Robert Tatum


The son of a Knoxville photographer, Robert George Tatum was just 21 when he climbed Denali in 1913.  He had come to Alaska two years earlier to visit his brother, an Army officer stationed in the interior, and ended up staying for two years.  That first winter Tatum went into missionary work, teaching in a mission school at Nenana.  In June he first met Hudson Stuck and was invited him to join the expedition to the top of Denali the next year. He accepted at once.  Tatum had the least experience outdoors of the team, so between November and January he hiked about 1200 miles to prepare and that was 1200 Alaskan winter miles.

Knoxville New Sentinel 1932.05.22

The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Knoxville, Tennessee, Sunday morning, May 22, 1932
Ascending the steep roof of the continent
Just to ‘look out the windows of heaven’

By John T. Moutoux

When Dispatches from Fairbanks, Alaska, last week brought word that two American scientists had been killed ascending Mt.  McKinley there was at least one man in Knoxville who was keenly aware of the dangers with which the ascent of the highest peak on the North American continent is fraught. For he had climbed that peak.

Nineteen years ago today, the Rev. Robert G. Tatum. Episcopal’ clergyman, was a member of a party of six on Muldrow Glacier, a treacherous river of ice more than 20 miles long, slowly making his way up the 20,700-foot Alaskan peak. It was en this glacier, crisscrossed with crevasses some of which are apparently bottomless, and walled in on both sides by towering mountains down which avalanches of ice and snow crash with a deafening roar, filling the air with snow dust. That Allen Carpe and Theodore Koven recently lost their lives. They fell into one of the crevasses and one of the bodies has not yet been found, according to word reaching civilization last week.

Rev. Tatum returned to Knoxville recently after an absence, except for brief visits, of 21 years. He came here from Marietta, Ga., where he was rector of a church six years. Lie is now living in Biddle Heights and, not having active charge of a church, is spending most o; his time indulging in a newly acquired art—portrait painting, which he took up little inure than a year ago. Already his work has been praised and several of his portraits were recently on exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Story of adventure
However, this is to be a story of an adventurer, not an artist. Born and schooled in Knoxville, the son of a photographer, young Tatum when 19 years old left Knoxville for Alaska to visit a brother, an army officer in charge of one of the posts in the interior.

Arriving in June of 1911, he spent the first slimmer doing survey work for the government. That winter lie went into missionary work, teaching in a mission school at Nenana, about 75 miles from Fairbanks. The next June Archdeacon Hudson stuck made his regular visitation to the mission school, met Tatum, and invited him to join him in ascending Mount Denali (as McKinley was then called) the next year. He accepted at once.

Altho the start of the expedition was almost a year off, preparations for the ascent were begun at once. Much of the equipment had to be obtained from the United States. The start was set for March, 1913.

Tatum got in training that winter by accompanying a missionary party on a long trip to establish a new mission at Tanana Crossing. Between the middle of November and the middle of January he hiked about 1200 miles.

Starts St. Patrick’s Day
On St. Patrick’s day, march 17, 1913, the party of six set out from Nenana. The party was headed by archdeacon stuck, who before coining to Alaska had climbed in the alps and the Canadian and Colorado Rockies and knew something about climbing snow covered mountains. Ever since his arrival in Alaska in 1904 he had anticipated and planned this ascent. His chief companion was harry p. Karstens, wise had climbed some in the foot-hills of Denali and knew the country well. The expedition came to be known as the Stuck-Karstens expedition. Also in the party were Tatum, Walter Harper, a half-breed Indian who had been the archdeacon’s traveling companion for three years, and two Indian boys who went as far as base camp.

With 14 dogs pulling two heavily loaded sleds the party was off on the adventure. The weather was cold and clear. The course was up the Tanana River. Thirty miles were covered that day and the night was spent in an abandoned roadhouse at a point where the Kantishna trail crosses the Nenana River.

A fire was built in an old stove and two meals were cooked—one for the men, the other for the dogs. The dogs got rice, tallow, and dried fish; the men had beans, rice, caribou, desiccated vegetables and biscuits. Two hours after their arrival they turned in—in one sleeping bag—and had no trouble falling asleep.

The party’s bedding, incidentally, consisted of six down comforts, two pairs of Jeager blankets, a sleeping bag lined with camel’s hair duffel, and a 25-pound wolf robe.

“we slept so close together that no one could turn until all did.” rev. Tatum said. “so whenever someone wanted to turn on his other side he gave a signal and we all turned at the same time.”

More Easy Going
The next day’s travel was still over comparatively well beaten trails, over low level country, and they spent the night at a road house which had not been abandoned and which offered more comforts than the one the first night.

Here the party left the Tanana valley and set out on the Toklat River for eureka, the last gold mining camp and the outpost of civilization. Traveling up the Toklat was made difficult by overflow ice, where water from hot springs conies out of the ice, flooding it some places as much as two feet.  With the temperature below freezing. The water on the moccasins, sled runners, and dogs’ feet freezes and required frequent halts to clean the ice out of the dogs’ toes. The dogs’ feet had to be taken care of, for should they be cut by the ice, they would have to be taken out of harness.

On Good Friday, March 21, eight days after setting out; the party reached eureka, • 110 miles from the starting point. The next two days were spent in relaying supplies which had been cached the autumn before. At Diamond City, 20 miles from Eureka.  Easter Sunday was spent at glacier city. Half way between Eureka and Diamond City. Religious services were held.

Civilization Disappears
Leaving civilization — such as it was—behind, the party now struck out across the foothills of Denali to the McKinley river valley 40 miles distant. Going was harder now and only about 10 miles was made in a day. The timber line was reached at 2000 feet, a clear water branch—so called because the water, instead of being frozen as everywhere else, ran clear, due to hot springs, cams was established here in. Order lo cut wood to take along, since there would be no timber beyond this point.

“This camp was by far the prettiest on the whole trip,” Rev. Tatum said. “The running water gave the appearance of spring, water ousels ducked in and out in front of, our tent, willows were budding, and the north peak of Denali rose superbly before us.  Altho the thermometer went down to 46 degrees below zero, we were loathe to leave the camp because we knew sterner weather lay ahead.”

After cutting two cords of wood, the party broke camp and pushed on, the next objective being the willow creek, 10 miles on. Here base camp was established in the same location used by previous expeditions.

This was the most important of the stops so far. The main thing was to gather and preserve enough meat for the rest of the trip. Game was plentiful and several caribou and mountain sheep were soon bagged. The meat was boiled down until it fell apart, then was chopped up and mixed with vegetables and condiments, and rolled up into balls about the size of a baseball. Then they were set out to freeze. Two hundred such balls were made, and they constituted the main food supply from then on.

Peril is Foreseen
At base camp the instruments were carefully overhauled, for the perilous and enacting part of tile journey lay ahead. Here too the snow shoes were rough-locked—that is, strips of wood were lashed across the shoes to prevent slipping on the glacier. Also, ice-creepers or crampons—heavy iron soles with long, jagged points—were fitted on the bottom of the moccasins.

Ready to start out again, one of the two Indian boys and one of the dog teams were sent back to Nenana, no longer being needed. Enough food was cached at the base camp for the return trip.

The objective’ now was Muldrow Glacier. The party moved up a narrow valley, and then up a steep defile which led to McPhee Pass and thru it, down onto the glacier. From the pass it was about a 150-foot drop down to the glacier. The slope was steep and icy and the members of the party had to tie themselves together, about 20 feet apart, for the descent. The man at the head cut steps out of the ice.

At last they were down on the glacier, the path to the heart of the mountains. The altitude was 6,300 feet, leaving 14,200 feet still to go.

River of Ice
This “river” of solid ice averaged three miles in width. On both sides the mountains rose precipitately some 5000 to 6000 feet above the floor of the glacier. These two walls rise ultimately to culminate into the summits ‘of the two peaks of Denali or Mt. McKinley.

The glacier at the point where the party went down had an almost smooth surface and was free of crevasses except at the sides. But this lasted for only three or four miles; then it turned sharply, grew steeper and much crevassed.

Progress on the glacier was slow. The danger of hidden crevasses made it necessary to sound every foot of the way. This was done with a long pole. With the members of the party all tied to one rope, about 20 feet apart, the man at the head thrust the pole deep into the snow while the ones behind kept the rope taut. The open crevasses were not dangerous. But many of them were covered by a thin coat of ice and new-fallen snow.

