Journalist Andy Hall has a unique perspective from which to view 1967’s deadly climbing accident on Alaska’s Mt. Denali: he was 5 years old when his father, the Denali Park superintendent, helped organize a rescue party for the climbers caught in a so-called “Arctic Super Blizzard” high on the summit ridge. Seven out of 12 young men on the Wilcox Expedition perished on the mountain during the storm. Many elements—inexperience, illness, personality conflict—may have played a role in the overall situation, but as Hall demonstrates, the ultimate factor was environmental. No one could have survived the 100 mile-per-hour winds strafing the upper limits of the mountain for a week.
Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak is a labor of love for Hall. He has painstakingly interviewed survivors and members of the rescue party, combed through meteorological records, and studied transcripts of radio communications between Joe Wilcox, the expedition leader pinned down at 17,000 feet, and park service personnel on the ground. In 1967, radio communications between mountaineering parties and rangers were haphazard at best (unlike today, when climbers can update their expedition blogs from base camp). Hall’s own memories of the somber, stormy week when his father had to notify the parents of the young men left on the mountain round out this fascinating, terrifying picture.
At 20,000 feet, Denali isn’t as high as Mt. Everest, but because of its distance from the equator, the oxygen near its summit is as thin as the oxygen on the upper reaches of Everest. It is also a magnet for clashing weather systems that produce high winds and blizzard conditions. In many respects, it is a much more difficult mountain to climb than Everest. In Denali’s Howl, Hall has created an indelible portrait of the wildness of this mountain and the culture of 1960s mountaineering.