Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Compared to most of North America, we have mild winters. Rarely do our forecasts include phrases like “blizzard conditions,” “blowing and drifting snow” or “take shelter immediately.” It does, however, snow like a mad bastard most years, and our forecasts do sometimes include words like “accumulations,” “feet,” and “epic.”
Seven miles from me, the Weather Service maintains a forecast point. It’s at 11,500 feet. You might think it would just be colder and, if possible, a bit snowier, but in fact, it’s quite a bit more harsh. During a January snow fall, a forecast from that point might read: “Snow. Six to eight feet expected. Winds 115 mph, gusting to 130. Highs in minus teens, wind chill factors to minus 70.”
Hmmm. Well, at least the rents are low.
I’m near a smallish mountain, less than 15,000 feet, and closer to the equator than to the pole. But it is a mountain, and it makes its own weather, and that weather can be insanely fierce.
That brings us to the Mountain Formerly Known as McKinley. It’s in a state, Alaska, that is not noted for mild weather at the best of times, and Denali is the biggest mountain on the continent, covering 400 square miles and towering over 20,000 feet. It’s also a place where extraordinarily cold systems out of the north collide with (comparatively) warm wet systems out of the Gulf of Alaska, producing phenomenal storms.
Denali takes those storms and turns them into something outside of human comprehension. Winds up to 300 miles an hour are suspected, although nobody has ever been able to measure them. You would have to go to Jupiter to find weather like that.
Denali’s Howl is the true story of an ill-fated climbing expedition that took place in 1967. The climbers had the bad luck to be caught on the Mountain during one of those perfect storms and seven of them died.
The book’s author, Andy Hall, was seven years old at the time of the tragedy. As the son of the Park Superintendent, he witnessed first-hand the frantic search for the climbing team. And the experience informed a lifetime of research as he tried to determine what happened up there.
As I read Denali’s Howl, Hall’s characters struck me as a bit two dimensional; it’s what I refer to as the “Titanic Effect.” After seeing the James Cameron film, I remarked to a friend that the actors were just there to give us something to watch while the ship got ready to sink. Upon seeing the film again a few months later, I realized that was an unfair characterization: the characters were in fact reasonably well-written and very well-acted, but were simply swamped by the scale and grandeur of the events unfolding behind them.
And that may be the case here. If the ship was the true star of “Titanic”, then the twin peaks of Denali make the true star of this book, and that’s as it should be. Hall, with a lifetime in close proximity, has a knowledge and respect for that vast domain, and an undimmed sense of wonder at the power it exerts.
And as the story moves forward, Hall eventually asks a question that doubtlessly haunted his father for many years after the tragedy: “Should those young men have been permitted to try to climb the mountain?” It’s a question that will provoke strong and strident responses, with little in the way of middle ground.
Certainly the climbers made the proper preparations, and most had the requisite experience in wintertime mountaineering. But nonetheless, is there a point where adventurism becomes mere folly?
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.