OverviewThe highest mountain in North America, Denali 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.
What's In A Name?Mt. McKinley is also known by its Athabascan name Denali, meaning "The Great One" and some climbers refuse to use "McKinley" when referring to the mountain. In fact, at least half a dozen names exist for the highest mountain in North America and most translate to "The Great One." Americans are the only ones who have previously bucked this trend and named it after a President from Ohio (William McKinley has often been considered a straw President --- put into power by Rockefeller's enormous campaign contributions in order to avoid a then-aspiring Teddy Roosevelt and his party's threat to break up the industrial monoploies with new anti-trust legislation).
Denali was renamed Mount McKinley by the Princeton graduate and gold prospector, William Dickey. Dickey was one of the hundreds of prospectors seeking gold in the 1896 Cook Inlet stampede. He had written an article for the New York Sun where he described the mountain as the highest in North America at over 20,000 feet. When later asked why he named the mountain after McKinley, Dickey replied that "the verbal bludgeoning he had received from free silver partisans had inspired him to retaliate with the name of the gold-standard champion" (Source: Mt. McKinley: The Pioneer Climbs by Terris Moore). Since the turn of the 19th century, the official name of this great mountain has not rested in peace. In 1914, following his historic first ascent of the mountain in 1913, Hudson Stuck wrote in the preface of his book, The Ascent of Denali, "forefront in this book, because forefront in the author's heart and desire, must stand a plea for the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of its immemorial native name."
Ever since the mountain's name was changed to McKinley, an effort has been under way to change it back to Denali. In 1980, the name Mount McKinley National Park was officially changed to Denali National Park and Preserve. The State of Alaska Board of Geographic Names has also officially changed the mountain's name back to Denali. The State of Alaska now recognizes it as Denali and the Feds have changed the name of the national park. Congress, however, has shown little interest in changing the mountain's name.
Shortly after Winston Churchill's death in 1965, the National Park Service, after being goaded to do so by Alaska's Senator Ernest Gruening, named Mount McKinley and the North Peak of Mount McKinley the Churchill Peaks. The individual summit is still officially known as Mount McKinley. Thanks to SP member, Steve Gruhn for that info (he's also one of the best all around resources for mountaineering information in Alaska).
Denali National Park
The park was established as Mt. McKinley National Park on February 26, 1917. The original park was designated a wilderness area at inception and was further designated an international biosphere reserve in 1976. The Park was incorporated into Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980. Today the park accommodates a wide variety of visitor use including wildlife viewing, mountaineering, and backpacking as well as providing a laboratory for research in the natural sciences. More than 425,000 people visit this world-class national park every year.
The park was originally established to protect wildlife and its habitat. At the time there were many people living and hunting in the area, and they needed meat for themselves and their dog teams. The easiest source of meat was hunting Dall sheep. Charles Sheldon, a hunter and naturalist, came to the Denali area in 1906 to study the Dall sheep. Seeing the need to protect this area and the sheep from commercial hunting, Sheldon lobbied Congress to set the area aside as a national park. Congress agreed with Sheldon, and in 1917, about two million acres of an area (including Denali) were set aside as Mt. McKinley National Park. In 1980, through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park's name was changed, and at the same time, its acreage was tripled, setting the footprint of what today is Denali National Park and Preserve. The park covers more than six million acres which includes a complete sub-arctic ecosystem home to large mammals such as grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, and moose. Additionally, almost the entire original two million acres are designated a wilderness area. The Park and Preserve is located in the heart of the Alaska Range and is home to countless glaciated mountains and granite peaks accompanied by some of the worlds largest, longest, and deepest glaciers. - Source NPS Website
Denali (and the National Park) is located approximately 200 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska. Please see maps below for more detail.
Denali, underneath its sheath of glaciers, consists primarily of a granite dome. About 60 million years ago (Paleocene epoch), semi-liquid magma intruded below the surface of the earth, and slowly cooled from 100 degrees Centigrade to form the McKinley/Denali pluton (a body of igneous rock formed beneath the surface of the earth by consolidation of magma). The pluton composing Denali's neighboring peaks is considerably younger, 38 million years old. As the millennia went by, a sea covered the area where the park is today and deposited much sediment. Later, a tropical forest grew here, resulting in the coal-bearing formation which is mined near the park today. Eventually geological forces caused the land to rise and buckle, resulting in the metamorphic rock (rock that has been transformed from one type of rock to another by heat and pressure) sequences found in the park. Much more recently, two to five million years ago, the McKinley/Denali pluton and the metamorphic rock lying on top of it were uplifted to the great height of today, forming the Alaska Range and Denali.