The crevasses varied in width—from inches to 30 feet. All had to be crossed. Some had natural bridges—a block of ice jammed between the walls of the crevasses—and a member of the party would be let down on a rope to a ledge, blocks of hard snow would be thrown down to him, and he would build up tile bridge until it reached the surface of the glacier. This was perilous business, for in most cases the yawning chasms of deep blue ice went down hundreds of feet, apparently bottomless. It was into one of these concealed crevasses that tile two scientists recently fell to their death.

Each Takes Turn
“We all took turns in being let down into the crevasses and I came in for my share,” Rev. Tatum said. “Once I fell into a crevasse and was saved by the rope; another time one of the dogs fell thru and was saved in the same way.”

What could be more of a paradox than to have this party, on a glacier of perpetual ice and snow, trudging along thru new-fallen snow, and on a bed of ice hundreds of feet thick—and suffering from the heat and terrific sun glare! Some days it was bitterly cold in the .morning, hot by noon, and bitterly cold again at night. The temperature varied from 50 degrees below to 50 degrees above.

At the head of the glacier one member of the party accidentally tossed a match on one of the silk tents and it went up in flames, with everything in it. About 30 rolls of film, all of the sugar, powdered milk, baking powder, prunes, dried apples, raisins, nearly all of the tobacco, a case of pilot bread, and two sacks full of clothing, including woolen socks, mittens and mufflers, all went up in smoke.

“It was necessary,” said rev. Tatum, “insofar as it was possible, to replace these things. So Walter Harper and Johnny (the Indian boy) were sent back down to the base camp to replenish our supplies.”

This meant a three weeks’ delay, during which a tent was made out of canvas, mittens and socks were made front the lining of the sleeping bag.

Sleds Now Useless
Head of the glacier was finally reached at an altitude of 11,500 feet. This was as far as the dog and sleds could be used, so they were sent back with the second of the Indian boys, to wait at the base camp until the party’s return.

Bad weather set in and there was nothing to do but wait for it to let up. For the most perilous part of the climb lay ahead. The course now lay to the crest of a ridge leading off the glacier and then up the ridge to the upper glacier. Members of this party had read of a previous expedition referring to the northeast ridge, now to be undertaken, as  “a step, but practicable snow slope” and pictures of it showed it as such. But they were surprised to find that the ridge offered no resemblance to the description or the picture. Instead, for two thirds of the way up, it was a jumbled mass of blocks of ice ‘and rocks, then at the top of that a sharp cleavage and smooth above that. Suddenly they remembered that there had been a severe earthquake in this vicinity which undoubtedly had shattered this ridge.

This threw new and difficult obstacles across their path. After reaching the crest of the ridge by cutting out steps in the ice it was necessary to find a way over, around, and under these huge rocks and blocks of ice. Unable to get around or under some of them, the party had to hew steps up, across and then down the other side of them. Some were so largo that it took the better part of a day to get across one of them. There were 3000 feet of this, ending at the cleavage where the earthquake’s damage had stepped.

The cleavage was a perpendicular ice wall about 50 feet high and the next job was to get around it since it was not possible to go up it.

Death Looms Large
“We had passed thru plenty of tight places but this was the worst of all,” Rev. Tatum recalled. “It meant leaving the crest of the ridge and climbing out along the ice wall. A slip would probably have meant death for all of us, for we were all tied together. Below us was the steep mountain slope of comparatively loose snow and the bottom of it was thousands of feet down.”

But they got around it without mishap, then cut a staircase up the ridge and thus reached the upper glacier, the entrance to the upper basin. They were now at 15,000 feet. The party named this parker pass, in honor of the leader of a previous expedition, and here camp was made.

“The scenery from this point was nearly as grand as on the summit itself,” rev. Tatum said. “Here one overlooks the whole Alaskan Range.”

Another paradox: here, more than 15,000 feet high and not far from the North Pole, the members of the party were burned as brown as Indians, caused by the sun’s rays reflected from the ice and snow. One day, June 4, the thermometer reached 50 degrees above, while at night it sank from 10 below to 21. below.

The rarefied air made all efforts fatiguing. It was here that they first noticed a short-. Ness of breath, that is, enough so as ‘to be bothered with it.

