Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Seventymile Kid’
‘The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley’
304 pages, softcover: $19.95
Mountaineers Books, 2013
Many readers know that, 100 years ago, the Hudson Stuck expedition successfully summited Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak. But fewer are aware of the integral role played by the expedition’s most experienced outdoorsman, Harry Karstens, who went on to become the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park, later renamed Denali.
In “The Seventymile Kid: The Lost Legacy of Harry Karstens and the First Ascent of Mount McKinley,” Alaskan author Tom Walker sets the record straight, offering a fresh look at both the historic climb and the life of a remarkable pioneer.
Karstens’ story has all the elements of a classic Western saga. Born to a working-class Chicago family, he left home at 17 to work as a cowboy on the Northern Plains. Two years later, he traveled to the Canadian Yukon, where he tried in vain to strike it rich in the gold mines. Tired of the mining towns’ chaos and violence, he headed for Alaska and lined up a government contract running mail by dog team, which is how he earned his nickname, “the Seventymile Kid.” By the age of 25, he had a reputation as one of the territory’s toughest and most capable sourdoughs. Then, in 1912, Hudson Stuck invited Karstens to join his mountaineering expedition. Walker re-creates the era with a wealth of details, showing the brutal hardships Karstens and his fellow frontiersmen faced.
He pieces together the viewpoints of all the climbers, using the journals they kept during the trip. Karstens emerges as the central figure. The dramatic play-by-play account allows the reader to experience every day of the ascent from each climber’s perspective. Chapters that outline previous attempts at the mountain provide crucial context for understanding the climbers’ achievement.
Walker clearly admires Karstens, but he doesn’t gloss over the man’s shortcomings: a coarse personality, hypercritical of himself and others. Karstens, he concludes, isn’t unique in his trail-hardened ways: “He really is a sort of Jack London character come to life, a total frontiersman. At the same time, maybe he’s not so special. Many other pioneers were working just as hard as him, in the same conditions, day after day, and that is what amazes me.”
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