Some of the molten rock cooled in large pools called batholiths (large masses of igneous rock that have melted and intruded surrounding strata at great depths). The slowly-cooled rock, granite, is resistant to the effects of wind, water, and ice. Denali is a batholith that was once deep in the earth. As the tectonic plates shifted, it pushed through the softer rock surrounding it to the surface and up to 20,320 feet, creating the tallest mountain in North America. This granite mountain contains some of the most dramatic rises in the world, such as the 15,000-foot Wickersham Wall. While water and wind have taken their toll on most of the softer sedimentary rock, some of this rock still remains, like a lovely hat capping the top of the North Peak.
Early Climbing Controversy
The earliest attempts at climbing Denali began in the late-1800's. In 1906, Frederick Cook claimed the first ascent, but his claim was later discredited after his "summit" photos were proven to be from the summit of an insignificant peaklet more than 10 miles away from Denali's true summit. In 1910, a team of four "sourdoughs" with no previous mountaineering experience managed to climb the lower North Peak of Denali. Their claims were dismissed until later climbers found a 14-foot spruce pole they had erected near its summit.
Karstens Ridge/Muldrow Glacier - 1913, the first ascent of Denali's 20,320-ft south summit achieved by Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum. Harper, a Native Alaskan, is first to set foot on top.
West Buttress - 1951, route pioneered by Bradford Washburn. Art Davidson, Dave Johnston, and Ray Genet made the first winter ascent of the mountain via the West Buttress route in 1967.
West Rib - 1959, Peter Sinclair, Jake Breitenbach, Barry Corbet, and Bill Buckingham - 1960 American Alpine Journal. First solo ascent was in 1977 by Rupert Kammerlander. First winter ascent was a group in 1983.
Cassin Ridge - 1961, Riccardo Cassin et al. 1967 - Japanese variation (standard beginning of Cassin that joins another "Japanese Couloir" about halfway up the route). The first solo ascent was in 1976 done by Charlie Porter (in 36 hours to the summit nonetheless) and the first winter ascent was in 1983 done by Jonathan Waterman, Roger Mear, and Mike Young. The immortal Mugs Stump made the summit in 15 hours in 1991 which is still considered (arguably) the strongest climb of the route since the first ascent.
Please see the NPS website for other "firsts."
During the 2012 season, Denali saw 1,223 climbers try for the summit. Of those attempts, 498 (or 41%) made the summit.
Since 1903, the mountain has a historical summit rate of 52%. The climbing rates didn't start to jump until 1976 when the mountain saw more than 500 climbers for the first time in a calendar season. Since then, the year with the greatest summit rate was 1979 (79%) and the year with the lowest was 1987 (31%). Most people will agree that the summit rate is higher with guided groups and they make up approximately 40% of the traffic. Therefore, a rough estimate is that guided groups get to the summit about 55-60% of the time and private groups about 45-50% of the time.
There have been 19,564 people (including repeats) to reach the summit through the 2011 climbing season. The legendary Vern Tejas (currently a guide with Alpine Ascents International) is widely thought to have the most summits (approximately 50) and was the first solo ascentionist in calendar winter. In 2011, May saw 236 summits, June 358, and July 93. The busiest summit days were June 6 (66 people), May 27 (45 people), May 30 (45 people), June 17 (39 people) and July 7 (39 people). 131 women attempted Denali (or about 11%). US climbers make up about 60% of the total, and Canada, the UK, Poland, and Japan with 3-5% each. Climbers from Alaska, Washington, Colorado and California make up the bulk of the US participants. For more information, please see the NPS website.
Route ChoicesThe 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 Muldrow Glacier on the north side of the mountain is similar with regard to technical difficulty and length, but is far more committing and involved as you begin the climb by hiking in rather than flying to a base camp. Though technically much more difficult, the West Rib is the next most attempted route after the West Buttress, but only sees a handful of parties each year. In technical terms, it is substantially more difficult and more objectively dangerous as compared to the West Buttress. Beyond those three well known routes, the remaining options are significantly more technical, committing, and difficult.
