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

ISBN: 0393061744
ISBN 13: 9780393061741
By: James M. Tabor

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About this book

Ten days passed with no rescue attempt, while more than half an expedition was stranded and dying at 20,000 feet during a vicious Arctic storm. The bodies were never recovered. And, for reasons that have remained cloudy, there was no proper official investigation of the catastrophe.This book begins as a classic tale of men against nature, gambling—and losing—on one of the world's starkest and stormiest peaks. Reckoning by lives lost, it was history's third-worst mountaineering disaster when it occurred—but elements of finger pointing, incompetence, and cover-up make this disaster unlike any other. James M. Tabor draws on previously untapped sources: personal interviews with survivors and those involved in the aftermath, unpublished diaries and letters, and government documents. He consults not only mountaineers but also experts in disciplines including meteorology, forensics, and psychology. What results is the first full account of the tragedy that ended a golden age in mountaineering.

Reader's Thoughts


Fascinating story of a mountain disaster, but I drew broader lessons. The causes of an accident are seldom simple or clear-cut. How much could have been avoided, and how much was luck? In some sense, we'll never know for sure. Those who report on events and analyze them, those who write the history books, are never completely objective. Who's to say what objectivity is anyway? The fact that this book was written four decades after the actual events probably allowed the author a clearer perspective than the protagonists who wrote their versions in the shadow of the catastrophe.


The third book I've read about climbing Mt. McKinley, this one was much harder to put down than the others. Twelve men, two different teams, were united by fate to climb North America's tallest mountain in 1967. The teams never merged into one cohesive unit. Accordingly, there was much discord among the members of these two teams.Most of the men reached the summit of Mt. McKinley, but on two different days. When the second team descended, the worst storm in over 30 years hit the mountain with full fury. There were 7 men in the second team, all of which perished in the storm.Most of the blame fell on one man, Joe Wilcox, the leader of the team. The author, James M. Tabor, goes into incredible detail to explain with equally incredible exactness the many and various causes of the tragedy. Although I knew from the beginning that the 7 had perished, reading the book made me feel like they were my friends and I found myself hoping that they had, indeed, survived the horrendous storm and would be found by the rescue team.


I am impatiently waiting for Andy Hall's book "Denali's Howl" release in June of this year to have a comparison of accounts and evidence.


** spoiler alert ** Tabor is a mediocre to at times a terrible writer. The subject should be incredibly interesting and easy to write, but he somehow makes it boring at times. It should be noted that his "research" is from interviews of the people involved in the '67 McKinley Wilcox expedition. He doesn't add anything all that new to the story and there is no closure on what happened to the men who were in all fairness abandoned by the NPS.


