In Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak former editor of Alaska magazine Andy Hall’s presentation responded to a four-decade old hole in mountaineering history.
Twelve climbers, led by Joe Wilcox, worked together in two bids for the mountain’s south summit in the summer of 1967. Only five survived the trip, he wrote. Each man had varying degrees of experience, including Wilcox who received significant criticism for his role in the tragedy.
The group was a last-minute combination of two teams, Hall wrote. A group from Colorado had two members back out at the last second, which put them below the minimum required by the park for an expedition; so they joined up with Wilcox.
Hall presented the interviews from survivors, written and voice recordings from radio communications as evidence- not a way to place blame. He offers personal analysis through out.
A stove fire instantly incinerated a climber’s sleeping bag halfway through the trip. A glacial traverse resulted in a fall into a crevasse, followed fortunately by a successful rescue and altitude sickness punctuated the otherwise relatively smooth ascent.
Wilcox required his team members, including the three from Colorado, meet for a climb to Mount Rainier in Washington. The trip was riddled with contention and discord amongst the members.
While clear blue skies and light wind carried the second summit team to the top, after a successful bid by three members of the team the previous day, including Wilcox, a Class 6 storm pinned the five member group down just as they were about to descend.
While Mt. McKinley is at lower elevation than Mount Everest, the climb from the base of the tallest peak in North America is 3,000 feet further. Supplemental oxygen is not necessary for climbing the peak but the air is still extremely thin, and it comes with a unique set of obstacles.
Technical ice climbing experience is key on Mount McKinley, and Hall presents evidence that wind speeds can reach up to 300 miles per hour on the peak. Following the Wilcox expedition climbers were required to carrying ice axes, for building caves and igloos for shelter.
The Park Service worked with the Air Force and the Alaska Rescue Group once Wilcox made what some felt to be an unnecessarily delayed mayday call. No one was willing to attempt a rescue in the violent storm.
The expedition almost meant the end for climbing on Mt. McKinley.
Hall’s father George Hall was the superintendent of Denali National Park at the time of the disaster. George Hall received his share of criticism in the media storm that followed.
George Hall successfully advocated for keeping the mountain open when the government threatened to shut it down for good in lieu of the trip.
“The people making the climbs generally were just doing it, they were just guys hanging around,” Hall quoted his father saying. “They were just people who wanted to climb the damned mountain. They had no money, and they usually gave up their jobs to come up and climb.”
“He (Hall’s father) didn’t want those people shut out of Denali,” Hall wrote.
Hall said that much of the evidence he tracked down in the course of doing his research was contradictory. Some of the perished men were never found on the mountain, and will likely never been uncovered from forty years of snowdrifts.
Unfortunately there may never be a clear picture of what happened in the climber’s final moments, but it is important to dissect the various factors that contribute to a disaster the caliber of the Wilcox expedition.
Hall spoke at Kenai Peninsula College on Oct. 31.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org