In 1967, a joint team of climbers from Colorado and Seattle embarked on a mission to scale the highest point on the continent: 20,323-foot Mount McKinley (also known by its native name Denali). Of the 12 men who set out on the arduous trek to the fabled summit, only five returned alive. Seven young men lost their lives high on the mountain when a storm of enduring ferocity assailed the summit and rendered both retreat and rescue impossible. At the time, it was the third worst mountaineering disaster in history in terms of lives lost.
All three Colorado members of the expedition made the summit and descended safely, just hours before the heavens unleashed hell on Denali. Howard Snyder, Paul Schlichter and Jerry Lewis were the Colorado contingent, a strong group of young climbers in their early 20s who had earned their stripes by climbing Long’s Peak in the winter, scaling the Tetons in Wyoming and ascending lofty, high-altitude volcanoes in Mexico. Headstrong, confident and determined, as young men often are, the group set its sights on America’s highest point with Snyder in the lead. The most experienced member of the group, Snyder found a friend and climbing partner in Schlichter, whom he met at Boys State in 1962. Lewis, another friend of Snyder’s, joined the duo as the third member.
To climb Denali in 1967, teams had to consist of at least four members to be granted access by the National Park Service. The Colorado team did have a fourth member, but that person was injured in a car accident just prior to departure to the mountain. Forced by the park service to join teams with a less-organized yet equally ambitious Seattle team or abandon the climb all together, the Coloradans hesitantly joined forces with the nine-person Seattle team led by a climber named Joe Wilcox.
“We had to traverse by foot to reach the base of Denali,” recalls Schlichter, “and that’s where we got to know Joe Wilcox’s team.”
Schlichter, now 65, is a retired Air Force pilot whose speech is calm, confident and centered as he recalls the events 43 years later. “Some of the personality conflicts that have been reported were overblown, but the teams did suffer from a lack of cohesive leadership.”
By all accounts, the involuntary meshing of teams brought about unexpected dynamics. Snyder and Wilcox assumed the roles of co-leaders, though Snyder’s Colorado team had the edge in experience and cohesiveness. By the time the 12 climbers had reached high camp at 19,000 feet, the group had broken off into three distinct factions.
Wilcox had in some ways defected from his group of northwest climbers and aligned himself with the trio of Coloradans, who had stuck together throughout. Four of the Seattle climbers had been strong on the climb, but opted for a rest day at high camp while the remaining four struggled to fight up the peak. It was decided that Wilcox would join the three Coloradans for the first summit push, while the others would make their attempts on subsequent days.
Wilcox and the Coloradans made the summit while the eight remaining climbers stayed in high camp, building their energy for their own attempts. One of the climbers in the Seattle group chose to descend to Camp 6 at 15,000 feet with the four men returning from the summit. Those five men were in the relative safety of a lower camp as the other seven men remained high on the summit ridge at 19,000 feet.
What followed was one of the most vicious storms on record. Punishing the mountain for more than 10 days, the powerful storm system swept away the lives of the seven high on the mountain while the five men lower on the peak — the three Coloradans and two Seattle climbers — were able to escape alive.
The survivors had been in touch with the National Park Service, but rescue efforts were hampered by bad weather and poor internal communication by the NPS.
“I remember they sent a C-130 to search for the men on the mountain.” Schlichter says. “We volunteered to fly along to help spot the missing climbers, as we had good knowledge of where they were on the mountain. We were told no civilians were allowed on the search-and-rescue planes. I wasn’t a civilian. I was a newly commissioned officer in the Air Force. They still refused to let me on board.”
The aftermath of the tragic events were later recounted by Howard Snyder in his 1973 book The Hall of the Mountain King and more recently by James Tabor’s 2007 title Forever on the Mountain. Controversy around the event swirled, but as the storm calmed, the three Coloradan men left the mountain and, after separating their climbing gear, took their own paths.
Snyder relocated to Canada.
Lewis remained in Castle Rock, and Schlichter entered his career as an Air Force pilot, serving in Vietnam.
“While the events on Denali were tragic, I was more deeply affected by the loss of two fellow pilots and friends in the war. We were closer,” he says. “I have put the events of 1967 in the past and moved on.” Schlichter is not void of emotion around the past, but comes across as a very centered man who continues to enjoy cycling, hiking and climbing in the outdoors.
On Nov. 6, Snyder and Schlichter will reunite in Boulder for the first time in 33 years for the Colorado Mountain Club Boulder Group’s annual dinner. Jerry Lewis is unable to attend. Both will be speaking at the dinner, which begins at 5 p.m. at Boulder’s Avalon Ballroom. Visit http://tinyurl.com/24dntwu for more details.
Snyder has taken a philosophical approach to the events of the past, while Schlichter has a more practical view. They have remained in touch over the years, and their bond will always be part of American mountain lore. While it was the ambition and hardwired thirst for adventure that drove them to push their limits as boys just out of college, the lives they have lived in the shadow of Denali have defined them as men. The public is being encouraged to attend the CMC event to hear the two men speak of the impact America’s tallest mountain has had in the years that followed one of American’s deadliest mountaineering events.