AAI’s Denali climb is designed to be the safest and most successful guided expedition program on the mountain. We accomplish this goal by a process of continuous improvement, subjecting our expedition practices to careful analysis, and supporting our guides with rigorous training, evaluation, and mentoring. Over our 36-year history climbing the mountain – formerly known as Mt. McKinley – we’ve taken hundreds of people to the summit of North America.
Our expedition program and guides are so well-respected that we were ranked #1 by the National Park Service in the concession renewal process in 2002. Read on to learn more about our strategy, philosophy, and approach to Denali expeditions, and why climbing with American Alpine Institute is the best choice to achieve your mountaineering goals. To get a flavor of AAI's guided Denali climb, see the expedition dispatches for the 2017 season.
"Once again, I can't say enough about the guides ... they were fantastic! The overall experience was the highlight of my mountaineering career. Thank you so much AAI!" – Bryan F. (Bothell, WA)
Denali offers one of the world's greatest mountaineering challenges. While it is exceeded in elevation by peaks in South America and Asia, its arctic environment, with extreme temperatures and harsh storms, and its great height above the Alaskan plain make it a severe test of personal strength, team work, and logistics. No peak in the world has greater relief: Denali rises 17,000 feet above its surrounding plain. In contrast, Kilimanjaro rises 14,000 feet over its surrounding plains and Everest, only 13,000 feet. Vertical elevation gain on Everest from the normal base camp for the South Col route is 11,000 feet; from our landing spot on the Kahiltna Glacier Denali's summit rises another 13,000 feet. As the tallest mountain on the North American continent, Denali is one of the Seven Summits.
Denali West Buttress Choosing a Guide Service on Denali
Determining if a guided trip on Denali is right for you and picking a guide service that will offer a safe and enjoyable expedition on the mountain can be an overwhelming process. We have compiled some of the thoughts and feedback commonly given to climbers as we have consulted them over the years. Please take some time to read through our Choosing a Denali Guide outline as part of your planning and preparation process. The American Alpine Institute Approach
As in other parts of the world, AAI expeditions in Alaska are run with small groups of climbers who have carefully prepared for their objective. The Institute takes a team approach to its climbs, and expedition members are expected to take responsibility for themselves and a share of responsibility for the overall operation of the expedition. We do not accept climbers who are only minimally prepared and experienced and who need to be "hauled" up and down the mountain. Trying to push ill-prepared climbers up the peak is what keeps so many guided and unguided groups from succeeding on Denali.
A climber stands on 'The Edge of the World', just outside Camp 3 at 14,200 ft. on Denali's West Buttress. James Davis
The Institute gives its clients careful and detailed counsel in their preparations for climbing objectives and when appropriate, has them first achieve intermediate goals to fully prepare. Climbs on Denali obviously involve many factors that we cannot control, among them temperature, wind, snowfall, and changeable climbing conditions. The key to success therefore is doing an excellent job working on those areas that a climber can do something about: skill in dealing with cold conditions, skill in climbing at an appropriate technical level, and personal conditioning. To have well-developed abilities in these areas and then to combine them with a carefully designed and guided itinerary is the most direct line to safety and success.
- Intermediate snow climbing ability
- Glacier travel skills
- Experience with backcountry winter camping
- Excellent cardiovascular condition
- Ability to carry a 60 lb. pack while pulling a sled
Denali West Buttress Climb from John Grace on Vimeo.
We make four camps as we climb alpine style, moving all camps higher as we go and leaving none established above or below. It is not uncommon for temperatures high on the mountain to fall as low as -30F, but at lower elevations daytime temperatures on the glacier can reach as high as 70F, so there we sometimes sleep in the day and ferry loads at night when temperatures are between 0F and 15F. The night’s cold improves conditions under-foot, and we still have adequate light because of the extreme northern latitude. Double carries are done during the first part of the expedition to ease the work and to help with acclimatization.
View of Denali from the South. Wyatt Evenson.
All expeditions begin with a meeting and orientation in Anchorage. We spend one night there, then travel by van the next morning to the small town of Talkeetna. There we repack our equipment, meet our ski plane pilots, and as soon as possible, make the beautiful flight to Denali Base Campon the Kahiltna Glacier at 7300 feet.
The Kahiltna Glacier
Soon after our arrival at Base Camp, having done a review of glacier travel procedures, divided the gear up, and packed our sleds, we begin moving to our first camp. We establish our Camp 1 at 7800 feet at the confluence of the main Kahiltna Glacier and its rugged Northeast Fork (the normal approach for West Rib and Cassin Ridge Expeditions). Enjoying spectacular views the whole way, we continue on to Cache 1 at 9800 feet and Camp 2 at 11,200 feet while snowshoeing up moderate terrain. As we do throughout the climb, we travel in rope teams because of the ever-present crevasse hazard. To ease the burden of moving our expedition supplies, we use specially designed sleds that we tether to our packs and pull along the gentle sections of the lower mountain.
Advancing camp on Denali with full sleds. Kevin Cannon
Above Camp 2, the climbing steepens as our route takes us past the terminal walls of the West Buttress. We usually cache our snowshoes at 11,200 feet and continue our climb with crampons because of the gradient of the route and the hardening snowpack. We climb out of a basin to reach Windy Corner at 13,100 feet, then make an ascending traverse through seracs and heavily crevassed terrain as we approach the head of the Kahiltna Glacier at 14,200 feet. We enjoy spectacular views as we look down to the lower Kahiltna and out to 17,004-foot Mt. Foraker. In the other direction the impressive summit bulk of Denali rises above us, and we can easily see the details of the upper West Rib and Messner Couloir, as well as the steep headwall of the West Buttress that we will soon climb.
