“This Book was written from the heart!” - November 3,2012
By Wallace Orr, Denver Colorado
A Review of Jeff Babcock’s Should I Not Return (November 3, 2012)
I must confess that I haven’t read very many books about climbing expeditions I prefer to live the experiences. My climbing mentors are from the “Golden Age of Climbing”, names like Charles Houston, Bradford Washburn, Adams Carter, and all too often modern climbing literature has been sensationalized or is written by professional climbers to help pay for their profession. Though sometimes these books can be exciting to read, they are more on the edges of the foundation that these early climbers established. This book is not one of these…
I came across the book “Should I Not Return” quite by accident while researching a planned trip to the Liberty Ridge on Rainier. What caught my eye was that Jeff Babcock was doing a show at the REI in Seattle a week after I was scheduled to leave. Though I didn’t make the show, I remembered the name from a trip that I was on back in 1977, my very first expedition, which happened to be up the West Buttress of Denali.
We were the first team on the mountain from the west and Jeff’s team was on the opposite side following the same path as the first 2 early ascents that occurred in 1910 and 1913.
On this expedition we crossed paths probably without meeting. My team had split up due to cold injuries and AMS (It turns out that Garnet Roehm helped me get two injured members of the original team back to the high camp safely from Denali pass. Thank you, Garnet! I will forever be grateful to you for this!), and found myself at 17000 ft with two people from another expedition that had also been fragmented. One of these two people was a very good igloo builder. The three of us ended up building a small igloo that was our home for several days while we did our summit bid. The day we returned from the summit, Jeff’s team had made it over the top from the other side of Denali pass and was camped with us but I don’t recall that Jeff was among them. He was probably on his North summit bid at that time.
The weather was beginning to change for the worse, and the three of us decided to make our way (crawl) back to the 14000 ft camp in very serious winds. They increased at least 2 fold and they made a constant sound like a jet engine on afterburners roaring up above. This tremendous storm was with us for days.
It turns out that this little igloo became part of Jeff’s (and Garnet’s) story as well as my own. I can only imagine what it was like for them up there at 17000 ft.
When you pick up a copy of this book you immediately realize that this is not just another climbing book. Flipping through the pages one will find pictures of famous climbers, family portraits, and individual family members which do not often appear in many climbing books, along with numerous historical references, maps and web links.
The book has 4 dimensions. At it’s root is a historical reference with notes, footnotes, (pictures, maps, and web links).
It also contains a documentary, the timeline of events that brought about one of the greatest tragedies that has ever occurred on Denali.
Then there is the (not so) “fictional” story that interweaves through these paths to allow the reader a different perspective of history than has been written before. Similar to an abstract painting of a real subject but the artist choose to blur the lines and colors to allow each observer a different perspective through imagination.
And finally there is the actual story of the author and his brother which is overseeing and present, keeping things “real”.
Together, this in itself makes for a very gripping read. But one would have missed a very important aspect of this work without reflecting upon the author’s attempt to explore climbing from the primal motivations deep in the soul built upon relationships that we have experienced throughout our lives then moving outward to the physical, and even beyond to the metaphysical.
Not only do these experiences, emotions, relationships, memories contribute to our passions but they also contribute to our abilities to survive our passions.
I sometimes tell people that the climb actually starts when the idea pops into your head and you begin your preparations, which can start many months before you actually set foot on the mountain. This book shows that the climb actually starts much further back, indeed all the way back to one’s youth. The work gives you a glimpse into your soul where our collective demons lurk which we attempt to suppress by overwhelming our senses in the frozen world of the Icefield Ranges in the Yukon, or on Alaska’s glacial regions, or on Denali.
It takes you outward, to reality, where your next step may land you deep in a crevasse or a fall down a steep slope. Then beyond to the spirits of the climbers before you in the golden age, that lay down the footsteps on the path that you may be following.
