Upward Christian Soldiers
An Episcopalian explorer extraordinaire, Stuck was both the Venerable Archdeacon of the Yukon and a man hungry to accomplish feats of geographical significance. During his life he dog-sledded over 50,000 miles across some of the most fearsome wilderness in the northern hemisphere in order to attend to his scattered Athabascan and Inuit flock – and also to explore. This desire was possibly inculcated by his eccentric London upbringing ‘under the gaze of a green parrot and the influence of illustrated quartos on Arctic exploration.’ Both were presents from his Dad’s cousin, a sailor lost at sea in the Pacific. They fired a desire for adventure.
As a climber, Stuck first struck in the Lake District and also spent a season in the Alps. After graduating from King’s College, London, the call of adventure drew him westwards. Moving to the US in 1885, he fetched up in New Orleans and spent a few years in Texas working as a jobbing cowpuncher and part-time teacher. In those days, there wasn’t much difference. However, the young Stuck was also a regular church attender and, moved by God’s spirit, was called to become an Anglican missionary. He trained at Sewanee University of the South in preparation for his campaign to save souls in the Far North. In 1904 he ventured to his 300,000 square mile frontier parish in Alaska with the redemption of man at the forefront of his mind (‘I am more interested in men than mountains’ he asserted), but also discreetly packing his climbing togs and barometric instruments. He had noted the region possessed ‘an unclimbed mountain of the first class’ – McKinley.
Eight years passed before the opportunity to have a crack at Alaska’s crowning peak arrived. During that time Stuck performed Herculean feats of travel across wilderness country to spread The Word of God and minister to the welfare needs of his predominantly Athabascan diocese. His obvious concern for, and identification with the native Indians made him many enemies among the encroaching white settlers and he fell out with the local press big time, refusing to have any truck with them as they pestered him as the best prospect of news from the remoter settlements of the region. Meanwhile, Stuck felt that the summit of McKinley (or Denali as he insisted it to be known, using the native name) was waiting for him. The imposterish Frederick Cook’s alleged triumph in 1906 had been conclusively proved to be a fraud and doubt surrounded the claims of the local beer-bellied Sourdough Boys to have reached the top (they had in fact reached the slightly lower but more difficult to attain North Summit, although no one believed them). Stuck had been outraged by the deceitful nature of Cook’s claims and felt it almost a moral duty to climb the mountain fair and square. ‘Cook is a prig: moreover I find it hard to contain within myself my vehement suspicion that he is an ass,’ wrote the Episcopalian Archdeadcon at the time of the charlatan’s original claim. ‘And a prig and a vehemently suspected ass will never climb Mount McKinley. God forbid.’ And Amen to that, he might have added.
To such a virtuous man of the cloth however, it must have seemed a strange Act of God which sent a large earthquake down to rearrange the snow and ice slopes of McKinley’s summit ridge so that what had taken the Sourdough party a few days took the doughty archdeacon three weeks in 1913. Nevertheless, despite the need to cut a staircase of steps around dozens of giant ice cubes, and the depredations of altitude sickness, Stuck and his native helpers Karstens, Harper and Tatum battled onwards like Christian soldiers. Any downtime spent sitting out storms in tents was also used profitably by Stuck to write his book, Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled, or to tutor Harper on history and geography. It seems Hudson was never stuck for things to do. He certainly found the climbing challenging enough though. ‘To roam over glaciers and scramble up peaks free and untrammelled is mountaineering in the Alps,’ he remembered ruefully of his carefree youthful trip to Europe, ‘to toil upwards with a 40lb pack on one’s back and the knowledge that tomorrow one must go down for another is mountaineering in the Alaska.’ Still, it paid off; they bagged the true summit. Stuck, almost on all fours from the effects of altitude, recovered sufficiently to give thanks to the Lord and to lash up a makeshift cross to plonk on top.
Stuck was struck down by bronchial pneumonia in 1920 and died. A lot of white business and administrative interests probably breathed a sigh of relief, but his Athabascan flock certainly did not. His humanitarian ideals, views on human rights, and respect for local cultures were at least a century ahead of his time, and his views (including promoting the indigenous name for North America’s highest peak) triumphed at the other end of the century in which he was most active. It is a sad fact that Stuck remains chiefly remembered, when he is remembered at all, for the simple task of climbing a mountain, rather than his prodigious social work and enlightenment. There are no great statues or monuments to Stuck. The grave of Yukon’s Great Briton lies in a discreet native cemetery at Fort Yukon. But to be honest, that’s probably how the eco-friendly mega-cleric would have wanted it.
What he said: ‘The time threatens when all the world will speak two or three great languages, when all the little tongues will be extinct and all the little peoples swallowed up, when all costume will be reduced to a dead level of blue jeans and shoddy and all strange customs abolished. The world will be a much less interesting world then… The advance of civilisation would be a great thing to work for if we were quite sure what we meant by it and what its goal is.’
The far-sighted Stuck spots globalisation on the horizon from a distance of 100 years. Not to mention denim.