'Denali's Howl' investigates a 50-year-old climbing tragedy
LIT Andy Hall was five years old in 1967, a kid living at the base of Denali, North America's tallest peak. His father, a National Park Service veteran, took a job overseeing Mount McKinley National Park (as it was then called) just months before a climbing party known as the Wilcox Expedition encountered a freak storm near the summit. Seven of its 12 members died in one of the mountain's most enduring tragedies.
Hall, who grew up to be the editor and publisher of Alaska magazine, was always haunted by the incident, which he chronicles in Denali's Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak (Dutton, 252pp., $27.95). These days, he lives north of Anchorage in the small community of Chugiak. I called him up to discuss his book, a page-turner that's as much about memory as it is about mountaineering.
SF Bay Guardian Why did you decide to write a book about the Wilcox Expedition?
Andy Hall I'd been working at a magazine for about 16 years, and I started feeling like I needed a change. I'd been close to this thing because my dad had been the park superintendent, and I'd run into a lot of people who'd been involved in it one way or another. I saw how it affected them still. I thought, "Well, I've got a great story sitting right here in my lap."
At the time I started [writing the book], my dad had died five years prior. Some of the guys who'd been involved were getting up there in age. I thought, if I'm gonna do this, I gotta do it now. There were times I regretted not sitting down and having a formal interview with my dad about it, but I had talked with him enough that I knew what happened, and I knew there was a lot more material I could dig into.
SFBG Beyond the folks in your community, how did you track down your sources?
AH Some of the key players I did already know. But the ones that I really wanted to find were more difficult. For example, I wanted to find Gary Hansen, who'd managed the Alaska Rescue Group, the civilian rescue organization [that had attempted to help the climbers]. He left Alaska in the early 1970s, but I knew he was an architect, and I'd heard he'd gone to California. I'm not a detective, but I just thought: Look for someone who's licensed in both Alaska and California. He got on the line after I called his office and said, "You found me!" Once I connected with him, he made even more recommendations, and it went on from there.
SFBG How did you extract the truth from the various stories you were being told?
AH Memory was definitely a big player. [Survivors] Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder had both written books; I read both, and there were conflicts. If I could investigate [discrepancies] in person, I would. Then, there were original letters, documents, and journals, and I read what everybody wrote, but I would go beyond that. In the National Park archives, there were longhand accounts that had been written immediately after the incident.
In my dad's desk, I found a reel-to-reel tape that had interviews with the would-be rescuers from the Mountaineering Club of Alaska. It was their firsthand account of finding artifacts [from the Wilcox Expedition], and then finding [the first three] bodies. So I had these early-as-possible accounts, and I would compare them to what was written later. Some people maintained a pretty solid account of what happened throughout, while others were less consistent.
In the case of Joe Wilcox, I think he wanted to make sure that people didn't think the men on his team were incompetent. I don't think he needed to do that, but I think he really wanted them to be portrayed in a positive light.