A Critical Look At Forever on the Mountain –

The Truth Behind One of Mountaineering’s Most Controversial and Mysterious Disasters– a Book by James M. Tabor

Tabor's Misleading Speculation: The Alaska Rescue Group

The Alaska Rescue Group was a group of veteran Alaskan mountaineers and search and rescue volunteers, many of whom had climbed and summited Denali.  In May of 1967, the ARG published a list of their Board of Directors and Interested Parties.  The boards of Directors at that time were, Gary Hansen, George Wichman, Marge Maagoe, Paul Crews, William Hauser and Art Davidson.  Their membership or “active support” included Vin and Grace Hoeman, Ray Genet, Lowell Thomas Jr., Rod Wilson, Nick Parker and Frank Nosek.  (Archives 1960-present)

Nosek also served that year as the Mountaineering Club of Alaska President.   In the mid sixties, the Alaska Rescue Group was closely tied to the Alaska Mountaineering Club. 
Did the Alaska Rescue Group have what it would take to orchestrate the rescue effort?  Attachment 3 is a summary of the First Winter Ascent Rescue effort.  The record is strong evidence of what they had the capacity to accomplish.  I have not located a similar summary for the Wilcox expedition rescue effort, but I am still looking. 
Tabor blithely discounts the ARG’s value.  He writes,

Anchorage [where the ARG is based] is about 180 miles as the crow flies from McKinley, and in 1967 Alaska that’s a long way.  More importantly, it is about 20,000 vertical feet lower.  The ARG does not own any aircraft, so it must subcontract with private air services or in extreme cases get help from the Air Force” (Tabor 2007, p. 197)   

This argument makes little sense since the park service faces the almost identical hurdles... 
What he doesn’t recognize is that the ARG had experienced trained volunteers, equipment and connections – and had successfully initiated the Winter Ascent rescue response.  Their summary of the event is provided on attachment #3.    

The irony here is that whether Mr. Hayes, my dad or Mr. Merry oversaw the rescue –they could not have done so without the Alaska Rescue Group. 

Today  skilled and experienced NPS rangers actually patrol the mountain and a high-altitude “Llama” turbine powered helicopter is kept on standby in Talkeetna, neither of these resources were present in 1967.

 Seven years earlier – in 1960 - two separate rescues were attempted almost simultaneously to save climbers on Mt. McKinley.    In what was a difficult and confusing rescue effort, both parties were rescued, but two rescuers were killed.   The event – called the Day - Bading incident involved the NPS, the air force and local volunteers from the climbing community.    Frank Norris chronicled the result as follows:

The deaths, and the haphazard approach to the Day-Bading parties’ plea for help, demanded a new look at search and rescue operations in the park.  Two solutions quickly came forth.  First, “a group of mountain climbers, skiers, riverboat enthusiasts and skin divers” calling themselves the Alaska Rescue Group (ARG) formed in the summer of 1960.  They were primarily based in Anchorage, and among their membership, “nearly a dozen have climbed Mt.McKinley, and others participated in the recent Day Party rescue effort.”  NPS officials welcomed the new group and approved their interest in becoming a standby party for future Mt.McKinley climbs and they quickly revised their mountaineering information sheet to suggest that the new group would be the climbers’ primary standby party.  In December 1960, park officials met with the group and recommended that “a formal rescue agreement between the park and the rescue group should be formulated.”   Soon afterward, however, they learned of the U.S. Air Force’s coordinating role.  Within a month the NPS had formulated a new, draft agreement between the military, the NPS, and the ARG.  But Alaskan Air Command officials, upon seeing the agreement, let NPS officials know that given the Air Force’s role, “it would be impossible to commit the Alaskan Air Command to an agreement such as you suggest.”   To resolve the matter, representatives from the Air Force, the NPS, and the ARG met at Elmendorf Air Force Base in late April 1961.  They mutually agreed that “since the RCC [the AirForceRescueCoordinationCenter] directs and is responsible for any assistance required, no agreement is needed between the NPS and the Alaska Rescue Group.”  Climbing parties, however, were free to “contact the Alaska Rescue Group for their standby party, as the ARG will be the first group to be contacted in an emergency by the RCC.”  The Air Force promised to keep NPS officials informed about any search and rescue operations that it coordinated.  The NPS, for its part, stated that it retained the right to “take initial search and rescue action if such appears advisable.”  This arrangement laid the groundwork for future search and rescue operations, and it continued for most of the remainder of that decade. )

