American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Surviving Denali: A Study of Accidents on Mount McKinley, 1910-1982

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  • Publication Year: 1983

Surviving Denali: A Study of Accidents on Mount McKinley, 1910-1982. Jonathan Waterman. The American Alpine Club, 1983. 160 pages. Black and white photographs, map, charts, appendices. Estimated $10.00.

McKinley is a paradoxical mountain. Windswept and devoid of life for the greater part of the year, the peak suffers an onslaught of brightly-clad bipeds each spring and summer, a short-lived migration accompanied most often by flocks of noisy metallic birds, glacial snow-sculpture reminiscent of Stonehenge, and odd pagan rituals involving the carrying of huge weights to great heights, with the subsequent sacrifice of various items of food and equipment to the bowels of the mountain. On occasion, one or several of the pilgrims is sacrificed as well. Mount McKinley is the highest point in North America, as well as the most easily reached Himalayan-scale peak in the world, making it a justifiably popular goal for mountaineers from many countries. It is also one of the coldest, and precisely because of its accessibility, one of the most serious peaks available to large numbers of climbers. On the standard West Buttress route, it is entirely possible to fly into the Kahiltna Glacier at 7500 feet and reach the 20,320-foot summit three or four days later. If one doesn’t succumb to one of the more serious forms of altitude sickness, if one isn’t too befuddled by the cold and the wind, if one doesn’t fall into a crevasse, if one doesn’t get caught in an avalanche. … From the searing heat of its lower glaciers on a sunny midday to its windswept, below-zero upper plateau, McKinley is always fickle, contradictory, friendly at one turn and deadly at the other. A McKinley climb can be a cruise or an epic, or anything in between.

Surviving Denali is also a paradoxical book. In an era when the West Buttress often seems as crowded as the regular route on Mont Blanc, many would argue that anything which makes the mountain more accessible to the masses is unnecessary and probably undesirable. At the same time, McKinley’s rising popularity over the past decade (slightly over 100 climbers in 1970 and nearly 700 in 1982) has created a demand for ever more information. Will the publication of this climbing guide cum accident report result in still more traffic on what some consider an already crowded peak? Or will the information thus disseminated lead to better prepared, more responsible climbing parties and a consequent reduction in the accident and fatality rate on McKinley?

It’s a real chicken-and-egg question. Surviving Denali certainly isn’t a Chamber-of-Commerce style guidebook; if anything, it would discourage most normal folk with its tales of avalanches, frostbite, crevasses and altitude sickness: a gruesome collection of the mountaineer’s worst nightmares. Most of the book is devoted to case histories and analyses of accidents on McKinley, with chapters on pulmonary and cerebral edema, crevasse and climbing falls, prior medical history and exhaustion, and avalanches. These span the years 1968-1982, while a separate chapter (“The Self-Sufficient Pioneers 1910-1967”) covers McKinley’s golden (and less populous) age.

Although Waterman presents the incidents in a refreshingly straightforward, largely nonjudgmental tone, all of this makes for grim and upsetting reading. He occasionally offers suggestions as to preventive measures that could have been taken but mainly lets the accidents speak for themselves. The lessons we learn are clear: go slowly and with a clear head, take care of yourself and the mountain and, if things get bad, turn back before it’s too late—the mountain will be there another year. These are all things that we’ve heard before, made more convincing by the framework within which they are stated.

By far the most immediately useful section of the book is an “appendix, How to Prepare For Denali.” Drawing liberally from Boyd Everett’s classic Organization of an Alaskan Expedition, Waterman offers a cohesive and informative primer on climbing in the Arctic environment. As most of his suggestions can be applied to other Alaskan peaks, to winter climbing in the Lower 48 and Canada and to climbing in the Himalaya, the value of this section is not limited just to McKinley. The comments on clean climbing are especially pertinent considering the increase in traffic on the peak in recent years, as well as the relative permanence of trash and excreta discarded high on the peak.

The author is well qualified for his task, having made ascents of McKinley by several routes both on his own and as a guide, as well as climbing other peaks in the Alaska Range and Mount Logan. More importantly, Waterman is no stranger to pulmonary edema or frostbite and readily admits the mistakes and miscalculations that very nearly led to his own demise on the Cassin Ridge in the winter of 1982. Bravo to an author (and a book) which is not holier-than-thou!

Michael Kennedy

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