Denali is North America’s highest mountain and one of its most impressive in terms of sheer mass, weather and climbing history. The classic West Buttress Route requires only intermediate technical climbing skills; but perseverance, intense physical exertion, teamwork and patient acclimatization are all necessary for this climb. Many climbers find this to be the most challenging thing they have done in the mountains.
Given the rigors of this expedition we suggest participants have previous training and high altitude expedition experience. For those with little experience we suggest, as an example, the following progression:
From the town of Talkeetna, we fly to the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier Basecamp situated between the spectacular peaks of Foraker and Hunter. From there the route is undertakend “expedition style” – carrying high and sleeping low, in a series of four camps.This unforgettable climb has long been regarded as as a world-class expedition challenge, comparable to the Himalayan giants, and must of any high altitude climber.
Mountain Madness provides these services as a booking agent for an authorized concessionaire of Denali National Park.
Denali is a big, serious mountain with big mountain weather, geography , and acclimatzation issues. The following represents a basic outline of what could happen on a given day during the course of a Denali expedition. Many factors can and likely will, contribute to cause the following schedule change. Our guides know the mountain and may elect to stray from the intinerary in order to give you the best possible shot at getting to the summit.
Our team meeting takes place at 10 A.M. for an expedition orientation and equipment check. This is a very important meeting, which you must attend! Be sure to arrive in Anchorage early enough to make the meeting; which may require arriving a day early. Included in our expedition fees are two nights lodging before the expedition at the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage (formerly the Millennium Alaska Hotel), which is conveniently located and offers free airport shuttles. We also provide transportation within Anchorage to pick up last minute items on the day of our team meeting.
Elevation: 7,200 feet / 2195 meters
We provide our own shuttle service for team members to travel the several hours to Talkeetna. Everyone will need to register with the National Park Service prior to flying to the glacier. Weather permitting; we will fly into the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200 feet that afternoon. Once on the glacier, everyone will need to pitch in to get Base Camp established so we can proceed with our on-glacier expedition orientation that will cover the following topics: glacier travel, crevasse rescue, sled rigging, rope management and camp site procedures.
Elevation: 7,800 feet / 2377 meters
Departing base camp, we’ll drop down the infamous Heartbreak Hill and onto the broad Kahiltna glacier. Our goal will be to move camp to about 7,800 feet, near the junction with the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. This is a moderately tough day of about 9 miles round-trip and is a good shake-down for the upcoming days. Depending on the team and weather we may or may not carry loads and return to Base Camp. Throughout the expedition we will typically follow the “climb high, sleep low” technique for better acclimatization, however the altitude difference between Base Camp and 7,800′ Camp is minimal enough to permit us to generally “single-carry” this stretch. On the late May and June expeditions, we may be doing our climbing early in the morning to avoid the excessive heat and soft snow conditions on the Lower Glacier.
Elevation: 7,800 feet / 2377 meters
We’ll head out of 7,800′ Camp and carry loads up the 1,800′ Ski Hill. Several options exist for camp sites between 9,000 & 11,000 feet, depending upon weather, snow conditions and team strength. This is a moderately difficult carry of 7-9 miles round-trip, with 2- 3,000 feet of elevation gain and a return to 7,800′ Camp for the night.
Our second camp is often in the 11,200’ basin at the base of Motorcycle Hill. This is an incredibly beautiful camp that basks in alpenglow when the sun travels around the north side of the mountain
This is an “active rest day” during which we drop back down and pick up the cache we left down near Kahiltna Pass. It also helps give us another day to acclimatize before moving higher.
Elevation: 13,300 feet / 4054 meters
Steep snow climbing up the 1,000′ high Motorcycle Hill rewards you with spectacular views. The total distance for the day is about 4 miles round trip with a little over 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Fun climbing with crampons and ice axe gets you around Windy Corner where the upper mountain comes into view-have your camera ready!
Elevation: 14,200 feet / 4328 meters
This is usually a long, hard day. Our next camp is generally located at the well equipped 14,200’ camp in the expansive Genet Basin. Loads are getting lighter and the air is getting thinner. Hopefully everyone will have enough energy left to help get camp in as we need to fortify this camp due to the possibility for fairly severe weather.
Elevation: 14,200 feet / 4328 meters
This is another “active rest day,” during which the team will descend from Genet Basin to the Windy Corner cache and bring everything up to 14,200 feet. We’ll spend the afternoon going over climbing techniques that we will use in the upcoming days.
Our goal is to cache supplies up on the ridge above us and return to 14,200 feet. Climbing up the Headwall (the section of route with fixed lines running from 15,500 to 16,100 feet) with a heavy pack is one of the more strenuous days of the trip because of the steep terrain, heavy pack and thinning air. The views from the ridge can be as breath taking as the rarefied air!
It is often prudent to take a rest/acclimatization day prior to moving up to High Camp.
Elevation: 17,200 feet / 5243 meters
Weather and team strength will again determine this decision. While there is a camp site at 16,100′, it is very exposed, so we usually push for the 17,200‘ site which is more secure and the better choice for camp. This is a really tough day, as our loads are big and the terrain is steep in sections. Rewards for our work are in the great climbing along the ridge. Weaving in and out of the rocks and occasionally walking a knife edged stretch, combined with big exposure to create one of the most memorable parts of the route.
Moving to 17,200’ and getting High Camp established can be a huge day, so we usually take a Rest Day before attempting the summit.
Elevation: 20,320 feet / 6195 meters
If the weather is favorable, we’ll push for the summit. However if the weather is not good we will not go. It is important to be patient! We will only try for the summit when the weather is good, meaning mostly clear and calm. Our guides are the most experienced on the mountain and will make this sometimes difficult decision. The round trip climb will take eight to twelve hours or more. Usually you will depart camp early (7-9 a.m.), climb up to Denali Pass (18,000’) and follow the route past Arch Deacon’s Tower and the Football Field to the slopes leading to the Summit Ridge. On this spectacular ridge you can often see down into the Ruth Glacier with views of beautiful peaks such as Mooses Tooth, Mt. Huntington and Mt. Hunter.
The weather needs to be good and everyone attempting the summit needs to have demonstrated that they can safely give it a shot. This is often the most grueling day of the expedition (some climbers say of their lives!). The guides have the ultimate decision as to when the team will make a summit bid. The guides also have the discretion to decide that a team member has not shown that he or she is capable to safely make a summit bid. Such occurrences are rare; but remember– your safety is our primary concern.
The descent from High Camp takes from one to two days, depending on the team’s strength and motivation to get home. The descent can beat you up more than the ascent, as we often have the heaviest loads of the trip as we go down from High Camp to Camp 2. Weather dictates when we can fly out to Talkeetna for food and showers. Not much beats a steak and salad at the West Rib Tavern after working hard on Denali!
We build six “contingency days” into our schedule. Denali has a well-deserved reputation for arctic weather and it is common to take weather days at some point on the mountain.
We will provide group transportation back to Anchorage and assist in making any necessary lodging reservations, however any lodging after the climb is your responsibility. As we cannot predict when we will come off the mountain, we cannot make arrangements for lodging ahead of time. This is a true transition day from the intensity of the mountain to the relative big city life of Anchorage.
Note on Itinerary: Although we do our best to follow the schedule listed, this itinerary is subject to change for numerous reasons beyond our control. The biggest factor that will determine our progress on the mountain, especially in establishing Camp 3 and our summit attempt(s), will be the weather. Denali weather is notorious for unforgiving and unpredictable conditions.