Cassin Ridge

Page Type Page Type: Route
Location Lat/Lon: 63.62674°N / 146.51367°W
Additional Information Route Type: Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Spring
Additional Information Time Required: Expedition
Additional Information Difficulty: AK Grade V, AI 4
Additional Information Rock Difficulty: 5.8 (YDS)
Additional Information Grade: V
Sign the Climber's Log


A mountaineering classic and an alpinist's test piece. The Cassin Ridge will challenge you from the start. The logistics alone will require weeks of planning and research. There are many variables involved in planning a Denali expedition and several books dedicated to the subject. If you have never climbed in AK prepare yourself by reading the following:

Waterman - Surviving Denali & Denali Diaries
Wilcox - White Winds (awesome read about a most tragic trip)
Snyder - The Hall of the Mountain King (rebuttal to the '67 trip)
Beckey - Mount McKinley

The Cassin Ridge is not the most difficult route technically speaking. It is an attainable objective for competent alpinists who have proved their mettle on steep ice, technical rock and mixed ground at altitude and who are comfortable carrying on in varying terrain conditions and unpredictable weather.

The combination of steep ice, steep mixed terrain, altitude, hazardous weather conditions, lack of communications, difficult retreat, and perplexing route finding for nearly 9,000' make it the test piece it is. The climbing is awesome however, and if each section of the route were dismantled and placed independently in various mountain ranges they'd each hold their own as a classic outing by the locals.

One other note. If you go to climb this route, you need to be persistent. The rangers get dozens of applications for the Cassin each year of which 98% of those climbers give in to the West Buttress or maybe the upper Rib. You have to give everything to this route which is difficult because you've nearly climbed the mountain when you made a cache a 17,000! We were successful not because we are the greatest climbers, but everyday we just did what we had to do without getting impatient and then eventually it all started to come together and we found ourselves at the base of the Japanese Colouir ready to go.... and this was after a major blowout on the trail to 11k in a white out, a bout with pulmonary edema at 14k, several nasty conversations about giving up on the objective and a crampon point through the sidewall of the Bibler! Alaska is tough, strong men and women thrive and gain strength from the experience whether successful or not, the rest just falter.


Fly to Anchorage. Pre arrange van service to Talkeetna. Pre arrange flight service from Talkeetna to Kahiltna Glacier and base camp.

All pre arranged services can be easily handled on the internet and/or telephone. Generally, Alaskans are glad to take a phone call and are friendly and helpful.

Be prepared for this trip. Have everything in order before heading to base camp. Repackage all your food before leaving for Anchorage. You don't want to deal with a lot of extra packaging in Anchorage or on the glacier itself.

I have repackaged all dry foods at home into ziplock freezer bags of various sizes and shipped up to 4 rubbermaid containers to my transport service in Talkeetna several weeks before leaving home. This works well and is easily arranged with your contact in Talkeetna.

Getting To The Route

There are three choices in navigating to the base of the route:

1) South East Fork
2) North East Fork
3) Down climb the lower West Rib

The NE Fork and Rib are the most logical choices because of the frequency of travel of other parties in these areas. There are multiple scenarios to consider when planning your tactics - and none are better than others. The premise, you won't know until you go applies. So hope for hard packed trails everywhere, but plan on breaking your own trail all over the mountain using either ski gear or snowshoes. Skis are fun and effective, but snowshoes are overall more convenient for me anyway.

Here are some suggested itineraries to get you to the climb itself:

1)NE Fork variation
- Leave base camp with all your supplies except the stuff you want to leave at bc.
- Make a major cache (Cassin food & fuel and your luxury food) at the NE Fork. Rest.
- Continue up West Buttress to 11,000 foot camp. Rest. Rest.
- Continue to 14,000 camp. Rest. Rest.
- Take a cache to the 17,000 foot camp (just a little food and fuel for when you are descending after summiting, descend to 14,000. Rest.
- Descend to your NE Fork cache. Rest and eat all the good stuff you cached like peanut butter, cheese, pringles, canned fruit.
- Gear up. Leave at Midnight and travel the NE Fork to the base of the West Rib. Rest. Travel to the base of the Japanese Couloir.

The NE Fork
Chances may have it that parties have been going to the West Rib, or to the Cassin, and that the route is broken up the NE Fork. In my experience it is all about timing here and if you happen upon a packed trail grab it. If you notice it is packed as you are heading up to 14k don't count on it still being packed when you come back down. One snow storm can completely obliterate it and a new route will have to be broken.