Fourteen Camp (Camp 3)
At Camp 3 (14,200 feet), we take a well-deserved rest day and make final preparations for our summit bid, reorganizing our gear for the carry to the highest camps. For most expeditions, Fourteen Camp becomes almost homey; a relatively sheltered alcove in the mountain, it is the logical place to wait for a window of good weather in which to make a multi-day bid for the summit. At this point we move into the most demanding part of the expedition: higher elevations combined with steeper ground. From Camp 3, we ascend 1100 feet up a gentle snow slope to the bergschrund at the base of the West Buttress. The bergschrund is at times quite steep but it is short and, with steps established in the ice, not difficult to surmount. We then begin our ascent along fixed lines to the crest of the West Buttress on the 900-foot headwall of 45 and 50-degree slopes. Typically the pitches are of hard ice with some snow overlaid, and we protect them by using self-belays with jumars on a fixed rope. Because of the steepness of the route and the amount of elevation gained, we may make a double carry to establish Cache 3 at over 16,000 feet.
Emerging from the headwall onto the top of the Buttress, the atmosphere of the climb changes dramatically. While the earlier parts of the climb have all been on large glaciers and open slopes dominated by immense mountain masses towering above, we now move on an open ridge and enjoy that unmistakable feeling of climbing above most of the surrounding world. As we begin to move along the crest of the Buttress, we gain views across the Peters Glacier to the Alaskan tundra stretching out far beyond, and to the south we can look over the top of Mt. Hunter to the scores of other peaks in the Alaska Range. Initially the ridge is fairly broad, but as we reach the 16,400-foot level it narrows with steep drop-offs to both the north and south.
A fortified high camp at the 17,000 foot level on Denali. AAI Collection
The climb up the ridge to our final camp, Camp 4 (High Camp) at 17,200 feet, is for many people the aesthetic high point of the expedition. We follow a steadily narrowing crest and at times move between and around a series of magnificent, pointed granite gendarmes up to fifty feet high. The climbing is never steeper than 35 degrees, but the exposure is very significant and requires caution as we move up a route that in some sections is reduced to ledges six feet wide. Further east the ridge finally begins to merge with the main part of the Denali massif, and there we establish camp in a basin just below Denali Pass, the low point between Denali’s higher south summit and lower, 19,470-foot north peak. From this point we will climb to the summit in a single day.
On Denali summit day we make an ascending traverse to Denali Pass, crossing above some very large crevasses and traversing a fairly steep section between 17,600 and 18,000 feet. From there we climb gentle slopes to a plateau at 19,400 feet, from which we get impressive views down onto the Harper and Muldrow Glaciers and across to Denali’s North Peak. Our final approach to the summit takes us up moderately steep slopes to the crest of the ridge between Kahiltna Horn (20,120′) and the main summit. At the crest we peer down the 8000-foot drop of the precipitous South Face, looking between the Cassin Ridge to our right and the South Buttress to our left. We ascend the summit ridge on its exposed south side for two rope lengths, then cross to the north side for the final pitches that bring us to the 20,310-foot summit of North America. With steady drops on three sides and the abrupt face to the south, the final steps to the clearly defined summit point are a very exciting finish to a beautiful route.
Great expedition with an awesome team and great guides!. Guides for this trip are super important and irrespective of who you go with (i.e. you realistically have to choose between a small number of US accredited companies unless you want to solo). I chose AAI (that's American Alpine and not Ascents International) on the basis of friendly pre-trip service and dates that suited be down to a tee. As a solo expedition traveller I also always ask about who is already booked so as to avoid being stuck with 6 Norwegians and myself. Don't get me wrong I love Norwegians but I just want to find a trip with a mix of people and at least a few other independent solo travellers that are likely to want to speak English. Anyhow, most of these trips are very similar, all excellent companies providing solid safe itineraries. The difference therefore in my opinion comes down to the guides. Some companies have better than others, some have different culture, and some guides just stand out and provide an experience that just takes it to the next level. These trips can be brutal at times, getting stuck in a tent for 5 days and wondering if you are going to miss the window can be stressful and have some cool laid back but mega high quality performers on the mountain in charge totally makes the difference. Anyhow I give top marks to AAI] But really I am saying if you ever have a chance to go on a trip with Andy Stephen Michael Sachs Ian Mceleney These guys totally rock, fun vibes and total chill but serious when we need to be and always made us feel safe. At the end of this trip we got stuck for what feels like a month (more like a 5 days) at base camp waiting for clouds to shift so a plane could land on the glacier to pick us up! Great team of people and cool guides meant that we all stayed the right side of losing our marbles. This trip was the trip where I decided to give Everest a go when we completed safely.
Our Denali expedition through American Alpine Institute could not have been better. AAI’s guides, logistical support, and professionalism exceeded all expectations. I would sign up for another trip through AAI tomorrow without hesitation, and recommend this trip to any mountaineers interested in experiencing an epic cold weather expedition.
This was probably the best expedition I have ever been on. Everything was organised perfectly from start to finish. We had three very competent guides who got us to the top negotiating bad weather along the way and got us all down safely helping a few other teams on the way down. Great experience and would do it again with AAI in a heartbeat. Team members were awesome also but that was just luck of the draw ;)