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 Success of the Winter Ascent Rescue Proves the Wilcox Rescue was Mismanaged

Ironically, for all the tragedy that played out on the mountain that summer, earlier that year, there had been a notable success .  A group of mostly local climbers made the first successful attempt at a Winter Ascent of McKinley.  The expedition was caught in a vicious winter windstorm. Three of its members   survived in a snow cave for days.  The story of their incredible experience is chronicled in “-148 Degrees” by Art Davidson – a book that has justifiably been called a mountaineering classic.  What the book does not delve into in great detail is what went on behind the scenes in orchestrating an effort to rescue the men after they were not heard from for several days.    See Attachment 2 for the details.

Tabor asserts the Winter Ascent Rescue was orchestrated in, “a matter of hours”.  That is not true.   Jim Okonek, the incident commander for the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at the Winter Ascent Event.  , remembers that it took days to pull the equipment and resources together.  Attachment #2 – the Alaska Rescue Group’s record of the event shows this as well. 

Per the Alaska Rescue Group search activities for the First Winter Ascent Expedition were initiated on March 6th by the ARG after the following:

  •  Observation of international distress signal
  • Loss of radio contact with climbing party since 26 Feb
  • No aerial observation of climbing party
  • Very severe storms for 6 days. 

Their records noted the following: 

“According to a well established procedure the Alaska Rescue Group Inc., notified the following agencies that a search and rescue operation was being commenced and asked that each agency stand by for further information in readiness to assist if called.  A long standing arrangement exists for the co-operation of these agencies in such an eventuality.” 

  • RCC, Elmendorf AFB
  • FAA, Anchorage,
  • AlaskaState Police, Anchorage
  • MountMcKinleyNational Park Service
  • Mountain Rescue Council,  Seattle
  • Don Sheldon, Talkeetna Flying Service
  • Civil Defense, Anchorage Office.  (Group 1967)

On March 6 in the evening the following was noted:

It appeared at this point that five men were over 17,200 elevation, unaccounted for; that the weather prospect was very poor and that a ground search could well be the only feasible method of contacting the higher climbers if the storm was to be of long duration.  New men put on mountain would be useless for working above 10,000 feet elevation without at least two days acclimatization, or the use of oxygen not readily available and potentially dangerous.  A large number of experienced high altitude climbers would be required for such a search. (Group 1967)

The document in its entirety is provided for review.  It is well worth reviewing to appreciate the capabilities of the ARG.   Notice also that the rescue was not launched until after the initial Class 4 Storm had abated.

Ultimately, the missing climbers walked out on their own – only to be spotted by a C 130 on weather check.

Wayne Merry had been NPS liaison/manager.  Mr. Merry explained to me that those were early days in SAR organization, and hardly anyone knew how to set up a proper IC (Incident Commander) system or what passed for it at that time. “The manager would not have told the RCC what to do, but he would work with their commanding officer to develop the most valuable strategy and tactics.” Since they had jurisdiction over any rescue activities in the park boundaries, he would have been involved in any strategy decisions. 

Mr. Hayes – the Chief Ranger had also traveled to Talkeetna but had stayed for just a short time.

The expedition was not without it’s own tragedy – one man – Jaques”Farine” Batkin died the first day of the expedition from injuries sustained from a crevasse fall.

Minus 148 Degrees  by Art Davidson chronicles this adventure.  Excellent read.

Jim went on to move to Talkeetna after leaving the Air Force and bought and operated K2 Aviation for many years.  Jim continues to fly as a professional bush pilot for K2.


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
email comments to webmaster
Download the original document from which this site was created
  Go to the next page