A Window to Heaven
The Daring First Ascent of Denali: America’s Wildest Peak
By Patrick Dean
Pegasus Books. pp. 336, $27.95
Review by Rob Price
From the hills of the Lake District in his native England, to the post-Civil War cattle ranches of West Texas, to the Gold Rush settlements along the Yukon River, and finally to the peak of Denali, Hudson Stuck was an adventurer with a prayer book in his hand and wanderlust in his heart. Patrick Dean tells the story of this intrepid churchman and missionary whose greatest accomplishments were made off the mountain’s peak.
Dean may be permitted some salesmanship in seeking a wider audience for the story of an Episcopal priest by presenting it as a high-adventure, overcoming-nature narrative, like recent books about explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. He artfully begins the book with his hero gasping for breath at 20,000 feet, just below the summit, hoping that his four-man team will make its goal. Dean does not linger on Denali, but turns quickly to ask the more significant question of how Stuck found himself there.
Hudson Stuck followed the path taken by many young men and women in the British Isles and came to the American West in search of adventure and fortune. Winding up a cowhand in West Texas, Stuck developed his renowned capacity for physical exertion.
But he astutely realized that unless he possessed the capital to buy land, he would never earn enough as a cowboy to have his own ranch. He did possess, however, a keen intelligence, and was admitted to the University of the South, where his lifelong love of literature (especially Shakespeare) and natural talent for leadership and organizing others began to flourish. After graduation, he returned to a small town in West Texas, where he served briefly as a parish priest, before Bishop Alexander Garrett recruited him as the dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.
In Dallas, Stuck’s exceptional gifts in organizing new ventures began to bear fruit: he established a school for boys as both a ministry and a feeder to his beloved Sewanee, started and coached several football teams that drew youth into the orbit of the cathedral and its Anglican life, and founded homes for abused children and the aged and a night school to teach literacy to cotton-mill workers.
In a commitment to social justice, he organized the women’s associations of Dallas to put political pressure on state and local leaders to outlaw child labor. In all these endeavors, Dean describes Stuck as a priest whose community activism dynamically synthesized the Muscular Christianity and Social Gospel movements.
Answering the call to be archdeacon of Alaska checked all of the boxes for Stuck:
- the opportunity for adventure on an already storied frontier;
- a physically vigorous life mushing sled dogs in the winter or navigating the Yukon River in the summer, in order to visit the many missions under his charge;
- providing mentorship to native Alaskan young men whom he taught to read, and then secured formal training in the lower 48 to prepare them for leadership;
- and using his privilege to advocate for Native Americans’ rights and cultural identity everywhere, from the Royal Geographical Society, to New York society, to the White House.
Along the way, he founded new congregations (having special success among Athabascans and Inuits) and libraries to compete with the saloons for the time of young miners. Stuck relentlessly fundraised in churches in the lower 48 to make it all happen and borrowed money in the meantime, to the consternation of his bishop.
Dean effectively demonstrates how summiting Denali was the culmination of the archdeacon’s organizational and advocacy skills and of his deepest commitments to justice for Native Americans, raising up young leaders, and the proclamation of the gospel through feats of adventure suffused with Anglican piety. The account of him leading morning and evening offices above 17,000 feet was a particular delight.
While noting how Stuck’s social position also complicated these commitments in the eyes of postmodern readers, Dean presents a fine model of a missionary whose entrepreneurial energy, community influence, commitment to include the marginalized in the Church, and sheer derring-do contemporary Episcopalians would do well to emulate.