Formerly known as Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America has been the goal of aspiring high altitude climbers since it was first climbed in 1913. Its reputation as a highly coveted summit derives from its location near the Arctic Circle and the Pacific Ocean (Gulf of Alaska) giving it some of the most ferocious weather in the world. Because of its notorious weather and ease of access, some climbers use Denali as a training ground for climbing the 8,000 meter peaks of the Himalaya and for extended expeditions in the Arctic or Antarctic. And for all you peakbaggers out there, Denali is the highpoint of the Denali Borough, the state of Alaska, the United States, the Alaska Range, and North America.
Denali offers one of the world's greatest expedition challenges. While it is exceeded in elevation by peaks in South America and Asia, 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, Kilimanjaro 14,000 feet, and Everest 13,000 feet. Vertical elevation gain on Everest from the normal base camp for the South Col route is 11,000 feet; from the landing spot on the Kahiltna Glacier Denali's summit rises another 13,000 feet. Further, the mountain (and all mountains this far north or south) behaves like it's taller than it really is --- the reason being that the barometric pressure in the northern/southern latitudes is less than at the equator which makes climbers feel higher than they really are.
Denali is remote, so the journey to base camp involves several flights, taxis, and gear acquisitions.
Part 1: Flying to Anchorage
The major international airport in Anchorage is called the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) named after the (in)famous Senator Ted Stevens who died in 2010. The airport is located about four miles south of the city proper. Anyone not from Alaska is better off flying to Anchorage for an attempt on Denali. While Anchorage is not a huge passenger destination compared to the rest of the world, it is the 5th largest cargo airport in the world (after Hong Kong, Memphis, Seoul, and Shanghai).
Part 2: Driving to Talkeetna
From the Anchorage airport, it is roughly a two-hour drive to Talkeetna (Talkeetna is a small town and the main staging area for climbing most routes on Denali and the Alaska Range in general). Limited supplies and equipment are available in Talkeetna, so it is best to get most of your shopping done in Anchorage before heading out.
Part 3: Flying to the Kahiltna Glacier
Climbing routes on the south side of McKinley require that you take a bush plane from Talkeetna to Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. The same services can also arrange to fly you from Anchorage to Talkeetna for an extra charge.
West Buttress (Alaska Grade 2+, Class 3-4) - The majority of climbers on Denali (over 90%) attempt the West Buttress route, which is considered the least technical way to get to the summit.
The West Buttress has been derided as "the Denali Iditarod" or "the Scenic Loop." However, this is in context to Denali being fondly referred to as the "Mid-life Crisis Mountain" --- in 2011, the average age of a Denali climber was exactly 40 years old. While there is always some truth to nicknames, many people aspire to climb the West Buttress and the climb is undoubtedly considered as an exceptional mountaineering challenge. Nowhere in the world does one travel with so much gear over so much vertical in such a hostile environment. Although there are no technically difficult sections on the route, many stretches of "The Butt" leave very little margin for error (the lower glacier in warm conditions, Windy Corner, the Autobahn, Denali Pass, and the Summit Ridge). Furthermore, the West Buttress is just as exposed as any other route to Denali's legendary weather. Prospective climbers should be highly competent in travel on moderately steep snow/ice slopes and exposed traverses.
The most popular camps are located at 7,200 ft (base camp); 7,800 ft; 9,500 ft; 11,000 ft; 14,200 ft; and 17,200 ft. Other camps are located at 12,500 ft and 16,000 ft, but should only be used under ideal weather conditions as the 12,500 ft camp is vulnerable to avalanches and the 16,000 ft camp is very exposed to high winds. The 11,000 ft camp also experiences avalanches and serac fall, and care should be taken to avoid these two hazards when setting up camp. Above 14,200 ft, snow caves or igloos are usually constructed as a back up shelter in case bad weather moves in. There are usually NPS Rangers at 7,200 ft and 14,200 ft.
Total horizontal length of the West Buttress route is approximately 13 miles with about 13,500 ft of vertical gain. Between base camp and 11,000 ft, the route is relatively flat and the main hazards are crevasse falls. Above 11,000 ft, the route steepens to moderate slopes (35-45 degrees) alternating with flat benches and bowls. Equipment and supplies are typically carried by sled to 11,000 ft or all the way to 14,000 ft. Above 11,000 ft, gear and food can be ferried between camps in two trips. West Buttress expeditions average around 17 days, but climbers should take at least 3 weeks of supplies. A 2-3 day supply of food and fuel should be left at base camp in case weather prevents planes from landing on the glacier (climbers have been stranded for as long as two weeks due to inclement weather).
- Day 1: Land at Base Camp
- Day 2: Rest day to organize gear and practice crevasse rescue
- Day 3: Move to 7,800 ft camp
- Day 4: Move to 9,500 ft camp
- Day 5: Move to 11,000 ft camp
- Day 6: Rest day
- Day 7: Ferry loads to 14,200 ft camp, return to 11,000 ft camp
- Day 8: Move to 14,200 ft camp
- Day 9: Rest day
- Day 10: Ferry loads to 17,200 ft camp, return to 14,200 ft
- Day 11: Rest day
- Day 12: Move to 17,200 ft camp
- Day 13: Summit day
- Day 14: Descend to 11,000 ft camp
- Day 15: Descend to base camp, fly out
Keep in mind that this itinerary does not factor in bad weather days when you will be tent-bound. Itineraries are also adjusted according to how quickly members of a team acclimatize to the altitude.
To climb Denali, you need permits and special gear unique to this mountain.
