American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Hall of the Mountain King

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  • Publication Year: 1974

The Hall of the Mountain King, by Howard H. Snyder. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. 207 pages, 35 photographs. Price: $8.95.

Mount McKinley was first climbed in 1913. From that time until 1967, four people died while climbing the mountain. All were killed by falls which occurred below 13,000 feet. No climber has been claimed by the violent storms which ravage the higher reaches of this most arctic of the world’s 20,000-foot mountains. As Howard Snyder points out in his readable account of one of the most tragic climbs in the history of American mountaineering: “Many things were to change in the summer of 1967, when the Joseph Wilcox Mount McKinley expedition challenged the mountain. The group witnessed nights when the hushed earth glowed under the fire of a midnight dawn, and days when death rode the wind.”

In July of 1967, these 12 men set out to climb McKinley by the straightforward Muldrow route. A month later 5 survivors staggered wearily down. Seven men had perished. The events and personalities that contributed to this tragedy are vividly described in Snyder’s book.

The group of 12 was the result of an uneasy marriage between a 3-man Colorado expedition, which had fallen below the permissible number for a McKinley climb, and the less experienced Wilcox party. Much of this book consists of comparisons between the two groups. As leader of the Colorado party, Snyder shows some bias in his impressions.

The Wilcox group is portrayed as a mail-order expedition with possibly dubious goals. Snyder tells of a correspondence between Wilcox and Bradford Washburn. Wilcox inquired:

“To your knowledge:

1. has anyone spent the night on the summit?

2. has any group climbed both peaks simultaneously?

3. has anyone camped on the north summit?

4. has anyone camped on both summits simultaneously?

… I do not want my group to claim a first unless it is indeed a first.” Washburn replied that climbers in the Himalaya had spent weeks at such altitudes for the sheer love of it, “not just sleeping their way into the headlines,” and pointed out that McKinley had never been climbed blindfolded or backwards, nor had any party of nine ever fallen simultaneously into the same crevasse.

On the other hand, the Colorado group is portrayed as compulsively well-organized:

“Planning and preparation for climbing McKinley occupied the major share of my time for two years.… Every step was modified, checked, and rechecked dozens of times. Correspondence and equipment plans filled three legal size tablets.”

And so it goes. The Wilcox party’s food is characterized as unpalatable; that of the Colorado group with such delicious details as to start the reader salivating. Snyder is to be commended for lucidly describing his feelings toward the Wilcox party, rather than suppressing unpleasant details to avoid offending anyone. Still, one cannot help wondering if his superior attitude aided party harmony: “Just my luck—my first meal with the Wilcox group and this was chili night.… I felt uneasy about the Wilcox group’s pyromaniac tendencies. I opened my pocket knife and set it on the floor beside me, in case things got too warm and I had to open a new door in a hurry.”

The most memorable part of this book is a vivid reconstruction of the last hours of the doomed climbers: “A rip appeared.… Like an overfilled balloon, the tent split apart, extending orange banners across the snow.”

The Hall of the Mountain King is not a work of mountaineering literature of the first rank. Snyder is a bit too overanxious to prove his own blamelessness for the catastrophe. Consequently, we are treated to an abundance of quibbling details about both the extreme competence of the Colorado party, and the Wilcox group’s lack thereof. The book only hints at the insights into personalities and motivations found in such works as Art Davidson’s The Coldest Climb.

Nevertheless, Snyder’s reflections on the events and decisions leading to the tragic deaths of seven climbers should be of interest to anyone contemplating such a climb as McKinley.

Arlene Blum

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