In 1967, twelve young men attempted to climb Alaska’s Mount McKinley—known to the locals as Denali—one of the most popular and deadly mountaineering destinations in the world. Only five survived.
Journalist Andy Hall, son of the park superintendent at the time, investigates the tragedy. He spent years tracking down survivors, lost documents, and recordings of radio communications. In Denali’s Howl, Hall reveals the full story of an expedition facing conditions conclusively established here for the first time: At an elevation of nearly 20,000 feet, these young men endured an “arctic super blizzard,” with howling winds of up to 300 miles an hour and wind chill that freezes flesh solid in minutes. All this without the high-tech gear and equipment climbers use today.
As well as the story of the men caught inside the storm, Denali’s Howl is the story of those caught outside it trying to save them—Hall’s father among them. The book gives readers a detailed look at the culture of climbing then and now and raises uncomfortable questions about each player in this tragedy. Was enough done to rescue the climbers, or were their fates sealed when they ascended into the path of this unprecedented storm?
“A page-turner that’s as much about memory as it is about mountaineering.” - San Francisco Bay Guardian
“A labor of love…an indelible portrait of the wilderness of [Denali] and the culture of 1960s mountaineering.” - BookPage
“A great read about a grisly historical tragedy. I devoured it in one sitting.” – Yukon News
“A vivid revisitation of a historic Alaskan mountain climbing expedition.” - Kirkus
“Skillful, heartrending” - Publishers Weekly
“A well-researched description of the deadliest summit expedition on Mount Denali…a vivid account of what the climbers endured, and who they were…a fitting tribute.” - Anchorage Press
“In this straightforward, balanced account of the greatest mountaineering disaster in Alaskan history, Andy Hall allows the full tragedy of that episode to emerge. In resisting the facile urge to lay blame, his narrative captures with gripping immediacy the intersection of seemingly small human decisions with one of the most powerful storms ever to descend on Denali. As one who was climbing elsewhere in the Alaska Range at the time, I had long pondered just how the catastrophe came to pass. Thanks to Hall, I understand it better than ever before.”
—David Roberts, author of The Mountain of My Fear and Alone on the Ice
“A haunting, meticulously-researched account of twelve men’s encounter with the awesome fury of nature.”
—Amanda Padoan, author of Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K’s Deadliest Day
“Twelve men went up the slopes of North America’s highest mountain in the summer of 1967. Only five made it back. The ill-fated Wilcox expedition to Denali finds an able chronicler in Andy Hall’s gripping account of mountain majesty, mountain gloom, and human doom.”
—Maurice Isserman, co-author of Fallen Giants: Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes
“One of those couldn’t-put-it-down books! This harrowing story of a more than 40-year-old mountaineering tragedy is raw and immediate as it marches relentlessly towards the final, devastating end.”
—Bernadette McDonald, author of Freedom Climbers
Thank you for taking a look at my first book, Denali’s Howl. It’s an account of the 1967 Wilcox Expedition and its tragic end, which remains the worst climbing accident ever to occur on the highest peak in North America.
I’ll tell you right up front it doesn’t end well for seven of the young men in the expedition, but the story I relate in these pages is not just a grim march toward death. Denali’s Howl is a story of young men on a big adventure, of the overwhelming power of nature, of seizing life, of bad luck, of dying young, and of surviving and growing old.
This story also is part of my own personal history. My father was the superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park in 1967 when the Wilcox tragedy occurred. I was a child then and I look back on the time we lived in the park as idyllic. Dad referred to that summer as one of the most difficult times in his life.
Part of my motivation to write this book was to learn more about what he went through while I was roaming the forest around the park headquarters, chasing porcupines and stuffing my face with blueberries. A few books have already been written about the incident, but they were either limited to the perspective of those on the mountain or, in one case, poorly researched.
The story I tell here is set within the dramatic landscape, isolation and technological limitations of Interior Alaska in the late ’60s. It also goes beyond the experiences of the expedition members to include the rescue effort, the power of the storm and, finally, to follow the story through to the aftermath and the survivors who remain affected to this day.
Mostly though, I wanted to tell the story because my dad was part of it and though we had talked about the incident many of the details were unknown to me when he died in 2005. I wish I had conducted a sit-down interview with my dad but lacking that, I was forced to start the research from scratch and the book is better for it.
I scoured the archives at Denali National Park and the University of Alaska, locating and reading countless documents, letters and journals from climbers, rangers, rescuers, expedition members and their families. I interviewed survivors, their would-be rescuers, and others who were there at the time and involved in one way or another. Innumerable hours were spent conducting face-to-face, phone and e-mail interviews with contemporary mountaineers, rangers, rescuers, doctors, archaeologists and meteorologists whose expertise was relevant to the story I was trying to tell. I also spent a lot of time reading about climbing.
Much has been written about this tragedy and early in my research I feared that I wouldn’t find enough new material to justify another book. It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was plenty left to tell, and very quickly my problem evolved into how to condense down the tremendous amount of research material into a manageable and coherent narrative.
I hope you enjoy the book and that within these pages you will be informed, touched, and even inspired by the sheer power of the natural world.