The Wall Street Journal

July 17, 2007

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Lives Taken by Storm

July 17, 2007; Page D6

In June 1967, 12 young men set out across the Alaskan tundra on the first leg of what should have been the adventure of a lifetime: a climb to the summit of Mount McKinley, now better known as Denali, at 20,320 feet the tallest mountain in North America. Unfortunately, it was not to be the triumphant experience they were hoping for. In fact, what happened to the men on Denali would become a source of bitterness for many years to come, spawning decades of harsh recriminations and ugly, often ill-informed quarreling. Even today, no one knows for sure exactly what went wrong on that wind-torn mountain 40 years ago. What's certain is the outcome: Of the dozen climbers who began the ascent -- the youngest was 22, the eldest 31 -- only five returned alive.

James M. Tabor, a former contributing editor at Outside magazine, spent several years researching this episode, and in "Forever on the Mountain" he has produced the fairest, most comprehensive account of it we're likely to see. Drawing on National Park Service archives, meteorological records, interviews with surviving participants and two contradictory memoirs by the expedition's feuding leaders, Mr. Tabor goes to great lengths to figure out how this team of able climbers (described by one park ranger at the time as "the best organized party ever to assault this mountain") came to such a bad end. "Forever on the Mountain" probably won't halt the debate, but it should provide some welcome perspective on an enduringly painful yet compelling episode of mountaineering history.

In some ways, the expedition, however well organized, seemed headed for trouble from the start. The original climbing team was supposed to consist of nine men, but an additional three -- the remnants of a smaller, aborted expedition from Colorado -- were a last-minute addition, made at the behest of the National Park Service. The combination proved to be anything but harmonious. The Coloradans were bigger, fitter and faster mountaineers. Their leader, Howard Snyder, also had a climbing philosophy (don't ever rest while the weather is good) that differed markedly from the more cautious and deliberate approach preferred by Joe Wilcox, the expedition's official leader. Throughout the climb, therefore, resentments simmered and tempers flared, with the effects of exhaustion and altitude sickness only making the discord worse.

By James M. Tabor
(Norton, 400 pages, $26.95)

Even so, it was nature, not internecine strife, that ultimately proved to be the expedition's undoing. On the afternoon of July 15, a group of four -- Mr. Wilcox and the three Coloradans -- took advantage of a window of fine weather to make a final push to the summit. The remaining eight climbers decided instead to wait a day. At least five of them made it to the summit; two were too sick to attempt it, and sketchy radio communications were unclear about whether the eighth climber reached the top. But their delay had a cost: A blizzard rolled in and caught them on the descent. The seven climbers still high on the mountain could do little but hunker down and hope for the heavy weather to pass quickly, unaware that the storm -- "carrying hurricane winds and a snow load of several feet" -- would turn out to be one of the longest and most vicious in the mountain's history.

Mr. Tabor analyzes this debacle with the doggedness of an investigative reporter and the technical knowledge of an experienced climber. It must be said that his narrative doesn't always unfold as logically or as gracefully as it might. Information is repeated needlessly, and Mr. Tabor's frequent jumps forward and backward in time can sometimes dissipate the dramatic tension. He also indulges in some overly creative supposition, "reconstructing" entire scenes and conversations that occurred well after the doomed climbers lost contact with the outside world. "He writes in his journal," Mr. Tabor says of a climber in dire circumstances. "That journal was never found, but it's not hard to imagine what he's putting down just now."

Still, Mr. Tabor is thorough and evenhanded -- essential qualities for anyone dealing with a mare's nest like this one. For instance, he judiciously weighs survivors' varying accounts and closely examines a photograph of the climb to try to determine whether the group that reached the summit marked its path inadequately, allowing the second group to become lost in the whiteout conditions. He decides that while "the weight of the evidence" indicates that the route was badly marked, in the end it didn't matter.

Many people in the mountaineering world -- though, significantly, not the parents of the dead climbers -- hold Mr. Wilcox primarily responsible for the tragedy. A stronger leader, they argue, would never have allowed the slower climbers to hang back and squander a day of good weather. But Mr. Wilcox maintains that he had no reason to suspect that a storm was imminent. Meanwhile, Mr. Tabor shows that the obtuseness of the National Park Service may also have been a factor. Maddeningly slow to comprehend the gravity of the situation on the mountain, park bureaucrats temporized for days, delaying rescue efforts while seven men gradually succumbed to frostbite, dehydration, hunger and hypothermia.

Could this disaster have been averted by closer monitoring and a quicker response from the authorities in charge? Perhaps, but given the extremity of the storm, it's doubtful whether anyone could have saved those men in time. After all, even with today's much-improved communication and rescue technologies, climbing fatalities still occur with disheartening frequency. Survivors and outside observers will argue endlessly over how things went horribly wrong. But the truth is that on mountains as formidable as Denali, the line between adventure and disaster will always be terrifyingly easy to cross.

Mr. Krist's latest book is "The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche" (Holt).

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