Mountaineers attempting a climb of Denali or Mt. Foraker must register with the Talkeetna Ranger Station at least 60 days prior to their start date. Climbers are required to pay the full permit fee when they submit their registration form at Pay.gov. The cost of a mountaineering permit as of the 2020 climbing season is $375. Climbers who are 24 years old or younger at the time their expedition begins are eligible for a $275 youth fee. Please note that the mountaineering special use fee is subject to an annual increase based on Consumer Price Index changes. At the time an expedition checks in for their climb, the Denali National Park entrance fee of $15 per individual is due. Interagency passes are accepted in lieu of entrance fee payment (actual passes must be presented). If the climb is cancelled prior to January 15 of the year in which the climb is scheduled, all but $100 of the fee will be refunded. No refund will be made for cancellations after January 15. Once the form and payment are correctly submitted, registrants will immediately receive a receipt confirmation from Pay.Gov via email. For groups who are unable to register online, the expedition leader can contact the Talkeetna Ranger Station to initiate manual registration.
Mountaineers who have climbed Mt. McKinley or Mt. Foraker since 1995 can request a "seven-day exception" to the 60-day pre-registration period and instead register only 7 days in advance of the climb. Individuals seeking registration under the "seven-day exception" must be on record at the Talkeetna Ranger Station as climbing in or after 1995. This rule is applied on an individual basis -- in order for the entire expedition to be eligible for the seven-day exception, all members must qualify. Expeditions are permitted to add one new member to their expedition using either the 30-day exemption or the 7-day rule. When using the 30-day add-on, the climber must register and pay their fee at least 30 days prior to the start date of the expedition.
Clean Mountain Canisters (CMCs)
Conceived by mountaineering ranger Roger Robinson, the Clean Mountain Can (CMC) is a portable toilet designed to address Denali's remote, rugged environment and the unique logistical challenges presented by a 3-week long expedition. Clean Mountain Cans are required for all teams on Denali, as they promote the Leave No Trace ethics in glacier environments and help protect the environment for future generations. Additionally, they are lightweight, convenient, durable and reusable.
The durable CMC comes with a harness system that can lock the lid down and is sturdy enough to strap on a pack or sled. The CMC capacity is 10 to 14 uses (approximately one-half pound per use) including the addition of some toilet paper. The current model Clean Mountain Can (CMC) is designed to hold 1.88 gallons of human waste and has a U.S. Department of Transportation-approved two-way vent. Several CMC's have even been accidentally dropped off the West Buttress, tumbling over 2,000 feet without damage!
Clean Mountain Cans (CMCs) are required on the West Buttress Route, including and especially at High Camp (17,200’, 5200m). A CMC bag or bags is not an acceptable substitute for the actual CMC. The NPS Rangers will send any team back down if they do not have their CMCs at High Camp.
All human waste must be deposited into biodegradable bags (provided by the National Park Service) and transported in CMCs. These CMC bags are marked with the expedition’s name or permit number prior to flying to Base Camp. Human waste from the lower mountain (any elevation below 14,200’, 4300m) is to be removed from the mountain in the CMC can when the climbing team leaves from Base Camp. Human waste from the upper mountain including High Camp, in a CMC Bag may be deposited in the NPS approved crevasse near the camp at 14,200’, 4300m. This crevasse is marked with an orange marker. This is the only place where it is acceptable to deposit human waste on the West Buttress route, and there is no place where it is acceptable to deposit trash.
In an effort to make sure that the snow is clean for other climbing teams and future water supplies please consolidate pee holes away from camping areas and do not leave human waste on the snow. Pee holes should be consolidated at every camp, and especially at High Camp (17,200’, 5200m).
The proper disposal of trash, fuel cans and human waste are not only the right thing to do, it is required. Failure to follow these requirements may result in the issuance of a violation notice, a fine, and/or other additional legal actions.
All trash must be carried off the mountain. Climbers violating these rules will be fined and may have their permit cancelled. If you decide to break these rules, be aware that the NPS rangers are not the only people looking for violations. Enough climbers want to see Denali kept pristine that they will not hesitate to snitch on violators. If climbing in a private group, you should have your trash organized and contained upon return to basecamp (airstrip). Air taxis will not fly climbers out if their trash is not contained and clean.
Contact your air service operator before purchasing white gas, as they are prohibited from flying with passengers and white gas, and therefore supply pre-purchased white gas in bulk at the Kahiltna Base Camp. White gas and butane/propane canisters are available in limited supply in Talkeetna. Other bottled fuels are available in Anchorage.
It is highly recommended to use a professional guide service when climbing Denali. Guiding services typically provide logistical support (to and from the glacier), group gear (such as tents, cooking supplies, ropes, shovels, saws, etc), food (less snacks), and cooking services (guides will cook and boil water, but the clients do the dishes). Guides do not haul gear for the clients in Alaska. There are no Sherpa, no Kenyans, and no mules. You bring it, you carry it. Guides also make decisions on weather, campsites, and team dynamics.
Guided expeditions on the West Buttress (in a 9 client to 3 guide ratio) typically run $5,000-$7,000 depending on what exactly is being offered. Some guiding services also run people up the West Rib ($8,000 for a 4 client to 2 guide ratio) and the Cassin Ridge ($18,000-$26,000 depending on the ratio). They can also rent certain gear to clients should they need it.
Alaska Mountaineering School
P.O. Box 566
Talkeetna, AK 99676
Alpine Ascents International
109 W. Mercer St.
Seattle, WA 98119
American Alpine Institute
1515 12th Street
Bellingham, WA 98825
International Mountain Guides
31111 State Route 706 E
Ashford, WA 98304
Mountain Trip International, LLC
P.O. Box 658
Ophir, Colorado 81426
P.O. Box 981
Palmer, AK 99645
Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.
P.O. Box Q
Ashford, WA 98304