Several years after leaving Alaska I moved to Vermont, and I would occasionally visit with Charlie Houston at his home in Burlington, which was not far from me at the time. On one of these visits he told me that the very best writing comes from the heart. When something is written from the heart the actual words fall away but the true meaning shines through and prevails. Charlie lived by these rules, in the books that he wrote and the ones written about him.
This book was also written from the heart.
Thank you Jeff, for sharing your experiences, your stories, and your history with us and allowing us to return to this incredible place with you!
Something new, different, and important, August 10, 2012
By Michael Macy (Anchorage)
This review is for: Should I Not Return(Perfect Paperback)
Having read dozens of mountaineering books over the years, I almost abandoned the book early on, but am glad I stuck with it. For one thing, Babcock has extraordinary perceptual gifts. For another, he reveals aspects of mountaineering seldom, if ever, seen. He provides important, missing, eye-witness information on North America’s greatest mountaineering disaster. He never toots his own horn, but it’s clear that he saves at least three lives almost single-handedly, including his own, and together with his companions, perhaps another five.
Babcock was a mere 20 year old in 1967 when he joined his older brother’s expedition to do a grand, north-to-south traverse of Denali, a nearly Sisyphean task under the best of circumstances. And these were not the best of circumstances. I don’t know Jeff Babcock or his brother or their friends and companions, but Jeff’s rope was clearly the one to clip on to. So is Should I Not Return. It may not rate as great mountaineering literature, but it will always be an important mountaineering book.
Mike Macy, Anchorage
Old School Climbing, July 7, 2012
By Mark Okeson -
This review is from: Should I Not Return (Perfect Paperback)
Jeff Babcock’s Should I Not Return tells a harrowing tale of a 1967 Denali expedition that gets converted into a search and rescue mission when Babcock’s team encounters another climbing team’s misfortune near the summit.
Yet in addition to being a first-rate search and rescue tale, Should I Not Return is about a unique attempt to ascend Denali the way it was done in the early 1900s. Today over a thousand climbers a year stage themselves at Denali’s 14 thousand foot mark and scale the remaining 6 thousand feet to the summit–a daunting 6 thousand feet that kills climbers nearly every year.
But whereas today’s climbers use Talkeetna, Alaska as a place to catch a flight to be dropped off well over half way up Denali, Babcock’s 1967 team caught a train from Talkeetna and were dropped off at a whistle-stop along the Chulitna River and approached their climb by attempting to tackle the entire giant.
It takes them weeks to just get to where today’s climbers start. Hardships abound in this book that chronicles the early history of Denali climbing while at the same time illuminating an intriguing family history of competing adventure enthusiasts. In this story, the human conflicts are intense and nature’s elements are cruel; pressures build and this book covers a lot of ground–externally as well as in the internal turmoil of its characters.
And as an adventure story, the scene where Babcock falls into a crevasse in bad weather after summiting and what he discovers while suspended deep in this frozen chasm will stay with me forever, an indelible impression as remarkable as any Alaskan survivor tale chronicled by McPhee, McGinnis, or Krakhauer. Having read scores of books about climbing and outdoor excursions, Jeff Babcock’s book is now among my favorites.
Good work, Jeff.
James M. Tabor, author Forever On The Mountain
You could say that life is all about frontiers. We cross one coming in, another going out, and are shaped by those we cross in between. I crossed a few myself—willingly and otherwise—during my climbs in Alaska. Thus having mountaineered a little and studied it a lot, I know that few books capture such crossings as powerfully as this one.
The book’s action takes place in Alaska, which calls itself “the last frontier.” Cavers and astronauts and oceanographers might dispute that claim. But Alaska is undeniably a realm of extremes—biggest, highest, coldest, deadliest. As such, it contains more challenging frontiers within its borders than any other state–and most other places–on earth. Ultimately, that is why we love, hate, and keep coming back to Alaska, despite fervent vows not to at end of our last grueling, tortuous, near-death-experience trips. Ever, goddamnit.
