Minus 148°: The Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley, by Art Davidson. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969. 218 pages, 32 photographs. Price: $5.95.
It is understandable, if not forgivable, that all expedition books tend to sound identical. The author seems to feel that for the reader to earn the thrill of the summit day, he must undergo all the tedium of planning, packing, and travelling – even checking through customs. (The worst offenders in this respect were some of those massive Himalayan accounts: halfway through the book, the protagonists were still snapping photographs of quaint villagers along the hike-in route.) As if to make up for all the petty squabbles that happened on the trip itself, the author usually paints glittering portraits of all his cronies; only by reading between the lines can we get a sense that our heroes were any less bland or tactful than aspiring vice-presidents. And the ritual melodrama of the final push, carried out by gutsy but prudent, superbly trained climbers who inevitably find the difficulties just within their grasp, camouflages all the things a reader really wants to know: just how hard was it? and what was it really like?
Art Davidson’s book seems to me remarkable in avoiding these predictable pitfalls. The reader lands on the Kahiltna Glacier on page 30, and what prologue precedes this is both entertaining and insightful. Much of the effort of the book goes toward capturing a sense of the clashing personalities, the disparate levels of ability, and the unequal degrees of commitment, of the expedition’s members. To their credit, even those members whose portraits are least heroic were willing to lend Davidson their diaries, extensive quotes from which do a great deal toward making them come alive as people. As for the climb itself, the author disguises neither the sense of guilt and defeat occasioned by Jacques Batkin’s death in a crevasse on only the third day of the trip, nor the fact that the summit push itself, when finally made, was not particularly difficult.
It is the six-day bivouac after the summit that Dave Johnston, Ray Genet, and the author spent at Denali Pass during a violent and continuous storm, that stands at the center of this account. Davidson has handled thecomplexity of the situation well by shifting antiphonally from his own experience above to the diary entries (often telling in their indirectness) of the other four below. By concentrating on the day-by-day, minute-by- minute details of their ordeal, Davidson has made vivid the tiny things that dying men measure their lives by. Their survival was partly due to endurance and courage, but also – what is more interesting, and more to the author’s credit for conveying – to luck and hunch. The week that the three spent in a partially excavated snow cave in winter near the summit of North America’s highest mountain ranks, by itself, as one of the rare classic stories of survival in mountaineering annals. For finding that story recounted in Minus 148°, with all its attendant horrors and absurdities, with all its delusive dreams and eloquent realities, the reader can only be grateful.