Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book review: "Denali's Howl" by Andy Hall

"Denali's Howl" is an outstanding account of the 1967 ill-fated mountaineering expedition that left seven young men dead high on Mount McKinley. Even today, it remains the deadliest episode on North America's highest peak.

Backed by thorough research and numerous interviews of those involved, author Andy Hall deftly reconstructs the events of what was known as the Wilcox Expedition.

It is, in a way, like watching an auto accident in slow motion. You know things are going to go wrong, so you start looking to see where the trouble starts.

The 1967 expedition was actually supposed to be two separate endeavors, one led by 24-year-old Joe Wilcox of Utah, and an entirely separate one from Colorado. But when one of the Colorado climbers was in a car accident and had to withdraw, that group didn't have enough members. With a push from the National Park Service, the two groups combined to make a party of 12.

This led to some internal friction among the members, though Hall makes it clear that it wasn't a major factor in the fatalities.

Once on the mountain, the expedition makes an odd decision to leave behind its shovels to save weight. Those shovels could have come in handy later, to dig shelter when seven members of the expedition were caught in a monster storm.

Hall makes it clear that it is that storm, one of the worst to ever strike Mount McKinley, that was by far the key factor in the deaths. The stormed raged for five days, battering the top part of the mountain with winds of over 100 mph.

"Had there not been a storm of such endurance and overwhelming power, the Wilcox Expedition would not have ended in tragedy," Hall writes.

 For all the strengths of the book, Hall faced a frustrating reality in writing it. It's impossible to truly know what happened with the group of climbers who died, since there were no survivors among them.

Given that, though, Hall does something brilliant at the end. He recounts the story of a separate expedition, one from 1997, that found itself in much of a similar situation as the men from the Wilcox group. In 1997, some lived to tell the tale, which Hall shares. This helps us get a vivid picture of what could have gone wrong in 1967.

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