recounted his restless dreams in a Sierra canyon as night currents of wind streamed between sharp summits, blending “strange tones” with the thunder of waterfalls. Earlier that day, he’d come across a group of Mono people on a rocky pass. Now, the memory of their presence felt to him discomfortingly close. “They seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” he wrote.
It was not, of course, in the real mountains that the Mono had no place; it was merely in a particular imaginary geography of wilderness that took shape in his and other mountaineering writers’ minds, one that had no room for original inhabitants. In The Alaska Native Reader (2009), Maria Shaa Tlaa Williams wrote that European-American myths of “discovery” seem to assume Native people were “somehow invisible all these tens of thousands of years.” All too commonly, modern stories replicate patterns of dispossession and exclusion, perpetuating similar acts of erasure. Geography professor Carolyn Finney in Black Faces, White Spaces (2014), describes how “the dominant environmental narrative in the United States is primarily constructed and informed by white, Western European, or Euro-American voices,” often muting perspectives of different historical groups in the mountains, from black regiments of Buffalo Soldiers who once served in Yosemite, to Chinese workers who built the railways early climbers took to the West, to Indigenous people displaced from homelands and spiritual sites. By recalling more diverse heritages of the American outdoors, she explains, we might better understand the variety of “motivations, perceptions, and challenges to environmental engagement in the present.” We might glimpse “whole worlds of experience” beyond persistent, singular archetypes of the frontier.
In recent years, as growing numbers of outdoor writers and activists recount stories of underrepresented groups amid the peaks and canyons of the US, they are also highlighting and retracing some of the multitudinous contour lines–overlapping, contrasting or merging–of what a mountain country can mean to each person.
In her memoir, Harper’s grandniece described the snow that sifted down the mountainsides on the late October 1918 night when Harper and his bride Frances Wells left the port of Skagway. Thick flakes dissolved in the dark waters, while the north wind blew from icy summits far beyond. Soon after, they were lost in a shipwreck. Of Koyukon people, Harper-Haines wrote, “They knew when they died their spirits would return to the headwaters of the Yukon, as their ancestors had promised.”
Decades later, Harper’s niece Yvonne Mozee composed a preface for the 1977 publication of his diary, “It’s just a small, rather beat-up, once-blue notebook,” she recounted, “perhaps intended for accounts, with vertical red lines like a mini-ledger. The pages are bound with top stitching, and the cover’s layers are peeling apart…. I wonder where it traveled on that climb. In Walter’s hip pocket?”
In 2015 the US Secretary of the Interior, climber Sally Jewel, announced that Denali would replace McKinley as the official name. But the lore of mountaineering is filled with countless other names muted in histories and maps, stories written in lost journals, passed down in oral tradition, preserved in only rare and out-of-print books. A cartographer might indeed create numerous categories of silences, some chosen, some imposed. That quiet, however, is merely an illusion. Behind it, there have always been so many heard and unheard voices–like the notes of birds resounding through the falling snow.
With thanks to Colin G. Calloway, Mark David Spence, Chief Don Stevens and Rhonda Besaw, who all provided advice for The Sharp End.–Ed