West Buttress (Alaska Grade 2+, Class 3-4)
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.
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).
West Rib (Alaska Grade 4, AI 3)
For some Denali afficionados, the West Rib is the next step after completing the West Buttress or Karstens Ridge, but it represents a significant step up in skill and experience. The route involves moderate to steep snow as well as mixed snow and rock. The West Rib is a commiting route, but does offer retreat/escape points along the way. The West Rib offers steeper climbing and fewer crowds then its neighbor to the west. The Rib is not known for its technical challenges, but more for its sustained steepness and appeal for climbing on Denali's south face.
The West Rib offers two variations --- the Complete West Rib or the West Rib Cutoff. The complete Rib starts in the NE fork of the Kahiltna Glacier and is the most dangerous portion of the climb with respect to objective hazards (avalanche, crevasse). If conditions allow entrance into the NE fork, then a 9,000 ft ridge climb comprises the Complete West Rib. Most climbers choose to do the West Rib Cutoff, which ascends the standard West Buttress route until 14,200 ft. At 14,000 ft you leave the crowds of the West Buttress and traverse to the West Rib gaining the ridge at around 15,700 ft. You then ascent the upper ridge making one camp along the way.
Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5, 5.8, AI 4)
The Cassin Ridge is today considered a "50 Classic" of North America and was first climbed in 1961 by a group led by Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin, for which the route is named. The Cassin Ridge rises 8000 feet from the very bottom of Denali's South face to within a few yards of the true summit of the mountain. Steep snow, ice, and mixed climbing make this one of the most sought-after big mountain alpine climbs in the world. Climbers completing the Cassin Ridge find themselves in a small fraternity of elite Alaska climbers. The route ascends the prominent ridge on the south face and is steep, demanding, and committing --- escape routes are few and far between. As a result, only the most experienced climbers will think of attempting it.
Muldrow Glacier (Alaska Grade 3, Class 3-4)
The Karstens Ridge/Muldrow Glacier was the route of first ascent and used to be the standard route before Bradford Washburn pioneered the West Buttress route. This route is similar in difficulty as the West Buttress, but receives far less traffic. Expeditions are, on average, a week longer than West Buttress trips because of the longer approach from Wonder Lake. More adventurous climbers will attempt "the Traverse," by ascending the West Buttress and descending Karstens Ridge or vice versa. The Traverse is more strenuous than doing either route alone because climbers must haul all equipment and supplies over Denali Pass whereas climbers doing one route or another typically cache equipment and supplies that are not needed higher up on the mountain.
Alaska Grades are confusing. In 1966, Boyd Everett, Jr (a then-very acomplished Alaska mountaineer) presented a paper titled The Organization of an Alaskan Expedition at a Harvard Mountaineering Club seminar where he attempted to outline a rating system for Alsaka routes/summits (on a scale 1-6). For many years, this system was the standard (as the basis of it still is). In Alaska: A Climbing Guide, Michael Woods & Colby Coombs attmepted to simplify the system with definitions that make more sense for todays alpinists. Taken into account are things like: length of time on the route, camping options, length of route, technical difficulty, the sustained nature of the route, difficulty of descent, and difficulty of retreat. Its fundamental belief is that the system reflects "the average time for recent ascents by climbers with experience and physical level compatible to the chosen route." What follows is their interpretation of what Alaska grades are to mean today:
Alaska Grade 1: Can be climbed in one day from base camp and requires third and fourth class travel. Remoteness can contribute to seriousness.
Exapmles include: Mt Goode (E Ridge), Mt Redoubt (N Face), Mt Dickey (W Face), Mt Brooks (N Ridge) --- and for comparison sakes, Mt Rainier (Disappointment Cleaver) is Alaska Grade 1+ which translates to 35-45 degree ice and snow slopes, Grade II.
Alaska Grade 2: Moderate fifth class climb that can be accomplished in a day, or a mutiday climb involving third and fourth class travel. one or more of the following will contribute to the seriousness: altitude, remoteness.
Examples include: Four Horsemen (W Couloir to S Ridge), Denali (W Buttress), Blackburn (N Ridge), Mt Bona (E Ridge), Mt Hayes (E Ridge).
