Forever on the Mountain
How truly self-reliant are we, really? When you head down the trail, do you go confident that you can manage any situation you find yourself in? If you "push the envelope" by embarking on, say, a remote canyoneering adventure, a summit climb, or a river trip, how much confidence should you place not just in your own ability but in search-and-rescue teams to quickly respond when the unimaginable occurs?
In July 1967, a dozen young men set out to conquer North America's highest peak, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in what was then known as Mount McKinley National Park. Only five returned, the rest stranded, and then killed, near the summit by one of the most potent storm systems to pummel the mountain in recorded history.
The story of the Wilcox Expedition has been chronicled several times -- twice by discordant members of the expedition -- the most recent in James Tabor's Forever on the Mountain. In revisiting what to date has been the deadliest climbing accident in North America, Mr. Tabor's accounting -- for that indeed is what it is, an accounting of both the climbers' actions and the actions of those supposedly standing ready to assist them -- raises issues of self-reliance, reliability on others, and leadership.
In approaching his book, Mr. Tabor had significant hurdles to overcome. No journals left by the seven men who died were ever recovered, so how could he recreate their plight high on McKinley? While two members of the expedition -- Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder -- went on to write books about their experiences, how should their words be viewed in light of the disaster? Were they colored to deflect or cast responsibility, or -- in light of the six years that passed between the expedition and Mr. Snyder's book and the 14 that transpired before Mr. Wilcox's account was published -- were they accurate portrayals as best Messieurs Wilcox and Snyder could recall?
Forever on the Mountain is part adventure story, part psychological profile, and part investigative journalism. With a climbing background that includes an attempt at summiting McKinley and a summiting of 16,237-foot Mount Sanford, the author brings to his effort more than a rudimentary knowledge of climbing and the associated physical and mental stresses. Too, his analysis of records kept during the ordeal -- both those from the five surviving expedition members, the National Park Service, and outsiders pulled into the response effort -- interviews with surviving expedition members, Park Service personnel, and Mount McKinley experts, as well as a forensic analysis of the storm that clobbered McKinley and led to the seven deaths, have produced not just a page turner but an extensive, insightful history on the darkest chapter of climbing in North America.
Egos, abilities, chafing personalities, and decision-making -- both on behalf of the Wilcox Expedition, the National Park Service, and rescue groups of the day -- all are called into question in the book.
Post-tragedy critics, particularly (McKinley expert) Brad Washburn, faulted the men for underestimating McKinley, but the truth is that many other climbers, among them some of history's most notable mountaineers, also dangerously underrated this mountain, Mr. Tabor writes in one section. In another he focuses directly on the Park Service for not responding, writing that ...the only decision that (Mount McKinley Chief Ranger) Art Hayes and (Mount McKinley Superintendent) George Hall have made is to not make any decisions.
Indeed, in pointing again and again to the Park Service's lack of response to the developing on-mountain tragedy, Mr. Tabor raises higher and higher the perceived culpability of the agency and blackens the reputations of Chief Ranger Hayes and Superintendent Hall, men who, the author tells us, have little mountaineering experience.
...Hall and Hayes are not villains in the classic sense of knowingly committing evil acts for the petty purpose of protecting careers. They did not have the skills, expertise, or knowledge to properly do the part of their jobs that required emergency mountain search and rescue. Thus they cannot be called guilty of not doing those jobs when dying men desperately needed them to.
But they are guilty of this: They had under their command one man who may have been the best-equipped expert in North America to do such a job. Again and again and again and again, they not only ignored sometimes frustrated (climbing ranger) Wayne Merry's increasingly desperate attempts to do the right things. Of this they are guilty indeed.
Unfortunately, both men died before they could defend or explain their actions to Mr. Tabor.
Is the author, Mr. Tabor, guilty of anything? Curiously, while he does scrutinize the storm's role in the disaster, he seemingly ignores the judgment of a man he calls one of "the world's five mountaineeering search-and-rescue experts," Daryl Miller, who today heads mountaineering operations at Denali National Park. While working on his book the author consulted with Ranger Miller, who today disagrees vehemently with the conclusions Mr. Tabor reached.
