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Mountaineers Descending in a Storm

University of Alaska Fairbanks students descend a snow slope in a growing storm. Thanks to Mark Oldmixon!

Image © Outdoor Adventures, U of Alaska, Fairbanks

Book Review: Denali’s Howl

In the engaging Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak, author Andy Hall relates the details of the disastrous 1967 Wilcox Expedition. Twelve expedition members headed to Alaska’s interior to climb America’s highest peak—tragically, seven of them never returned. The book conveys lessons for climbers, and especially guides, that remain valuable almost 50 years after the events.

Tackling Denali in the sixties was nothing like it is today. The equipment carried was rudimentary by today’s standards (though this comparison doesn’t feature heavily in the book). There were few expeditions and none were guided. Climbing rangers were unheard of and a volunteer, Alaska-wide rescue group provided the only emergency response available. Even the Park Service personnel involved in coordinating the incident response—including the author’s father—were non-climbers who had never been on the mountain.

Named for its overall leader, twenty-four year old Joe Wilcox, the expedition was actually two separate parties that merged for the climb. Wilcox had organized the larger of the two groups. The climbers were varied in experience level and did not know each other well—both factors that suggest a need for strong leadership. Wilcox, as the book portrays it, demonstrated little aptitude or enthusiasm for leadership on the mountain.

In a “perfect storm” of events, seven climbers were high on the peak when an incredibly powerful storm hit. Wilcox and a team of stronger climbers had already summited and descended. Temperatures plummeted far below zero and winds estimated at up to 300 miles per hour howled over the peak for days. None in the team high on the peak survived. The author, Hall, does as good a job as is likely possible at reconstructing the details of the tragedy; however, much of what occurred during the arctic blizzard can only be speculated upon.

A bureaucratic tempest brewed after the incident, with the National Park Service pushing to close Denali to climbing. This closure, obviously, did not happen. What occurred, more positively, was a group of prominent mountaineers and park service officials convened to discuss approaches to improving expedition safety. The long shadow cast by this meeting persists to this day in the form of the climbing ranger program and the use of reliable communication devices on the peak.

The many people involved in this story, including both expedition members and those who played a role in the response, creates a challenge for the author. He attempts to sketch distinct characters, but sometimes I had to refresh myself as to who was who—conveniently there’s a list of expedition members on the first few pages. The book suffers in a few spots from lackluster writing or editing and one factual error (Mt. Washington is certainly in New Hampshire, not Maine), but these are exceptions. Overall Denali’s Howl is a gem that any mountaineer or student of outdoor leadership, and certainly anyone considering tackling Denali, would benefit from reading.

 

Denali'sHowl  Buy on Amazon (paperback, Kindle, or hardcover)

 


 

AlexKosseffAlex Kosseff is the Founder and Director of OSI and author of both editions of the AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership. He has conducted risk management reviews of over 50 outdoor education, adventure, and conservation programs. The former Leadership and Volunteer Relations Director for the Appalachian Mountain Club, Alex developed risk management systems for that organization’s 9,000 annual volunteer and professionally led outdoor programs. Based in Bozeman, Montana, he is an active outdoor instructor, climber, backcountry skier, paddler, and wilderness enthusiast. More>>

 


Posted by

Alex Kosseff

on 2/18/15
Categories: 
Field SafetyResourceNews

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