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 Conclusion is Wrong

Tabor baldly claims he has the TRUTH about the Wilcox tragedy.   He spends an entire chapter titled, “Remaking History” chastising Brad Washburn for letting his opinions impact reviews and assessments of the incident……But he does the same thing -  – only without Washburn’s credentials!

Ironically, Tabor justifies his “elaborations” and theories by telling us;

I relied on a modified version of the probative legal concept of probable cause…:a set of attachable facts, circumstances, and evidence which would lead a reasonable person to conclude that such a thing had happened, was happening, or was about to happen. (Tabor 2007, p. 372)

 Why did he ignore Daryl Miller’s input?  A reasonable person could conclude that it didn’t fit a story line he was following….. 

What ultimately happened to those men, as Paul Schlicter noted in his review of Tabor’s book was “no mystery”.    His conclusion, as one of the expedition’s survivors was straight forward.  “

A vicious storm resulted in the deaths of seven climbers...” (Schlicter 2007)

Although opinions vary as to what contributed to their situation, Schlicter opinion is shared by an impressive group of experts and people who were there:  Joe Wilcox, Howard Snyder , Paul Schlicter, Brad Washburn, Daryl Miller, Brian Okonek…and Wayne Merry.

Here is an interesting example of Tabor’s work.  Tabor received these letters from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group Archives. (See Attachment #1)   He describes them as follows: 

On August 3rd, Lou Whittaker chews George Hall a new ear hole by telephone.  The upshot of their conversation is Whittaker’s belief that not enough was done to rescue survivors or find bodies,  Mortified, Hall tries to lateral this hot potato to ARG’s Gary Hansen who whips it right back in an indignant letter written the same day they speak (Tabor 2007, p. 302): 

They speak for themselves.  They illustrate Tabor’s propensity to “twist” facts negatively for the sake of his story. 


Tabor’s Conclusion is Wrong

Tabor concludes with his now familiar drama and speculation:

“…they  [George Hall and Art Hayes] are guilty of this   They had under their command one man [Wayne Merry] may have been the best equipped expert in North America to do such a job.  They not only ignored but sometimes frustrated Merry’s increasingly desperate attempts to do the right things….. I’ve wondered how Hall and Hayes lived with that. ..They had to know how badly they had failed, and what the price of their failure had been.  They had to live the rest of their lives with that knowledge, keeping it tapped down so far that it might escape to torment them only deep into long, black sleepless nights”. (Tabor 2007, p. 312)

Daryl Miller corresponded extensively with James Tabor as he was preparing this book.  Tabor initiated contact with Miller for good reason.  Miller’s expertise related to both Mt. McKinley and high altitude search and rescue is unparalleled.  He has been a climbing ranger on Mt. McKinley and done search and rescue at high altitudes since 1981.  He is often called upon to speak at international events and symposiums about high altitude search and rescue.  It was at one of these events that Daryl had met Wilcox.  Miller enthusiastically agreed to help - because he agreed with what Tabor explained was his purpose - to counter the rumors and innuendos that have lingered for 40 years suggesting that expedition leader Joe Wilcox had some responsibility for his expedition mate’s deaths. 

Miller had long before come to believe that Wilcox was a victim of residual rumor and innuendo and therefore was an enthusiastic supporter of the Tabors mission.  
When Forever on the Mountain was released, Miller was very disappointed.  
Miller had shared the same information with Tabor that he so graciously shared with me.   (Miller 2008)  Tabor chose to ignore it.  It obviously didn’t align with his “story line”.
Tabor had an excellent opportunity to take issue with the finger pointing that has haunted this tragedy.  Instead he just chose to perpetuate it – by pointing fingers in another direction.
 The Wilcox party deaths were not the fault of the National Park Service, Don Sheldon, or Joe Wilcox. 

 The climbing party’s decision to make their summit attempt when they did , unknowingly put themselves  at the worst possible place at the worst possible time. - A matter of hours in either direction would have dramatically changed the outcome.  Their open bivouac the night prior would have significance because they were about to face an unimaginable fury.  The extended time at high altitude would not only have been physically taxing but, had the potential to dull their reasoning.  Wayne Merry shared the following:

 The institute of Arctic Biology had done some studies on the mountain and had concluded that when climbers reach 17,200 ft., they are working with only 60% of their reasoning/ judgment skills, due to hypoxia. “(Merry 2008)

Mother Nature does not read climbing resumes or clocks before unleashing her fury.  Regardless of their experience– their fates were sealed by the mountain’s unpredictable, deadly weather.
The young men, who perished on Denali in 1967, were not the last to be overwhelmed by circumstances high on Mt. McKinley that proved simply beyond anyone’s control. Even today, it is the exceptional climbing season that does not see fatalities. Even with skilled rangers on high altitude patrol and modern helicopters standing by to assist today, the mountain’s storms still take their toll.

Famous Himalayan Mountaineer Dougal Haston, after surviving a McKinley storm wrote: “We were drawing on all our Himalayan experience just to survive…”

Finally, as Wayne Merry wrote so eloquently, 

"Any climber who sets foot on Mt.McKinley enters the realm of enormous natural forces which no human strength can overcome…..” (Tabor 2007)

 Hall was criticized in each of the books chronicling the accident for suggesting on July 27th to the survivors that the men could be alive. He is quoted as having said;

They‘ve got experienced men, including a couple with rescue experience.   We don’t see how anything too serious could have happened to a party that large”. (Tabor 2007)

Where would he get that idea?  Wilcox, and the families were still holding out hope…there was still rescue efforts under way… as unreasonable as it sounded to Schiff and the others, it was the attitude Dad needed to have. 
Tabor quotes an interview Dad gave once, when he received word that the bodies had been found, he had asked,

” Are they alive?  I can hear myself say it, and I knew damn well they weren’t alive, I just wished they’d be alive” 

Like everyone else, he just didn’t want to believe that any of the young men could be gone…
Dad told me many times that making the calls with Joe to inform the families of the young men’s deaths was the saddest and most painful thing he ever had to do…

  In his book, The Hall of the Mountain King.

Special thanks to Bill Romberg and the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group


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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