An Insider Look: The Tragic Climb of Denali

An Interview of Jeffery Babcock by Ron Dart
Alpine Club of Canada-Vancouver

Jeffrey Babcock was on the ill fated and tragic climb of Denali of 1967 (one of the worst climbing disasters in North American mountaineering history). Needless to say, Jeffrey can tell the story from an insiders perspectives, and he has done so well and wisely in his book, “Should I Not Return.” (2012).

The book begins this way: “Most of this happened when I was a young man and very naive.”

I really was member of a rescue team that searched for seven missing climbers on the top of Denali in the summer of 1967”.

Jeffrey, also, has a most informative DVD on a history of climbs of Denali, varied interpretations of the tragedy of 1967 and his story within such a historic moment: “Death on Denali: Climbing Disasters on Mount McKinley.”

I have known Jeffrey for many a fond year and, hopefully, this brief reflection by him will whet your appetite for the book and DVD.

An Insider Look: The Tragic Climb of Denali

Can you discuss, in some detail, what it was like to be on Denali in the fateful 1967 expedition?

Bad weather enshrouded Denali in clouds, providing drizzling rain for the first week of our journey. At Wonder Lake, we met Park Ranger, Wayne Merry, who told us of the Joseph Wilcox Expedition, a 12-man team that would be a week or so ahead of us on the same route.

He expressed concern regarding the competence of some of the Wilcox climbers. But, he, like many others within the Park, had heard about expert Bradford Washburn’s early criticism of Joe Wilcox, the leader of the expedition. At the time, I feared Merry might have viewed me in a similar light.

After the others arrived, we forged our way across the McKinley River, the beginning of a 15-mile trek over the tundra to reach McGonagall Pass. Our team endured ‘three relays,’ back and forth, in the fog, across the tundra, as we would do, again on the mountain itself.

My brother surprised everyone when he led us up the wrong valley? This error in judgment, however, ended up being a ‘saving grace’ for us later on the mountain.

Once on the glacier, the hardship of snowshoe travel, rope teams, crevasses, and avalanches quickly got everyone’s attention. Because of this, two of our climbers ‘opted-out’ and decided to return home. A huge Grizzly had also charged these men while relaying gear in the overcast tundra a few days earlier. So, now we were six.

The beginning of the disaster began as we established a camp, not at the standard 12,100-foot plateau on Karstens Ridge, where most climbers camp, but on a small shelf 800 feet below.

That night what Wilcox called “the worst storm ever to hit Denali,” raged down upon us from above. It would last, on and off, for the next nine days. Freight train winds flattened out tents that night, as we dug into the snow and ice to survive.

A few days later, on a steep, icy ridge above the 12,100-foot camp, we met the five survivors from the Wilcox team, tattered and beaten by the raging storm. The five, Joe Wilcox, among them,
descended the following day, taking with them Grace Hoeman, the one female climber from our team. She had been coughing up blood-streaked sputum for the past two days.

Seven of the Wilcox men remained high on the mountain. They had radioed the Park from the summit a week earlier. The five survivors had dropped down to a lower camp for more supplies, while the seven left above made their summit bid. Wilcox and three others had already been to the top. A fifth climber at their 17,900-foot camp, like Grace Hoeman, was suffering from AMS. So, he chose to descend with Wilcox and the others.

What was all this like to be on Denali in the fateful 1967 expedition?

It was terrifying, overwhelming, and the greatest challenge of my life to date. I remember telling myself, “You’re going to die. You should have gone down with Grace and the others.”
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To prevent a deja vu of the tragic trip, we’ve put together some lessons learned from the story and safety survival tips (gathered from the BC Adventure Smart safety webinar and website at www.adventuresmart.ca/tripplanning).

Tips on how to prevent future climbing tragedies

• Ensure effective communication with the Park (Plan your trip and route, grab appropriate safety gear, and stay on course so rescue teams can locate your hiking group). Before you head out, try the BC Adventure Smart app.

• Check weather and river forecasts (The violent force and magnitude of the nine-day storm amplified the situation).

• Be sure to carry tools to call for help (e.g. flare, satelite phone).

• Know the strengths and limits of team members and work together. Try not to split up, if possible. (The ‘last-minute’ merging of the two teams and leaders decreased the chance of survival; Instead of working together, they judged and criticized each other’s actions).

• Find warm, protected shelter (the climber’s trekked out of their comfort zone – and did not stay on the plateau).

• Plan for the worst – and stay calm.

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