‘The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley’
April 19, 2013
Every continent has its measured highest point, the most famous being, of course, Mount Everest. Though very few mountains come close to the Himalayan giant in sheer scale, several surpass it in ruggedness and inaccessibility. But what all of these remote peaks have in common is a mystique, an allure that calls adventurers forth, beckoning only the hardiest souls up their flanks.
North America’s own ultimate pinnacle, Mount McKinley, has lured explorers and dreamers for centuries, but only the most stalwart of early travelers ever got close to its imposing walls and glaciers. Nonetheless, many tried, battling arctic temperatures, extreme privations and woeful inexperience.
But 100 years ago this year, the summit was achieved by a handful of determined men. Now, for the first time, only months before the 100th anniversary of that epic ascent, author Tom Walker tells the story of their unsung leader, Harry Karstens, in the captivating book, “The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley.”
Though less than half of the book documents the details of that first ascent, the pages paint a rich portrait of the life of Harry Karstens and the era of exploration that marked that period in Alaska’s history.
Lured by gold, along with thousands of other starry-eyed men, Karstens left a troubled family life in Chicago and headed West, then North, to the Yukon. He and countless others fought the bone-numbing cold and isolation with very little financial return.
But, as Walker writes in his book, Karstens discovered something much more valuable than gold. He hit upon a way of life that suited his nature. Except for a handful of visits to the “outside,” Karstens became a local, securing respect through hard work and dedication to jobs that many others wouldn’t even consider.
By carting mail across vast distances of frigid tundra, Karstens became adept at survival in extreme conditions. Written in careful detail, “The Seventymile Kid” shows a man with immense depths of pioneering spirit. Neatly laid out against other adventurers and prospectors of the time, Karstens is shown to be the leader that he was.
A good part of the book is dedicated to the many failed attempts that preceded that of the “Seventymile Kid,” a nickname given to Karstens after his stint with the post office. The race to plant the first flag on the top of the continent was certainly not lacking in drama and intrigue. Unscrupulous dreamers, some of whom lacked basic mountaineering and arctic survival skills, claimed the summit as their own, requiring subsequent adventurers to bear the burden of disproving their claims.
Walker uses the built-in theatrics and uncertainty around the first ascent to successfully frame his account of Karstens’ life. The book reads easily and leaves one with a real sense of the environs of our northernmost state and its tallest claim to fame, Mount McKinley. Given the assault style of mountain climbing, “The Seventymile Kid” serves as a refreshing reminder of those first dreamers, like Karstens, who led the way into the history books, with this elegant expedition almost 100 years ago.