Denali National Park: Three stories, 100 years

Harry Hoyt parks at the gate of Mount McKinley National Park, now Denali National Park and Preserve, in the early 1930s (photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage).

It’s been 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson established Mount McKinley National Park, now known as Denali National Park and Preserve, on Feb. 26, 1917. Though the summer window is closing on the park’s centennial celebration, you can still explore its incredible stories thanks to online materials from Archives and Special Collections at the UAA/APU Consortium Library in Anchorage.

Here are three ways to experience the park—through the experiences of three adventurous Alaskans—from the cozy comfort of home. 

1932-1933: The summer adventures of Norma Jordet Hoyt

Norma Jordet Hoyt, a Fairbanks schoolteacher, spent two summers in Denali National Park during the Great Depression (Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage).

Norma Jordet Hoyt landed in Fairbanks during the Great Depression, happy to have a teaching job, even if it was—as she described in letters home—in a ramshackle schoolhouse.

During the summer of 1932, her friend Thelma Hunt invited her to spend the summer at McKinley Park Station. The station manager, “Dad” McFarland, needed help after his wife decided she wasn’t ready for another summer of roughing it. Norma and Thelma were happy to assist. Journals and letters home to North Dakota show Norma’s adventurous spirit and deep appreciation for the park.

On May 26, 1932, after disembarking at the station, she wrote: “Snow covered peaks in every direction. It thrilled me to the very core. Here was certainly the realization of my dreams, for I was to spend a whole summer right in the midst of all this grandeur.”

Throughout the season, Norma lived in a log cabin while working for Mt. McKinley Tourist & Transportation Co., serving guests at the lodge. “We are to get $3.50 a day—not bad at all,” she wrote to her mother in 1932. Guests paid $25 for a one-day tour, $42 for two, and were generally regarded as bad tippers. “It’s an expensive tour for guests tho [sic],” she wrote.

On longer breaks, Dad took Thelma and Norma on overnight backpacking trips, rain-soaked horseback rides to Wonder Lake, or to dinners in the homes of other park denizens. Norma returned in 1933 and, due to a school fire in Fairbanks, was able to extend her summer through October.

“We take a hike every day,” she wrote to her mother in September ’33. “The colors on the mountain sides are gorgeous. Our front yard is all a mass of red and yellow.”

During her summers in the park, Norma wrote letters home to her family in North Dakota describing the park and its operations in the early 1930s (Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage).

By late October, the Fairbanks school remained unfinished, but classes had to start. Teachers and students moved back into the burned building, with canvases partitioning off classrooms. It was Norma’s last year teaching, as well as her last year in Denali.

She had met Harry Hoyt, employee of the Alaska Road Commission, while working in the park. They married in 1934, moving to Anchorage to start their life together.

See for yourself: Norma’s Denali photos are available online via Alaska’s Digital Archives, and are currently on display in the Great Room of the UAA/APU Consortium Library.

Source: Harry and Norma Hoyt family papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

1967: Two trips up the mountain with mountaineer Grace Hoeman

Vin, left, and Grace Hoeman were avid mountaineers, seen here on Mt. Kiliak in Chugach State Park (Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage).

“It is my husbands [sic] request that I keep an adequate journal and I shall attempt to do that,” wrote Grace Hoeman, July 1, 1967.

Grace, a powerful woman in male-dominated mountaineering, made many trips up the mountain, including an all-female expedition in 1970. Her 1967 journal, though, is particularly noteworthy. She made two attempts at the mountain, crossing paths with the ill-fated Wilcox Expedition, where seven of the team’s 12 climbers never returned. Thanks to Archives staff, her 1967 journal is available to read online, either transcribed in text or in her looping handwriting.

The journal demonstrates the challenges and slights women experienced on Denali in the 1960s. The men on Grace’s expedition called her “the guy without a beard,” but she found equally snarky things to say in return. One man she found crying in the woods, lost and scared of bears (“I don’t see much of his tremendous strength.”) Another refused to portage gear up Turtle Hill (“John chickens out, he thinks I can’t lead the way.”) She mused on the possible effects altitude sickness might have on a pregnancy, and often related the challenges of climbing on a period (“Kotex all wet, brr.”)

But she also painted the experience. Discarded tin cans and frying pans littered McGonagall Pass like “hopes and broken dreams.” She recounted listening to Robert Service poems read aloud as dinner warmed, and the thrilling chill of riding in a de Havilland Beaver as the pilot smoked a cigarette through an open window.

Medically trained, Grace escorted dehydrated, frostbitten survivors of the Wilcox Expedition down the mountain and all the way to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. She returned to Denali in August with her husband Vin, who forced her to turn around yet again, this time due to altitude sickness. She missed him dearly at the beginning of the summer, but felt personally betrayed at the end (“What horrible feeling to be let down by your own husband,” she wrote. “Tears obscure my vision, can’t see what I’m writing.”)

A parting lesson: get the right gear. On Aug. 21, Grace wrote: “I think I could write a story for the readers digest [sic]. If I only had a good pen (Vin’s leaked just now awfully on the mattress).”

See for yourself: Read Grace’s journal online, either in her own handwriting or transcribed in type.

Source: Grace and John Vincent Hoeman papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

1988: Vern Tejas logs the first solo winter summit of Denali

Vern Tejas is a legendary figure in mountaineering, both for his astonishing list of summit records as well as his penchant for climbing those peaks with fiddles and ceremonial cans of Spam in tow.  He hiked South America’s highest peak while lugging a mountain bike just so he could ride down. In short, he’s a true individual.

Vern made his career with Alaska Telecom, building and maintaining communication towers across the North Slope, to help fund his extreme hobby.

His mountaineering achievements rightfully landed him in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Most noteworthy, he made the first winter solo ascent of Denali, but he’s also logged the first solo summit of Antarctica’s highest peak, Mt. Vinson, and the first winter ascent of Canada’s highest, Mt. Logan.

Many know the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent, but Vern is the only person who can claim the Seventy Summits (all seven, including Everest, ten times each). In 2010, in his late 50s, he set the record for fastest ascent of all seven as well, a feat he accomplished in 134 days.

Archives and Special Collections is fortunate to have a stash of his incredible photos, especially from that most celebrated solo winter ascent of Denali.

Several photos of his trek are available on the Archives website, showing off a bit of the conditions and a lot more of his personality. There’s a devilish smile through an ice-crusted beard as he hoists that can of Spam. There’s the 16-foot ladder he strapped to his waist on the way back down. He packed a parasail and planned to float off the top, but a storm forced him to cancel that plan (though the parasail made a great roof for his snow cave).

Vern’s 21-day climb of Denali ended on March 7, 1988 and, as Outside magazine reported that July, he immediately went contra dancing with his girlfriend in Anchorage. After all, it was the eve of his 35th birthday.

See for yourself: View Vern’s extreme (and occasionally absurd) expedition photos on the Archives website. Or check out a copy of Dangerous Steps to read the full account of his trip. Tejas’ book, Seventy Summits, published this June.

Source: Vern Tejas papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.