The spirit of adventure is innately human, and the accompanying risk is inherently assumed. But when tragedy strikes, as it inevitably does when margins for error are shaved dangerously thin, hindsight becomes 20-20, and finger-pointing ensues, no matter where fault may truly rest. History is filled with examples of disasters striking competent individuals, whether it be Mallory and Irvine, Ernest Shackleton or the victims of the ill-fated 1996 Everest debacle. Criticism from an armchair is easy, but it does little to establish the facts surrounding a disaster; closer analysis and an open mind are needed for that.
The perfect example of an adventure gone awry and held up to the unfair scrutiny of an often ignorant and naive, but very vocal, public is the 1967 Mount McKinley expedition detailed in James Tabor’s very readable book, “Forever on the Mountain.” Tabor makes great efforts to dispel some of the vitriol and venom that swirled around the ill-fated expedition since even before its members set foot on the mountain. Still bearing the unfortunate epithet of the most tragic American expedition, the 1967 trip to Mount McKinley is, even now, shrouded in mystery and controversy.
Known as a heavy-hitter, Mount McKinley has dealt some knockout punches to many who have tested its mettle, but it remains a coveted goal, with a reputation as a great mountaineering challenge. This held true especially in its early years, when fewer climbers had conquered its routes and less was known about the brutal conditions near the summit.
Twelve American climbers, all capable and strong young men, converged in almost poetic and Shakespearian style to tackle the peak together. The team of 12 was born by random circumstance from two separate groups of three and nine, with both groups seeking a climbing permit at the same time. The National Park Service regulations stipulated that climbers be vetted for ability, and as distinct entities, the two smaller groups were apparently deemed to be lacking, but together, they passed muster and a permit was granted.
Even at the time, this did not sit well with veterans of the mountain, namely Brad Washburn, a three-time summiter and a famed photographer and cartographer of the peak. Tabor includes in his book, along with many maps and photographs, a fascinating exchange of increasingly testy letters that passed between Washburn and the leader of the expedition, Joe Wilcox. Washburn believed that the men were deficient in their collective qualifications and were simply publicity seekers. Wilcox, unsurprisingly, bristled and shot back, setting the stage for a toxic cloud that would persist over the whole expedition.
Given that two groups of climbers, each with their own leaders, were pushed together by the bureaucratic entity that had decided their fates, there was the added tension of an understandable discord between the two ambitious and somewhat cocky young leaders, Wilcox and Howard Snyder. Tabor notes that an instant dislike flared up upon the team’s first meeting on the flanks of Mount Rainier, where they met for a practice climb. The disgruntled leaders set the tone for the rest of the men, and the smaller group of three never assimilated, which proved to be a contributing factor when things took a deadly turn high on the mountain.
With deliberate attention to detail, Tabor quickly has the reader climbing the mountain with the men, feeling the wind and the biting cold and sensing the aura of unease and impending doom that seemed to hover over the expedition from the start. From thorough interviews with survivors, and from National Park Service logbooks, Tabor assembles a puzzle made up of small, cracked pieces that were never meant to fit together. Conflicting accounts about the events that occurred near the summit during those terrible days makes Tabor’s account read like a fascinating novel. Well-supported and researched facts reinforce the author’s speculation about how seven of the men met their final demise on the upper slopes of the mountain during a historic storm.
Even before the unprecedented weather system gripped the mountain, the men’s chances diminished due to several mistakes that proved fatal; for example, not enough route-marking wands were carried high, almost guaranteeing that the route would be obscured by the hurricane-force winds that pummeled McKinley’s upper ridges.
Careful to clarify that there was plenty of blame to go around, Tabor goes into detail about the role the National Park Service played in the drama that unfolded on the mountain.
Despite all 12 men topping out in two tangled groups of egos, success would not be a word left floating about after the fog cleared over the events that took place after the summit was reached. Triumph rapidly shifted to tragedy, as a storm of epic proportions sets up camp over the mountain, stranding seven of the climbers up high for 10 days, unreachable by rescuers and critics, alike.
Once disaster strikes, the narrative plows along between the frigid, deep snows of the stranded climbers’ hastily built ice caves and the space-heater-warmed confines of the Park Service’s point station far below. Promised air drops of supplies never materialize, as I’s need to be dotted and T’s crossed up the line of governmental command, a problem which, Tabor insists, directly impacted the tragic outcome.
What the reader is ultimately left with is the sense that endeavors such as summiting Mount McKinley exist on a knife’s edge, where any small imperfection — poorly placed wands, a Park Service more concerned with their regulations and protocols or even the lack of harmony within a group — can send events into a downward spiral ... right into the history books.