ALASKA, MT. McKINLEY
Members of the Wilcox Party:
Joseph F. Wilcox (24), leader F. Jerry Clark (31) *
Henry Janes (25)*
Dennis Luchterland (24)*
Mark McLaughlin (23)*
John Russell (23)*
Anshel Schiff (30)
Steve Taylor (22)*
Walter Taylor (24)*
— combined with the “Colorado Party” of
Howard H. Snyder (22)
Jerry Lewis (31)
Paul Schlichter (22)
*Lost their lives.
July 13: Entire party at 15,000-foot camp, at the beginning of the first Harper plateau just above Parker Pass. Only minor discomfort reported (S. Taylor and Schiff). Weather perfect, but radio report received from Park Service warning of big storm around July 16-17. Because of this favorable forecast, decision made to move 8 men to 18,000 feet at once to try for top on 15th. (Wilcox, Clark, Janes, Luchterland, Lewis, Snyder, Schlichter, McLaughlin). The two Taylors, Schiff and Russell were to rest another day at 15,000 feet and bring up one more relay of supplies from 13,500 feet.
July 14: Wilcox, S. Taylor, W. Taylor, Russell, Luchterland and Janes in cook tent getting breakfast. One of two stoves malfunctioned, W. Taylor loosened gas-tank valve of bad stove, releasing fumes which promptly exploded. Everyone got out with only minor injuries. Tent a total loss. Russell’s sleeping bag burned (replaced by extra bag carried by McLaughlin). This accident destroyed the cook tent. (Further concrete proof that tent-fires still constitute one of the major dangers on big high- altitude climbs).
The 8 men set out for 18,000 feet at 10 A.M. with good going and 60-lb. packs. Carried 2 gals, fuel, 6 days food, tents, shovels and minimum cooking gear. Planned “to stretch this food to 12 days if required." Cached 3 days food at 16,000 feet en route.
First rope (Snyder, Clark, Lewis, Schlichter) in good shape and reached 17,900-foot campsite about 7 P.M. Luchterland experienced indigestion and slowed second rope an hour. Everyone exhausted. Luchterland actually ill and vomited several times. Anti-acid pills seemed to help his condition.
July 15: Wind blew (50 mph) in middle of night but died down around 10 A.M. Around noon Wilcox, Snyder, Lewis and Schlichter decided to try for the top. The others chose to rest and wait for the four persons who would be coming up from 15,000 feet. Clark and McLaughlin talked about climbing the North Peak but decided not to.
It took 50 minutes for the 4 men to reach Denali Pass where they saw several covered caches. They did not inspect any of them, although they did notice that one cache of wooden crates had been broken into, possibly by the winter expedition. They tried to reach Eielson from the Pass with the 5-watt radio with no results. (This is not a line-of-sight). Another radio check at 2:00 P.M. at 18,500 feet on the ridge above Denali Pass resulted in a loud and clear contact. There was very good radio communication from here to the summit, and about an hour was spent in these chats. Being short on wands, they used “half” wands between 17,900 foot camp and Denali Pass. At Denali Pass they encountered wands leading up toward the summit which apparently belonged to a recent West Buttress group. They chose to follow these wands, saving theirs in case they needed them later. On the ridge behind Archdeacon’s Tower they could see that the rest of the route to the summit was well wanded so they cached the rest of the wands — about 50.
Climbing to the summit seemed rather easy; they climbed at the rate of 500 feet vertical per hour. Lewis was the only one who seemed very tired, requiring a short rest every half hour. By 6:30 p.m. they were on the summit. They spent one and one-half hours on the summit with radio contacts, setting off flares, etc. The orange smoke flares were reported visible from Eielson by telescope. They started descending at 7:50 P.M. and reached camp exactly two hours later, a little ahead of the four climbers coming up from 15,000 feet; helped them carry their loads the last few feet to camp. Bussell, a very strong climber, was having altitude problems and had to give half his load to Steve Taylor. Luchterland seemed much better. Bussell and Steve Taylor were a little weak and could not hold down much food.
July 16: The wind rose again around midnight and gusts may have reached 70 mph during this day and night. Whole party of 12 stayed in camp, as it was impossible to go either up or down. Tents held up well but much shovelling required. Morale lowered by difficulty of cooking with only two stoves for 12 men in 4 tents. Some preferred not to eat rather than to go out and go to the trouble of seeking food, borrowing stoves, etc. Food eaten at this camp appears to have been minimal: example, only pea soup was eaten at dinner the night before the successful climb.
