Mount McKinley

‘Forever on the Mountain:’ a McKinley saga

Forever on the Mountain: The Truth Behind One of Mountaineering’s Most Controversial and Mysterious Disasters

by James M. Tabor

W.W.Norton, New York, 2007. $26.95

Joe Wilcox never met Dr. Frederick Cook, but they do have an interesting connection. Both led expeditions and climbed Mount McKinley. Both of their expeditions generated controversies that have simmered for many years. And both men were at or near the top of the late Brad Washburn’s enemies list for decades while this reviewer achieved the distinction only much later and for a much shorter period. 

Readers of Polar Priorities know how the doctor made the list, but Wilcox used a different route. As a youthful 24-year old graduate student, he organized an expedition with a program to establish simultaneous camps on McKinley’s North and South Peaks. Wilcox then wrote to the expert, Washburn, asking if this had ever been done before. He also requested an expeditious reply since there was media interest in his plan. 

Washbum’s response to Wilcox was unique in the annals of mountaineering and polar exploration. Highlights (7) of Brad’s reply to the young climber included withering comments such as

:. . . I am amazed that the National Park Service would grant a permit for such a weird undertaking.. .For your information, according to our records, McKinley has not been climbed blindfold (sic) or backwards, nor has any party of nine persons yet fallen simultaneously into the same crevasse. We hope that you may wish to rise to one of these compelling challenges, 

As may be imagined, this letter stunned Wilcox.  He then became angry and fired off a second letter to his now ex-childhood idol, providing further details about his scientific program. He vented his frustration by adding: 

I sympathize with you for the great amount of unwanted publicity which you have received.. .Let’s not kid ourselves, you have received more publicity from your McKinley trips than anybody and are hardly in a position to write “for the love of it” letters. I’m quite surprised they haven’t named the mountain after you. Should we send you a royalty check for climbing your mountain? ...Good luck in your life as a hypocrite...

Wilcox then was pressured by the National Park Service (NFS) to accept three additional members from Colorado, giving him a total of 12 members. They ascended the Muldrow Glacier route through the Wonder Lake region that was pioneered by the 1910 Sourdough Expedition, and later used by Browne, Stuck, Thayer, Washburn and Gonnason. When they ascended high on the mountain, there were two summit teams. Wilcox went first with the three Colorado climbers, reached me summit and returned. Seven of Wilcox’s original team departed two days later and reached the summit, but were caught in a deadly blizzard on the descent. None survived.  

The author. Tabor, examined letters, documents, and interviewed virtually all living members of the expedition, NPS employees and others who played a part in the alpine tragedy, as well as Brad and Barbara, and a host of others in the mountaineering community.  By 2005, it was obvious that Brad’s memory was failing at the time of the author’s visit. It also was obvious that the author uncovered a great deal of unpublished material that sheds new light on the Pegasus Peak’s Twin Summits. The left summit’s triangular left side and glacier in the middle. Photo was taken to the left (west) of where the sketch in Cook’s diary was made. expedition, its internal conflicts, and why the lost climbers were not rescued. 

Tabor discusses in depth the failure of the NPS to coordinate an effective rescue as they did in 1960 for the Day-Whittaker party, and the strange behavior of pilot Don Sheldon. The author also documents Washburn’s letter writing campaign to sabotage the expedition with the NPS, to Don Sheldon and even to the packer who hauled supplies to the Wonder Lake area. Tabor also analyzed the error-filled report in the American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North America, and Washbum’s major role in the conference that was held after the disaster. Wilcox was not invited to the conference. 

Many of Brad’s 1967 activities and proclivities were repeated in 1994-1996, when he attempted to suppress data from this reviewer’s 1994 Ruth Glacier Expedition. Unlike 1967, he initiated contact with this reviewer when he learned about our expedition, and called numerous times before the expedition departed for Alaska. Our team included Vern Tejas, Scott Fischer, Walt Gonnason, Jim Garlinghouse, Doug Nixon, Marty Raney and Sheldon S. R. Cook.  

After our return, news reports apparently disturbed Brad so much that he traveled to Seattle to visit me, and to Anchorage to visit Vern Tejas. When Brad and his wife came to my home, he brought photos from his 1942 ascent. He had written that Cook’s summit photo was false because it showed footprints in the snow, but the snow and ice were packed so hard that you could not leave footprints there. Yet, here he was showing me photos of the summit where his own expedition had made footprints in the snow. Had he forgotten what he previously published? He also agreed to have a scholarly debate in a suitable forum, where we both would present our evidence and arguments over Cook’s ascent. We shook hands on our agreement. 

In Alaska, one of Brad’s favorite attacks on Dr. Cook blew up in his face. When he met with Tejas, he attempted to denigrate Dr. Cook and persuade Vern by stating, “Cook made the ridiculous claim that he saw the green of the Yukon from atop the ridge. You can’t see the green of the Yukon from there.” Vern replied, “We did.” A long period of silence ensued. Apparently Brad did not know that we had photographic proof that you could see the Yukon green patch from atop the ridge. As with Brad’s footprints in the snow assertion, writers, historians and climbers had simply accepted his statements without question or verification, despite the fact that they were not true.  

