Denali's Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak

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9780142181959: Denali's Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak

In the summer of 1967, twelve young men ascended Alaska’s Mount McKinley—known to the locals as Denali. Engulfed by a once-in-alifetime blizzard, only five made it back down.
 

Andy Hall, a journalist and son of the park superintendent at the time, was living in the park when the tragedy occurred and spent years tracking down rescuers, survivors, lost documents, and recordings of radio communications. In Denali’s Howl, Hall reveals the full story of the expedition in a powerful retelling that will mesmerize the climbing community as well as anyone interested in mega-storms and man’s sometimes deadly drive to challenge the forces of nature.

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About the Author:

ANDY HALL grew up in the shadow of Denali. He is the former editor and publisher of Alaska magazine. He lives in Chugiak, Alaska.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Andy Hall

PROLOGUE

A STRANGER IN THE

WILDERNESS

 

 

Joe Wilcox may not have been the first man to reach the summit of Denali, but on Saturday afternoon, July 15, 1967, he felt like it. A rare clear day reigned on the mountain outsiders call Mount McKinley. Wilcox and his three companions had savored it for the last few hours as they trudged upward on crusty, wind-carved snow. Atop the continent, Joe’s deep-set eyes swept over the Alaska Range— some of the tallest and most rugged peaks in North America— reduced to so many white waves of rock and ice lapping at the mountain’s base. But along with the grandeur there was an edge of tension. After twenty-seven days on the mountain, Wilcox knew that the window of good weather could close just as quickly as it had opened. The four men on the summit, along with the rest of their twelve-man team waiting for their turn just a couple of thousand feet below, had no time to waste.

Wilcox had been on the mountain for nearly a month, and as he approached the summit the final steps seemed insignificant when compared to the tremendous effort the team had made to get there. The sweeping panorama instilled in him a sense of gratitude. He had worked hard, but that hard work did not guarantee success; he felt lucky.

Two weather systems had been developing as Wilcox and his companions worked their way toward the summit: one to the northeast and one to the southwest. Rainclouds mustered over the Beaufort Sea, a stretch of ice-bound ocean that spans 1,200 unbroken miles between Alaska’s North Slope and the North Pole. In those days the sea was largely devoid of human traffic, save the occasional Eskimo* hunter. The low-pressure system spun to life and grew in intensity as it marched southwest carrying potent moisture-laden winds toward the Alaska Range. At the same time an equally strong high-pressure system developed over the Aleutian Islands, a windswept, treeless archipelago, known by mariners as the Cradle of Storms, southwest of Denali. The development and location of both weather systems at that time of year was unusual.

These massive weather systems, separated by a thousand miles of forest, mountain, tundra, and taiga, were on a collision course, headed straight toward Joe Wilcox.

On the summit at an elevation of 20,320 feet, Wilcox watched wind-whipped cirrus clouds high above him. These clouds marked the margins of the two massive weather systems as they began to brush against each other. In a matter of hours one of the most violent storms ever recorded on the mountain would engulf the peak and leave seven of Joe Wilcox’s twelve-man expedition dead.

Joe stood six foot one inch tall. He was twenty-four years old. I was five. I don’t know why my dad took me along on the drive in his light-green Park Service sedan deep into the park that midsummer night. It might have been because I’d been cooped up in the house by days of rain, or maybe he just wanted the company of his son. Whatever the reason, there I was, wearing my red-topped rubber boots next to Dad on the wide bench seat as we weaved along the endless muddy road deep inside Mount McKinley National Park. Two more light-green park vehicles, with rangers at the wheels, followed behind. With the sun low on the horizon it was light out, but low-hanging clouds obscured Denali and the alpine vistas that flanked the road. The small black spruce and willow trees, stunted by the high altitude and latitude, marched up the hillsides and disappeared into the mist as we passed by. The creek beds roiled with muddy, brown water from bank to bank, the result of the steady rain that had not yet stopped.

Most of the time, I loved riding shotgun with Dad. He was a gregarious man who sang while he drove, mostly military songs he learned in the Army Air Corps during World War II. When he wasn’t singing, “Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail . . .” he was whistling, telling stories, pointing out landmarks and wildlife, or expounding on historical facts that were usually without much meaning to my young mind. I’d lean against him on the seat and steer the car while he kept us on the road with his thumbs secretly pressed against the bottom of the steering wheel.

That night, he was a different man. His National Park Service–issue tan Stetson sat between us on the seat; it rarely left the hat rack at park headquarters. I was used to being quiet, since he usually did all the talking, but this time Dad was almost as mute as I was. The air hung heavy with the absence of his chatter and gave the car a closed-in, somber feel. He whistled a little at first, but the songs trailed off, like his heart wasn’t in it. Soon the rhythm of the windshield wipers and the slosh and ping of the muddy gravel road under our wheels was our only accompaniment.

