One ranger kept Denali open for climbers after climbing catastrophe

Mike Dunham

On a rainy day, Andy Hall, then age 5, rode with his father on a muddy road deep into Mount McKinley National Park, as it was called nearly half a century ago. They stopped where a swollen river had knocked out the road and got out. His father, uncharacteristically silent, walked with the little boy, who tossed rocks into the water.

A commotion in the brush sent their hearts racing. Thinking it was a bear, George Hall grabbed his son and loped back to his vehicle.

"It's not often that you see your dad scared, but he was really frightened, and so was I," the younger Hall recalled in an interview earlier this month.

The dark form stumbling through the rain turned out to be a climber. Andy Hall did not hear the conversation but came to realize the exhausted man brought bad news from the mountain.

On the long, somber drive home, George explained to Andy that boys had died up there, "in snow that never melts."

The adrenaline that comes from terror has helped keep the memory of that day sharp in Andy Hall's mind. It's recalled in the prologue of his new book, "Denali's Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak" (Dutton, $27.95).

The book recounts the expedition on Mount McKinley led by Joe Wilcox in 1967. Twelve young men, ages 22-31, set off to reach the summit. The bodies of seven are still on the mountain.

The ill-fated climb is the subject of other books, but Hall's fresh look includes previously unpublished reports, letters and transcripts of radio broadcasts between park personnel and the men on the mountain.

The narrative is particularly personal in that he was living in McKinley Park's ranger housing at the time and his father was the park superintendent. As such, George Hall was closely involved with the rescue efforts, details of which fill the last third of the book.

Among new material in print for the first time is a description of how the National Park Service tried to close the mountain to further climbs -- and the part George Hall played in keeping it open.

"Finding that out was a surprise for me," Hall said. His father, who died in 2005 at the age of 81, alluded to it but never got into the specifics, he said.

It wasn't the only surprise he encountered while working on the book. "I realized there was a lot of information that had never been reported," he said.

McKinley maelstrom

The first chapter of "Denali's Howl" lays out the history of the mountain and early attempts to climb it. The fact that it is the highest peak in North America is probably why the region became a national park in the first place.

"As soon as the elevation was reported, climbing it is what got people's attention," Hall said. "As soon as it was climbed, they sort of lost interest for a while. Then it began to go back up again."

In 1967, 83 people tried to climb it, up from 22 the previous year. (1,122 have registered to climb the mountain this year.) Only a few thousand people even entered the park in those days. Visitors either took the train or drove the gravel Denali Highway 160 miles from Paxson on the Richardson Highway. There were four permanent employees at the park and George Hall was responsible for Katmai National Park as well.

Without enough money to fly in, the Wilcox party drove from Seattle to Wonder Lake and then began walking. "They spent a month just to get within striking distance" of their goal, Hall said.

What struck was disaster.

The 12 men were hardly novices, Hall said. "They didn't have a lot of experience, but they had as much as many other mountaineers at the time. There were personal conflicts -- there always are some -- but I don't think those resulted in problems. Some of them were hurting -- altitude sickness -- but I don't get the impression that the sick held anyone back.

"They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A massive storm, related to the bad weather that led to the great Fairbanks flood that year, pinned down the party at the bottom of Harper Glacier. Then it cleared and Wilcox saw a window of opportunity. He reached the top with three climbers from Colorado in what Hall described as "short-sleeve conditions."

Four other climbers waited at camp for the remaining four to arrive from below. One chose to descend with Wilcox. The other seven tried to make a dash for the peak as the weather was turning.

As they crossed the "flats" between Archdeacon's Tower and the top, they radioed that they were lost in a whiteout. But around 11:30 a.m. on July 18, they communicated that they were at the summit -- or rather that five of them were. Steve Taylor, ailing, had decided to stay in camp at 17,500 feet.

Why the seventh member of the party, John Russell, was not mentioned at the summit is an "enigma," Hall said.

By 1 p.m. the storm had returned in full fury. It would rage for a week. Hall cites a meteorologist who theorizes winds could have reached 300 miles an hour, 50 miles an hour faster than the highest winds ever officially recorded (at Barrow Island, Australia, in 1996). Such conditions can make it difficult or impossible to breathe. Gear can be whipped out of one's hands and lost forever. Tents can explode from the air pressure, ripping to shreds within seconds.

It was impossible to fly. Even today, with modern equipment, it's unlikely that the seven could have been rescued, Hall said.

Safe but frustrated, Wilcox had dinner with the Hall family. The children weren't allowed to ask questions, Andy Hall said.

Reporters and members of the lost climbers' families began arriving at the park, demanding answers and action. One frantic father demanded that someone go up and bring his son back. "Whose son should I send?" George Hall responded.

More than a week after the last contact, the weather broke long enough for other climbers to begin searching. They found one corpse clutching a tent pole -- the subject of the excerpt in today's paper -- and two others near the top. All were left where they lay as more heavy snow began to fall and the storm moved back in.

'End climbing'

Born in Chicago, George Hall came to Sitka in the 1950s and joined the National Park Service as a historian in Sitka before moving up the ladder.

"He wasn't much of an outdoorsman," Andy Hall said. "He definitely wasn't a mountaineer. He was an administrator."

Yet a framed document in the family den declared him a lifetime member of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska. As he was writing his father's obituary, Andy Hall began to wonder about that. By then, most members of the alpinist community who had passed through Denali Park in the 1960s were dead, many killed during climbs. But the younger Hall tracked down Anchorage attorney Frank Nosek, former MCA president.

"Your dad was a real friend to the climbing community," Nosek told him. The lifetime certificate was a one-of-a-kind tribute. "We wanted to thank him."

The Wilcox tragedy was the worst climbing disaster in North America and the fourth-worst in modern mountaineering when it happened. The upper echelons of the Park Service weren't happy that it took place on their turf.

"John Rutter, Alaska's San Francisco-based regional director, called my father and made an unprecedented demand," Hall writes in the book. "End climbing in Mount McKinley National Park."

The Alaska climbing community was alarmed, but didn't know how to fight it.

"Except your dad," Nosek told Hall. "We felt like we had a connection, a reasonable connection, with a very, very unreasonable government agency. It was an agency we couldn't -- we didn't have the ability to -- fight. But we did have an open ear with their local representative."

The director in San Francisco lacked the authority to prohibit future climbing on his own. That decision had to be made by the superintendent. "In those days, the superintendents were like little kings and the parks were their kingdoms," Andy Hall told the Daily News.

Hall uncovered the recording of an interview his father gave to a National Park historian in 1999. In it he mentioned Rutter's demand. "He wouldn't put it in writing," the elder Hall said. "He wanted me to stick my neck out."

Instead, Hall took the position that "climbing is a legitimate recreation program," and refused to close the mountain to trekkers. In time, the regional director calmed down and dropped the idea.

"The appreciation for your dad having that attitude was enormous in the climbing community here," Nosek told Hall. "I don't know what he went through, but he was our front line against that movement to shut down the mountain, so we've always credited him with having defeated that very, very bad idea."

A few years later, Hall quit the Park Service and went to work for the state of Alaska. His son thinks that friction with the bureaucracy had a hand in that decision. Later, he became an investment broker, working just about to his last day, Andy Hall said.

He found another quote from his father, given during a review of the accident. The elder Hall stressed that most McKinley climbers were driven by a kind of enthusiasm that he understood, even if he didn't share it.

"They were just people who wanted to climb the damned mountain. They had no money, and they usually gave up their jobs to come up and climb."

"He didn't want those people shut out of Denali," Hall said.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.