Andy Hall: Finding the Narrative

On Thursday, Feb. 5, Andy Hall and David Stevenson meet for an onstage Crosscurrents discussion titled “Fact or Fiction: Common Challenges in Finding and Creating the Narrative.”  Join us from 7:00 to 8:30 pm at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Auditorium, the 7th Avenue entrance.

I had no
idea that I’d write “Denali’s Howl” when I was 5 years old, living in Mount
McKinley National Park during that tragic summer when Denali’s deadliest
climbing accident killed seven young men.
I had no
idea I’d write the book when I was 45 years old.
But when I
was 49, I was deeply dissatisfied with my job at Alaska magazine and looking to
make a big change.
I’ve been
a writer and editor since graduating from the University of Alaska in 1986 and
had always thought about writing a book, but I could never settle on a subject.
The Wilcox Expedition had always been of interest to me since my father was
superintendent of the park at the time, and my own fuzzy memories popped up
whenever I heard reference to the expedition. My dad had passed away by the
time I was ready to tackle it, so I had lost not only a cherished person in my
life, but also a critical source for the story. 
Still, I had been loosely researching for many years and even without my
father, I knew I had enough material that had not been seen before.
Though the
accident had been written about a number of times, a comprehensive account of
the tragedy—including the rescue effort—had never been done. So, I quit my job
and went to work on the book.
I spent
nine months researching and writing the proposal; I travelled to Fairbanks,
Denali National Park, Atlin, British Columbia, and Kona, Hawaii, for research
before I had enough to write it. Once that was done, an agent agreed to take me
on, and she quickly sold the idea to Dutton. When I signed the contract, I had
a year to write, but I continued to research for another seven or eight months
before I really began putting it together. By the time I began putting words
down, I had close to 100 hours of interviews with survivors, rescuers and
others involved with the incident – as well as modern-day experts.
I filled
two accordion-style briefcases with hundreds of documents related to the event,
including letters, reports, journals, official exchanges, maps and photos. I
had an equal number of similar documents in digital format stored on my hard
drive. I read many books on climbing and did a fair amount of sleuthing, too.
Some of the people I wanted to interview had left Alaska years ago, or never
lived here at all, and I had to find them. It was challenging, but strangely
addictive, so much so that when I had to stop researching and start writing, I
missed it terribly.
One of the
oddest things to happen during the research occurred when I was in the storage
unit where my father’s belongings are stored. I was looking for some papers
from his time in the Park Service but had no luck finding them in the crowded
unit. While moving boxes I uncovered the large wooden desk that had occupied
his den for as long as I can remember. I walked over to it, slid the middle
drawer open and was surprised to find it still held the jumble of stuff I
remember from when I was a kid, digging around in my dad’s desk: a pocket
knife, postcards, stamps, coins, a magnifying glass, pictures of long-dead
relatives, small human teeth—probably mine—and myriad other paraphernalia that
had accumulated there over the decades that he had owned it. I ran my hand
through the hodgepodge and randomly picked up a small, black box four or five
inches square. I turned it over and saw a name scrawled on lid: Wilcox.
Incredulous, I opened it and found a reel-to-reel tape labeled, Mountaineer
Afraid to
play it, I had the tape digitized and when I finally listened to the audio, I
heard the voices of the rescue climbers telling the park rangers what they had
seen as they ascended the Harper Glacier and encountered the frozen bodies on
the upper mountain. Those descriptions and the other details the tape contained
were integral to the book. I don’t know how I could have detailed that part of
the climb without them. What drew me to the desk and to that tiny box amid the
scores of boxes, trunks and cases of stuff? I don’t know but it was eerie, and felt
like more than just a chance discovery.
When I
started writing in earnest, I tried to follow the outline I had provided in the
proposal. I had planned to jump back and forth between 1967 and some of the present-day
research I had conducted, but it just wasn’t working. Then I realized why I was
having trouble: The core of the story is linear; it’s about climbing a
mountain; it starts at the bottom and ends at the top. I had to write it that
way, so that’s what I did, figuring I could move the chapters around later if
it felt right.
Once it
began to flow, all of that research paid off. I believe nonfiction is
nonfiction. You don’t make things up, you don’t speculate, you don’t put words
in people’s mouths or thoughts in their heads. You report what was said or what
happened in as much detail as possible so the reader can visualize it, and
decide on its accuracy and significance. I felt lucky that I had such rich
material with which to work.
Still, there
were plenty of times when I doubted my ability to get it done.
I had a
daunting pile of research on my desk, and I knew I had hundreds of hours of
writing time ahead of me. In the last two months, I started calculating the
number of words I had to write and the number of days until my deadline, and
then how many words I had to write each day. That really freaked me out, and it
made it hard to get going some mornings.
that time, I read something that really helped. Roger Ebert had died while I was
working on the book, and one day while I was procrastinating, I found one of
his quotes that really resonated. He said, “The muse comes during the act
of creation. Don’t wait for her; start alone.”
So I’d set
the timer on my phone for 30 minutes every morning. I told myself that if the
writing doesn’t flow, if the muse doesn’t appear before the alarm goes off,
I’ll go do something else, usually chopping wood. I guess the muse favored me
because things were usually cooking before the timer sounded and I rarely
stopped writing in those last few weeks. I delivered the first draft on
deadline and spent the next seven months working with a brilliant editor at
Dutton named Stephen Morrow, who helped me fine tune the narrative. It wasn’t
until six months after I turned in the draft that Stephen told me the book
wasn’t quite finished.
I had
started the story with the memory of my father and I being chased along a river
inside the park. We thought it was a bear at first but it turned out to be a
climber wearing a pack, covered by a poncho. I never returned to that story,
and the identity of the mysterious climber was never revealed in that first
draft. He said, “You can’t leave us hanging regarding who it was who chased you
along the river.”
spoiling the ending I can say there is some ambiguity in answering that
question. So I just embraced that ambiguity. Memory was a big factor in this book,
the memories of the rescuers, the rangers, the survivors, and my own. I just
let it flow and wrote that entire epilogue in a matter of an hour or so. I let
my wife read it and she said. “That’s it, you’re done.” I read it again and
realized that she was right.
Lifelong Alaskan Andy Hall is the
author Denali’s
Howl, The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak
, a
non-fiction account of the tragic 1967 Wilcox Expedition. Andy lived in Mount
McKinley National Park as a child; his father was superintendent there when the
accident occurred. In addition being an author, Andy is a commercial salmon
fisherman in Cook Inlet and a ski coach at Chugiak High School. He lives in
Chugiak Alaska with his wife, Melissa DeVaughn, and their two children, Roan
and Reilly.

Scroll to Top