This book is an in-depth look at a climbing disaster on Mount McKinley, in which seven young men died. Tabor tries to determine what went wrong, and why. His book is fairly even-handed, but nonetheless, his sympathy for the group's leader is obvious, and probably justified.In 1967, a young man from Washington, Joe Wilcox, put together a group of other young men to climb Mount McKinley. At the last minute, the National Park Service pressured him to combine his group with a smaller group of other climbers from Colorado. From the outset, there were tensions between the group members, and between the leaders of the two groups, and they never really meshed together as a coherent climbing team. That was one problem that people later pointed to as a contributing factor to the disaster, but it was probably routine and minor in the final analysis. Many other expeditions have been beset with worse tensions and suvived without incident.Eventually, the large group broke into two smaller groups. The first, with Wilcox and most of the smaller group's members, reached the summit without problem. The second group summitted, but on the descent, was trapped high on the mountain by one of the worst storms ever to hit Denali. No real rescue attempt was mounted until ten days later. All seven lost climbers apparently froze to death. One body was located, but all of them remain forever on the mountain. This group has been criticized tacitical errors, in particular, for climbing to the summit when they did, rather than descending. The genesis of this criticism is the belief that there was a forecast of the coming storm. Tabor shows that this is not true -- there was no such forecast. If any tactical errors were made, other groups in the past, and groups following this, made similar decisions. It seems that the real criticism is that this group didn't have a crystal ball. Any so-called tactical errors, like the tension between the two groups, probably played only a minor role, if any, in causing the disaster. What this group did wasn't really all that different from what many other groups who summitted and descended without incident, did. A more serious problem was the bad blood which developed between Wilcox and Brad Washburn, a fabled and revered Danali and mountaineering icon following an exchange of testy letters between them. Washburn's antipathy and disdain for Wilcox may well have delayed and interfered with later rescue attempts, which were way too late and way too little. The inadequate rescue attempt, and the bungling and inexperience of the NPS were more major factors in the disaster than any errors on the part of the climbers. But perhaps the biggest factor of all was plain bad luck. The seven trapped climbers were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time -- high on Denali when one of the worst storms in its history hit. This bad luck was compounded by the inability of the NPS to put together an effective rescue effort, and the tardiness of the NPS to even realize that one was needed. And that was compounded by the enmity of Brad Washburn. One can't help but feel sympathy for the young men who climbed McKinley that year -- both those that perished and those that suvived. They were young, and perhaps a bit naive. Maybe some of their decisions were flawed. The NPS was perhaps simply inept and inexperienced in high altitude rescue, and consequently moved more slowly than it should have. Maybe all these should be criticized for their shortcomings. But it is a little more difficult to give Washburn a pass. He knew the mountain, and he knew people there who could have undertaken more effective rescue efforts, or who could have been prodded to move more quickly and devote more resources to a rescue attempt. The thought that he let his ego and upset at Wilcox's failure to pay him due deference get in the way of rescuing the trapped climbers is not a pretty one. Indeed, this is one of the things that makes Forever on the Mountain such a haunting tale. Seven idealistic young men died as a result of bad luck, small errors that later took on larger significance, petty squabbling, pride and ineptitude by others. Their story is sad and unforgettable.


This is an interesting read for all mountaineers. Revealing truth about the Denali disaster of 1967 when 7 climbers died during a extremely powerful storm that had trapped them up high for 8 days with no food, water and only sheltered by a snow cave. Tabor makes many assumptions (due to lack of information) about what the final days of the climbers were like and the hard decisions that they must have had to make. Beyond the assumptions though Tabor Sheds light on the failed rescue attempt that was never launched by the NPS, the people involved and their ultimate responsibility in all the debacle. One part of the book I found hard to swallow was the involvement of Brad Washburn and his influence on the way the people of the climbing expedition were treated and ultimately ignored during their time of desperation. The final straw was the slandering of Joe Wilcox the expedition leader and survivor by Washburn and Fellow expedition member Howard Snyder. The results were devastating to Wilcox's future life, happiness and reputation. Although Wilcox did all he could to help his trapped friends others still place most of the blame upon his shoulders.


In 1976, I had an office on the 6th floor of the Elmendorf AFB Hospital in Anchorage. Every day, when the sky was clear, I could look over my right shoulder and see Mt Denali(McKinley). It looked close enough to touch, although it was 170 miles away. Once, I took the Alaska Railroad right by the base of Denali. I never saw the mountain. I was too close. This mountain doesn't behave like other mountains.This is a historical narrative of 12 men who climbed Mt McKinley in July of 1967 and the 7 of those men who never came down, hence the title, "Forever On The Mountain". I read this book because I read a novel by the author---oddly enough about climbing down into caves instead of up into the sky--- and I was quite impressed with his ability as a writer. Now, I am even more so. This has to be the definitive work on "the 1967 Tragedy", at the time the worst disaster in US mountaineering history. The author's research is remarkable. He closely examines everything that led to this tragedy. So many different factors, not the least that they were on top of the mountain and were unexpectedly hit by the most violent storm in Denali history. Two separate teams of this expedition reached the summit on 2 consecutive days. The second team reached the summit, and triumphantly radioed to the ground based National Park Service that they had succeeded. They were never heard from again.

