life and heritage

Walter Harper was a monumental figure in both Alaskan history and the world of mountaineering. Harper’s exceptional abilities, accomplishments, and character traits make him a role model and hero to all, particularly our Native youth. At only 20 years of age, Harper’s Koyukon Athabascan subsistence skills, courage, and charisma contributed to the success of the 1913 pioneer ascent of Denali.

On summit day, Harper took the lead and became the first person to stand atop North America’s tallest mountain, Denali, an Athabascan word meaning The Great One. His journey exemplifies extraordinary ability, bravery, commitment. He would have been a Doyon shareholder had he lived a longer life.

The youngest of eight children Walter Harper was born in 1892 in Alaska, to his Koyukon Athabascan mother, Jeannie Seentahna, and his Irish-American father, Arthur Harper. Harper lived much of his childhood in Tanana, AK and later in Fort Yukon, AK. When he turned 16 he attended the Tortella School, and Episcopal boarding school in Nenana, AK where he was hired to work as an interpreter, guide, and dog driver.

Raised in the ways of his traditional Athabascan heritage, Harper’s early life was deeply connected to the Alaskan wilderness, from which he learned invaluable skills in hunting, fishing, and survival. These skills, combined with his respect for the land and its people, prepared him for the challenges he would face on Denali.

On return to Tanana, AK after his historic climb, Harper continued his education at Mount Hermon School and was planning to attend medical school in Philadelphia. He married Frances Wells in Fort Yukon on September 1, 1918 and the couple boarded the SS Princess Sophia for their honeymoon on October 23, 1918 in Skagway, AK, bound for Seattle, WA. As the ship was passing through the Lynn Canal in route to Juneau, tragedy struck and the strong gale winds and heavy snow caused the ship to sink to the ocean floor, taking all 343 passengers with it. The Harpers were later buried side by side in Juneau. 

The historic climb

In the spring of 1913, at age 20, Harper’s courage, subsistence skills, and mountaineering expertise were put to the ultimate test. As a key member of the historic expedition led by Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck and co-leader Harry Karstens, Harper’s knowledge of Alaska’s terrain and his climbing skills were instrumental to the mission’s success.

The team, which included Robert Tatum, John Fredson of Gwich’in Athabascan heritage, and Esaias George of Koyukon Athabascan heritage, embarked on a daunting journey from Alaska’s Interior to Denali, traveling the wilderness by dog team, a testament to their adventurous spirit and determination.

Harper’s role in the climb was pivotal. On June 7, 1913, he was the first of the ascent team to set foot on Denali’s summit, a moment of unparalleled triumph and a testament to his extraordinary abilities. He was followed closely by Harry Karstens, Robert Tatum, and finally Hudson Stuck.

While Stuck and Karstens, the expedition’s leaders, are often credited with the climb’s success, it was the collective efforts of the entire team that made their remarkable achievement possible. John Fredson and Esaias George played crucial roles at lower elevations, with Fredson managing the basecamp and ensuring the ascent team’s month-long effort on the mountain was supported and sustainable.

In the wake of their successful ascent, Stuck named a glacier on Denali in honor of Harper and his father, Arthur. The Harper Glacier stretches for 4 miles (6.4 km) from Denali Pass down to the Great Icefall, before turning into the Muldrow Glacier. The glacier stands as a lasting tribute to the Harper family’s legacy, acknowledging Harper’s remarkable achievement and celebrated the spirit of exploration and resilience that he embodied.


Walter Harper’s legacy extends far beyond his historic climb. He is remembered as a figure who embodied the spirit of unity and resilience, bridging the gap between Native Alaskan cultures and the broader society.

Today, the Walter Harper Project continues his legacy, promoting education, leadership, and cultural understanding among Alaskan natives. Scholarships and programs in his name inspire new generations to pursue their dreams with the same courage and determination Harper displayed.

On April 29, 2020 Senate Bill 144 was passed unanimously by both Alaska’s Senate and House of Representatives, recognizing June 7 as Walter Harper Day. 

The act recognizes not only Harper’s critical role in the success of the pioneer summit of Denali, but his “superb subsistence skills, his integrity, his strong sense of identity and purpose, and his ability to navigate comfortably in both the Athabascan culture and other cultures of the United States.”

“This young man, Walter Harper, was the first to reach the top of the summit and I think I can safely say that his stamina, his fortitude, his knowledge and his survival skills living in the Interior of Alaska, that were passed down from his Koyukon ancestors, greatly contributed to the success of this climb. Walter Harper is not only a role model to the Alaska Native youth, but a role model to us all.” Senator Click Bishop, sponsor of Senate Bill 144 said. 

On Sunday, June 7, 2020, Alaska celebrated the first annual Walter Harper Day.

A Life-Size Bronze Statue Commemorating an Alaskan & American Icon Walter harper

” … I was ahead all day and was the first ever to set foot on Mt. Denali.”- Walter Harper climbing journal, 1913.

The walter harper statue

The Walter Harper Project in partnered with Fairbanks Native Association undertook the task of fundraising to assist in commemorating Walter Harper with a life-size bronze statue. The Walter Harper project team consisted of Michael Harper, Bill Gordon, Mary Ehrlander, Darlene Bishop, Tanya Kaquatosh, Diana Campbell, and Angela J. Linn, all of who were instrumental in reaching the fundraising goal.