Attack Upper Glacier
After three days at parker pass the party began the ascent of the upper glacier. At 16,500 feet they reached the end of one of the flats of the, glacier, with another steep rise just ahead. With the aid of field glasses, they were able to see the flagpole on top of the north peak of Denali that a previous expedition had planted.

“That made us think that we hadn’t brought a flag along,” rev. Tatum said, “So I undertook to make one.

And he did, using two white silk handkerchiefs, a blue one, and a red needleholder.”

Another camp was pitched at 17,500 feet, and then the last one, at 18,000 feet. It was the highest camp ever established in North America. This level` was reached on Friday, June 6.

“That night was the most miserable on the whole exploit,” the narrator said. “it was bitterly cold-only 21 degrees below zero, but a stiff wind was blowing. To make matters worse, we were all sick that night. We had eaten some dumplings for supper, made out of dough that wouldn’t rise because of the altitude; neither would they digest. All night we huddled around our little premus (oil) stove, unable to sleep and miserably cold.”

The Goal Approaches
And now for the climax of the long, tedious journey. “At 3 a. M. On June 7, we cooked breakfast, filled the thermos bottles with tea, put; the instruments in our pack,, and strapped on the creepers. At 4 a.m. We started on our final dash.

“The wind was blowing a half gale. It was a bitter north wind and as it swept over the ice of the north peak it seemed to take on a second chill. Our feet got so cold that we had to take off our creepers and stamp on the ice to try to keep our toes from freezing. Even then one of Karstens’ toes froze.

“I had on nine pairs of socks and my feet were cold; nor did my heavy woolen underwear, a mackinaw suit, a parkee, moose hide mittens and a fur cap keep me warm.”

As if making one last stand against those who try to reach its peak, Denali sends out its coldest blasts at this altitude. It was at this point, 19,0go feet high and only 1500 feet’ from the summit, that a previous expedition was sent back by the blizzard that swept down upon them.

A step at a time
But Rev. Tatum and his party stuck it out, and at 11:30 a. M. Reached the shelter of a small peak, at 19,600 feet, and there drank scalding tea from the thermos bottles.

The remaining thousand feet was ascended with much difficulty because of the shortness of breath. “We would take a few steps, then keel over, black in the face,” the clergyman said. Archdeacon stuck, the oldest man in the party, especially had a distressing time, experiencing fits of panting, choking, gasping and seeming to be unable to get his breath at all. But a few moments of rest was all that was needed to end the trouble.

At last the top of the north peak was reached but they hardly paused there, the goal being the north peak, some 500 feet higher actually the summit of Denali. And so, keenly excited, they pushed on as fast as’ they could in the rarefied air.

At 1:30 p.m. The summit was reached. They found the very top of the highest peak in all North America to be a little snow basin, some 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. Archdeacon stuck led in a brief prayer, rev. Tatum raised the flag that he had made, and a cross was planted.

On top the Continent
Then they set to work reading the instruments and they calculated the altitude to be 20,700 feet. Not until after that did they look around them to see the panoramas spread out below them in all directions. It turned out that the cold north wind had really been a friend of the party, for it drove the clouds back to the sea and gave them a crystal clear atmosphere.

“The scenery was of indescribable beauty,” the Rev. Tatum said. “It was an experience that one has only once in a lifetime-if he is lucky. The sky above was a deep blue, while the country below was range after range of White Mountains. And beyond them the valleys with their glittering streams. We could see 150 miles in any direction. It was like looking out of a window of heaven.”

However, the grandeur of the scenery could not overcome the effects of the biting wind, and after only ‘an hour and a half on the summit the party began the descent.

That night was spent at the 18,000-foot camp, and early the next morning they were off down the mountain. Before they ‘stopped that day they were down at the head of Muldrow Glacier again, at 11,500 feet. The following day they reached their base camp, at 4000 feet. It had taken them 50 days to make the ascent from this point-and two to come down.

There they found the Indian boy still waiting for them and when he first saw them, instead of running to meet them, ho ran into the tent, started a fire, and put 9n some water for tea.

After a day’s rest, they resumed the descent and on June 20 reached Tanana, the starting point, three months and four days from the day they started.

“At 8 o’clock that morning,” said rev. Tatum, “the archdeacon sent a telegram to the United States announcing the success of the exploit, and at 11 o’clock it returned to us, having gone around the world.”