Alaska's Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, is a place of wondrous beauty, majesty and peril. In 1998, three climbers lost their lives during a savage storm on the 20,000-foot mountain known to many as Denali and to those who dwell in its shadow simply as The Hill. Ed Hommer knows all about the mountain's beauty and danger. As a young man, he worked as a bush pilot, ferrying supplies and climbers to Base Camp and occasionally participating in air rescues. He spent five unforgettable days on the mountainside in 1981, after the small plane he was piloting crashed. The accident claimed the lives of two of his passengers and cost Hommer his legs, which were amputated below the knee due to severe frostbite. The accident and the five days he and a fellow survivor spent awaiting rescue changed Hommer's life completely. He tells his story in The Hill, a heartening narrative of determination and adventure, written with Daniel Paisner. The reader experiences the loneliness and isolation of the smashed airplane cabin where Hommer and his passengers awaited rescue in subzero temperatures with little food and water. Although the crash site was known, severe gales and whiteout conditions prevented rescue for days, during which one of the passengers succumbed to his injuries.
Eventually a gung-ho bunch of local mountaineers hijacked a military rescue flight, demanding to be dropped off on the glacier where the wreckage lay. It took a heroic effort to reach the survivors, but by the time the rescuers arrived, Hommer's feet were already badly frozen.
The amputations spelled the end of his adventurous lifestyle in Alaska. Eking out a meager existence, Hommer soon fell into despair, drinking heavily and withdrawing from his family and friends. But fortified with an improved set of prosthetic limbs, he resumed his career as a pilot and his hobby of climbing, and ultimately conquered the peak that nearly killed him.
Hommer's fascinating story ends just as he descends from the mountain, but having gotten to know him in the pages of the book, the reader is left hungry for more of his adventures. Believe it or not, he continues to climb and plans an upcoming attempt on Mt. Everest.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis.