Shadow of Denali — Book Review

Post by blogger | August 11, 2011      

When Jonathan Waterman’sIn the Shadow of Denali” was published some years ago, I felt it was a seminal work. I still do. Not only did the book give you inside story on the rowdy and sometimes downright ugly Denali climbing and guiding scene, but it also sketched an autobiographic look at Jon, who’s since become an incredibly prolific adventurer/writer.

Adventure and challenge is what I sought as a young man on Denali in 1973, as well as when we skied from the summit in spring of 2010. The theme of Jon’s book is that same quest for adventure — only in many odd permutations. Thus, Jon mourns as the mountain is overrun with stunt men, clients who pay for the summit, and everyday climbers who leave their feces and trash, take only memories and photos — and keep taking, taking, taking.

Much of mountain literature takes the simplistic view of conquest, with little regard to the mountain world: animals; rivers; glaciers; our impact. Indeed, even those books that do cover more than hubris still read like guides to political correctness — the photo of the crowded camp or garbage dump (or cleaning up the dump) is standard, but did the book really talk about why the garbage is there, or why all the people? Refreshingly, instead of spouting pabulum heroics or hauling a few loads of tin cans, Jon stabs with a sharp pen deep into the mountain that defines North American mountaineering. The stink of fermented feet; grimace of a corpse; folly of amateur climbers; soiling his own pants; fear of a wild wind that can extirpate humanity as sure as a fusion bomb — nothing escapes Jon’s scrutiny.

If you want to know what the honorable world of mountain guiding is like, read chapter 4 “Paying for the Summit.” Hauling tuna is not Jon’s choice career, and he tells why rather bluntly. Of course, if you had to physically drag a person across a glacier — a minister no less — you’d probably have second thoughts about the job.

Curious about the father of Denali mountaineering, Brad Washburn? Read Jon’s terrific nutshell biography. Want to know about the male climber/partner relationship — heretofore only whispered about? Read on. Ever heard about cayenne pepper keeping your feet warm? Don’t try it till you read about it here.

Waterman during his Alaska days.

Waterman during his Alaska days.

Then there’s skiing. While skis are used on many, perhaps most, Denali climbs, summit ski descents are rare in ratio to the number of climbers who peak. Many things contribute to this. The cold and altitude make skiing a low priority when you collapse on the summit after the last breath sucking slog across the infamous Football Field — that seemingly endless low angled terrain near the summit. On top of that, while the skiing near the summit is easy, the way is blocked lower down by ice fields, avalanche danger, steep couloirs, and aretes you may have to tightrope walk above the void.

Waterman documents the first complete ski of the peak, (Tsuyoshi Ueki and Kazuo Hoshikawa, 1970) and also debunks Sylvan Sudan’s claim of a descent two years later (Sudan did not ski from the summit, when he easily could have). After the late Patrick Vallencant gives up on skiing Denali’s gargantuan Wickersham Wall, Jon meets him and asks why he didn’t stick around and ski the regular route on the peak. “Est tres facile, compredez-vous?” was his reply.

While all the “Shadow of Denali” chapters are worthy, three stand out. It’s no coincidence that all three delve deep into humanity and interpersonal relations. It happens that by chance or destiny (depending on your world-view), Jon shares his name with the “Other John Waterman.” This doppelganger prompts our Jon Waterman to dig into the psyche of a man (the other) for whom mountains became an illness. This obsessed other Waterman, after doing perhaps the longest and boldest solo climbs ever, climbed alone to his doom. If that is not enough (and it’s not), Jon devotes a chapter to that famous Denali death climb covered in the classic book “Hall of the Mountain King.” But instead of endless picayune analysis of the climb, Jon speaks of two survivors (competing leaders) who have to live with the deaths of seven men. Heady stuff. Then, for the third chapter in his core trilogy, Jon gets into his own most powerful Denali experience, his unprecedented winter ascent of the Cassin Ridge.