Three quarts of fuel placed outside one tent were apparently drifted under. Walter Taylor (probably the strongest member of the expedition at this elevation) distributed food and filled water bottles which helped morale. Some of the more conservative climbers were seriously considering abandoning summit aspirations and dropping down at the first weather break. Radio contact at 17,900 ft. camp was weak but clear with the 5-watt unit by using a dipole.
July 17: About midday, five of the party (Wilcox, Snyder, Schlichter, Schiff and Lewis, all but one of whom (Schiff) had reached the summit) decided to descend to 15,000 ft. in order to conserve supplies at the higher camp. This party left the high camp around 1 P.M. and reached the ft. camp about 2 hours later. When they left the high camp, it was the plan of the 7 men remaining there to set out for the summit shortly and bivouac enroute, if necessary. The descending party noted with interest that this group had still not started their climb at 2 P.M. when they caught a glimpse of the tent with men moving around outside it as they passed the crest of the lower Harper icefall (16,400 ft.). The weather was perfect from about noon to 8 P.M. on this day. However, the party at ft. reports that a cloud-cap-storm descended onto McKinley very rapidly around 8 P.M.
All 7 of the upper party planned to try for the top that afternoon when the 5 men left them at 1 P.M., although it is reported that most of them were not in good shape because of lack of food, lack of sleep and the effects of the recent storm which hit when they were still exhausted from their climb up from 15,000 ft.
Apparently it was decided at the last minute to leave Steve Taylor in camp and the other 6 men started for the summit at some unknown time after 2 P.M. The leader of the group, Jerry Clark, although determined to reach the top, was reportedly in poor shape. That evening (8 P.M.) they reported by radio that they were in solid overcast, having difficulty locating the trail and had decided to bivouac (all had planned to bring their sleeping bags but no tents).
July 18: At 11 A.M. the 6-man party reported that it had reached the summit of the South Peak, still in dense overcast, 15 miles of wind, temperature —6°F. They were about to descend. Nobody knows where they had spent the night or why this comparatively short climb had taken 20 hours, more-or-less. However, it appears to be generally agreed that several of the men in the group were in marginal shape, though doggedly determined to reach the summit.
On the way down, it appears evident that the violence of the growing storm and exhaustion among the climbers probably forced another bivouac near the Archdeacon’s Tower, possibly in its “lee” at around 19,400 ft. However, there is no real shelter in this barren, exposed spot.
Except for typical lulls, the fury of this storm did not abate for 4 days. In the meanwhile, the 5 men at 15,000 ft. (two of whom were already not too well when they descended on the 17th) were losing morale and vigor fast, and no radio reports from above deepened their concern.
July 19: Continued furious storm.
July 20: At 5:30 A.M. Wilcox, Snyder and Schlichter started back up toward the high camp under zero-zero conditions. A foot of new snow, missing trail markers and wind forced them to abandon this attempt after taking 4 hours to go perhaps a half mile. Trail had to be broken all the way back to camp.
At 11 A.M., after their return to 15,000 ft., the weather cleared completely and it was calm for 3 hours. No trail was visible anywhere above and there was no radio and no sign of life. The weather then began to deteriorate fast again.
At this point it had become clear to the 15,000 ft. party that an emergency existed, and at 8 P.M. they asked the Park Service for a reconnaissance flight and an air drop of food and fuel at the high camp at the first sign of clearing.
July 21: The storm had resumed its fury at 15,000 ft. One tent was abandoned and all 5 men crammed into a 3-man tent. Temperatures were warm and everything was soaking wet. The already-low morale became worse.
July 22: The storm continued and “no one was even interested in melting drinking water. We found ourselves very apathetic, not caring whether or not we got enough to drink or eat, or if our gear was wet — we just lay there and waited, with little or no sleep.” (Wilcox). All hope of ascending to the high camp was now gone and this group began to realize that they themselves faced real trouble unless they descended soon. By evening the storm began to abate and the temperature dropped dramatically.