Although the program for the December 1994 American Alpine Club’s annual meeting had two open spots, one of Brad’s proteges blocked a presentation about our 1994 Ruth Glacier Expedition. At the meeting, one of Brad’s friends attacked me verbally, while others pressured Scott Fischer to retract what he had said to the media about our expedition. On the last day of the meeting I commented to Scott, “They are really running scared.” Scott replied, “Yeah, big time.” Later, Brad sent letters to Scott and another member of our expedition demanding that they retract their statements to the media or their mountaineering careers would be in jeopardy. Scott later told me, “If anyone else had sent me a letter like that, I would have picked up the phone and screamed at him.”  

During 1995, Brad refused to have a debate or any public academic discussion of Cook’s 1906 expedition. In early 1996, a reporter from the Anchorage Daily News contacted me to determine if I was coming to the trial of Dr. Cook that Brad was holding at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Since it was scheduled in two weeks, I could not attend on such short notice. Brad had invited neither me, nor Walt Gonnason, who was a graduate of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Obviously, he did not want anyone there who knew details about Cook’s expedition. It was a similar situation that Joe Wilcox encountered in 1967, where he was a material witness who was deliberately excluded from the proceeding. I sent letters to the newspapers in Anchorage and Fairbanks, comparing Washburn’s trial with that of the 1610 Galileo inquisition. The Fairbanks paper published my letter. 

Later in 1996, this reviewer returned to Mount McKinley to gather more information and investigate Brad’s Fairbanks assertion that the summit was argillite, not granite. Initially I had planned to use most of my 1994 team. Scott Fischer was not sure if he would be back from Mt. Everest in time. As it turned out, he never returned at all and died near the summit. Two others from 1994 could not go due to job commitments. 

Also during the planning stage, I had several discussions with Joe Wilcox about using a metal detector to search for the remains of the lost members of his expedition. He assured me that he and the families would greatly appreciate such an effort. He knew what clothing they wore and he would be able to identify the remains. The loss of three key people from my team and a torn rotor cuff in my shoulder disrupted our anticipated program. We were unable to search for Wilcox’s people, but Vern did secure a piece of granite from the rock outcrop just below the summit. Another Washburn claim bit the snow. 

In September 1996, this reviewer organized a Mount McKinley symposium at The Mountaineers in Seattle, focusing on Cook’s ascent and other expeditions to the East Ridge and Ruth Glacier. Brad flatly refused to participate, despite my assurance that this would give him wonderful opportunity to make his best case in front of the leading experts on the eastern approaches to the mountain. He would have a free trip to Seattle, as well as an opportunity to destroy Dr. Cook’s claim forever. Brad claimed it would be “suicide” for him to make such a presentation at the symposium. 

Instead, Brad resorted to a letter writing campaign (shades of 1967) to mountaineering and exploring organizations, demanding that they publish a denunciation of Dr. Cook. He also demanded that The Mountaineers to cancel the rental of their lecture hall, and pressured the keynote speaker, Galen Rowell, not to attend. Although he would not attend himself, two of his friends did attend and attempted to disrupt the symposium. Brad’s scheme failed and the symposium proceeded as scheduled. 

One attendee from Portland, Oregon, was so inspired by our symposium, that he and another member of the Mazamas organized a larger Mount McKinley symposium for 1997. Nearly everyone involved with climbing or writing about the mountain was invited to make a presentation. Joe Wilcox, Brad and I were among those scheduled to speak. It appeared that Brad and I would finally have our opportunity for a public debate. This would an even better forum than the one in Seattle. At a preliminary social, Brad seemed cordial to both Joe and me. 

After my arrival in Portland, I was amazed to learn that Brad had attended only on the condition that I would not be allowed to speak about Dr. Cook’s 1906 expedition. One organizer had dealt with Brad, and the other with me. My organizer knew very well what  I would be presenting, and that I was not about to let Brad censor my subject matter anymore than I could censor his. The only concession I would make was to add an account of Dr. Cook’s 1903 expedition. My presentation was last on the program, and at the conclusion, Brad erupted with profanity. My wife was amazed that the son of a clergyman would have such a vocabulary. This was the last time I saw Brad, and needless to say, he stopped telephoning. 

The author, Mr. Tabor, in writing an account of the Wilcox expedition, had no knowledge of the 1994 Ruth Glacier Expedition, and would have had no reason to believe it had any relevance to his book. The reason for including it in this review, is to confirm what the author found in his research: Brad Washburn actually would go to extremes to discredit and try to destroy the reputations of those he disliked. The methods he used in 1967, such as barrages of letters, a kangaroo court, intimidation and other proclivities were repeated three decades later. 

During his lifetime Brad’s significant contributions to the Museum of Science, mountaineering, photography and other fields rightfully earned him a large entry in “Who’s Who.” On the other hand, he never publicly apologized for his false statements and dirty deeds he perpetrated against Joe Wilcox, Dr. Frederick Cook, Dr. William Mills and others.


—Ted Heckathorn
Ted Heckathorn (left) with Scott Fischer, on McKinley.

Read about previous Mount McKinley/Denali topics.

Copyright 2007 - The Frederick A. Cook Society