Forever on the Mountain

Publication Year: 2008.

Forever on the Mountain. James M. Tabor. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2007. Black and white photos and two schematics, a thorough Index, and a Recommended Reading section. 400 pages. $26.95.

In 1967 three Colorado climbers, led by Howard Snyder, joined forces with a team of nine Pacific Northwest climbers, led by Joe Wilcox, because the National Park Service in charge of Mt. McKinley required parties to be at least four in number. The fourth member of the Colorado team had to drop out at the last moment, which thrust together these two teams who did not know each other. It was not to be a happy marriage and would end in tragedy when seven of the Wilcox party died from exposure some days after they (six of them; one stayed in high camp) attempted to climb to the summit from their 17,900-foot camp during a lull in a fierce storm. From the evidence later gathered, it seems they persevered on their descent until the elements overcame them and their high-camp companion. Their desire to gain the summit and their relative inexperience were surely the key elements that clouded their judgment and precluded their doing the prudent thing, which would have been to descend from high camp. This decision was theirs, not, as suggested years ago, that of their leader, Joe Wilcox.

Over the past 40 years, my assumption regarding the causes was similar to most of my peers: a mountaineering disaster that was the result of inadequate leadership (Joe Wilcox), expertise, and conditioning, exacerbated by a one-two punch of severe weather events. Many of us relied on our personal experiences on the mountain, mine being a 45-day climb of the East Buttress with five others in 1963. We also read the report and analysis written in the journal I now edit, Accidents in North American Mountaineering. Shortly thereafter, Howard Snyder’s book, The Hall of the Mountain King, laid the blame solely on Joe Wilcox’ doorstep. Wilcox’ book, White Winds, not published until 1983, did not change many opinions. But James M. Tabor’s thoroughly researched book has certainly done so—with one exception.

In chapters often titled with a variation on well-known phrases and titles—e.g., “Lone Man Walking,” “Divided We Falter,” and “Pictures of an Expedition”—there are references to historical climbs including anecdotes from other mountaineering disasters, scientific analyses of such conditions as hypothermia and hypoxia, and portraits of individuals who have contributed to our understanding of mountains, exploration, and the human animal. One of the book’s great strengths is how these details make the story interesting to an audience broader than just seasoned mountaineers.

Two Alaskan mountaineering icons, Bradford Washburn and bush pilot Don Sheldon, are scrutinized for their roles in this saga. While Tabor provides a balanced view, acknowledging their positive contributions, it becomes clear that these men were significant antagonists to Joe Wilcox in particular, and to the expedition in general, throughout the drama. The two chief administrators of Denali National Park do not fare well in Tabor’s analysis, primarily because of their indecision, even though Tabor points out that they “...cannot be faulted for not doing a job they did not know how to do.”

This is where my exception lies. Tabor lays considerable blame on the NPS for not attempting to make airdrops and not inserting rescue personnel. Daryl Miller, the current South District Chief Ranger stationed in Talkeetna, who has been intimate with the mountain for more than 20 years, said to me in an e-mail, “That particular storm would have prevented any outside help for days, and the seven climbers, including the one left at the 17,900-foot high camp, would have perished regardless of any rescue effort assembled anywhere from anyone. I disagree with Tabor regarding his assumption that the National Park Service could have prevented this terrible accident.” Wayne Merry, the one ranger on hand at the time with climbing experience, put it another way: “ over flight by a capable aircraft during one of the brief windows of clear weather might just possibly have identified the situation and dropped supplies. Very unlikely, but possible. But we didn't know the situation. So if there was a failing, it is that we didn’t try to find out.”

About 30 very well known mountaineers are mentioned as reference points for particular details relevant to the climb, such as avalanches, falling into crevasses, surviving difficult bivouacs, and being affected by fatigue, cold, and altitude. In addition there are unlikely references to individuals such as J.D. Salinger, Malcolm Gladwell, Ferdinand Magellan, Napoleon I, Martha Stewart, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The reader will enjoy learning why they appear.

We learn much about each expedition member. Tabor brings those who perished back to life and gives us a full picture of the survivors, including a final chapter that describes his recent encounters with them. In the end one can only conclude that this expedition, comprised of two disparate groups, came to a bad end not so much because of leadership and personalities, though they play their roles, but because (1) after one team had summited, six of the remaining Wilcox contingent decided to go for the summit instead of descending, and (2) they were nailed by the kind of perfect storm that would have leveled the best of climbers.

This book won the Banff Festival Award for good reason. If you decide to do so, best to set aside the time it takes you to read 400 pages in one sitting.

Jed Williamson