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Minus 148 Degrees: First Winter Ascent Of Mount McKinley

Author : Art Davidson
Published : 2013-04-11

It was an audacious gambit, one that had never been attempted before, and which almost ended from the get-go.

That only one life was lost during the first winter ascent of Mount McKinley in Denali National Park itself could be seen as an achievement, as the eight climbers who set out to stand atop the North American continent's tallest mountain at 20,320 feet did so in mid-winter 1967.

The team was just days into the climb when Jacques "Farine" Batkin was killed when he fell into a crevasse, a tragedy that paused the rest of the climbers as they battled with their emotions in deciding whether to end the expedition before it really got started or climb on in his honor.

Art Davidson's account of that climb, Minus 148: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley, was first published in 1969 and was republished this year by The Mountaineers Books to help mark the centennial of the first successful ascent of the mountain, also known as Denali, in 1913 by Hudson Stark and Harry Karstens.

Mr. Davidson's account has been hailed as one of the best chronicles of mountaineering, a tough honor to receive when you consider all the mountaineering books that have been written. (Consider Into Thin Air by John Krakauer, Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival by Joe Simpson, and Seven Years In Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, just to cite three).

In piecing together the story of his expedition, Mr. Davidson's text is strengthened by the access he had to journals kept by other members of the expedition. His narrative, and their jottings, clearly bring through the mental and physical challenges, as well as the self-doubt and fraying relationships, that developed as the team struggled with temperatures that routinely sank to double digits below zero and winds that howled upwards of 50 miles per hour for days on end and reached more than 100 mph at Denali Pass.

Poor John collapsed on the ice when he reached 12,300 feet today. Did his crevasse episode really take this much out of him, or did he ever have the pool to begin with? I just hope his weakness doesn't endanger us up high. If weather and snow conditions are perfect, we'll be OK. If not, I'll be wishing Farine were around to tie in with. Without him, who? Art has plenty of fight. George is medium-fast and strong. At only 12,300 feet Pirate is not as full of energy as he could be. Gregg is medium-fast, but in an all-out effort or emergency I don't know. Shiro is very sensible, but quite slow. I think his hemmoroids bother him much more than he'll admit. Time'll tell. If we ever run into a situation where speed is a requisite for safety -- and man, it often is, why, we'll all be screwed. -- Dave Johnston, February 13, 1967.

Such were the conditions that just three of the surviving seven climbers -- Art Davidson, Dave Johnston, and Ray "Pirate" Genet -- managed to reach the summit, on February 28. But they easily could have died on the descent, as a storm left them holed up in an ice cave on Denali Pass at 18,200 feet. With little food, fuel running out, and temperatures that dipped to an estimated 148 degrees below zero when wind chill was considered, the three struggled with advancing frost bite and hunger.

Wondering whether Davidson, Genet, and Johnston would be able to make it back down from the summit safely, Gregg Blomberg, holed up himself at 17,200 feet with John Edwards, Shiro Nishimae, and George Wichman, struggled to stay optimistic that the three above would survive the storm.

Lord, I wish this nightmare would end. What a terrible ordeal they must be going through. If they come down in proper daylight today, three of us can descend while one stays and cooks for them. That depends on their condition. If they keep their heads, lacing their crampons on tighter, and descend together, they'll be OK. The waiting is hell. The wind stops, and you listen for footsteps. I can't remember a more prolonged terror in my life. It is the damn quick changeable mountain weather that got us. When the wind dies down here, you can still hear it howling up above...Nothing on the peak could hurt me once those guys come down." -- Gregg Blomberg, March 2, 1967.

Reading Wichman's journal, you can feel the evaporating hope that the trio would survive.

The wind is still making a noise like Niagara Falls, just like a big body of water going over the rocks. All kinds of things enter our minds, one of which is: what could we do even if we did find the three above and if they need help? Because of the altitude and steep slope below Denali Pass we just don't think we could carry them down on our backs. It is a very helpless feeling. The time has become more or less critical, and we just don't have the slightest hope. We don't discuss it...

In the cave, Davidson too, seemed to sense the end was drawing near.

"The ragged end of the storm seemed to be blowing itself out, and had we been strong we probably would have tried to dash down from the pass immediately. Unfortunately, we had become so weak that the wind would have to be completely gone before we could descend with any confidence," he wrote from their cave on Denali Pass. "Yet, regardless of when the wind disappeared, this had to be our last day in the cave, because by the next morning there would be no food at all. For the three of us we had only a handful of gorp, four slices of cheese, and three little hard candies. When this food ran out the cold would take over our bodies unless we could make it down. We lay silent and brooding in our bags; cheerless as our situation was, I felt a curious sense of relief that it was so simple -- without food, it was either descend or perish in this wretched cave."

Minus 148 is a riveting adventure story, one that thanks to the shared journals delivers deeper insights into what tensions and self-analysis develop as one struggles through incredible cold to reach the roof of the continent. The climb it chronicles measured friendships, relationships, and frailties in a foreboding setting that nevertheless continues to lure climbers who, consciously or not, are looking to do just that.

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