The day Denali turned deadly

In July 1967, 12 young mountain climbers, nine from the coastal mountains of Oregon and Washington and three from the Colorado Rockies.

In July 1967, 12 young mountain climbers, nine from the coastal mountains of Oregon and Washington and three from the Colorado Rockies, set out to climb the tallest peak in North America, officially called Mt. McKinley but known to many by its ancient name, Denali, a native word meaning Big One, High One, Mighty One, Hidden One or Shy One, depending on which tribe’s translation you want to quote.

Their average age was 24 and they were called The Wilcox Expedition after the leader, Joe Wilcox, 24, from Provo, Utah who was a graduate student in mathematics. He survived.

Of the 12 who went up the mountain, 11 made the summit but only five came down alive. It was, at the time and remains, the biggest mountaineering tragedy in Alaskan history.

The first successful summit of Denali was in 1913 by an Athabaskan native named Walter Harper, who was the lead climber in a group of four led by Harry Karstens, a veteran of the Klondike Gold Rush, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, the organizer, and Robert Tatum.

Between the Karstens and Wilcox expeditions, 420 mountaineers attempted to reach the peak and 213 succeeded with only four fatalities, three of whom fell into crevasses and one off a ridge.

So there was nothing historical or notable about the Wilcox attempt and no reason to anticipate problems, since all 12 climbers were experienced mountaineers – although none had ever climbed over 15,000 feet and Denali is 20,320 but not considered a tough technical climb.

It is, however, grueling, because 18,000 feet of it is mountain, compared to Everest, which is over 29,000 at the top but 17,000 at the base so there is 33 per cent more mountain to climb on Denali than the world’s tallest peak. It takes seven camps, or steps, to reach the top of Denali, with the last two at 15,000 and 17,900 before the final five-hour climb to the summit, and that is where all the trouble occurred during the second half of July 1967.

While Wilcox led the first group of five to the summit on July 15 under sunny skies with a big 360 view, there was an Arctic high developing to the north over the Beaufort Sea at the same time a southern low was developing over the Aleutians. The high was swirling counter-clockwise, the low clockwise and both were heading directly towards Denali where 12 men were above 18,000 feet and vulnerable to the extreme with no idea what was about to hit them.

On the day of the 18th when the second group successfully made the summit and the first group, led by Wilcox, descended to the camp at 15,000, the two huge weather systems met and Denali howled. Later computer graphics estimated the Howl, which is what Alaskans call blizzards, was the biggest storm to hit Alaska in 100 years and it raged from the 19th to the 25th.

The seven men who were on top when it hit never had a chance and were literally blown off the mountain, either into deep crevasses or under the drifting snow. All five who were at 15,000 or lower made it out but they were never even able to find the bodies of the unlucky seven and they are still up there today, 47 years later.

Andy Hall’s terrific account of this mountaineering nightmare has a lot of details about the failed search and rescue operations after the weather cleared but no one is to blame for the deaths of these young men. They were doomed as soon as those two weather systems came together and were probably dead before the second day, although no one really knows that for certain since Denali basically ate them up and covered the bones.

It’s a great read about a grisly historical tragedy. I devoured it in one sitting, because Hall’s writing style is clear and flowing, and I was surprised to discover a local angle to this regional tale.

Atlin’s Wayne Merry was the ranger at Wonder Lake and was the last man to see the Wilcox expedition alive and intact when they began their assault. He also played a big role in trying to co-ordinate a rescue effort against overwhelming odds, but there was nothing anyone could have done to save them. Those poor climbers were the Titanic, and Denali was their iceberg.

This is a story about bad weather, bad timing and bad luck, period.

You should be able to find Denali’s Howl in the “New Books’” section of the Whitehorse public library.

Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.

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