A former contributing editor to Outside magazine tries to ferret out the truth behind a 1967 expedition during which seven climbers died on Mt. McKinley.
They died alone, without radio communication, and left behind no journals. So the author, a climbing enthusiast, must resort to educated supposition to reconstruct their final days, which occurred during a week-long July “hurricane” atop North America’s highest peak. The fatal McKinley climb resulted from an uneasy merger of two groups. Because National Park service regulations required a minimum of four per party, a three-man Colorado team led by Howard Snyder was forced to combine with a nine-man crew put together by 22-year-old Joe Wilcox, the expedition’s titular leader. Relations between the groups quickly deteriorated and only got worse as fatigue, bad weather and poor communication took their toll. The three Coloradoans reached the summit on July 15, then headed down the mountain; five from Wilcox’s team summited on July 18. By that time, a massive storm had moved in, trapping seven of the climbers in two separate camps above 17,000 feet. The desperate efforts of park ranger Wayne Merry were thwarted by the ignorance and inaction of his superiors, writes Tabor in a scathing assessment of the National Park Service’s dismal response to the crisis. In the aftermath, crusty mountaineering legend Brad Washburn, Park Service officials and Snyder combined to blame the tragedy on “tactical errors” by Wilcox, who was one of only two men from his original group to survive. The author’s scrutiny of the post-mortems makes for more compelling reading than his inconclusive attempt to reconcile the contradictory accounts of events published by the warring Wilcox and Snyder.
Tabor’s largely speculative narrative lacks the dramatic force of such other recent high-altitude stories as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997) or Ed Viesturs’ No Shortcuts to the Top (2006), and the dearth of answers may leave readers unsatisfied.