Denali, or “The High One,” was first summitted by Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum in 1913. Since then around 16,000 other climbers have reached the summit. It is the highest peak in North America and one of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the world's continents). This monster challenge denies roughly 50% of climbers who attempt it every year. Everything in the Alaska Range is huge, but at 20,310 feet, Denali towers over the rest. Denali’s neighbors, Mount Foraker (17,402 feet) and Mount Hunter (14,572 feet), are dwarfed by this massive peak. It is a truly special place and a sight to behold.
Most climbs take place in May and June, which avoids some of the extreme cold and high winds the rest of the year. Climbers should plan for taking and hauling all the gear they will need for 23 days on the mountain. Average climb duration is only about 17 days, but backup food and fuel is needed in case weather traps climbers on the mountain. All climbers are required to register their trips with the National Park Service and go through as short classroom session, which includes a rather short but amusing tutorial on how to use the toilets and manage waste on the mountain.
Climbers generally fly to Anchorage and then make their way to Talkeetna via car or shuttle. Talkeetna is the center of Denali tourism, and it is the launching point for a Denali climbing adventure. In town climbers can find a National Park Service ranger station, air transportation, grocers, and a few gear shops for last minute needs. There are quite a few local restaurants and bars in Talkeetna as well, including the legendary Fairview Inn, which is a must for any climber. Once registered, climbers will catch a small plane out to the glacier. There are two main pilot outfits in Talkeetna, and an advance reservation is needed. The mountain in not accessible other than via plane or helicopter. In order to get clearance to board the plane, you will need to get both you and your gear weighed so that the pilot can plan the weight distribution for your flight (these aren’t your typical plane rides!). You'll then have to wait for the right weather window to fly onto the mountain. Climbers have been known to be stranded for days on the tarmac just waiting for a ride to Base Camp.
Flights to the mountain are about 45 minutes and offer an amazing aerial perspective of the Artic taiga, boreal forests, and the Alaska Range. After landing at the Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp, climbers will need to quickly unload their plane and clear the runway, which is a large stomped-out area of snow, for incoming and outgoing aircraft. Once unloaded, climbers will have to check in with Lisa, who has been running Base Camp for years and will let climbers know what’s what. At the heart of Base Camp are the National Park Service and ranger tents that are surrounded by climber tents, old tent platforms, and cache sites. The route leads out of the west end of camp and is marked with wands by the National Park Service rangers and other guides to identify the safest way to navigate the crevasse-laden glacier.
The route starts out in the shadow of Mount Hunter below the famous Moonflower Buttress and sets out down the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier away from Base Camp. The descent from the Southeast Fork down to the main glacier is known affectionately as Heartbreak Hill because it is the last hill that climbers ascend upon their return. Once down on the main glacier it is over 5 miles, depending on the current route, to 7,800-foot Camp. Climbers will often make this trek at night to avoid the sun exposure and reduce the risk of falling into a crevasse. After hours trudging along the glacier, climbers will at last arrive at 7,800-foot Camp, which sits just below Ski Hill.
The next big move is from 7,800-foot Camp to 11,000-foot Camp. This is route's first exposure to heavy loads and sleds being moved up significant altitude. It is recommended that big moves such as this be done over the course of days. Typically climbers will utilize a cache day, a rest day, and move day. This will help those climbers who are not fully acclimatized adjust to the ever-increasing altitude while still making forward progress. Another added benefit of taking an extra day to cache a load at higher altitude is that it reduces the load on the subsequent move day. This helps climbers to avoid burnout throughout this challenging climb. The route from 7,800-foot Camp to 11,000-foot Camp starts out marching over Ski Hill, up over a few other rises, and then up the Kahiltna Glacier toward Kahiltna Pass. The cache site is at about 10,500 feet just as the route turns up below the pass. From the cache garden, the route ascends straight west up another 500 feet to the 11,000-foot Camp.
