38: The Best Bar Bet Ever

And who should star in the movie version

There’s a long history of bets made in bars. There’s a whole entry for bar bets on Wikipedia that even has a section called “Famous Bar Bets.” But it’s missing my favorite bar bet of them all: the story of Thomas Lloyd, who became the first person in the world to summit the highest mountain in North America, with almost no experience, on a bar bet.

The highest peak in North America is Denali in Alaska. It’s also known as Mount McKinley because 125 years ago some guy who was a fan of President McKinley before he was even president started calling the mountain McKinley and it stuck, even though the locals already called it Denali. The United States formally recognized Denali as its official name in 2015. So I’m going to call it Denali here.

At the time of this story, the United States had no say in what it was called because this story begins 50 years before Alaska became a state.

In 1906, an explorer named Frederick Cook claimed that he was the first person to summit Denali. A couple years later, Cook also claimed that he reached the North Pole, another first. In fact, he did neither. But in 1909, a guy named Robert Peary really did reach the North Pole, and he publicly challenged Cook’s claim to have gotten there first. This put Cook and his wild claims in the spotlight.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, four local gold miners with no mountain climbing experience were sitting in a bar. They heard about Cook’s Denali claim, and they were skeptical that he reached the summit.

Tom Lloyd was one of these miners. He spent years working around Denali and knew the area well. He boasted that for someone like him, it would probably be easier to just climb the mountain than to pretend to have climbed it.

The bartender, Bill McPhee, overheard the boast and said Tom was too old and fat to climb to the top of Denali.

Tom bet two cents that he could. Bill upped the ante to $500.

Two more bar patrons, Gust Peterson and E. W. Griffin, chipped in $500 each, and the challenge was on.

Tom took the pool of $1,500 and used that to buy supplies. He already owned his own dogs and sleds, so he figured $1,500 would buy everything else he needed.

He rounded up some friends to go with him. The eventual expedition was made up of Tom, his business partner Billy Taylor, and two other miners, Pete Andersen and Charles McConagall. Their adventure was dubbed “The Sourdough Expedition” because all four men loved sourdough bread.

They planned to keep a diary and take some photos, but they weren’t thinking about how to prove their accomplishment if they reached the top. They weren’t looking for publicity. They just wanted to win a bet.

So in mid-February, 1910, those four bread-loving miners with no hiking experience set out to climb Denali. And on April 8, they made it to the top of the North peak — the shorter of Denali’s two peaks — where they planted a flag.

Or so they said.

A week after their summit, the New York Times published statements by naturalist Charles Sheldon, later know as the “Father of Denali National Park.” He knew three of the four men who climbed the mountain, and he was skeptical that they made it to the top.

The press reports contain so many assertions that are not in accordance with the facts that little reliance can be placed on them. …

None of the [explorers] knows anything about technical mountain climbing. They have never seen an Alpine rope or an ice axe, and are not familiar with technical mountaineering equipment. …

The difficulties of an ascent are so great that … a great deal of public skepticism, particularly among those who are familiar with the hardships of mountain climbing, is sure to exist.

Therefore, it is clearly the duty of the press, both to the public and to these men, not to encourage full credibility in the reports of the alleged ascent until the facts and details are authoritatively published.

There was good reason to be skeptical. These climbers were middle aged, overweight, had no real climbing experience, and made claims of feats even experienced climbers wouldn’t attempt.

For example, they said they climbed the last 8,000 feet in one day. But even modern Denali hikers typically save the last 3,000 to 4,000 for one day, taking 10 to 15 hours to do it. And even though they brought a camera, none of the photos they took could be verified as having been taken on the summit.

Two months after Sheldon’s statements, the New York Times Magazine published a three page account of the expedition in Tom Lloyd’s own words, including photos, notes from his journal and transcribed recollections.

In this published account, he actually describes his team reaching both of Denali’s peaks, not just the North peak as had been previously reported.

It wasn’t until 1913 that another expedition on Denali finally was able to verify Lloyd’s story. They reached the North summit and found the flag that Lloyd’s party had planted. Vindication at last!

But here’s the thing. Tom Lloyd really did lie about something: he claimed that his party reached both peaks when in fact they only reached the North summit. That lie was completely unnecessary. His story was incredible enough as it was.

So Let’s Fan Cast “The Sourdough Expedition: The Movie”

This story is just begging to be made into a comedy adventure buddy movie about four friends who naïvely think they can do something nobody has ever done, and fail their way to the top of a mountain.

The obvious casting for the four miners would be:

  • Will Ferrell

  • John C. Reilly

  • Steve Carell

  • Melissa McCarthy

Bill McPhee, the bartender who bets Tom Lloyd that he can’t climb the mountain, is a good opportunity for a cameo by beloved older with some gravitas. Maybe Christopher Walken or Harvey Keitel.

Who would play Charles Sheldon, the expert who claims the miners could not have really reached the top of the mountain? That could be a Walter Peck sort of character. Is William Atherton still available? You know what, I’m going with Jason Schwartzman.

And what about Frederick Cook, the man who claimed he got there first? Maybe for drama’s sake, we can fudge with history and have him lead another expedition to the top of the mountain at the same time as the sourdoughs. So then it adds some tension to the movie in a race to get there first. But who should play him? Hmm. I’m feeling like maybe Jesse Plemons. He’s a good foil.

We need some female characters, too. Maybe Tom’s wife, through whose eyes we get the story of things back home while Tom’s away? What the heck, let’s have Melissa McCarthy play her, also, in a dual role.

So who’s your fan cast? To recap, here are the characters that need casting:

  • The four miners (Tom Lloyd, Billy Taylor, Pete Andersen, Charles McConagall)

  • Tom Lloyd’s wife

  • The bartender (Bill McPhee)

  • The doubting expert (Charles Sheldon)

  • The competing expedition leader (Frederick Cook)

Follow-Up Item: A Nobel Prize Winner’s Bookshelf

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis and I included a high resolution photo of his bookshelf. I thought it was interesting to browse and see what books I’ve read that a Nobel Prize winner owns.

A reader named Mike Harris looked closely at the photo and made a spreadsheet of all Mullis’s books.

I put all the data in an Airtable database if you’d like to look through it or download it.

And that’s it for this issue! Thanks for joining me on a trip to the top of Denali. Maybe I’ll go back to the Wikipedia page on bar bets and add this one to the list of famous bets.

Until next time, thanks for reading.