By Art Davidson
This book took a toll on me unlike any book I have read in recent memory. I started off warm and cozy in my life here in southern Iowa and finished shivering and barely clinging to life in a helicopter ride off the slopes of Denali. Few books can grip me as thoroughly as Art Davidson's account of the first winter ascent of Denali that almost took his life.
The idea, like so many, seemed to come from left field but soon Art Davidson was pursuing a team to climb the tallest mountain in North America and also the coldest mountain in the world. Though his idea came during a summer climb, he thought that it should be done during the coldest time of the year and unbelievably to me, he got seven other people to agree.
To this point of the story, I hadn't yet been gripped but that all stopped a few days into the expedition when Art vividly described wiping the blood and mucus off the face of one of the expeditions strongest climbers and trying to unsuccessfully revive him after a fall into a crevasse. Now with one of their members dead, the story becomes and emotional telling of the expedition which ultimately decided to continue the ascent. I think I became the eight member as some sort of cross world/time and space transplant. I'm not sure I was willing.
The journey continues on up the mountain with mostly good weather following them and the mood of the expedition slowly changes. With it, I really start getting into the story cheering them on as I read the book, forgetting about the little splurb in the book introduction about how Art had barely survived the trip. However when Art Davidson set up the splitting of the party and his group of four making the summit, I suddenly recalled that little splurb and read with dread as they began their decent down the mountain.
The camped at the notorious Denali pass in calm winds late at night with the plan of continuing down the next morning. They woke to 150 mph hour winds and temperatures less than minus fifty degrees which leads to the title of the book which refers to the windchill temperature in those conditions. Now fighting for their lives, they dig a hole in the ice and snow to wait it out but not before two of the three climbers including Art, frostbit their hands to the point of being useless. The other climber with frostbit hands also frostbit his feet.
For the next week, the would literally be pinned in their snow cave by these fierce winds trying to survive without water and less food than one member would normally consume in one day. Severely dehydrated and all on the brink of death, the climber with the frostbit hands and feat made the decision to brave the wind and cold to scramble to the far side of the pass to retrieve a cached fuel container that may or may not be there knowing full well that his chances of surviving were slim to none. He did survive and with drinking water in them, the wind began to die down for the first time in eight days.
Dave, the only one with the function of his hands, helps the other two climbers into their shoes and packs what little they have in their sleeping bags which they drape around their necks since their packs had been blown away in the wind. Roped together knowing that if one falls they all die, they set off down the icy pass towards the lower camps and are eventually rescued by a helicopter called in by the other members of their expedition. The life changing experience had come to an end but not the account of it in the book.
Davidson wrote about the fate of the members after the climb in an afterword section of the book. Pirate, the man with frostbit hands and feet that risked his life for the fuel can would go on to have a larger than life career leading mountain climbing expeditions before losing his life on Everest at the age of 50 when he bivouacked with an exhausted client too exhausted to descend. Dave, the man who had saved both Art and Pirate's lives, would live out his life as a park ranger though he would again attempt a winter ascent of Denali, this time solo and starting from his cabin on skis. He made it up part of the way before getting frostbit a little and not wanting to become another statistic, turned around and skied home. Art would also lose his zeal for climbing and would instead become a prominent conservation activist fighting to preserve large parts of Alaska.
Finished with this book, I felt exhausted and used up like I had been there myself. In fact, the very next day, I would fall ill for a couple days with some sort of bug followed a couple days later by a head cold. I'm not blaming the book but I do eye it suspiciously now on my shelf. I also decided to inoculate myself by choosing my next book set on a south pacific island.