Alaska Grade 3: Difficult fifth class climb that can be accomplished in a day, or a multiday climb involving fourth and easy fifth class travel. One or more of the following will contribute to the seriousness: altitude, remoteness, cornicing, knife-edge ridges.
Examples include: Mt Foraker (Sultana Ridge), Mooses Tooth (Ham & Eggs Couloir), Mt Fairweather (Carpe Ridge), Mt Huntington (W Face Couloir).
Alaska Grade 4: Moderate fourth and fifth class climbs that require multiple days on route. One or more of the following will contribute to the seriousness: altitude, remoteness, cornicing, knife-edge ridges.
Examples include: Mt St Elias (Harvard Route), Mt Hunter (W Ridge), Mt Moffit (N Ridge).
Alaska Grade 5: A climb requiring a high level of commitment with sustained fifth class climbing; multiple days on route. One or more of the following will contribute to the seriousness: altitude, cornicing, knife-edge ridges, limited options for retreat, scarce bivi sites.
Examples include: University Peak (E Face), Mt Augusta (S Ridge).
Alaska Grade 6: A climb requiring an extreme level of commitment with difficult and sustained fifth class climbing for more than 4,000 feet requiring multiple days on route. One or more of the following will contribute to the seriousness: altitude, remoteness, cornicing, knife-edge ridges, poor retreat options, scarce and/or hanging bivis.
Examples include: Mt Hunter (Moonflower), Mt Foraker (Infinite Spur).
- Source: Alaska: A Climbing Guide by Michael Woods and Colby Coombs (Mountaineers, 2001).
Other Technical/Alpine Routes
Please see the list below for some of the better known climbing options on Denali. For more information, please see R.J. Secor's book Denali Climbing Guide.
Northern Routes (Wonder Lake Approach)
• Wickersham Wall, Canadian Variation (Alaska Grade 2, 60 deg ice)
• Traleika Spur (Alaska Grade 3)
• Pioneer Ridge (Alaska Grade 3)
• Wickersham Wall, Harvard Route (Alaska Grade 4, 5.5, 70 deg ice)
• Butte Direct (Alaska Grade 5, 5.10, A2)
Western Routes (Kahiltna Base Camp Approach)
• Orient Express (Alaska Grade 3, 45 deg ice)
• Messner Couloir (Alaska Grade 3, 50 deg ice)
• West Buttress Direct (Alaska Grade 3, 50 deg ice)
• McClod’s Rib (Alaska Grade 3, 60 deg ice)
• West Face (Alaska Grade 3, 5.8, 70 deg ice)
• Northwest Buttress (Alaska Grade 4, low 5th class rock)
• First Born (Alaska Grade 4, 5.8, 70 deg ice)
• Collins-Powers-Walter Route (Alaska Grade 5, low 5th class rock)
• Beauty is a Rare Thing (Alaska Grade 5, 5.8)
Southwestern Routes (NE Fork of Kahiltna Glacier Approach, i.e. Valley of Death)
• Trans Canada (Alaska Grade 3, 50 deg ice)
• Wickwire/Patterson Route (Alaska Grade 4, 45 deg ice)
• Clod Face (Alaska Grade 4, 50 deg ice)
• Reilly’s Rib (Alaska Grade 4, 60 deg ice)
• Denali Diamond (Alaska Grade 5, A3)
• McCartney-Roberts Route (Alaska Grade 5, 5.9)
Southern Routes (E Fork of Kahiltna Glacier Approach)
• South Buttress (Alaska Grade 3, 70 deg ice)
• American Direct (Alaska Grade 5, 5.7, A2, 65 deg ice)
• Krissak Memorial Route (Alaska Grade 5)
• Mascioli’s Pillar (Alaska Grade 5, 5.10, 80 deg ice)
• Czech Direct (Alaska Grade 5, VI+, 90 deg ice)
Southeastern Routes (Ruth Glacier/Sheldon Mountain House Approaches)
• 1954/Thayer Route (Alaska Grade 3, 60 deg ice)
• Hosemeister Couloir (Alaska Grade 3, 60 deg ice)
• East Buttress (Alaska Grade 3, 70 deg ice)
• Southeast Spur (Alaska Grade 4, 65 deg ice)
• Catacomb Ridge (Alaska Grade 4, 75 deg ice)
• Reality Ridge (Alaska Grade 4, 75 deg ice)
• Isis Face (Alaska Grade 5, 5.8, 60 deg ice)
• Ridge of No Return (Alaska Grade 5, V, 65 deg ice
Other than the West Buttress and Muldrow Glacier routes, skiers have been known to attempt the following lines (and of course, there are others):
• Traleika Spur
• Pioneer Ridge
• Orient Express
• Messner Couloir
• West Buttress Direct
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).
