Horrifying Details From The Doomed Alaskan Mountain Expedition That Almost Killed Every Climber
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.
Rescuers Found Three Frozen Bodies At The Campsite
When rescuers finally reached the group's campsite, they found no survivors. Instead, they discovered a tent in pieces wrapped around a body that was holding onto a tent pole. Due to the weather, the body had frozen and thawed, and it had started to decompose. Two more completely frozen bodies were also found.
The other four were never found. One climber's bamboo stick was found next to a crevasse, but there was no way rescuers could rappel down into it. Babcock's rescue group noted the climbers were not tied together, indicating their lack of experience.
The Bodies Were Never Identified
Through the lens of modern technology and medicine, it may seem unbelievable that a body couldn't be identified. Between DNA, dental records, and the myriad other ways that technology has enabled to us to identify remains even decades later, it's hard to recall it wasn't always so easy. In 1967, this was the reality those involved with the Denali disaster faced.
Between decomposition and bodies being completely frozen and covered in snow, rescuers had no way of telling who was who. To make matters worse, there was also no way to get the bodies down off the mountain. One rescuer said, "I should have taken a photo. I don't know why I didn't. It would have helped the family members know who it was and given them the closure."
A group was later organized to retrieve the seven dead climbers to put their bodies to rest, but they were never located.
Other Climbers Became The Rescuers
Jeff Babcock was part of a group attempting to summit Denali at the same time as the Wilcox Expedition. Babcock said before the disaster even started, a park ranger said he wasn't sure if the Wilcox group was prepared for the task and may have "bit off more than they could chew."
When Babcock's team first happened upon the survivors, they were in sorry shape. The group had five people in a four-man tent, no room for a stove, and they were reduced to eating candy and crackers. Babcock and his men gave the survivors food and water; before that, the group was trying to use their body heat to melt snow in water bottles.
When the storm started, Babcock's group was at Carson Ridge, where the work of climbing Denali begins in earnest. The five survivors of the Wilcox Expedition had come down to a lower elevation camp to carry supplies, allowing them to narrowly escape perishing in the storm. Babcock's team was full of experienced climbers who knew a storm when they saw one, and they built an igloo and snow walls around themselves for protection.
Babcock's group landed the unlucky job of going up to recover the seven bodies. They only found three. For Babcock and the rest of his group, "it was the nightmare of our lives." Babcock was only 20 years old.
Some Survivors Have Theories On What Happened
Paul Schlichter and Howard Snyder, two of the five survivors from the Wilcox Expedition, have theorized over the years about what befell the other seven from their group. The two believe after the initial group radioed from the summit, the storm struck at 20,000 feet.
Of the two bodies found on Archdeacons Tower, Schlichter believes they were Walt Taylor and Denny Luchterhand, who were strong and healthy young men who may have tried to go straight down a 4,000-foot slope.
Snyder believes the third body was John Russell, who was originally unaccounted for when the group reached the summit. Snyder thinks Russell's altitude sickness got to him and that he turned back towards the camp alone.
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.