AD Main Menu

'Storms of Denali' tracks the mental stress of climbers caught in the elements

Mike Dunham

'The Storms of Denali" by Nicholas O'Connell, came out last summer and has since gathered more critical notice than any Alaska-based fiction since David Vann's "Legend of a Suicide." The novel about four friends tested on an unattempted route up Mount McKinley, published by University of Alaska Press, just sold out in hardcover.

O'Connell, a Seattle-based writer with several non-fiction books and magazine articles to his credit, has been on a national book tour this year, the centennial of the first successful ascent of North America's highest peak, and returns to the state later this month with events in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The book is receiving praise for its tense, dramatic writing as well as for how it probes the psychology of the climbers as they succumb to the exertion, the elements and the unexpected. An excerpt from the opening is reprinted here.

O'Connell said the seeds of the story came from his own ascent of Denali in 1982, made possible by a "deal" he and a friend came across.

"I was a newspaper reporter," he said. "It was $800 bucks or something like that. I'd been doing a lot of climbing, but this was a huge leap. But it sounded exciting and it looked like a great adventure."

But shortly after the group left base camp, they met a party towing a body.

"It was woman from a Sierra Club expedition. She'd fallen into a crevasse and died of hypothermia. It was a very sobering moment for everyone involved. Until then, we didn't realize how dangerous it could be."

His own ascent went well, for which he credits the guides. "They served a lot of Top Ramen, which I got sick of, but they were very competent."

Hooked on height, O'Connell focused on adventure writing. In his second book, "Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers," he interviewed giants of mountaineering including Edmund Hillary, Riccardo Cassin and Reinhold Messner.

"Climbers are often described as crazy or insane or out of control," he said. "The people I met weren't like that at all. They had this deep drive to have an adventure, to test themselves. But they were all very calculating people. They supplied a lot of the material that I used in the novel. The main character is sort of loosely based on me and people like me. Wyn (the leader of the expedition in the book) is based on people like Messner.

O'Connell said he's had close calls of his own, including one iffy situation on the Matterhorn, but such things are part of the attraction of mountain climbing.

"The people who do it are a very small segment of the population," he said. "Most people have zero interest in getting that cold and into such a dangerous position. What I find interesting is what kind of personalities can deal with this risk in a semi-safe manner, and what other personalities can't, how people make decisions and whether they're good decisions."

Particularly in the wilderness. "If you're in a comfortable environment, in a city, it doesn't matter so much if you make the wrong decision. Miss the bus and your life is not over. But when you're on a mountain and make the wrong decision, you die. It attracts people who like those kinds of stakes."

O'Connell continues to write about extreme excursions; he's planning a collection of his outdoor adventure writing, tentatively titled "Gripped," and is feeling out a sequel to "The Storms of Denali," set on Mount Everest.

"I'm backing into it," he said. "Novels are much harder to sell than nonfiction and they're a lot of work."

And while writing pays the bills, mountains remain his passion.

"I do quite a bit of rock climbing and maybe one-to-four peaks a year," he said. But, he added that with a wife, children and dog, he's a little more cautious about his own adventures nowadays. The domestic situation of the main character in the novel is one of its main threads.

"I'm lucky I've never been hurt," he said.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.