Most people will land in one of the three concourses in the Southern Terminal. Major airlines that service the area include: Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Sun Country, United, and US Air (read NO Southwest - bags DONT Fly For Free).
Camp stoves can travel as carry-on or checked luggage only if they are empty of all fuel and then cleaned such that no fuel vapors or residue are noticeable. Aerosol insecticides are not permitted in carry-on; however they are permitted in checked baggage as long as they are not labeled as hazardous material (HAZMAT). Wrap cords and layer items in bags so officers can get a clear view of the items. Flammable items include aerosols, fuels, gasoline, gas torches, lighter fluid, flammable paints, turpentine, paint thinner and realistic replicas of incendiaries. Lighters that do not contain fuel are permitted in checked baggage. Any sharp objects placed in carry-on or checked baggage should be properly sheathed or securely wrapped to prevent injury to TSOs and baggage handlers. Even if an item is generally permitted, it may be subject to additional screening or not allowed through the checkpoint if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses other security concerns. The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items on the plane.
Also, wear your boots on the plane. In the event your luggage is lost you can salvage almost everything in Anchorage, EXCEPT your boots.
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. Retailers in Anchorage include the following:
Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking
2633 Spenard Road
1200 West Northern Lights Blvd
Automobile transportation to Talkeetna is provided by the following providers:
Denali Overland Transportation
P.O. Box 330
Talkeetna, AK 99676
Toll Free: (800) 651-5221
Fax: (907) 733-2385
Talkeetna, AK 99676
Phone: (907) 355-TAXI
Should you wish to take the train from Anchorage to Talkeetna, see the following provider:
P.O. Box 107500
Anchorage, AK 99510
Phone: (907) 265-2494
Toll Free: (800) 544-0552
And should you wish to send supplies on ahead, see the transport company listed below:
(Food packaging & transportation)
200 W. 34th Ave. #82
Anchorage, AK 99503
Phone: (907) 761-3761
Recommended accomodations in Anchorage can be found on any travel search website, but I found the Best Western to be affordable, clean, and convenient (as of 2009).
Best Western Golden Lion Hotel
1000 East 36th Avenue
22056 South F Street
Meandering Moose Lodging
14677 E Cabin Spike Road
P.O. Box 361
Should you need additional provisions during business hours see the following retailer:
AMS Mountain Shop
Talkeetna, AK 99676
If you are climbing the Muldrow Glacier and wish to have your gear cached in advance of your arrival, contact Denali Dog Freight Expeditions (907-683-1008). Expeditions approaching from the north side of the Alaska Range needing to haul in freight may contact Denali North Side Supply (360-313-7038 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Those choosing to go into the park should be advised of the road conditions (if you rented a car). The park is serviced by a 91-mile (146 km) road from the George Parks Highway to the mining camp of Kantishna. It runs east to west, north of and roughly parallel to the Alaska Range. Only a small fraction of the road is paved because permafrost and the freeze-thaw cycle create an enormous cost for maintaining the road. Only the first 15 miles (24 km) of the road are available to private vehicles, and beyond this point, visitors must access the interior of the park through concessionary buses. Wonder Lake can be reached by a six-hour bus ride from the Wilderness Access Center. Eielson Visitor Center is located four hours into the park on the road.
Several fully narrated tours of the park are available, the most popular of which is the Tundra Wilderness Tour. The tours travel from the initial boreal forests through tundra to the Toklat River or Kantishna. A clear view of the mountain is possible only about 20% of the time during the summer, although it is visible more often during the winter. Several portions of the road run alongside sheer cliffs that drop hundreds of feet at the edges, and there are no guardrails. As a result of the danger involved, and because most of the gravel road is only one lane wide, drivers should be trained extensively in procedures for navigating the sharp mountain curves, and yielding the right-of-way to opposing buses and park vehicles.
