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Digging for the Truth

An imperfect account of Glacier’s perfect avalanche


At first, I had hoped that McKay Jenkins’ The White Death was going to be the alpine equivalent of Sebastian Jungers’ The Perfect Storm which exquisitely combined the facts and data that would normally appeal only to the historian, fluid dynamicist and/or Weather Channel junkie with a narrative thread that made sorting through the mountain of information presented seem not at all like work; so that in the end, I came away from a hell of a good yarn (please forget everything about that sappy movie with Markie Mark and G. Clooney) thinking that I knew more about hurricanes, Nor’easters, waves, helicopters and the Coast Guard than I would ever have tracked down on my own.

In the case of The White Death, the drama is certainly there. The local story is well-known enough to be found in the classic A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park, which nutshells the story thusly: “the five valiant climbers who were swept to their death by a great avalanche on the upper west face of Mt. Cleveland in December 1969. Their loss has deeply affected everyone associated with Glacier National Park.” There is also a plaque dedicated to the boys at Yellow Bay on Flathead Lake.

These young men, especially the Kanzler brothers (Jimmy and Jerry) and their father Hal, are the shape around which this drama swirls. Hal, a hard driving ex-Marine finds solace and happiness while working for the Columbia Falls Aluminum plant by taking himself and his sons into nearby Glacier at every opportunity. With his friend, Flathead gadfly George Ostrom, Kanzler contributes articles and photos to newspapers and magazines about hiking and hunting in the area, becoming a kind of local legend.

His sons grow to be accomplished hikers and climbers at just the time when sport climbing, made possible by gear allowing climbers to tackle previously unclimbable pitches, was in its infancy. But the generation gap shows in the understanding of nature exhibited by father and sons. Whereas Hal seeks relief from the pressures of work and the demons left over from Okinawa in the mountains, his sons and their companions see climbing as a way to do what had never been dared, and as a way to test themselves against nature (i.e. honestly instead of doing it in the jungles of Southeast Asia or by dropping out completely). The story is about youth, optimistically inspired by challenge but confronted by the judgement of men whose experiences in war and the mountains have tempered their spirit with caution.

When young Jimmy Kanzler, working in Glacier, receives a box of climbing pitons from his father, this note is included: “These pitons will not be used on the North Face of Mount Cleveland or the North Face of Siyeh.” Jenkins adds, “the route Jimmy and his friends were really plotting to tackle was indeed the north face of Mount Cleveland, at four thousand vertical feet the most precipitous big wall in the continental United States.”

And for a while, the boys content themselves with challenging ascents in both Glacier and the Tetons. But after the Kanzler family moves to Butte and their father inexplicably commits suicide, the boys decide to try Cleveland’s north face in winter. Since the north face, a notorious avalanche chute, had never even been attempted in winter, it seems easy enough to chalk up what happened next to poor judgement or youthful inexperience. And even though at least three of them were accomplished climbers, to add to their youth there was the added pressure of carrying the handgun Hal Kanzler used on himself with plans to bury it on the top. Elder brother Jimmy, an accomplished mountaineer who now works as a guide at the Glen Exum guide service in Jackson, was unable to go and so the final group was composed of Jerry Kanzler, Clare Pogreba, Ray Martin, Mark Levitan and James Anderson.

Ultimately the problems endemic in this sort of writing are what make Jenkins’ book unsatisfying. He is trying to tell a story, which means giving detail and description the nub of which will never be known. And instead of taking that problem head-on by recreating the probable, as Jungers did so convincingly, his narrative jumps around, making large, occasionally fascinating digressions about other rescues, avalanches, snow science, folklore and the 10th Mountain Division in Italy—just when it seems as though he is going to get below the surface of what essentially amounts to an assemblage of many related facts and details.

And, in a kind of sense-making concluding paragraph, Jenkins finds himself searching for something deeper, below the surface and finding. What else but avalanche as text! He declares: “No matter how we have defined our relationship to mountains, avalanches have always fatally foiled our best efforts to move through, inhabit, or climb them. No matter the technology, no matter the potential profits, no matter the attendant celebrity, avalanches have always found their way down the slope, and have always refused to accommodate the vagaries of human desire. In a way, avalanches have forced us to tell different stories about ourselves, and about the haunting wilderness that surrounds us.”

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