Terrifying Facts About the Deadliest Mountain Expedition in History
Mountain climbing is an exhilarating yet dangerous sport. Every year, thousands of people summit the world's glorious mountains, and every year, people die while attempting to reach those peaks. The number of related deaths is getting lower as technology advances and we work on making the sport safer. Yet, this wasn't always the case, and history is littered with examples of deadly climbing expeditions. One of the deadliest of these adventures took place in 1967: the Wilcox Expedition.
What Is the Wilcox Expedition?
The tragic Wilcox Expedition took place in the summer of 1967. It was led by Joe Wilcox, a 24-year-old graduate student. Twelve men set out together to climb Denali (otherwise known as Mount McKinley), the tallest mountain in the United States, as a challenging but hopefully enjoyable summer activity.
Wilcox's original expedition had nine people. The number increased just a day before the climb began. Another adventure, the Colorado Expedition, was planning on taking the same route at the same time, and they had already talked of sharing some equipment, like fixed lines.
Over the years, various rumors have surrounded the expedition regarding what took place on the mountain. One popular story is that there was a conflict between the two groups of men who were forced together at the beginning of their journey. That conflict has been blown massively out of proportion.
Who Were the Hikers?
The hikers were a fairly young group of men. The oldest was 31, while the youngest was just 22. In addition to being relatively young, they were all relatively inexperienced; of the 12, only two of them had ever climbed above 15,000 feet.
The Final Calm
At first, the climb seemed to start off well. At the final camp before the summit, the climbers split into two groups: the more experienced (the Colorado men, plus Wilcox) and the less experienced. The four more-experienced men summited the mountain on July 15, while the others rested for an additional day at the camp.
On July 16, the four men who’d summited the mountain began their descent, with one extra. Schiff, who was suffering acute altitude sickness, made the decision to turn around and descend without summiting. The group could see the camp for some time as they went down, so they could keep an eye on the others.
What Is Altitude Sickness?
Many things can go wrong up on a mountain, but altitude is one of the biggest challenges. Most of the men in the expedition were suffering from a mild form of altitude sickness known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), but some of them were hit with the more aggressive version.
Aside from altitude sickness, which can happen on any mountain, what makes Denali specifically so treacherous? For starters, the paths that climbers can take up the mountain are particularly dangerous, even for experienced climbers. Inexperienced ones (like some of the men of the Wilcox Expedition) may find it doubly difficult.
Beginnings of a Storm
The second summit group was led by Jerry Clark. On July 17, he radioed down to the rangers that his group was high up on the mountain, though they weren't exactly sure where. A thick fog had closed in around them, making it nearly impossible to see, so they were going to have to hunker down for the night.
Weather on Denali
Apart from the regular dangers of Denali, the weather is a huge factor in whether climbers are successful or not. More so even than on other mountains, weather on Denali is extremely temperamental and changes in the blink of an eye. Even at the best of times, Denali's weather conditions are still sometimes terrible.
Clark radioed the rangers on the 18th to say that his team made it to the summit. This should’ve been a sign that things were turning around, and the trip would finish well — but, that was not the case. The men were beginning to experience white-out conditions, and the wind was blowing heavily while the temperature dropped drastically.
The Brewing Storm
The storm that the climbers were experiencing was, in fact, one of the worst storms ever seen on the slopes of Denali. Some experts say it's the worst storm that Denali has experienced while there were people actively climbing it. The men were being buffeted by the winds, but they had no idea what was coming.
Today, many people wonder what the climbers could have done to get themselves to safety. But Andy Hall, author and son of former National Park Superintendent George Hall, says there's no point in asking those kinds of questions.
What happened after Clark's final radio call is unknown. The group never made another radio call down to the visitor center. No one could make it up to the men until after the storm passed, by which time it was too late. The seven men were never seen alive again.
Who Was the Rescue Team?
Another expedition led by Bill Babcock (pictured above) was on the mountain at the same time, but a few days behind the Wilcox group. The climbers were all members of the Alaska Rescue Group and were all highly experienced.
Babcock and his team met a gruesome sight as they climbed. At the highest camp before the summit run, they found the body of a man clutching a tent pole. The tent was ripped to shreds, and the body, having thawed and frozen several times, was decomposing.
What About the Others?
Babcock's rescue team only found three of the seven missing men from the second summit team. On another part of the mountain, they found a bamboo stick near the lip of a crevasse, but the rescue team wasn't able to get down to look for the body that might’ve been there.
Snyder and Schlichter, two of the survivors, have theories about what happened — they've had a long time to consider the matter. Both agree that the other climbers were probably either still at the summit or pretty close to it when the storm hit them full-on in all its rage.
Guesses at Identification
Though the bodies were never identified, Snyder and Schlichter believe that the two bodies from the slopes are likely those of Taylor and Luchterhand. They were two of the healthiest and strongest men of the group.
The Bamboo Clue
As for the unidentified climber whose bamboo hiking stick was found near a crevasse, Snyder and Schlichter believe it was Steve Taylor. His sleeping bag and ice axe were found nearby. Snyder thinks that Taylor set up his axe and bag to make a sort of flag, hoping to signal the people down below if anyone was looking.
Was Wilcox to Blame?
In the wake of such a tragedy, many people blamed Wilcox for the outcome of his expedition. They accused him of poor leadership, in particular criticizing his decision to summit with the Colorado members rather than remain with the rest of the group. Additionally, people felt that he should’ve sent Russell and Steve Taylor down earlier, knowing they were sick.
Was Air Rescue Ever an Option?
Many people question whether it had been possible to send in a rescue team from the air. Wayne Merry, a park ranger at the time, thinks it would have been. Looking up at the mountain from where he was sitting, he thinks a helicopter could have reached the men.
Even the survivors had a tough time getting down. When they made it to base camp on July 25, five of them squeezed into a four-person tent, trying to melt snow in water bottles with only their body heat. Unable to cook anything, they ate what they could scrounge up — mainly candy and crackers.
As people searched for answers as to why this terrible incident happened, they tried to find blame anywhere they could. Many criticized the National Park Service because for a long time it was believed that the organization had forced the two expeditions to climb together. People believed issues arising from the combining of the teams were to blame.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, George Hall, the then-National Park Superintendent, had to make the most difficult phone calls of his life to the families of the men who had died. Making just one of these phone calls would be terrible enough, but Hall had to make seven of them.
Almost Shut Down
Following the incident with the Wilcox Expedition, the National Park Service was shocked and horrified and found itself faced with a terrible dilemma. For the safety of future climbers, it had some serious discussions around whether to shut down the mountain for climbers in order to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
Studies for Peace
After years of blame being thrown around, studies have come out demonstrating that no one could have survived the storm on Denali that summer — it was unsurvivable. Once the climbers were on the mountain, no matter what their experience levels were, there was nothing they could’ve done differently.
Soon after the tragedy on Denali, Schlichter found himself fighting in Vietnam. After the war, he went on to have a career in banking and security and is now retired. Snyder is the director of the Remington Carriage Museum in Cardston, Alberta, which houses the largest horse-drawn carriage collection in North America. Schiff is a consultant professor for Stanford and a Research Director.
The Second Rescue Mission
After the original rescue mission was only able to find three bodies, a second team was organized to look for the other four — but it was unsuccessful. Despite searchers’ best efforts, the other four men's bodies were never found. They’ll stay on the mountain, where they will likely remain, frozen and invisible, forever.
When the Wilcox Expedition incident occurred, mountain climbing was still a fairly up and coming sport. Not many people had yet discovered the thrills that summiting a mountain can offer. In fact, in 1967, only 213 people had successfully summited Denali.