To the twelve eager mountaineers who struck out last month to climb Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, the adventure did not seem too formidable
To the twelve eager mountaineers who struck out last month to climb Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, the adventure did not seem too formidable. Since the first assault on McKinley in 1903, only four climbers had died on its slopes, while more than 100 people have attained the summit. Thanks in part to the National Park Service, which firmly winnows some 300 applications a year, at least half a dozen expeditions annually make a safe and often successful try to ascend Denali -- the Great One -- as Yukon Indians call the mountain.
Even so, it is no weekend hacker's jaunt. Though McKinley does not pose the classic technical challenges of the great Himalayan and Andean peaks, it is nonetheless known for the worst mountain weather in the world. Soaring 20,320ft. into sub-Arctic sky, McKinley is exposed to 150 m.p.h. winds that batter the mountain's upper reaches with sledge-hammer blows and are even more fierce than McKinley's 72-below-zero cold.
Mindful of McKinley's menace, Expedition Leader Joseph F. Wilcox, 24, encamped his dozen climbers 18,000 ft. high between McKinley's north and south peaks. After Wilcox and his assault team scaled the peak, he set out with four weary companions on the long trek down. Seven others, including the expedition's strongest mountaineers, opted to assault the pinnacle.
The high party had radioed that it had reached its goal when the mountain's most fearsome weather struck. Searing snow and seismic gales tore at them, and when Wilcox and his band, stumbling down to a prearranged meeting site at 15,000ft., waited two days without further contact with the higher party, an attempt to turn back was thwarted by the storm. After four more days, with supplies low, Wilcox and his group were in dire peril themselves until a party from the Mountaineers Club of America came to their aid. After a harrowing nighttime descent, Wilcox swam four icy streams to reach Wonder Lake ranger station, which sent a helicopter back to rescue his four companions.
Still lost on McKinley's slopes were the expedition's seven other members. Early last week, with the storm finally abating, Rescue Pilot Don Sheldon spotted a body near the 18,000ft. camp; two more were sighted later. By week's end officials abandoned hope of saving the four other missing men. In one savage thrust, Mount McKinley had almost doubled its total recorded toll.
Blaming serious tactical blunders and "fiendish" weather for what he calls U.S. mountaineering's worst disaster, Expert Alpinist Bradford Washburn added: "It's amazing more people haven't been killed on McKinley when you consider 400 are killed in the Alps every summer."