The Storms of Denali

Reviewed by DeWitt Henry ’63

[Fiction] While I enjoy classic mountain-climbing films such as Cliffhanger, The Eiger Sanction and K2, they aren’t my passion. As a genre they seem overly predictable: think allegory, think macho rivalry, think cold and suffering, think survival. Indeed, all these elements are present in Nicholas O’Connell’s engrossing first novel, The Storms of Denali (University of Alaska Press), about climbing North America’s highest peak (in Alaska), yet O’Connell’s telling is downright Conradian. I think, in particular, of Joseph Conrad’s seafaring novel Typhoon—but also of Conrad’s dictum that the writer’s first responsibility is to make the reader “see.”

Denali, the mountain—the enticement and the obstacle; the measure of the climbers’ skill, luck and heart (explicitly compared to writing a novel)—is a fully developed character in its topography, rock faces, glaciers, avalanches and storms. The first-person narrator, John, is a young family man who has been a talented climber but who now has settled down and runs a climbing supply shop in Seattle. His former climbing partner, Wyn, has gone on to become a star. On an earlier climb of Denali with Wyn, John had opted for safety and forgone the summit because of a storm: “[Wyn] provided the drive, energy, and ambition. I provided judgment, direction, organization, and a measure of caution.”

Now Wyn challenges the domesticated John to join him for a new assault; John’s obsession is reawakened, despite his wife’s protests. Together, John and Wyn choose two more climbers for safety: Al, the determined strong man, and Lane, the rescue medic. Although many others have climbed Denali, Wyn’s new route will make news, help Wyn to find sponsorship for climbing Everest and lend John the credit among climbers he needs to revitalize his shop.

As a team, of course, they are adventurers and men without women, again in the tradition of both Conrad and Hemingway: “Wyn … had little time for long term relationships, or marriage. …Women fell in love with him, but Wyn never returned the favor.” On the other hand, John’s marriage to a pregnant Jill has divided his nature: “Was I just a husband and father? Store manager? Or was I fundamentally a climber?” Once he returns to climbing, “I felt rejuvenated, as if a new person was emerging from the harried, divided life I had led over the last five years.”

The Storms of Denali immerses us not only in the physical risks but in the sensory details of the climbers’ experience: “As I front-pointed up the steep snow, my left calf began cramping up. As I put my weight on it, it spasmed and threw me off balance. For a split second, I was falling. …. Visions of tumbling back down to base camp made my head swim. I deliberately avoided looking down and instead made sure that I had solid placements.”

Confronting the mountain, they aspire to grace under pressure: “Wyn had an economy of motion and purpose I’d always admired.” However, as their bodies weaken, mistakes accumulate, injuries occur and supplies dwindle. The less experienced Al and Lane challenge Wyn’s “dictatorship.” They refuse to be support mules, they want their share of credit and fame, and they want turns at leading the ascent. They endanger the party and waste precious time.

The narrative is riveting, and O’Connell is especially good at describing John’s determination in overcoming pain and exhaustion: the athlete’s “pushing through.” Wyn may still climb Everest, but John no longer needs to push the limits because he knows “what lies beyond them.” O’Connell’s style may sometimes slip into clichés, and we might wish that the wife, Jill, had as concrete a presence as “the white nightmare of Denali,” but, overall, this is a fully imagined, thought-provoking and moving debut.

Henry is author of, among other books, Sweet Dreams: A Family History. A founding editor of the journal Ploughshares, he teaches at Emerson College.