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UD professor’s book highlighted in magazines, on television and radio

NEWARK, DE.--The day after Christmas in 1969, five experienced young climbers, ranging in age from 18 to 22, set out to conquer the sheer, snowy north face of Mount Cleveland, which towers 10,448 feet above Montana’s Glacier National Park. The group’s youthful energy and enthusiasm by far overshadowed any doubts they might have had about the danger of the climb. No one will ever know the exact details, but sometime in the next days the entire group perished, engulfed in an avalanche so massive a search proved futile. None of the bodies were recovered until the following spring thaw.

Although their story had enormous repercussions for the country’s fledgling climbing community, it was never told outside of the local press—until now. This week, the story of climbers Jerry Kanzler, James Anderson, Clare Pogreba, Ray Martin and Mark Levitan comes roaring to life with the publication of The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone by McKay Jenkins, assistant professor of English, at the University of Delaware.

With its built-in drama, the book, published by Random House, has already been excerpted in Outside magazine and appears this month in Reader’s Digest. The tale will be featured on Dateline NBC on Monday, Feb. 21, re-told in an hourlong Talk of the Nation on Tuesday, Feb. 22, and discussed on NPR’s Radio Times with Marty Moss Coane on Monday, Feb. 28. Already there are preliminary whispers about making it into a movie.

Amazingly, it’s a tale that Jenkins, searching for a story in which to frame his interest in the outdoors, almost slept through.

"Two years ago my wife and I spent a week cross-country skiing in Montana. One night, at the lodge where we were staying, a 76-year-old retired park ranger was presenting a slide show. Katherine wanted to go see it, but I was tired and really wanted to sleep," he recalled.

Jenkins ended up attending and what he learned that night changed his life. The talk by Bob Frauson not only included memories of the 10th Mountain Division, the country’s first elite soldier ski patrol in World War II, but it contained the fateful tale of the five young climbers. Frauson was the last person to see them alive.

"When he talked about the avalanche, a light bulb just sort of went off in my head," Jenkins said. "I knew I had found the story I had been looking for."

Careful to be respectful of the memories and pain the story still brings the five families, Jenkins set off on a two-year journey, tracking down every detail of the climbers’ ill-fated journey. Along the way, he discovered fascinating facts about the history of mountaineering, skiing and snow science. All topics are interspersed in the book.

Key to the retelling of the tale is the story of Jim Kanzler, an extraordinary climber who was allowed to help professionals with the search. If not prevented by family responsibilities, Kanzler would have been part of the climb. As it was, he became trapped near the top of the mountain during the search and spent a long, cold night knowing his brother and four good friends were probably dead somewhere nearby. Seven years after the tragedy, he would climb the face the group had attempted and pay his respects to the lost.

In other parts of the book, Jenkins interviews avalanche survivors who describe their harrowing experiences. Most deaths from an avalanche result from suffocation.

"Even with a small air pocket, the warmth of a victim’s breath can seal the snow around his mouth, much as perspiration seals the inside of an igloo or a snow cave. Within minutes a virtual mask of ice forms around the face, cutting off any flow of air," Jenkins writes.

"With so little oxygen available under snow, avalanche survival depends critically on the efforts of survivors to dig out their compatriots. There just isn’t time to wait for rescuers. And when all the members of an expedition get buried, the chances for survival are very slim."

Reviews for the book have been positive, and this week Jenkins embarks on a multicity book-signing tour. Written for both scholarly and general audiences, White Death has been praised by National Geographic Adventure for its "successful mixture of the frightening and the informative."

"In an engrossing tour de force, Jenkins…recreates this tragedy and also seamlessly interweaves a wealth of avalanche lore, science and history," Publishers Weekly said.

An outdoor enthusiast, Jenkins has backpacked, paddled, bicycled and skied in wilderness all over the world. He has written for Outside, Outdoor Explorer and Orion , among many other publications. At UD, he teaches literature and nonfiction writing.

Locally, he will sign copies of The White Death at Barnes & Noble in Bryn Mawr, Pa., at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 29.

Contact: Beth Thomas, (302) 831-8749,; or
Feb. 17, 2000