Weekend Warm-Up: Storm Over Denali

Say what you will about digitalization, but at least vintage documentaries can now live forever on YouTube.

We’ve shared plenty of these old-school climbing docs here on ExplorersWeb, and Storm Over Denali offers a perfect example of why it’s worth revisiting these fuzzy classics in an age of high-definition video.

This 1994 film is much like the classic Sony Hi-8 camera used to make it: both outdated and timeless. These easy-to-use consumer cameras turned a generation of early ’90s parents into amateur filmmakers, Kodak wrote. The slow process of digitizing them continues with both family videos and documentaries like this one — which are unlikely to get a re-run on The History Channel.

The deeply personal videos common to the Hi-8 reflect the tone of Storm Over Denali, where Thom Pollard becomes a one-man film team not unlike today’s gear-obsessed contemporaries. He just does it with a single film camera.

climber ascending denali

At 6,190 meters, Denali is North America’s tallest mountain. Photo: Screenshot


Many storms, few summits

Pollard joins a 1994, six-man expedition to climb Denali, previously known as Mount McKinley, during a season of perilous storms and few summits. The documentary moves at the pace of a memoir, filled with the verbose reflections so common in the literature of mountaineering.

“The first sight of Denali is itself something few would ever forget,” Pollard wrote. “Its glaring bulk sitting majestically, looming like a silent lord amidst a jagged army of soldiers.”

Like many alpine stories, this one is about failure, and the bittersweet mix of relief at survival — and frustration at never reaching the top. The expedition’s team comes across as a group of strangers who become supportive, capable friends — another classic mountaineering trope.

When they reach Camp 1, the start of the adventure, Pollard declares:

“At 11 p.m., a weary team slurps hot soup in the late evening light of the Alaska Range. Snow falls gently but persistently, clouding all views of the peaks that loom near us. Denali is our ghost, hidden in the clouds. We can only revel in the happiness that at least we are here, inching toward a goal.”

sharp peak poking above clouds

A view from Denali. Photo: Thom Pollard/Screenshot


A turn for the worse

The weather at first improves, affording clear views of the massive mountain, and the even larger Alaska Range surrounding it. But things change fast in the mountains, and things soon take a turn for the worse.

“Clouds roll silently over the tops of peaks that shadowed us only days before,” Pollard says. “As the day wears on, the clouds engulf us, sapping our strength but not our will to heft the 60-lb. loads up to 15,700 feet.”

As the weather worsens, reaching wind speeds of 80mph and subzero temperatures, two three-man teams find themselves trapped at different camps on the mountain.

thom pollard

A debriefing with Thom Pollard toward the end of the documentary. Photo: Screenshot


Though the storm shreds their tents, all six men manage to escape harm and return to base camp, where they agree the expedition is functionally over.

Pollard’s intimate film of the experience premiered at Mountainfilm, according to the YouTube video description, but has never been broadcast.

“The failure to reach the summit of Denali will cause me no pain,” Pollard says in the finale. “Only the attachment to the dream of it can.”

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.