While the main park road goes straight through the middle of the Denali National Park Wilderness, the national preserve and portions of the park not designated wilderness are even more inaccessible. There are no roads extending out to the preserve areas, which are on the far west end of the park. The far north of the park, characterized by hills and rivers, is accessed by the Stampede Trail, a dirt road which stops at the park boundary. The very rugged south portion of the park, characterized by enormous glacier-filled canyons, is accessed by Petersville Road, a dirt road that stops about 5 miles (8.0 km) outside the park. The mountains can be accessed most easily by air taxis that land on the glaciers.
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. See below for a complete listing of bush plane (air taxi) services:
PO Box 1152
Talkeetna AK, 99676
Toll Free: (866) 733-7768
P.O. Box 545
Talkeetna, AK 99676
Phone: (907) 733-2291
Toll Free: (800) 764-2291
Fax: (907) 733-1221
Sheldon Air Service, LLC
P.O. Box 648
Talkeetna, AK 99676
Phone: (907) 733-2321
Toll Free: (800) 478-2321
Talkeetna Air Taxi
P.O. Box 73
Talkeetna, AK 99676
Phone: (907) 733-2218
Toll Free: (800) 533-2219
Fax: (907) 733-1434
When To Climb
Major Climbing Season
The normal climbing season is from late-April to mid-July with the most popular period from mid-May to late-June.
In general, the earlier you climb, the colder it will be high up on the mountain and the later you climb, the sloppier conditions will be on the lower Kahiltna Glacier. Later in the season, many climbers opt to travel on the lower mountain during the evening hours when the snow is relatively firm. Denali veterans have said that the weather tends to be windy in May, stormy in July, and a mix of both in June. However, once you're on the mountain, you will find the weather to be more of a crapshoot than anything else.
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. Here is an actual itinerary from a 1996 expedition:
June 25: Fly into base camp, weather closes in before entire team makes it into camp
June 26: Rest of team flies into base camp
June 27: Logistics day and crevasse rescue practice
June 28: Move to 7,800 ft camp
June 29: Move to 9,500 ft camp; storm moves in
June 30: Bad weather day
July 1: Move to 11,000 ft camp
July 2: Rest day
July 3: Ferry loads to 14,200 ft camp; return to 11,000 ft
July 4: Move to 14,200 ft camp in inclement weather
July 5: Rest day
July 6: Ferry loads to 16,000 ft; return to 14,200 ft
July 7: Move to 16,000 ft camp
July 8: Move to 17,200 ft camp
July 9: Bad weather day
July 10: Summit day; storm moves in as summit is reached
July 11: Descend to 14,200 ft camp in inclement weather, 70 knot winds
July 12: Move to 7,800 ft camp in bad weather, total whiteout
July 13: Bad weather day
July 14: Move to base camp, fly out, get drunk at Fairview Inn
The first winter ascent was accomplished on February 28, 1967 and is documented in the mountaineering classic, Minus 148. In 1998, three Russians made the first January ascent of Denali, a time of the year when the mountain receives only five or six hours of sunlight a day (click on this link for the press release: Mountain Zone). It seems as though every year, someone tries to climb Denali in calendar winter. Since the famous expedition of Art Davidson's Minus 148 book fame, a winter ascent of Denali has taken on an almost mythical notion. At that time of year, the sun is up from approximately 9am to 3pm. Temperatures can reach -100 or more. It's a sufferfest, but so goes the human race. Below are the last few excerpts from the Anchorage Daily News that cover these nuts every year.
Mountaineers attempting a climb of Mt. McKinley or Mt. Foraker must register with the Talkeetna Ranger Station at least 60 days prior to their start date. The Mountaineering Special Use Fee of $350 and will be charged in full at the time of registration to each expedition member (same fee applies to Denali or Mt. Foraker). A reduced fee of $250 will be charged for climbers aged 24 or younger as of the start date of the climb. At the time an expedition checks in for their climb, the Denali National Park entrance fee of $10 per individual is due. Interagency passes are accepted in lieu of entrance fee payment (actual passes must be presented). The preferred payment method is through our online registration system (link available the first week of October), which accepts credit card. For mail-in registrations, the NPS prefers credit card payments and personal checks will not be accepted. 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 that 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. This new member must pay the climbing special use fee and register 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. Please do not use open-pit toilets as they are unsanitary, they produce large concentrations of feces, and they contaminate the snow used for making water. And worse, feces buried within one meter of snow surface will melt out during the climbing season! Clean Mountain Cans promote the Leave No Trace ethics in glacier environments and helps 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!