Though a non-Alaskan, John McPhee, wrote the greatest of all books about Alaska–Coming Into the Country– I do believe that only an Alaskan could have written a book like Should I Not Return. Jeff was not born there, true, but our actions define us and, judged by that standard, Jeff is as Alaskan as they come. Thus it is appropriate that he has given us a book about extreme frontiers and their crossings and set in Alaska.
Just as Alaska is not your typical state, neither is Should I Not Return your typical book. It is an autobiographical novel (or, as the author engagingly calls it, a “nonfiction novel”) about young, callow Henry Locke’s coming of age in the crucible of North America’s worst mountaineering disaster. Though fiction, it hews closely to the truth throughout. The deaths of seven good, young climbers during the 1967 Wilcox Mt. McKinley Expedition form the book’s crucial event, true. But this core tragedy is wrapped within layers of drama—familial dysfunction, alcoholism, sibling rivalry, infidelity, to name a few—that raise this book far above the “me-and-Joe-climbed-a-mountain” genre.
I once wrote about Mt. McKinley that it was the kind of place from you cannot return unchanged. Some books are like that, too, and I’m pleased to say that this is one.
Todd Miner, Lindseth Executive Director, Cornell Outdoor Education, Cornell University
Should I Not Returnis a fascinating story of an old school Alaskan expedition, told by someone who was there. Even more
so, it is an insightful coming of age story of a young man wrestling with family demons and the healing power of adventure in the great white north.
The dangers, challenges, beauty, personality clashes, and the ultimate camaraderie of a two-month expedition come alive; climaxing with the worst mountaineering disaster in North American history. Whether one is an arm chair adventurer, or a grizzled veteran mountaineer, Babcock’s writing and narrative will make this a tough book to put down, and even harder to forget.
Steven Levi, Alaskan author forThe Anchorage Daily News
Every once in a while a book comes along that, quite literally, chills you to death in your own living room. But Should I Not Return is not a book of horror or ghosts from the unknown. It’s a mountain climbing book that culminates with the saga of the recovery of climbers on Mount McKinley who vanished in the 1960s.
While this book wold have been a good read if it is only one of mountaineering forensics, what made it spine tingling was the writing–readable and understandable even if you’re not a mountain climber–but the photographs. If you ever wanted to know joust how dangerous mountain climbing is, this is the book to read. The photographs alone are worth the price of the book!
By the time you finish you will wonder not only why anyone would tempt Mother Nature in as desolate an environment as could be created on earth, but why anyone would want to go to such heights.
As to the story, it was gripping. Not being a mountain climber I had only a vague idea of what actually transpired. Now I know in mind numbing detail. The tale of the corpse recoveries aside, the book will chill you to the bone when you realize you are walking in the footsteps of some very brave individuals. Wear your parka when you read this book!
Betsy Washburn Cabot, daughter of Dr. Bradford Washburn
Jeff, I had only 1 evening I thought between trips. I wrote up some quick comments and marked with folded pages some little errors. I sent it (‘the galley’) back on Tuesday… Look forward to reading the whole book after others have input and you run it for the shops. …
Your story is very powerful and personal!!! … Well done. Happy to talk with you next week if you would like.
All the best from Georgia,
Isabel Browne Driscoll, granddaughter of Belmore Browne, leader of the 1912 Expedition
I hope these observations are some help as you complete Should I Not Return. I wish you good luck in the final steps.
It is clear from your words that these events will never leave you. You have made an extremely thorough examination of your passage through some terrifying and exhilarating challenges. It is indeed your story.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read of your experiences. Your friendship with Frances Carter is very touching. Most of all, congratulations on surviving against such daunting circumstances on and off Denali, and on achieving so many of your goals.
Michael E. Jones, University of Arizona
Should I Not Return is a revealing work that celebrates the power of enlightenment. Mr. Babcock weaves a path, with varied writing styles and dialect, which guides the reader through a personal experience–one that ultimately defines him.
