On February 28, 1967, Dave Johnston, Art Davidson, and Ray Genet became the first climbers to stand on Mt. McKinley’s 20,322-foot summit in winter. On the descent, the weather turned, and they dug a tiny snow cave above 18,000 feet and hung on for six days and nights, barely able to sit up in what they wondered would be an icy grave. The windchill dropped temperatures as low as -148 Fahrenheit, and their teammates lower on the mountain assumed the worst.
After six days, the men were able to descend – just barely. Davidson’s account of the climb and descent, Minus 148 Degrees, was published in 1970 and instantly became a mountaineering classic. In 2013, the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. McKinley, Mountaineers Books published an anniversary edition of Minus 148 Degrees with a new prologue and afterword updated with details of more recent winter attempts on McKinley.
Davidson, who has now had almost 46 years to look back on the groundbreaking climb he undertook as a young man, granted Adventure Journal an exclusive interview. He did not disappoint.
1. This was the first book you’d ever written. The climb itself made history, and the book made you the author of a mountaineering classic. How did Minus 148 Degrees change your life?
When I was young, I was fine with being a climbing bum. Except for a semester playing poker, I didn’t go to college. Writing a book at a relatively young age may have given some people the idea that I wasn’t a complete flake.
When Minus 148 was first published, I was 25 and looking for a way to make a living. When it received some good reviews, I was tempted to pursue a career in writing. But I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of going around and writing about what others were doing. There were things I wanted to do. I plunged into trying to protect wild areas in Alaska and helping Native Alaskans preserve their lands and way of life. Twenty years later, I was bursting with things from my own life experience that I wanted to write about. I think having written Minus 148 gave me the confidence to write a book like In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez about that tragic, complex, and emotionally-charged oil spill.
2. Minus 148 Degrees is one of the best mountaineering books, and one of the best adventure books, ever written. Why do you think it appeals to so many people, mountaineers and non-mountaineers alike?
I like to think that people find something of themselves and their life in Minus 148. To the extent I’ve succeeded in telling our story, it’s not just about a mountain in winter, but about having a dream; about taking on a great challenge and then struggling as hard as you can to reach your goal – or to survive. It’s about coping with the death of a friend and staring your own mortality in the eye. Friends risked their life for us. And we risked ours for them. We dealt with uncertainty, fear, and our own frailty. There were mistakes and moments of courage. And no matter how desperate our situation, we never gave up on ourselves. I think most people face some of these things in their life.
3. Had you read a lot of mountaineering literature before you started writing Minus 148? Did any particular authors influence your writing?
When I started climbing, I was inspired by Herzog’s Annapurna, Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless, and Hermann Buhl’s account of climbing Nanga Parbat. However, when I sat down to write Minus 148 I wanted to write a different kind of book.
Exciting as the classics of that era were, they tended to cast climbers as heroes and gloss over who they really were and what really happened on their climbs. We weren’t famous mountaineers. We didn’t see ourselves as heroes. We were just eight guys who wanted to get up there and see if we could climb that mountain in all that cold and darkness. The heart of our experience was a tangle of tragedy and success – and some very intense and conflicting emotions. Was it worth going on after one of us died? Why had three of us been left for dead?
Each of us had our strengths and weaknesses. We had a lot of passion and determination. We also wrestled with doubt, anxiety, and fear. These feelings were an important part of our experience. If I was going to write about our winter climb, I felt I had to include them in the book.
If I were sitting down to write Minus 148 today, I’d probably be influenced by writers like David Roberts and Jon Krakauer, who are introspective and do a wonderful job of digging in under the surface of events to tell a fuller, more truthful story. But in 1967, their works had yet to be published. So I was stuck with being influenced by Hemingway and Henry Miller, both of whom who had a very open, straightforward way of telling their stories.
4. One of the unique things about the book is how revealing it was about the internal arguments and disagreements within the team, and your inclusion of your teammates’ journals in the book. Did any of the team members disagree with your version of the story?
My teammates were very generous in letting me use passages from their journals and in giving me feedback while I was writing Minus 148. This probably helped avert disagreements or hard feelings when the book came out. We also understood that each of us experienced our winter climb somewhat differently. What makes an impression on one person, may not matter to another. If each of us had written a book about our winter climb, I’m sure each version would have been a little different.
Twenty years after our climb, I asked Shiro Nishimae, who had been such a steady presence on our climb, if I’d gotten Minus 148 right. Had I made any mistakes in writing about our experience? “Just one,” he said. “When you wrote about the little pile of food you found in the snow cave at our high camp, you thought it was for you. But it wasn’t. You see, in Japan we have a custom of sometimes leaving a small offering of food in the woods for the spirit of a loved one who has died. That food wasn’t left for you to find and eat. You were dead. I left it for your spirit.”
5. You spent six nights in an ice cave above 18,000 feet, with a temperature around 40 below zero, hardly any food, and hardly any water. Has the misery and desperation of that situation faded a little over 45 years, or do you ever shiver a little bit thinking about it?
I’m over the shivering. Though I do remember how cold we were every time I slip into my hot tub on a cold winter night.
6. Hundreds of people try to climb Denali every year now. What was special about the ’60s and ’70s that’s changed now?
I was fortunate to go on three expeditions to Denali in the ’60s; each time we were the only ones on the mountain. It was quite a feeling to be out there with just a few friends in that vast expanse of ice and snow.
In 1988, I decided to return to Denali with my 19-year-old son, Dylan. I knew I’d love being up there with him, but I was apprehensive about encountering a host of other climbers on the mountain. Sure enough, that exquisite solitude we’d known was gone. In its place were all these men and women, young and old, from all over the world, each of them loaded-down with gear, faces smeared with sun block, heading out for the adventure of their lives. I couldn’t help but be happy for them.
If I were climbing Denali today, I think I’d miss the feeling of being on your own up there. We didn’t have cell phones. There weren’t Park Service camps and climbing rangers ready to help in an emergency. If you wanted to know what was happening with the weather, you watched the clouds. If you ran into trouble, you had to rely on yourself and your teammates.
7. You found out after the 1967 Denali climb that you wife was pregnant while you were up there, and after you came down, fatherhood and family changed your goals and life quite a bit. How did your idea of adventure evolve in the 45 years after that climb?
I’ve found that there are many kinds of adventures and challenges in life. Some you seek. Others find you.
When I was young, I thought of adventure as an event – a climb, an expedition, rafting a wild river, or picking grapes with gypsies and laboring in a Yugoslavian work camp, as I did before coming to Alaska. Over the years, I’ve come to think of adventure as a way of living, a way of pursuing your dreams or dealing with hardships that come your way.
I approached marriage and doing my best to be a good father as an adventure. It’s certainly had its challenges. My first wife once said that being married to me was like being in a wagon pulled by a herd of wild horses, which I took as a compliment, though I doubt she meant it to be.
Writing Endangered Peoples about the struggles of indigenous people around the world was a very heart-felt adventure. When my bank went under and pushed me into bankruptcy, rescuing my home and business wasn’t a lot of fun, but treating it as the kind of challenge I’d found in the mountains, breaking down all the little things I needed to do to survive, helped me get through it.
As I look back, I see that approaching each day, each part of my life – whether writing, coaching kids, building my own home, fighting for parks and wild rivers, or raising children – with a sense of adventure has enriched my life at every turn.
Photos by George Wichman