A total of $231,000 was raised to fund the creation and installation of the bronze statue, a testament to Harper’s legacy and the community’s deep respect for him and his achievements.

Doyon is proud to have contributed a $25,000 donation to the cause, with Sarah Obed, Senior Vice President of External Affairs saying, “It’s important to recognize the strengths and accomplishments of our people. Doyon is honored to contribute to this moment.”

On July 19, 2022 The Walter Harper Project unveiled the 13-foot bronze statue of Walter Harper, including his dog, Snowball, located outside of the Doyon Plaza in downtown Fairbanks, AK. The location of the statue is fitting as Denali is the most prominent landmark in Alaska’s interior, the homeland of the Athabascan people, and provides easy access to tourists and community members in Fairbanks.

Gary Lee Price – Statue Sculptor

The Walter Harper Project team choose renowned sculptor Gary Lee Price as the artist to create the statue. 

Gary Lee Price is known for his bronze sculptures that aim to capture the each individual’s unique human spirit and inspire others.

His celebrated works, which include joyous figures and monumental pieces worldwide, reflect a lifelong commitment to uplifting and empowering through art.

Thank you to each corporation and individual who has supported the walter harper project

“Together we will reach our summit.”


Alaska Airlines

Alyeska Pipeline Service Company

Doyon, Limited

Rasmuson Foundation

Bill Stroecker Foundation


Kinross Fort Knox


ConocoPhillips Alaska

Marathon Petroleum Corp.

Tozitna, Limited


Golden Heart Community Foundation

Mt. McKinley Bank

Darlene & Click Bishop

In honor of Bishop William & Shirley Gordon

Mary Harper Denton & Family

Jeanne Ostnes & Timothy Benintendi

Lance & Karen Parrish

Tsigonis Family


Baan O Yeel Kon Corporation

John & Judy Binkley

CSG, Inc.

Elizabeth Cook

Mary & Lars Ehrlander

Steve Frank & Linda Anderson

Dan & Joyce Gavora

Betty Ruth George

Ghemm Company

The Geraghty Family

Michael & Jane Harper

Gail & Richard Hattan

Anna Huntington-Kriska

George H. Lounsbury

Lynden Transport

Cathryn Rasmuson

Margaret Rich

Maxine Harper Richert

Rick & Cheryl Schikora

Tanana Yukon Historical Society

Teamsters Local 959

Natasha & Rudi von Imhof

Andy & Judy Warwick

Gary & Susan Wilken


Beatus Kaquatosh Family

Doug & Dianne Blummer

John & Peggy Bryant

Winston & Glenda Burbank

Diana Campbell

Jennifer Fate

Randy & Georgianne Frank

Great Northwest, Inc.

Johanna Harper

Diane Kaplan

Koniag, Inc.

Gen. Jake Lestenkof

Jamie Marunde

Stephen & Sarah Obed

Plumbers & Pipefitters Union, Local 375

Rick & Cherie Solie

Doug Pope

Carol & Jack Wilbur

▴ The Kantishna ▴

IBEW Local 1547

Rohn & Chris Abbott

Linda S. Belarde

Gary & Laura Elliott Bender

Sherry Bestard

Dan Bishop

John Bitney

Brandon Boylan

Julius Brecht

Catherine Call & Glenn Olson

Michael & Margaret Carey

Tim & Kathy Cline

Jeff & Sue Cook

Sue Harper Courtillet

Lorraine Cutler

Diann Darnell

Kent & Jenny Dawson

Sam & Mary Demientieff

Ernest L & Lillian S Demoski

Annette Freiburger & Deanna Linzner

Steven & Maureen Haagenson

Jan Harper (Petri) Haines

Daryl & Karen Haggstrom

Karl & Nancy Hanneman

Nancy Hanson

Ella Harper

Diane Holmstrom

Garry & Diane Hutchison

Ronald Inouye

Clare Jaeger

Kris Knauss

Bart & Mary LeBon

Jim & Deanna Linzer

Karen Lopez

Antoinette Mallot

Marie Matsuno

Jerry & Jenifer McBeath

Pat & Patty Miller

Emil Notti

Susan Paskvan

Hild & Guy Peters

Steve & Shannon Planchon

Jim & Jan Plaquet

Al & Ann Renfroe

Tom and Jo Roberts

Jim & Beth Sampson

Katie & Phil Sanders

Elizabeth Schaffhauser & Gerald Walker

Angela Schmidt & Chris Miller

Rick & Cherie Solie

Julie Fate Sullivan

Gene Therriault & Jo Kuchle

Linda Van Houten & Bill Joiner

Jimmy Vining

Tom Walker

Ronald & Nancy Whitten

Richard & Sally Wien

Daphne & Frank Wright

▴ Others ▴

Joan Antonson

Margaret Asbury

Alan Batten

Romana Bober

Kate Bull

John Curran

Nicole Eiseman

Andrea Gelvin

Hillary Gularte

Carol Kasza

Inez Larsen

Angela Linn

Katie McCaffrey

Marie Nash

Karen Perdue

Marilyn Richards

Stephanie Rivet

Amy Russell-Jamgochian

David Tillman

Ronald & Nancy Whitten

▴ ▲ In kind ▲▴

Brice Inc. with special thanks to Calista, Brice Family, and Togi Letuligasenoa

Doyon, Limited

Design Alaska

Fairbanks Native Association

Kathleen Carol-Kendall

Reanna Moses

Lynden Transport

Kesler Woodward