Death and Decay on Denali

(Note: Rescue efforts began as soon as searchers saw breaks in the storm in which seven of the 12 members of the Wilcox expedition had vanished. In the following excerpt from his book, "Denali's Howl" (Dutton), Andy Hall describes the discovery of a body presumed, but not confirmed, to be that of Steve Taylor on July 27, 1967. Elsewhere in the book, Hall explains how a body can be frozen and yet decomposed at a high altitude.)

The Mountaineering Club of Alaska expedition headed up the Harper Glacier at 10 a.m. bound for the Wilcox party's high camp at 17,900 feet. John Ireton and Chet Hackney, both unaffected by the altitude, moved too quickly for Gayle Nienhueser, so he tied on to Bill and Jeff Babcock's rope, which moved at a more moderate pace. Each man carried a seventy-pound pack filled mostly with food and fuel. It was almost 5:00 p.m. when Ireton spotted a Stubai ice ax, the brand Steve Taylor had carried, lying on top of the hard-packed snow a mile below the camp.

"The snow was hard enough; it looked like it had been blown from camp," Ireton said. "So I picked it up and stuck it in the snow right where I had found it."

A quarter of a mile on, he and Hackney found John Russell's bamboo summit pole thrust in the snow, its top festooned with black strips of nylon from the burned tent. "Around that," Ireton described, "there was a sleeping bag, and over the sleeping bag was an Alpine Hut red shell. It was just wrapped around and we came up to it and I thought it was just a cache or something so I picked it up and there was nothing inside of it except a pair of wool socks and some down booties."

Next to the pole, Bill Babcock said, a crevasse yawned black against the bright, white snow. "We hollered, we looked into it, and it was one of those bottomless things. I certainly wasn't going to rappel into it. I have no idea what happened, but I would suspect someone is down at the bottom of that thing."

The worst was yet to be discovered. After several more minutes of trudging up through the wind-crusted snow, the Wilcox team's high camp came into view.

There was no movement, no welcoming calls, and no survivors. Just silence.

Mark McLaughlin's homemade tent stood oddly taut in the light breeze. Next to it was, as Bill Babcock described in his journal, "a ghastly sight, a man sitting upright alongside a Logan tent. Face and hands are blue, green, white, frozen yet decomposing."

Ireton said the frozen man wore orange and his face was covered with snow.

"He was blown over, but during the storm he was holding the pole," he said. "The tent had probably ripped apart and the sleeping bag had blown away and he was there holding the pole and he obviously froze to death."

Gayle Nienhueser did not look closely at the body, though he took a photo of the tent-shrouded figure. The memory still haunts him 45 years later.

"I was 26," Nienhueser says. "I'd never seen a body before. The hand that was exposed was black, and it had frozen and thawed a couple of times. I wasn't feeling good, and the smell..." His voice became choked and tears erupted from his eyes as we spoke. He put his face into his hands, bowed his head forward and didn't say anything for more than a minute.

The sight of the corpse was frightening for the climbers, suddenly bringing home the realization that on Denali, death is never far away for the careless and the unlucky. However, the gruesome condition of the climber's body didn't mean he had died a painful death. Freezing can be a peaceful and relatively painless way to go.

If there is any real pain, it comes at the beginning, when the cold begins to penetrate the skin and causes surface capillaries to constrict, shunting blood deeper into the body. Fingers, toes, the tip of the nose, earlobes, and other extremities are sacrificed in order to keep the vital organs warm. As the blood retreats to protect the core, feet and hands begin to ache, and the nose and ears sting. But the pain, rarely overwhelming, soon is eased by numbness settling in where the blood once flowed.

Hypothermia takes over when the body temperature slips below 95 degrees. With it comes violent shivering as muscles contract involuntarily, trying to generate body heat. When warmth continues to flee, the shivering slows and then stops, leaving the muscles unnaturally tight and making simple tasks like donning a jacket or striking a match difficult. Loss of muscle coordination soon follows and walking becomes problematic.

Hands and feet are soon useless, nose and ears turn white, and lips turn blue, making clear enunciation impossible.

Feelings of detachment to the rapidly deteriorating situation soon cloud the mind. A lost glove or hat? No worries. A sleeping bag carried away by the wind: vaguely inconvenient.

When the body's core temperature drops into the 80s, complete apathy comes, and then stupor as the cold renders brain enzymes less efficient. The consciousness that still clings to the rapidly cooling body grows blissfully unaware of the catastrophic breakdown of physical function. As blood gathers around the organs most vital to life, the kidneys go into overdrive to deal with the excess fluids that have flooded inward. An overpowering need to urinate rises, followed by one last, sweet release and the fleeting feeling of warmth on the skin.

A degree or two lower and the pulse becomes irregular and erratic as chilled nerves lose their ability to carry the signals that cue the heart to beat. When the core temperature reaches 85 degrees, a sudden and inexplicable feeling of heat cascades across the body, so hot that victims often tear their clothes off seeking relief, unintentionally hastening their own end. One theory behind this paradoxical undressing suggests that the surface capillaries that constricted early on to push body heat into the core suddenly dilate, bringing a burning sensation as blood surges into the nearly frozen flesh. Whether it is the body's last-ditch effort to warm itself or a sudden failure of the muscles constricting the blood vessels is unknown. Unconsciousness and death usually follow close behind.

Bill Babcock said the grisly discovery was disturbing for the entire team, him included.

"It was a nightmarish thing to run into," he said. "We tried to open the zipper on his parka but it was frozen. There was a terrible stench. I'd never seen anything like that before. We dug our snow caves quite a ways away."