Wandering around Denali last week, I came upon a sign bearing a faded picture of a painting by Belmore Browne. A hundred years ago, this artist came within a few hundred feet of being the first person to scale the mountain then known as McKinley. Now he’s pretty much forgotten.
In 1906 explorer Frederick Cook claimed he had reached the summit of McKinley. He was doubted almost from the start. (He also falsely claimed he had reached the North Pole, so he was either unable to read a compass or an out-and-out liar.)
Browne was on Cook’s expedition, and he didn’t believe Cook either. In 1910, he and Professor Herschel Parker mounted their own expedition. They didn’t find a route to the summit, but they did identify the spot where Cook had faked his photo of the peak (almost twenty miles from the summit at an elevation of 5300 feet).
In January, 1912, Browne and another team met in Seward, AK, then the southern terminus of the Iditarod Trail, to make another try at the mountain. Winter in Alaska is the best time of year for these long overland treks. The river bottoms are boggy, buggy, and full of large carnivores in the summer.
Their first plan, to go by boat, ended with them floundering in dangerously unpredictable tides. Finally, they backtracked to the Iditarod Trail and mushed up to Susitna Station. At that point they left the trail and started tracking up the Susitna River. They spent most of their time breaking a trail with snowshoes, for the dogs.
They reached the Alaska Range in April. They didn’t have a map. They plodded a route that was nearly impassible, belaying dogs, sleds and gear when it was too steep to climb. A team fell through a crevasse; a climber went through a different crevasse. Miraculously, they lost no dogs and nobody died.
By early June they had crossed the Muldrow Glacier and were ready to start climbing the summit. Without crampons, they basically just chopped steps in the ice along the whole route. And of course they had little protection against the cold.
Twice they almost reached the summit, and twice they were driven back by blizzards. Estimates of how close they got to the summit range from 125 feet to 300 yards. Two days after they got off the mountain, a devastating earthquake shook McKinley and sent avalanches and mud flows through the area they had been traversing. Had they not left, they almost certainly would have been killed.
They hiked down to the Kantishna mining district where an old Sourdough told them where to find an abandoned boat. After fixing it up, they floated down small streams and rivers until they reached the Yukon River.
Belmore Browne was born in 1880 in Tomkinsville, New York, which is now a part of the borough of Staten Island. He studied at the New York School of Art and the Academie Julian in Paris. He first visited Alaska with his family as an eight-year-old.
In 1902 and 1903, he joined A. J. Stone’s Alaskan expeditions for the American Museum of Natural History as a sort of all-purpose dogsbody. He was a hunter, illustrator and specimen preparator. He visited the Stikine District in 1904 and 1905 to hunt, draw, and collect specimens on his own.
His career as a more conventional artist bloomed in middle age. After serving in WWI, he moved with his wife Agnes to Banff, Alberta. Starting in 1930, he was director of the Santa Barbara School of Fine Arts. He painted background displays for natural history museums nationwide, and was elected to the National Academy of Design. His landscape paintings are in museum and private collections, predominantly in the west.
Browne volunteered during World War II and the Korean War to train airmen and rescue personnel in survival techniques for northern climates. He died in 1954.