We drove far into the park, the distance elongated by the strange silence, and finally stopped at a pullout near a rain-swollen river. Dad got out, slipped a green raincoat over his uniform, and huddled with the other men. The air was sharply cool, and carried the tang of freshly cut earth. I noticed places where the riverbank had fallen into rushing water. Bored, I walked toward the river, tossed in sticks, and watched the current sweep them away. The last time we’d stopped here on a family outing, the river looked completely different—a series of gravel bars laced with narrow braids of flowing water. Now it was a single channel of brown water, wider than the park road.

Dad returned to my side, but the others waited in their vehicles with engines idling and headlights shining in the rainy gloom. We ambled slowly along the swollen river. I skipped stones while Dad trailed behind, one eye on me while he scanned up and down the riverbank. He didn’t join in the rock skipping or find flat rocks for me; I was on my own. The turbulent water made skipping difficult, so I turned my attention to bigger rocks, heaving in big clunkers to hear the satisfying thunk and the muffled, bowling-alley crashes as they careened along the rocky riverbed in the swift current.

We were nearly out of sight of the vehicles when Dad looked up and suddenly stiffened.

“Andy, get back to the car,” he said. “Now.”

I froze and looked at him in confusion.

He didn’t look back at me but gazed downstream. “Go,” he said, calmly but firmly.

I turned, took a step, and promptly tripped and fell onto the rocks. I saw blood trickle onto my palms. He moved quickly and grabbed my hand, took two strides, and then swung me ahead of him, repeating the process as we scrambled over the rocks and driftwood along the riverbank. He set me down on a sandy stretch and I ran, but I was too small to keep up, so he reached down and grabbed my hand again. I held his hand with both of mine, lifted my feet off of the ground, and ventured a look behind as he swung me ahead toward the idling cars. Far downstream, maybe a couple hundred yards, a dark, hulking shape had emerged from the brush along the river and loped toward us.

Grizzly bear, I thought. He never said the words, but I was pretty sure Dad was thinking the same thing.

Fear seized me. I’d seen plenty of grizzly bears, but always from the safety of our car, never on foot with nothing between us but rain and wind. Children who lived in the park were warned to retreat indoors at the first sign of the big animal. Doors to the homes in the small enclave that surrounded park headquarters were not locked, and we all understood that it was OK to enter any home at any time, if necessary, to avoid wildlife. Running wasn’t advised when encountering a bear, but we’d also been told that when refuge is close, it’s always wise to seek it. Dad was following that advice. Paralyzed with fear and dangling from Dad’s grip like a rag doll, I looked backward rather than forward, watching the intruder’s slow progress as Dad hustled us to where the others waited.

Back in the car, we watched as the dark shape shambled along the bank where we had stood minutes earlier. Just as suddenly as he had grabbed my hand and retreated, Dad relaxed, his shoulders slumping and the firm, set line of his lips upturning in relief. He opened the door and walked toward the approaching figure as it came into focus. I stayed in the backseat, still scared, even though I could see that it was no grizzly but a man wearing a huge backpack and caped by a billowing brown rain poncho.

Mountaineers were rare in those days. About twenty came to the park each year to climb, and they were enigmas to me, even more unusual than the moose and bear and sheep that frequented this two-million-acre wilderness preserve. Somehow I knew he was a climber, though he was the first one I’d seen. He was tall and his wet clothes hung loosely on his lean frame. I peered over the dashboard to get a closer look at this rare creature, taking in his unbuttoned flannel shirt, mud-covered high-water pants, thick-knuckled fingers, and battered boots. At first I thought he was as ancient as Dad, but when he turned his head and saw me watching him, he smiled. His teeth were dazzling against his brown beard and sunburned face, and I realized he was not much older that the teenage boys who lived next door.

I don’t know what they said to each other—I stayed in the car, watching from my perch behind the dashboard as they talked. The young man unshouldered his pack and did most of the talking, gesturing with his hands and occasionally pointing into the foggy distance. Dad and the rangers listened intently, their faces serious, rain dripping from the brims of their Stetsons. After what seemed like hours, the circle of men broke, the climber got into one of the other vehicles, and we began the long drive home, slithering and bouncing along the muddy park road.

I peppered Dad with questions about the strange man who had emerged from a wilderness that I thought was home only to moose, caribou, sheep, and bear: Who is he? Where did he come from? Why had we come all this way to meet him?