In a series of emails Ranger Miller told the Traveler there was simply nothing that could have been done to save the seven men in the face of the storm.
"I have done a lot of research on this particular accident in 1967, including talking and meeting with Wilcox and Brad Washburn (who was a close friend until he died several years ago.) I also read Mr. Tabor's book," said Ranger Miller. "I disagreed with him about what the NPS didn't do and what the real reality was in what really caused the accident and why nothing the NPS could have done to prevent the accident or rescue anyone. I told Mr. Tabor if that same accident happened today it would have the same outcome as then."
While Mr. Tabor several times refers to Joe Wilcox's calls for airdrops and "windows" of good weather that might have allowed them to be made to the stranded men, Ranger Miller believes the seven were already dead when the requests were made. Too, he believes the weather was too punishing to safely execute the airdrops.
"I would have refused the air drop then if I had been running the SAR incident and today as well. I think the story reads well. It just is not correct," the ranger maintained. "Tabor does not understand this mountain and if he did he would have hopefully written more truth into the story."
Furthermore, Ranger Miller said, "No one (on the park staff at the time), including Wayne Merry, had personally climbed Denali or understood the weather up high, especially the weather at the 19,500-foot football field on July 18th and for the days to come. The air drops would have been impossible and I believe the six climbers high on the mountains were already dead and the one they left at high camp died shortly after from exposure as well. There is nothing to be done during the storms on Denali from the outside to help anyone. All you can do is wait until it is over."
Ranger Miller speaks from personal experience, having been part of an expedition that was trapped by a similar storm in 1981.
"Our expedition was trapped in 1981 for 9 days from July 4th until July 13th at 17,000 feet on the Harper glacier. We dug down through our tent floors as the winds were destroying our tents. We lasted because we were literally underground and had a good supply of fuel and food," he recalled. "This survival was largely due to our expedition leader, Lucy Smith, who knew from prior trips about how to deal with storms and the wrath of Denali.
"I learned a lot from her and those 30+ days on that expedition. These climbers in 1967 had climbing experience but they did not have 'Denali experience' nor did they really understand their precarious position," Ranger Miller continued. "If I requested today for the rescue coordination center to air drop a rescue resupply with the weather they had they would say no! Wayne Merry was unrealistic in what he wanted done in what I would call a hopeless situation in trying to get either get (contract pilot) Don Sheldon or the military to do any flying up high during this storm pattern.
"If you are pointing fingers at someone for not flying or refusing to fly these air drops on Denali, you had better have paid some dues on that mountain during all types of weather up high to have rational judgment in just what you can ask rescuers to do. George Hall who was the superintendent of Denali at that time was in a no-win situation as he was being asked to save someone already doomed. I believe he did the best he could in state of affairs that would be impossible even today to have any kind of a good outcome."
So what are we to make of Forever On the Mountain?
It's impossible to travel back in time, to experience exactly what people are experiencing, to probe their thought analysis, to measure their conflicts. With that understood, Mr. Tabor presents a compelling story of a tragedy that perhaps couldn't be prevented despite what hindsight suggests.
Was his analysis of the Park Service response colored? In light of the agency's rapid and massive response in March 1967 to save three climbers high on McKinley, Wayne Merry's protestations, and surviving documents, it's easy to understand what led him to his conclusions. The question is whether he should have placed more weight on the insights of Ranger Miller, a climber who not only has performed countless search-and-rescue missions on McKinley but who survived a powerful storm himself by burrowing into the mountain.
Winner of the 2007 Banff Mountain Festival Book Awards Grand Prize (The Phyllis & Don Munday Award): "A riveting account of a long-ago mountaineering disaster."—TimeIn 1967, seven young men, members of a twelve-man expedition led by twenty-four-year-old Joe Wilcox, were stranded on Alaska's Mount McKinley in a vicious arctic storm. All seven perished on what remains the most tragic expedition in American climbing history. Revisiting the event in the tradition of Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, James M. Tabor uncovers elements of controversy, finger-pointing, and cover-up that combine to make this disaster unlike any other.