July 23: With the weather now clearing amid sporadic gusts of wind, Schiff and Lewis were very weak and Wilcox and Lewis had numb feet and fingers. The 5 men abandoned the 15,000 ft. camp and descended Karstens Ridge, a sick, beaten group, as well they might have been after this ghastly experience. They inched their way down, belaying or using fixed ropes constantly. The Mountaineering Club of Alaska party, then camped at 12,100 ft., and well aware of something serious transpiring aloft, met them on the ridge with hot drinks and took them into their camp.
July 24: The MCA party moved upward and the battered Wilcox party, strengthened by the addition of Dr. Grace Jensen of the MCA party, descended.
On July 28 the MCA party finally reached the demolished remains of the 17,900 ft. camp. They found a body there (assumed to be Steve Taylor). The next day, on the steep snow-slope just NW of the Archdeacon’s Tower two other unroped bodies were located, apparently having perished in a futile effort to make a detour straight down to their high camp. If they had continued much further, both would have fallen over a vertical ice-wall which cuts along this hillside and would have been invisible in the storm. No identification was made of either of these bodies. No further remains were found of the other 4 members of the party, who must have either fallen over this cliff and been buried in the snow, or died and been buried in a bivouac somewhere on the upper slopes of the mountain.
Aerial search revealed nothing more and a ground search expedition to the area in August, led by Vin Hoeman of Anchorage, proved futile, as by then everything was buried deep in new snow.
Sources of this factual data: Joseph Wilcox, Howard Snyder, Wayne Merry (District Ranger N.P.S.) and Vin Hoeman.
Analysis: In collaboration with Bradford Washburn and Wayne Merry. (Washburn was asked to appraise this disaster by the Director of the National Park Service):
This was an extremely complex tragedy, with no single simple cause. The large unwieldy group had a generally low level of experience for this sort of enterprise. It did not have even one highly-experienced climber as a member. However, many less-experienced groups have climbed McKinley without incident. If this great storm had not struck when it did, the outcome would have been very different.
Wilcox, as leader, has received probably far more than his share of the blame for what transpired. Although he was well aware of the poor condition of the ill-fated party at the time he descended and should have prevented their departure (if possible) because of both physical unfitness and the impending storm, the final and fateful decision was made by this party itself around 8 P.M. on July 17 when it was enveloped in clouds on the ridge above Denali Pass and elected to bivouac instead of descend to the camp where Steve Taylor was alone, exhausted and ill.
This was the fundamental decision that led to the disaster. Although many other factors contributed to the tragedy, five seem to stand out from the rest:
Experience and Leadership. No member of the group was really experienced in this sort of an expedition on a huge, sub-arctic peak. Nobody seemed to comprehend the fury of McKinley’s great storms, and the stubborn determination of everyone to reach the summit resulted in the serious errors in judgment that were obviously made. An experienced party would have built igloos at the high camp, brought more food and fuel and conducted itself in general in a way which would have made this big storm a miserable but routine experience rather than a dramatic event which battered the party into such bad shape that subsequent tactical mistakes proved lethal. To survive this sort of weather on McKinley’s upper reaches, a party of this size should have at least two really experienced leaders, both well versed in climbing under these conditions and in arctic camping and survival as well. Many expeditions nowadays do not approve of having a clearly-defined leader, BUT in this circumstance usually a party of this size has had as many as four or five men really capable of being a good leader in time of crisis.
Size of the Party. This 12-man party was not a single homogeneous group, planned as such from the start. It consisted of one group of 9 persons to which was added another group of 3 (Snyder, Schlichter and Lewis). This latter party had planned a 4-man climb, but one of their men was unable to make the trip because of an auto accident on the eve of departure. The balance of this group decided to combine forces with the Wilcox group at the last minute. This decision was unwise, as the mere concentration of 12 persons in a single weakly-knit group created a situation potentially fraught with danger in the event of trouble. Other larger parties have climbed McKinley without incident, encountering similar, or worse, conditions of extreme bad weather. But they have not only had extremely experienced leaders (experienced not only in the high mountains, but in Alaska as well, but also in each case there were several other persons well qualified to lead the whole group, or any part of it, under normal or emergency conditions. Most members of this party had never climbed together before or, indeed, even met each other until this climb started.