After a long silence my father said there had been a climbing accident on Denali and some boys had died. His voice was heavy and sounded tired, as if the words were difficult to pronounce. His tone told me the moment was grave, and part of me knew I should share his sadness. But I was just a kid and I was both scared and excited by the thrilling sprint along the river.

“What happened, Daddy, did they fall off a cliff ?” I asked.

“There was a bad storm, kiddo. We don’t know what happened to them yet, but we’re trying to find out.”

“Why don’t you just fly up and get them?” I continued.

“We did, but the boys we found were already dead.”

“Are you going to bring them down?”

“No, we’ll probably leave them buried in the snow.”

“What if the snow melts?”

“They’re in snow that never melts.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

THOSE WHO CAME

BEFORE

 

 

The Athabaskan people have lived in the shadow of the great mountain for ten thousand years and know it by many names. To the people of the Lower Tanana, it is Deenaadheet or Deennadhee. The Dena’ina call it Dghelay Ka’a; the Koyukon, Deenaali. Each tribe’s name, though unique, translates to roughly the same meaning: the Big One, the High One, the Great One.

Neither legends nor oral tradition indicate that Alaska’s Native people desired or attempted to climb it. Though it was revered, no taboo appears to have kept Alaska’s indigenous people from standing on the summit. A healthy aversion to the treacheries of glacier travel and perhaps common sense were enough.

The subsistence life was hard. The icy slopes and inhospitable mountaintop held no allure to those whose lives were focused on the already-difficult challenge of surviving off the subarctic wilderness; in fact, they avoided the desolate terrain. When Alfred Brooks made the first approach to the mountain in 1902 during a US Geological Survey he knew he was the first white man to see it up close, and speculated that no Alaska Native had been so near to it either.

 

I was far beyond, where the moccasined foot of the roving Indian had never trod. The Alaska Native seldom goes beyond the limit of smooth walking and has a superstitious horror of even approaching glacial ice.

 

---

Among the world’s high mountains, summits in excess of 20,000 feet are surprisingly common. In the South American Andes, more than forty exceed 20,000 feet in height; in the Himalayas, hundreds rise higher. But height alone does not define a mountain. While Denali is the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet, it also is arguably the biggest mountain on the planet.

The Denali massif is bounded on the west by Kahiltna Pass and to the east by the Traleika Col. The Peters Glacier, at the base of the Wickersham Wall, is its northern boundary. The Ruth Gap marks its southern edge. Within those margins is Denali, a 144-square-mile mass of rock, snow, and ice that rises abruptly from a 2,000-foot plateau, soaring 18,000 feet from base to summit, the greatest vertical relief of any mountain on Earth, with the exception of the Hawaiian seamount Mauna Kea, the bulk of which lies beneath the Pacific Ocean. In comparison, Mount Everest, though 29,029 feet above sea level, rests on the 17,000-foot-high Tibetan Plateau and rises just 12,000 feet from base to summit. A similar plateau boosts the Andes; without those geologic booster seats, those peaks all would lie in Denali’s shadow.

Denali is the apex of the Alaska Range, a cordillera that arcs 600 miles across Alaska, dividing the coastal lowlands around Cook Inlet from the Yukon lowlands of interior Alaska. The great range is about 60 miles wide near Denali and home to twenty peaks taller than 10,000 feet.

Most of the cordillera is composed of sedimentary shale, limestone, and sandstone that is between 100 and 400 million years old, but a handful of peaks—among them Denali, Foraker, Hunter, and the Moose’s Tooth—arise from a younger 35-million-year-old granite intrusion. Tectonic activity continues to push the entire range upward at a rate of about one millimeter a year even as the erosive action of wind, water, and ice wear it down. The durable gray-and-pink granite ensures that millions of years from now Denali and its granite brothers will endure long after their sedimentary neighbors have been reduced to glacial dust and carried away by wind and water.

Europeans began exploring Alaska a little more than two hundred years ago and, upon seeing the mountain dominating the interior skyline, were immediately impressed by its evident size. Russian trappers were the earliest to push into the hinterlands and, like the Alaska Natives, were prosaic about the mountain, referring to it as Bolshaya Gora, or Big Mountain. British Navy captain George Vancouver made the earliest written reference to Denali in 1794 after navigating the silty shoals of Knik Arm at the head of Cook Inlet. Standing on the deck of the HMS Discovery, he looked north and noted the horizon “bounded by distant stupendous snow mountains.”

When prospector Frank Densmore visited Lake Minchumina in 1889, the big mountain rising to the south so enthralled him that he couldn’t stop talking about it—so much so that for years it was known among prospectors as Densmore’s Peak.

Denali was already well known in Alaska when it entered into the national consciousness on January 24, 1897. An article in The New York Sun written by Wi...

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