In the Shadow of Denali: Life and Death on Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, Jonathan Waterman. The book is appropriately titled, because — while it is not overly morbid — this is not a story of triumph or achievement.
Waterman tells the story of Denali (McKinley, in the more recent, American nomenclature) over the past century or so, mainly concentrating on the ’70s and early ’80s. The early history of the peak is the story of exploration, first ascents via various routes and struggling through rough terrain and poor weather. The later history, unfortunately, is as commercial as that of Everest.
Waterman defends the Alaskan way of life, the traditional name for the mountain and preservation of natural areas large enough for bears and other wildlife to thrive away from human settlement. The main stories, however, paint pictures of various colorful and tragic characters as they deal with Denali in their own ways. These characters, including Waterman himself, fall into one of two camps. At their best, Denali is an obsession. This includes Waterman, many of the talented climbers and lovers of the mountain for its own sake. At humans’ worst, Denali is just a trophy. For these people, Waterman quotes longtime Alaska guide Brian Okonek as saying, it’s not about climbing, but having climbed, “then moving on to something else.”
Whether one is obsessed with Denali or attempts to take it as a trophy, it seems death is a constant possibility. For the longtime lovers of the peak, death may come as a fitting end to a life spent haunting the peak and its surrounding landscape. For those less noble, who seek to experience the mountain before going home, death may come much more quickly (unless it is prevented by needless and costly rescues). Either way, life spent around Denali is full of death, and Waterman seems resigned to that fact.