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Friday, September 1, 2017

Book Review: Denali’s Howl by Andy Hall

denalis howl
Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak
by Andy Hall
Paperback, 272 pages
April 28, 2015
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Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Personal collection

Denali’s Howl is the white-knuckle account of one of the most deadly climbing disasters of all time.

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?

Denali’s Howl was one of the books that I picked up while on my vacation in Alaska. I had just spent the day touring through the beautiful Denali National Park and was browsing through the gift shop. I knew I wanted to pick up something about the mountain itself because we had been unable to see it due to weather (did you know only about 30% of visitors to the park actually see the peak because of the weather?). As you may know from having read some of my other reviews, I’m drawn to books, particularly non-fiction, about disasters. Denali is a dangerous mountain to climb and there have been a few disastrous moments in the life of the park, however, none is more notorious than the 1967 Wilcox Expedition where 7 of the 12 men died up on that peak and have never been recovered.

Andy Hall brings a unique perspective to this book that isn’t present in others about this event – he grew up in Denali National Park and his father was the Superintendent of the Park at that time. While he was only 5 years old, so he didn’t know the gravity of the events unfolding at the time, he has an “on the ground” connection to the story in a way that most others don’t. He can speak to what stresses it took on his father or why he made the choices he did. However, the book never came off as feeling like he was trying to whitewash over the culpability of everyone involved despite his close association with it.

Although the book is shorter in length than most on this subject, I found that it had enough information to meet my needs. It covered everything from the history of climbing of this mountain, the meteorology of the storm that hit it, the difficulties of climbing any mountain (but especially Denali) at that time, the backstory of each man in the Wilcox Expedition, the climb and attempts to save the men, and the fallout from this disaster. I didn’t feel that there was any glaring gap that I wished to have had filled. There were a few moments that felt bogged down a little bit with information that I didn’t understand about climbing in general, and a couple moments that felt repetitive, but neither of these elements changed how I raced through the pages. While not exactly a narrative work of non-fiction, there were certainly moments that felt that way, particularly the climb and the rescue. The details that are known are sometimes sparse or sketchy, they have only the recollections of the men who survived and sometimes their stories didn’t align possibly due to the impact of the event or just the weather and nature of the climb on them. Additionally, they don’t have any idea what actually happened to the men that were lost because none of the survivors were with them at that time and some of the men were never located; at best they can speculate.

This book would appeal to a lot of different audiences: those who want to read about disaster or natural events, those who are avid outdoorsmen/women or climbers, those who want to know more about Alaskan history. The book reads quickly, but packs a punch in those few pages and leaves the reader with an impression of how dangerous mountain climbing in general, and Denali in particular, can be. Oh, and lest I forget, the paperback book includes pages of photographs, some from the climbers of the Wilcox Expedition which show some of their progress. These were chilling at times to think that these were the last photos of some of the men that were lost, but I was grateful to be able to have a visual experience as well.

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