With poignant detail, the author presents an inviting retrospective–that resonates with sincerity, exposes the power of a single moment, and “belays” the gap between life and reflection.
Kevin Duke , Green Valley, AZ, news.com
by Kevin Duke (Email: email@example.com)
It took Jeff Babcock over four decades to come to grips with his first big ascent as a mountain climber. Babcock, who has resided the past four years with his wife and her father in Green Valley, AZ, was part of an expedition climbing Mount McKinley in Denali National Park in Alaska back in the summer of 1967 when a terrible storm struck the upper slopes of Denali.
While his group survived with any casualties, the storm trapped the Wilcox Expedition higher on the mountain, eventually killing seven of its twelve-member team, an event often referred to as the worst mountaineering disaster in U.S. history. Babcock’s group suddenly found themselves in the role of rescuers.
Forty-some years later, Babcock has finally completed a book about the experience. Should I Not Return details his experience during the climb, when he was just 20 years old.
“It’s a tremendous release for me,” Babcock said. “To finally get this off my chest. It’s been a lifelong endeavor to write this book. I’ve tried writing about it many different times over the course of my life, but I was too young. I equate this experience to Melville’s classic whaling tale, Moby Dick … As if I was Ishmael trying to tell the story of the biggest event of his life. In a nutshell, this is what it has been for me.”
While other accounts of the tragedy have been written, including the latest Forever On the Mountain (2007) by James M. Tabor, Babcock’s book is written from his perspective.
“Our group was put together through the Mountaineering Club of Alaska, in Anchorage,” he said. “But the park ranger at Wonder Lake told Babcock and his older brother he wasn’t too sure about the group in front of us.”
The park had suggested two different groups had merge together to form a larger twelve-man expedition, and Wayne Merry, the Wonder Lake ranger felt perhaps a couple of their team had “bit off a little more than they could chew.” He had a gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right?
According to Babcock, “Five members of their team (four of whom had already summited the peak) came down to a lower elevation to make carries back up to the high camp for additional support, when the storm hit. Our team had just placed a camp on Karsten’s Ridge, which is where the technical climbing begins, and then we all got socked in by the weather when a terrific nine-day storm took over the upper slopes of the mountain.”
It was during that storm seven members of the Wilcox party perished, and Babcock’s group was recruited to go up and find out what happened to them.
“The five survivors came down to us on Karstens after the weather cleared, Park Headquaters requested we go up to search for the missing men,” Babcock said. “We ended up finding three bodies.
For Babcock and the rest of his group, it was “the nightmare of their lives.”
Should I Not Return is unlike some of the previous books about the Wilcox tragedy, including Tabor’s, written from more of an investigative account. Babcock’s book takes some dramatic license with the story and combines that expedition with the one he led back to the mountain ten years later in 1977.
It took meeting another mountain climber down here in Green Valley for Babcock to finish the story. Babcock met Frances “Freddie” Chamberlin Carter, who was a mountain climber in her own right and the third woman to summit Denali, six years before Babcock climbed to the top.
“Freddie” gave Babcock two extraordinary gifts for helping her put together a DVD slide presentation of her climbs entitled “My Life In The Mountains.” Freddie gave Jeff a book by the Rev. Hudson Stuck, the leader of the first team to successfully reach the summit in 1913, which was personally autographed by the author himself.
The other amazing gift was a painting by climber/artist Belmore Browne, who led a team to within a few hundred yards of the summit in 1912, only to be turned back by a storm similar to the one in 1967, which struck the upper slopes of Denali in 1912.
These two gifts seemed a serendiptious gesture, which convinced Babcock it was time for him to finish his story. Should I Not Return was published by Evan Swensen of Publication Consultants in Anchorage, Alaska, and is available for sale online at: www.shouldinotreturn.com.