Jeffrey T. Babcock, Death on Denali: Climbing Disasters on Mount McKinley (DVD)
I saw the mountains where the unchanging sunrise lay
- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Death on Denali is a fit and fine companion to Jeffrey Babcock’s charmer and suspense packed non-fiction novel, Should I Not Return (2012). In fact, the finely tuned and wisely orchestrated telling of the various Denali expeditions in Death on Denali (running time 106 minutes) elicits many a sit down and see as mountaineering tales unfold from multiple angles.
There are many layers to ponder in this DVD. Those who are mountaineering history buffs (with an interest in the many attempts to summit Denali) are offered a generous and informed aerial overview of the many attempts, in the early decades of the 20th century, by the dishonest Dr. Cook, the Sourdough Expedition, Brown, Stuck and the formidable Bradford Washburn to summit Denali (some more successful than others). The different routes are highlighted and illustrated in precise detail. The DVD is worth the watching if for no other reason than the early attempts (some more tragic than others) to stand on the South Peak of Denali has its own magnetic attraction.
There are others with an abiding interest in understanding why 7 of the 12 on the Wilcox climb died on Denali on July 1967. Jeffrey Babcock, to his meticulous credit, points the way to must read books to get a fix and feel for different interpretive approaches to the 1967 disaster: Snyder (1973), Wilcox (1981), Tabor (2007), Babcock (2012) and Hall (2014)—there is even Sheldon’s Wager in the Wind. The listed books are yet another convincing reason why Death on Denali is a keeper and must see DVD.
But, there is yet more to entice the curious mountain keener. Jeffrey was on the 1967 climb of Denali when 7 of the 12 of the Wilcox group died in a relentless storm—he was part of another climbing team, but he was also part of the search and rescue (there were, sadly so, none to rescue) team. Death on Denali has plenty of graphic photos of both the sheer beauty and cathedral like magnificence of Denali but also the remnants and remains of those who perished---sights not for the faint of heart. A significant part of the DVD lingers on this needful core issue—always of prime importance when actual witnesses recount and record their impressions.
There is also a more reflective and philosophical tone in the DVD, pointing and hinting towards a deeper spiritual aspect to Death on Denali. There are literal and spiritual mountains, there are literal and spiritual treks and climbs---none can avoid the latter pilgrimage through life. Some of the final reflections, including poignant and evocative insights from a sister of one of the dead climbers go deep and tender.
These are but some of the reasons that Death on Denali is a must see and purchase. There are, though, other reasons to delight in the CVD—the visual mountain feast, from different angles, of Denali, bunched up glaciers and deep gorged crevasses, ant like climbers and surrounding mountains---also some of the tidbits and morsels of Alaskan history makes for a generous entrée to mountaineering lore and legend.
There is no doubt that Should I Not Return and Death on Denali are hand in glove fits—they belong together and the one without the other is like a right without a left arm, a left without a right leg---in short, much is missing and unbalanced when only one or the other is read, watched and pondered. The creative genius and tale telling beauty of these mountaineering classics should be in the library of anyone minimally concerned with the often complicated yet tantalizing world of mountaineering culture of which Denali has many secrets revealed and yet to be revealed.
I have been quite fortunate the last few years to get to know Jeffrey Babcock—the fact he (and a few others) managed to live through the ill fated and tragic 1967 climb of Denali gives him a unique read on the reasons why others died. The 1967 disaster on Denali remains, to this day, one of the worst high mountaineering accidents in North America.
My many emails with Jeffrey have illuminated much for me that is not in the book or DVD, but both book and DVD tell a tale not to miss.