The shadow of death

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.

2 thoughts on “The shadow of death

  1. This sounds good.

    I'm reading that Bear Man book…as fascinating as his life was, I think he had a serious problem. Even more serious than Jimmy's adrenaline addiction.

    Come to think of it, the guy in this Denali book seems to have a problem too. But whatever.

    P.S. The Dylan quote at the top of the page makes me sad.

    Love you!

  2. But it's true a lot of time. Here's more of it, but the whole thing is at

    You know, it's funny how things never turn out the way you had 'em planned.
    The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn't Henry Porter.
    And you know there was somethin' about you baby that I liked that was always too good for this world
    Just like you always said there was something about me you liked that I left behind in the French Quarter.

    Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.
    I don't have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I'm gone.
    You always said people don't do what they believe in, they just do what's most convenient, then they repent.
    And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby, and let's hope that the roof stays on.”

    There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.
    I don't remember who I was or where I was bound.
    All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun and he was shot in the back.
    Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.

    Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls, teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
    Brownsville girl, show me all around the world, Brownsville girl, you're my honey love.

    Brownsville Girl, by Bob Dylan. Copyright ©1986 Special Rider Music

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