Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak by Andy Hall
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication Date: 2014
The Short Version:
In 1967 a group of young men attempted a climb of Mt. McKinley that ended in disaster.
Why I Read It:
I’ve been a fan of mountain climbing stories ever since I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. When Michele at A Reader’s Respite posted her review I bought the book that same day.
From the publisher:
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?
I think it started when I was a kid and we visited my grandparents. I quickly finished whatever books I’d brought with me and started scouring their house for new things to read. Whenever I picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest (because of course they subscribed) I always scanned the index for a “Drama in Real Life” story. If there was one in the issue, that’s what I read first. That was the beginning of my fascination with survival and disaster stories. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is still one of the best I’ve ever read.
Since then I’ve read a couple of other mountain climbing related stories some good, some not so good.
Denali’s Howl lands in the good category. While Into Thin Air was about a relatively recent high altitude climb this book is about events in 1967. One of the things that really stood out for me in this book is the realization of how far technology in both climbing gear and communications have changed for mountaineers in the last nearly fifty years.
These young men didn’t have the advantages of today’s gear and relative ease of communication but even if they had would the results have been different?
For Andy Hall this story also started when he was a kid. His dad was the Park Superintendant at the time. His family lived at the park. When the group of climbers arrives at the park Hall says
Had the van turned inot the small neighborhood adjacent to the headquarters area, he might have seen a large truck inner tube in the yard of the first house on the left, and even at that late hour one child bouncing on it: that would have been me.
Hall grew up knowing about this climb and he’s spent years tracking down survivors and information about it.
I think the author really tried to be balanced and not focus on placing blame. There has been enough of that in previous books by members of the expedition who survived. Andy Hall has interviewed them as part of his research for this book. I think the time has helped put some of it into perspective. Also meteorological analysis of the records seems to show it was a rare extreme storm that hit.