In July 1967, two separate groups of young men set out to climb Denali (Mount McKinley). Those groups ended up merging into what's now commonly called the Wilcox Expedition, named after group leader Joe Wilcox. His name is unfortunately associated with the deadliest climbing disaster in American history, as a lethal storm killed 7 of the 12 men who set out to summit the mountain.
Though Denali isn't Mount Everest, it does present its own unique challenge: highly unpredictable weather. In the morning it can be calm; hours later, the mountain can be overtaken by a whiteout with high winds. A seven-day mega-storm descended on Denali during the Wilcox Expedition's climb, making it impossible for a rescue mission to even attempt to save anyone.
The Wilcox Expedition was the conglomeration of two separate groups. Three men from Colorado - Paul Schlichter, Howard Snyder, and Jerry Lewis - had to join Wilcox's team after their fourth man was unable to climb. Wilcox's group included Ansel Schiff, Jerry Clark, Steve Taylor, Dennis Luchterhand, Henry James, Mark McLaughlin, Walt Taylor, and John Russell. The group was not nearly experienced as other climbers, such as Henry Worsley, who also perished under extreme conditions.
The three Colorado men all survived, as did Wilcox and Schiff. The other seven were claimed by the mountain, and there they remain - much like the bodies left on Mount Everest - frozen in time.
Many Blamed Joe Wilcox - And He Did, Too
After a tragedy, it's human nature to point fingers and assign blame. Joe Wilcox, whose name was attached to the tragedy from the beginning, was a natural target. Was he prepared to lead an expedition? Why didn't he force those with altitude sickness to go back down sooner?
After the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released three separate studies on the storm, Wilcox was finally able to accept he was not to blame. No one could have survived the storm. "We couldn't have done anything for the climbers up there," Wilcox said. "I now have to accept that they, and probably anybody else, couldn’t have survived up there.”
Wilcox did not know his crew were not well-established and had not climbed together in the past. He put out an advertisement, collected applications, and that was it. So while his group may have been more experienced, they weren't a team of men who knew each other or had worked together before.
The Group May Have Been Doomed From The Start
The Wilcox Expedition was the joining of two separate groups of men, ages 22 to 31. The first group (the original Wilcox Expedition) had nine men; the Colorado Expedition had four.
However, tragedy struck the Colorado Expedition before they even set foot on the mountain. Seven hours prior to their departure, one member had a car accident and broke his hand. This was particularly problematic, as the minimum required number in a climbing group was four. The Colorado Expedition had to join the Wilcox Expedition if they wanted to climb.
So the two groups were thrust together, and it's openly known they didn't exactly become fast pals. However, one researcher says the conflict has "been blown out of proportion over the years." Regardless, when you put together perfect strangers and the perfect storm, a bad situation is going to become worse.
It didn't help that, in addition to inexperienced climbers, many were also plagued by altitude sickness. Though they should have turned back, they tried to press onwards.
The Perfect Storm Sealed Their Fate
Inexperienced climbers and a mismatched group or not, the Wilcox Expedition had no way out of the perfect storm they encountered. As Andy Hall, son of Park Superintendent George Hall, said, "It’s hard for some people to accept that some things are bigger than they are. The mountain calls the shots. The weather dictates everything going on."
Hall also said if a similar storm happened today, even with technology and advancements in safety and climbing, the same thing would happen. The group would be stuck on the mountain until the storm stopped.
"That’s pretty much what happened to Wilcox’s group. They were stuck alone with their skill until the weather broke, and in that case the storm lasted for seven days," Hall said.
The seven-day storm had winds that eventually reached 300 mph, and temperatures plunged to 30 below zero.
Even Without A Storm, Denali's Weather Conditions Are Terrifying
Denali's weather is no joke, and the severe conditions are only worsened by the mountain's location. Denali is around the 63rd parallel north. For context, Everest is at 28 degrees north latitude, which is the same as Walt Disney World in Florida.
At higher latitudes, storms are stronger, faster, and colder. If you bust out a map, you'll see Everest is in the middle of Asia, far from any bodies of water. In fact, it's over a thousand miles from any substantial body of water.
Denali, on the other hand, is only 200 miles from the Gulf of Alaska and 400 miles from the Bering Sea. The proximity to water causes low-pressure systems that can produce fierce storms, and this is exactly what happened during the Wilcox Expedition.