Samantha Kirk

Sebastian Junger-type look into natural and social forces at work in the 1967 Denali disaster. He creates a compelling, well-researched narrative that exposes motives behind critics of the teams, as well as a very nuanced look at the interpersonal dynamics. Repetitive in spots, but a really good read.

Kelley Billings

I had read Howard Snyder's "Hall of the Mountain King" and Joe Wilcox's "White Winds" years ago. Two totally different books about the same subject. I remember thinking at the time that I'd like to write one book incorporating these two books and fortunately, James Tabor has done just that with "Forever on the Mountain". He looks really hard at ALL the information at hand. He is perhaps more lenient with Washburn and Sheldon than I would be but probably is fairer than I am. I thought that he treated both Snyder and Wilcox justly. Outstanding synopsis of a terrible tragedy.

Leeann Horner

I had anticipated a gripping account of the events on McKinley, similar to the many books written about the 1996 and 2006 tragic incidents on Everest. Instead, I found myself struggling to get through yet one more "well maybe this is what happened" guess by the author. The lack of actual details and mountaineering experience combined with poor writing made this one of the most boring books I have ever read.


Forever on the Mountain is a fascinating mountaineering read. James M. Tabor captures the essence mountaineering with its beauty, challenges and the horrors unleashed when man's preparation is no match for nature. It is indeed a story of egos, of arrogance, of buck passing in a bureaucracy and finally it is the story of a few people who did all they could, even risking their own lives to save other lives.


What a great story; however I found the author very interruptive and had it out for Everest climbers. Too much justification for his own telling of the story, but overall enjoyed.

Cheryl C

I was interviewed by the author, James Tabor, for this book. Joe Wilcox was my husband at the time this mountaineering disaster happened. I helped with the planning and preparation of this ill-fated expedition.


It was refreshing to read an account of this story without terrible bias. I know that the information that comes from individuals who were there (Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder) should be the most reliable, however, I feel that both of these individuals let their feelings towards the other overshadow some of the truth of what really happened or how it happened. I liked how this author was able to tell the story without being influenced by personal feelings from the events.

Nikko Lee

Why I read this book:Blind Descent was the first book by James M. Tabor that I had read. I was impressed with the clarity of his style that is a blend of education and narrative. Blind Descent satisfied the nerdy part of me that wanted the facts and the casual reader part of me that wanted action. When I saw that he'd written a book about a mountaineering tragedy, I knew I would read it. A year later, I found a used copy of Forever on the Mountain in Rivendell (my favorite used and new bookstore in Montpelier VT).My one sentence summary:Twelve men set out to climb Mt. McKinley (Denali) but due to a combination of bad group dynamics, a hurricane-sized storm and mis-communications only five survived to tell the tale.Kuddos:This book is riveting. I had a hard time putting it down between the interpersonal conflicts and the deathly reality of climbing Denali. Tabor has a unique way of taking facts accumulated from a variety of sources and weaving them into a narrative that is as engaging as any fiction. The factual information was easy to digest and added to the narrative. I wondered if he would attempt a fictionalized version of what the seven men who died might have done while stranded, but he explains in the author's notes why he did not. I think he made the right call in sticking with facts and the experiences of others in similar situations. I especially enjoyed reading his own mountaineering experiences. It added to the overall authenticity of the book.Quibbles:The last section of the book concerning the survivors was a little slow but revealing about the impact this tragedy had on their lives. I was also a little disappointed by the lack of speculation regarding the men who perished and their last moments. However, considering we are talking about real people with surviving family, it was probably in good taste to avoid such speculation.Final Verdict:While this book does not attempt to lay blame or responsibility for the lives lost and the failure of a cohesive search and rescue operation, it does appear to dispel a lot of the speculation and blame assigning that had gone on between 1967 and the publication. Nothing will change the past for the survivors and surviving family and friends of the deceased. However, this book gave me a fascinating peak into the lives of the people how take on the challenge of Denali. While they may not have made it off the mountain, their stories live on. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in mountaineering or the impact of tragedy on the human soul.I see that James Tabor has tried his hand at fiction. I've added The Deep Zone to my Amazon wishlist.

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