Forever on the Mountain, The Truth Behind One of Mountaineering's most Mysterious and Controversial Tragedies , the recently published book by James Tabor, claims to reveal new information related to the 1967 Wilcox expedition tragedy on Mt. McKinley.
The Wilcox Expedition and the tragedy that befell its members are real. The facts he presents cannot be argued. But Tabor’s “revelations” are not the disclosure of new facts, but discriminatory interpretations of selected information. Ultimately, Tabor claims that the park service and specifically the superintendent and chief ranger are responsible for the failed rescue effort and the deaths of the seven men.
Why does this concern me? My Dad, George Hall was that superintendent. His Chief Ranger that summer was Art Hayes.
If you are not familiar with the tragedy here is a brief synopsis.
On July 5 1967, the Wilcox Expedition left Wonder Lake to begin their attempt to summit Mt. McKinley via the Muldrow Glacier. The 12 men were initially two separate groups which had combined. Nine were original members recruited by Joe Wilcox – three were originally part of an expedition that was to be led by Howard Snyder. When Snyder’s group (sometimes referred to as the Colorado Group) dropped in numbers below the recommended minimum, Snyder looked to associate with another expedition and connected with Wilcox. And so…the following individuals were members of the Joseph F. Wilcox Expedition: Jerry Clark, Hank Janes, Jerry Lewis, Dennis Luchterhand, Mark McLaughlin, John Russell, Anshel Schiff, Paul Schlicter, Howard Snyder, Steve Taylor, Walt Taylor, and Joe Wilcox.
The expedition had its issues as it ascended the mountain. The arranged marriage of the two expeditions didn’t go smoothly, but it did not impede their progress. On July 17thh, 4 members of the combined group, led by Joe Wilcox, reached the summit. On July 18th, seven of the other eight members of the expedition, led by Jerry Clark , began their summit attempt. What happened next was noted in the NPS records as follows:
On July 19th, a group of six men from the Wilcox MountMcKinley Expedition reached the summit from a camp of 17,900 feet on the Harper Glacier. They were Jerry Clark, Dennis Buchterhand, John Russell, Walter Taylor, Mark McLaughlin, and Hank Janes. A seventh member [Steven Taylor] had remained in camp feeling ill, and five other members had descended the day before to a camp at 15,000 feet. The summit party was apparently caught by an incredibly violent windstorm during their descent. The storm lasted, with minor lulls, for over a week. The Mountaineering Club of Alaska Expedition, which was climbing some days behind the Wilcox group on the same route, became a search party , but apparently arrived much too late. A single body, believed to be Steven Taylor, was found in a demolished tent at the 17,900 ft. camp. There is reason to believe that he attempted to leave the camp during the storm but was badly frostbitten before he returned. Two other bodies, apparently members of the summit team, were found higher on the summit ridge near ArchdeaconTower. There was evidence that they tried to wait out the storm in bivouac, and perished while trying to descend. (Service 1967)
Tabor presents – as the “Truth” the theory that the men could have been saved if not for the ineptitude and indecisiveness of the park leadership. Tabor dramatically concludes:
”….. I’ve wondered how Hall and Hayes lived with that. ..They had to know how badly they had failed, and what the price of their failure had been. They had to live the rest of their lives with that knowledge, keeping it tapped down so far that it might escape to torment them only deep into long, black sleepless nights”. (Tabor 2007, p. 312)
Tabor interpreted headquarters’ choices during this crisis as indecisive because they did not align with a more aggressive action plan being advocated by the park’s West District Ranger – Wayne Merry. There is no arguing the fact that Merry had extensive experience as a climber and a search and rescue volunteer - but circumstances limited his accessibility. Instead the park’s chief ranger took the lead. He worked with the best possible resource in the state - the Alaska Rescue Group to plan and mount a rescue effort.
Although I know very little about the chief ranger, Art Hayes, I did know George Hall. He was a competent, compassionate person. His concern for the missing climbers was tempered only by his concern for the safety of the rescuers who would potentially be involved in rescue operations.
Instead, Tabor suggests that Hall in particular was more concerned about the impact of possible negative publicity on his career and dragged his feet for fear that the costs of a rescue would overrun his budget...
Both Hall and Hayes have died and you cannot libel or slander a person who has died. But you can unjustifiably damage their reputations, and their legacies and that is wrong.
The “Truth” about this tragedy has never changed: A unprecedented eight day windstorm hit the mountain at the worst possible time for the second Wilcox summit attempt. Independent meteorologists analyzed weather records for 105 months between 1952 and 1976. They determined the storm of July 18-26 was the most severe wind storm on the mountain since weather data had been collected. (Wilcox 1981) The park service and the local resources that supported their efforts to mount a rescue did what they believed, with good reason was, the best way to get real help to the missing climbers.
In spite of their efforts, seven young men – Jerry Clark, Hank Janes, Dennis Luchterhand, Mark McLaughlin, John Russell, Steve Taylor and Walt Taylor died.
Clark, served as the expeditions “deputy” high altitude leader and had been climbing for 14 years. Both Wilcox’s and Tabor’s books detail their prior climbing experience.
The meteorological reports that Wilcox commissioned in order to complete his book, WHITE WINDS continues to be used by climbers and the National Park Service today.