The Cassin chapter is called Winter of our Discontent, and you’ll reach for your parka while you turn pages. Come to think of it, after my read is when I gave up extreme winter climbing and nailed my ice tools to the garage wall as objects-de-art. The story starts out innocently enough. Jon splinters his leg ice climbing in New Hampshire, but bounces back and becomes an ice animal. He and his friends revel in winter. They climb ice gullies nude. They practically tear Mount Washington to pieces with their axes and crampons.

Naturally, it all leads to friendship and the ultimate challenge: Denali in winter. You can feel it. You debark a bush plane on a deep-freeze glacier, and step into a nightmarish world of thirty-below-zero dusk. You burrow into the ice like shell shocked infantry in no-man’s-land. You crap your nest. You climb. You wait for a wind that will kill you sure as a direct shell hit. You sicken. You’re dying. Your friends must abandon you or perhaps die as well. Read it.

If I have any criticism of Jon’s book, it’s regarding a scope that’s perhaps too broad. Shadow covers everything from biography, autobiography, science, religion, and politics. With any one of these subjects, you get the feeling Jon could write a captivating book. Take bears. After Jon’s teasing introduction to the bruin, and his amusing, sometime poignant account of man and beast, you know ten chapters on that subject would be about right. Or how about his winter climb? Denali is one of the most repugnant winter challenges in the world. Just the failures could make a book. Nonetheless, putting it all under one cover fits our fast paced world. Indeed, it kept my bed-lamp on.

For pure curiosity’s sake, start your read with Waterman’s preface. Ever wondered about all the books and articles that do not get published, the ones you suspected hit hard, or really tell it? Jon doesn’t use names here, but it’s about as close to kiss-and-tell as we’ll get in the petty world of mountain literati. For though Jon has something to say, and his crafted words made me laugh, cry, and get angry, much of the material in this book did time in the reject pile. Indeed, one member of an editorial committee responded to Jon’s query by writing,”While a book on Denali is worth pursuing, I think Waterman faces a mountain of work…,” then summarily rejected the idea. What’s with bozo editors like that? Don’t they think writers work? Thankfully, Jon is not afraid to labor, “In the Shadow of Denali” proves it.


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8 Responses to “Shadow of Denali — Book Review”

  1. Mike Marolt August 11th, 2011 3:39 pm

    It’s one of the best adventure books i have read. He also wrote a book on the first (his ascent) winter ascent of the Cassin on Denali, but i can’t remember the title. ( Suffice to say, he is probably the toughest mountaineer i have ever known, doing ascents in AK and Canada that most people are not aware of). An incredible read as well. Also his attempt on St Elias is beyond amazing. But his gem of gems is his latest, the River Running Dry. JW has a talent for writing, but more importantly, he is just an incredible story teller. All his books are really worth reading. I am sure he has a web site, as i can’t remember the titles, but like i said, all worthy, no doubt.

  2. Lou August 11th, 2011 5:13 pm

    Mike, I linked his website at start of review. Or at least I think that’s his site. Typical old-school author, not the greatest web presence. But then, he’s probably busy writing instead of blogging (grin).

  3. Mahk August 11th, 2011 6:02 pm

    My all-time favorite book!

  4. Lou August 11th, 2011 6:21 pm

    I’m glad this resonates with some of you guys. I was trepedatious about re-publishing the review. But it really was buried, had a bunch of broken links trying to point to it and stuff like that. Nice to get it into the mix. Nice you can still get the book via Amazon, would be cool if it was available for an E-reader of some sort. Jon deserves it.

  5. Lou August 11th, 2011 6:31 pm

    I was just re-reading some of the book. My gosh, what a hoot and more. Opened it up and there it was, the guide who claimed to be the first to mate on the summit, and who subsequently had a son who became the youngest climber to summit (at the time). Implied in the writing is that same child was the one conceived on the summit. LOL!

  6. brian h August 11th, 2011 6:34 pm

    I liked this book a lot. I found “the other John Waterman” to be heart wrenching in that Jon became close with the young climbers father and that brought out a complex and tortured back story. The whole book is great and very ‘Alaskan’.

  7. teo August 15th, 2011 9:12 pm

    Thanks for the repost. Just reserved it at the library and am looking forward to some winter reading to alleviate all this summer 😉

  8. Lou August 16th, 2011 8:20 am


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