The next big section of this route is the ascent from 11,000-foot Camp to 14,000-foot Camp. Again, it is recommended that this be done over the course of several days to allow for acclimatization and rest. Often climbers won’t have a choice in the matter, as weather frequently keeps climbers stranded at 11,000-foot Camp for days. The most weather affected location in this section is Windy Corner. It is a well-known feature of this route that is notorious for keeping climbers from making the move because high winds and shifting snow at the Corner can make passage very unstable and unsafe. When weather permits, the route starts out at the northwest end of 11,000-foot Camp and immediately ascends Motorcycle Hill and then Squirrel Hill. After crossing the Polo Fields climbers arrive at Windy Corner, which sits at about 13,300 feet. Each of these features can present a variety of dangers including steep terrain, exposure, icy conditions, rock fall, and high winds. Even in good weather it makes for a very tough day. Once climbers make it past the Corner it is another 1,000 feet up to the large flat where 14,000-foot Camp resides below the West Buttress.
From 14,000-foot Camp you can look up and see almost the entire West Buttress. It really is amazing. The views from this place are some of the best on the entire route. On a rest day, weather permitting, climbers can make the short trek over to "The Edge of the World" for a view of the Kahiltna Glacier Valley that will take your breath away. Climbers will need to attach some protection and belay out to the edge because it is 7,000 feet straight down and can be very slick, but it is well worth the time and effort. The buttress looms large in the opposite direction from Camp, with much of the route being visible on clear days. The route up from 14,000-foot Camp to 17,000-foot Camp has several technical sections including sections of fixed lines, extreme exposure, and running belays. When leaving 14,000-foot Camp it is a short march uphill to reach the main fixed lines section. The start of the fixed lines sits right above a bergschrund which, depending on snowfall, can be either very easy or very challenging to navigate. The fixed lines themselves are pretty straightforward and are maintained by the National Park Service year over year to ensure safety. Climbing teams make their way up the lines at varying rates, which can cause quite a bottleneck, so try and time your departure well. At the top of the fixed lines the route follows the ridge of the West Buttress all the way up past Washburn’s Thumb and on into 17,000-foot Camp. The ridge is very exposed and includes sections no more than a foot wide with 3,000 feet of exposure on either side. There are pickets placed along the route that climbers can utilize for running belays for safety on their way up to 17,000-foot Camp.
17,000-foot Camp is not hospitable at all. It is not a place any one should hang out longer than completely necessary. Summer temperatures often don’t get above zero, and they are almost never above freezing. Wind is a constant bother and frostbite is a constant danger from wind chill and exposure. In fact, many climbers try to time their climbs with weather patterns so that they do most of the waiting at 14,000-foot Camp and only ascend when the weather window is good, thus limiting their days at 17,000-foot Camp to the bare minimum needed for a summit attempt. Despite the inhospitable conditions, 17,000-foot Camp is the place to get excited. It is the last camp before the summit, and most of the route can be seen from camp. The summit route sets out from 17,000-foot Camp along the Autobahn toward Denali Pass. Denali Pass is notorious for winds and is a point where many climbers turn back. After turning the corner at the Pass, follow the ridge up to the Football Field. After crossing the Field, ascend Pig Hill up to Kahiltna Horn. From there, follow the summit ridge up to the true summit of 20,310 feet, the highest point in North America!
When returning from the summit, climbers will follow the same route all the way back to Base Camp. The descent time varies, but most get back to Base Camp in two to three days. Many climbers descend back to 17,000-foot Camp on summit day, descend to 14,000-foot Camp or 11,000-foot Camp the next day, and then trek all the way back to Base Camp on the following day. All descent days will be long and challenging due to full packs and longer distances. Please descend carefully, as most mountaineering injuries happen on the descent! Make sure to rest, hydrate, and eat plenty of food on the way down. Once back to Base Camp you will play the waiting game again, this time waiting on your plane to come and get you. (Climbers often bring whiskey to cache at Base Camp to make the wait a little easier!)
Denali is a challenging adventure that should only be attempted by experienced climbers who are proficient with technical mountaineering skills, crevasse rescue, and expedition logistics (planning). Those who do wish to climb it must register with the National Park Service. There are many reputable guide services that can be used to facilitate climbing the mountain as well. More information on visiting and climbing Denali can be found here.