Errors in Judgment. This storm did not approach unexpectedly. The U.S. Weather Bureau predicted it far in advance and this party was warned about it 3 days in advance (July 13) by radio at the 15,000 ft. camp. The second attempt on the summit (July 17) was ill-advised from the point of view of both weather and fitness of the participants. Although McKinley has been climbed before at night (with arrival on top at 4 A.M.), and although a Japanese party has spent the night on top, both these ascents were made in beautiful weather by small, powerful and experienced groups, in good shape and capable of moving swifty in any direction. An evening climb by a battered party with an impending storm was suicidal. It should not have started — and after it had, - its leader (presumably Clark) should have retreated to camp when the overcast descended on the group around 8 P.M. on July 17.
Use of Radio: With the exception of the warning of July 13th, the radio contact between the Park Service radio in the valley and this party mountain seems to have been largely a one-way affair: to tell those below what was going on aloft. Although the Park Service has no responsibility to give advice and counsel to climbers on McKinley (and should not have to), if an experienced ranger had been on the radio on the evening of July 17, he might have succeeded in getting Clark’s party to retreat rather than simply to report its status. Similarly, the following noon, when this party made its last contact from the summit, an experienced and persistent operator in the valley could have sought more details about the recent bivouac, what had caused the well-nigh incredible delays in the climb, etc. — This at least would have made later analysis of this story more intelligible. An experienced climber on the lower end of the radio at that time might well have recommended that this exhausted party should descend directly down the N ridge of the summit cone to camp; a simple one-hour trip even in bad weather (and the wind was then only 15 mph). This was the descent route of both parties in 1942, to a high camp very near to the 1967 camp location. It is hoped in the future that more practical use can be made of radio, both to give as well as to receive advice and information.
Hypoxia: It would be unwise to conclude comments on a tragedy of this sort without mentioning the obvious and insidious participation of hypoxia in it from start to finish. Tests made by the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology indicate that problem-solving ability at 18,000 ft. on McKinley may be around one-half that at sea level — and general judgment doubtless suffers equally badly up there. Lack of adequate food, dehydration, storm-discomfort plus inevitable psychological stresses which affect even the most experienced persons at high altitude all take their toll and often result in decisions which are incomprehensible later at sea level even to the men who made them.
A summit party of the extremely experienced 1967 winter Mt. McKinley Expedition was caught by a similar storm at Denali Pass (18,200 ft.) early in March, and was pinned down there in a hastily dug snow cave for 6 days at temperatures in excess of 50 below zero. This group escaped with minor frostbite. Because of the similarity of these two incidents, which resulted in such dramatically different outcomes, a comparison of various superficial factors is made below.
Winter Mt. McKinley Expedition
Elevation of Incident
19,500 ft. (approx.)
100 to 150 mph
100 to 150 mph (an expedition which reached Denali Pass via West Buttress during the storm estimated wind there 130 mph).
-20 to -35°F.
6°F. (from summit radio contact ).
Specially made down clothing and sleeping bags; the best.
Very good quality stock items, generally considered adequate for normal McKinley conditions.
2 days, plus 3 days fuel and 1/2 day food taken from cache. Some lost in storm.
? Probably 2 days food and fuel.
Length of storm
4 days, with brief lulls
High altitude and Cold Weather Experience
Extensive. One had climbed McKinley and knew of the cache, one had been on previous McKinley expedition, the third had long experience with severe alpine climbing.
Clark had had some Antarctic experience (the extent of this experience is not clear). Others good general mountain experience but little at high altitude and with severe cold.
Probable Physical Condition
Very good. Had acclimatized 3 to 5 days at 17,200 ft. high camp. Rested; were sleeping in bivouac when storm hit. Party had used snow caves and igloos to get good rest and shelter throughout expedition. Igloo-building had been practiced extensively before starting this trip.
Generally poor. Three were known to have felt altitude sickness during 2 days before climb. All probably tired from storm before climb and bivouac before reaching summit. Most were known not to have maintained a good food and fluid intake the last days.
Actions During Storm
Took shelter as soon as possible, rationed food to maintain minimum diet, tried to maintain good fluid intake.
*Art Davidson makes the following comment: “Terris Moore has noted that the average barometric pressure on McKinley’s summit (which indicates the PP02 of concern to physiologists) varies from 426 in January to a mean of 459 in July. Roughly, this means that in atmospheric terms McKinley is about 1,800 feet higher in winter than in summer ... in this light the altitude at which the two parties were caught by storms can be considered approximately the same.” One of the men who survived 6 days in winter at Denali Pass feels that the key to their survival lay in getting into their snow cave immediately, and that if this had not been done, they would have been lost.