If CMCs are not available for use (big "if" by the way), all human waste must be deposited into biodegradable bags (provided by the National Park Service) and disposed of in a deep crevasse away from popular trails. All bags will be marked with the expedition's name or permit number. In an effort to make sure that the snow is clean for future water supplies please consolidate pee holes away from camping areas and do not leave human waste on the snow.
The National Park Service has installed outhouses for public use at Kahiltna Basecamp and 14,200 feet on the West Buttress of Denali Your cooperation in accepting these responsibilities will contribute significantly to the collective care for this special place, so that all may experience a pristine glacier environment, both now and in the future. 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, and/or additional legal actions.
All trash must be carried off the mountain. If climbing in a private group, you will likely have your trash weighed upon return to basecamp (airstrip). All expeditions are required to transport trash in the blue bags (provided by the National Park Service). Climbers violating these rules will be fined and may be kicked off the mountain. 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.
White gas is available in Talkeetna, as well as a limited supply of butane/propane canisters. Other bottled fuels are available in Anchorage. Contact your air service operator before purchasing white gas, as they supply white gas in bulk to the Kahiltna Base Camp. Fuel cans distributed from the Kahiltna Basecamp will be marked with the expedition's permit number and you will likely get checked at some point to make sure you aren't using fuel that doesn't belong to you or if you have discarded a fuel can on the mountain (and didn't pack it out).
In 1977, the National Park Service established a ranger station specifically for mountaineers in Talkeetna. Since 1984, the station has been staffed year-round to provide information and assistance to mountaineers before, during and after their climbs. The mountaineering rangers have extensive experience in the Alaska Range and can provide invaluable information. The station maintains a reference library including a complete set of American Alpine Journals, a map collection, and specific route information for numerous other peaks, including the Ruth, Kitchatnas and Little Switzerland. You must check in at the Talkeetna Ranger Station before departing for Base Camp and check out when you leave the mountain. The park rangers will question you about your mountaineering experience and strongly discourage you from going if they feel your experience is insufficient.
Talkeetna Ranger Station
P.O. Box 588
Talkeetna, Alaska 99676
Phone: (907) 733-2231
Fax: (907) 733-1465
If you have to be rescued off the mountain, (if found grossly neglegent) you will likely be billed for the costs --- which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. In the end, if your situation is an emergency and the NPS is able to help, they will. However, they undertake rescue missions at thier discretion and with rescuer safety as the highest priority. The National Park Service does not have a policy to charge climbers for rescue services, however, any hospital, air ambulance or other associated costs after leaving the mountain are the sole responsibility of the climber. Rescue insurance or health insurance (if your rescue is a medical emergency) can help with the costs of the rescue. Cell phones work well above 14,200 feet. Some climbers will bring transistor radios to catch radio stations from Anchorage. FRS (Family Radio Service) radios are recommended for on-mountain communication. FRS channel 1 is monitored for emergencies. CBs are no longer monitored. Satellite phones are also encouraged.
In the autumn of 2011, a new 501(c)(3) non-profit organization was launched to help support the mountaineering Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) program at Denali National Park and Preserve. The organization is the brainchild of Jen Latham, a Denali mountaineering volunteer and the wife of one of Denali's mountaineering rangers, Brandon Latham. Denali Rescue Volunteers is modeled after the successful "Friends of Yosemite Search and Rescue" or Friends of YOSAR program at Yosemite National Park. The mission of Denali Rescue Volunteers is to provide ancillary support to the volunteers of the mountaineering program of Denali National Park. Donations, both financial and 'in-kind', will be used for:
> Travel and equipment stipends for current volunteers.
> A gear/equipment cache for future volunteers.
> Stipends for current volunteers to attend medical and technical trainings.
> Creating and maintaining the Denali Rescue Volunteers website at www.denalirescue.com.
Donations are administered through an independent board. The board of Denali Rescue Volunteers is made up of present and former volunteers, as well as advisors who have worked in and around Denali National Park as medical professionals and rescue personnel. No donation is used to directly support the rescue operations. The costs associated with missions are covered through funding appropriated to the NPS Washington, DC office. For more information on Denali Rescue Volunteers, go to their website at www.denalirescue.com or email them at email@example.com