The Denali Climb That Became One of the Deadliest
Seven men lost their lives on Denali in 1967; Andy Hall wanted to understand why.
Forty-seven years ago, two teams of young climbers joined together to conquer Denali (Mount McKinley), America's tallest peak, located in the interior of Alaska. It was the Summer of Love, and America rocked to the sound of The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. These young men wanted to get high on thin air. But there were serious divisions within the teams—conflicts that would only get worse as the wind began to howl.
Seven members of the 12-man team were never heard from again. The survivors spent the rest of their lives coping with their memories—and dodging the finger of blame. Was it bad leadership? Bad teamwork? Or just bad karma?
Andy Hall, former editor of Alaska magazine, was five years old at the time. His father, who was the superintendent of Denali National Park then, was one of the park rangers who led the rescue mission. Drawing on personal memories and five years of research, tracking down witnesses and unearthing lost documents and recordings, Hall has come as close as possible to a full understanding of what happened. He details what he discovered in his book Denali's Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak.
You had to postpone our interview for a reason that would be unusual anywhere else, but not in Alaska.
I'm a commercial salmon fisher in the summer, and the way it works here is you are on call once the run starts to move. And we got a call from the Department of Fish and Game saying you are going to fish in the morning at 7. So I was setting nets at the time you wanted to talk. It balances my writing.
Was it a good catch?
We made more than we spent. That's a good day up here.
The anniversary of this climbing tragedy is today. Can you tell us a bit about the Wilcox Expedition?
It took place in the summer of 1967. Originally, it was two expeditions. The Wilcox Expedition was nine young men, led by 24-year-old Joe Wilcox from Utah. The youngest was 24, the oldest 31. They were from all over the Lower 48. Then there was the Colorado Expedition, led by Howard Snyder. There were four men in that group.
They were going to be climbing at the same time on the same route, so they talked about sharing some things, like fixed lines. But seven hours before the Colorado group was due to leave, one of their members had a car accident and broke his arm, which left only three guys. That put them below the minimum the [National] Park Service required to climb. So the Colorado group asked Wilcox if they could formally join his expedition.
You say that Denali is not the tallest mountain in the world, but it's one of the biggest. Can you explain that?
Denali means "the great one" [in the Athabaskan language]. And when you see it, you get it. It rises 18,000 feet from a 2,000-foot plateau. The Himalayan peaks rise from a plateau that is 17,000 feet. So Mount Everest is 14,000 feet from base to top. I see Denali when I drive my daughter to school. It's 150 miles away as the crow flies, but it's still huge. Because the latitude is so far north, the air is also extremely thin, like Everest.
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Later, it became known as Mount McKinley, after the American president. The Alaskan legislature didn't recognize that name. But then McKinley was assassinated. After that it was going to be pretty hard to turn around and say: Well, we are not going to name the mountain after him.
Wilcox contacted a legendary Denali expert with a National Geographic connection, named Brad Washburn. He sounds like a larger-than-life character ...
Washburn was the guru of Denali, the guy you went to for advice. His hand-drawn map is still used by climbers. He was contracted by National Geographic to fly around the mountain and photograph it, so he hired a Fairbanks pilot, removed the door [of the plane], and he sat on a gas canister with a large-format camera, dressed in Arctic gear. Those black-and-white photographs are iconic—like Ansel Adams's pictures of the Rockies. He also climbed the mountain with his wife, who became the first woman to summit Denali.
The tragedy was precipitated by a "perfect storm," wasn't it?
That's right. There was a high in the south. So there was clear weather parked over the mountain. A wet low came in from the north, and these two systems clashed. The storm lasted for about seven days. There were times when it appeared to clear off, but the wind was still really howling up there. Another expedition that had climbed up to Denali Pass was actually lifted off their feet and carried through the pass. Some of the winds are estimated to have been over 300 miles per hour.
Teamwork is essential in climbing. These two groups had been forged together by circumstance. Was that one of the causes of the tragedy?
They didn't get along. But I think it's been blown out of proportion over the years. I talked to Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder, the leader of the Colorado group, and both said: We weren't fighting all the time; that's been exaggerated. There were conflicts. But you are always going to have conflicts if you put 12 young men in a stressful situation. The real key is that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Two of the survivors wrote books about the tragedy. Why did you feel it was necessary to write another one?
Both of the earlier books focused on the dynamics in the group. My perspective was that my dad was superintendent of the park in those days. I was five years old, but I remember some of the details, and I spoke over the years with my dad. We talked about his frustration being on the rescue side, having to work with the Air Force and the Alaska Rescue Group. So I wanted to tell the story about everyone else involved as well as the expeditions.
You grew up with several of the other characters, as well as your father. It must have been a very emotional journey to write this book.
It was. The park service did some tape-recorded interviews with my dad. They got them out of the regional headquarters in Anchorage for me. My dad had been dead for seven years. It was really challenging at times listening to them.
Your father had to call the families with the news of their sons' deaths.
He did. And he told me that was the hardest thing he ever did in his life. He served in World War II. He was a radio operator in a B-29. He lost a lot of buddies. But he said making those calls was the longest night of his life.
The rescue team that finally reached the climbers made a gruesome discovery. Can you describe what they found?
They approached the Wilcox Expedition high camp, hoping to find people alive. But it was completely silent. They found a shattered tent, with a corpse holding the tent pole, as though bracing against the wind. The tent was wrapped around the body. It had started to decompose as it had thawed and frozen a couple of times. It was really shocking for them.
Did they ever identify the bodies? This is all pre-DNA, of course.
They didn't. Bill Babcock, who was the leader of the rescue team, said they looked at the body and tried to unzip the anorak, but the body was frozen and the face was caked in snow. So they were reluctant to really do much. They found two more bodies about 1,000 feet below the summit. Those bodies had not decomposed. They were sitting, with one leg tucked under the other, like they were bracing themselves against the winds. There was no high-altitude helicopter back then, so they had to leave them on the mountain.
When I talked to one of the other rescuers, he burst into tears and said, "I should have taken a photo. I don't know why I didn't. It would have helped the family members know who it was and given them the closure." This is 46 years later, and he was still upset by it.
How many people have died on Denali since then?
Over one hundred. There's about one death per year. Some are storm deaths. Others are from heart attacks or falls. There are so many people up there these days. It's really become an industry. People ask me: Is it safer? You have more rangers and a high-altitude helicopter, and better communications and weather forecasting. So I think it's safer on the mountain. But it's not perfect.
How did writing this book change your perspective on life?
One thing I took away from it is that you can't deconstruct every bad thing to the point where it would have been okay. When I go out fishing, I often go a mile offshore in a 20-foot skiff in pretty bad weather. But I know the risks. And I am not going to hold anyone else responsible. I don't expect the Coast Guard to be hovering around my boat waiting for me to have a problem. Risks are inherent in doing anything really fun or interesting. And I'd hate to live without challenging myself.
Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.