The second response to the Day-Bading parties’ difficulties was the Park Service’s decision to recommend changes to the existing mountaineering requirements.  The American Alpine Club was asked to coordinate that effort, and to that end representatives from the NPS, the Boston Museum of Science, and the American Geographical Society met with the club president in New York in January 1961.   The group suggested specific changes related to the “scientific expeditions” criteria, air drops, radio availability, and other topics.   These proposals were forwarded to NPS Director Conrad Wirth.  Minor changes were then made by Washington and regional officials, and they were implemented in time for the 1961 mountaineering season. (Norris, Crown Jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume II In Press)

The Alaska Rescue Group’s role was clearly defined:

  The ARG would take over screening applicants and their gear.  They would act as a repository of emergency contact information and – most importantly - would provide search and rescue support when necessary.  In exchange for these services, the non-profit group charged a nominal fee and climbers were required to carry insurance or a bond to cover potential rescue costs.  The plan they developed was ready to be implemented by the 1961 climbing season.  (Norris, Crown Jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume II In Press)

Paul B. Crews to Samuel A. King, September 9, 1960; King to Crews, September 13, 1960; Richard J. Stenmark to Supt. MOMC, December 12, 1960; Neil J. Reid to RD/R4, December 14, 1960; all in Folder 48, Series 2, DMRC.

NPS, “Recommended Procedures Involving the NPS, the ARG, the USAFRCC, and Volunteering Private Individuals in Rescue Situations on National Park Lands” (draft), January 11, 1961; James H. Isbell to Samuel A. King, March 13, 1960; both in Folder 59, Series 2, DMRC.

Elroy W. Bohlin to RD/R4, May 1, 1961; Lawrence Merriam to Supt. MOMC, May 11, 1961, both in Folder 59, Series 2, DMRC; SMR, April 1961, 3.  Joe Wilcox, in his book White Winds (pp. 36-37), notes that as he prepared for his 1967 expedition, the NPS demanded that climbers “secure the agreement of a qualified rescue group to come to their aid should an emergency occur.  The most prominent such group was the ARG….  Previous expeditions had indicated that Park Service permission was routine once ARG approval was given.”

John H. Johnston to Robert Bates, December 30, 1960, in Folder 48; Robert Bates to Conrad Wirth, January 6, 1961, in Folder 59; both in Series 2, DMRC; SMR, January 1961, 3, 5.

E.T. Scoyen to RD/R4, March 21, 1961; Merriam to Supt. MOMC, March 29, 1961; Washburn to Scoyen, April 13, 1961; all in Folder 59, Series 2, DMRC.

Special thanks to Frank Norris.


The REAL Truth:
"The 7 men were hit by an unprecedented storm that prevented anyone from doing any more than was done..."
The "Obvious Choice" of NPS rescue coordinator was not the most "practical choice"...
The Alaska Rescue Group (Now called The Alaska Mountain Rescue Group) was the most experienced resource available..
The Winter Ascent Rescue was not mounted in "a matter of hours" and was undertaken after their storm had abated...
An Air Force C130 or other high altitude observation plane would not have made a difference.
July 20, 1967, the day that Wilcox radioed for help.
The role of Don Sheldon & Bradford Washburn and the authors assertions about their errors and misjudgements.
Tabor's Conclusion is Wrong
Other Mistakes
An Afterword
Acknowlegements and Thanks
Attachment #1, Attachment #2, Attachment #3
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