If you travel the NE Fork you may have to ditch skis or snowshoes at the base of the route to fetch later. I believe snowshoes to be superior here because of the route finding necessary and complexity that may be encountered in the ice fall below the West Rib and the crevasses that need to be navigated both below and above the NE Fork ice fall.

2) Downclimb lower West Rib variation
- Leave base camp with all your supplies except the stuff you want to leave at bc.
- Make a major cache (Cassin food & fuel and your luxury food) at the NE Fork. Rest. (the alternative here is to carry as much as possible up to 14k at a very slow pace).
- Continue up West Buttress to 11,000 foot camp. Rest. Rest.
- Continue to 14,000 camp. Rest. Rest.
- Take a cache to the 17,000 foot camp (just a little food and fuel for when you are descending after summiting, descend to 14,000. Rest.
- Cache some provisions and fuel at 14k and traveling light, descend to your NE Fork cache. Rest and eat all the good stuff you cached like peanut butter, cheese, pringles, canned fruit.
- Make your way back up to 14k
- From 14k climb up to around 15,200 on the West Rib (it's not necessary to go all the way to 16k). Camp.
- Traverse onto the West Rib through some mixed terrain and then make your way down the rib. (This will take 1 day or will require a camp most likely below the ice dome and above the Chicken Couloir. Either way count on 1-3 days to get from the West Butt 14,000 camp to the base of the Japanese Couloir.)

Route Description

Japanese Couloir -

You get what you get here. You may find neve and kick steps up to the crux and above or you may find 1,000 feet of hard alpine ice up to WI4 at the crux. In 2005 we found the route to be nearly devoid of snow requiring a lot of front pointing and climbing through hard ice and mixed terrain. We found no flat ground in the couloir for rests. All our belays were hanging from ice screws and in a few cases some rock pro. We encountered difficult weather here and were constantly avoiding spindrift avalanches down the couloir. They were timed perfectly about every 10 minutes or so. We left our camp below the bergshrund at 6am and arrived at the Cassin Ledge a day later at about 6am, but you are undoubtedly faster than us and will have much better conditions! Lucky for us we were the only party on the route at that time.

Navigate crevasses, find your way through the bergshrund, and climb low angle ice face to rocks at entrance of couloir. From the bergshrund it is roughly 300' to the rocks. Some simul climbing is necessary.

It is 4 or 5 pitches to the crux. You can climb the ice crux directly or on rocks to the left. We chose the ice. It was steep and about two body lengths to surmount the steepest section. It was adequately protected with ice screws.

Continue up for another 2 or 3 pitches until you reach a mixed ground headwall which exits you from the grips of the couloir. The rock is poor on this headwall and it is steep. Protect wisely where you can and pick your way up. Find the best belay you can and bring your team up. The Cassin Ledge is easily spotted on the left. It is big enough for two Bibler sized tents, but requires rigging and hanging gear. We spent an entire day here while it snowed intermittently.

1st Minor Rock Band -

Exit the ledge and climb up easy, fun mixed ground to the base of the rock band, belay here. Traverse this to your right to an obvious corner system. There is a step around here that leads to a second corner system. I've heard some say the second is better, so of course we chose the first. It was steep, maybe 5.5, with good pro, huge holds and good rock. Fun climbing! One rope length gets you above these rocks to an ice wall that becomes the Cowboy Arête, or 1,000' knife edge ice ridge.

Cowboy Arête –

This was a part of the climb we were unsure of. What the hell does a 1,000 foot knife edge ice ridge look like? The fantastic view gained from the NE Fork doesn’t help calm your nerves either. It looks steep and long and exposed. It is all those things and more! The conditions were of an alpine ice nature. The ice was UV blasted and crumbled when using ice screws unless you excavated really deeply. Pickets pounded in alright and we found maybe two pickets that were frozen in from expeditions past. Generally the climbing is not difficult and kicking steps in the knife edge itself worked well. We had good weather here and no troubles. We broke trail and later a party thanked us because they just cruised up the ridge using our steps! The ridge deposits you on the snow field below a moderate ice face that leads to the giant bergshrund that is infamous. Above this a long snow/ice face takes you to the huge 2nd rock band. There is very good camping immediately beyond the Cowboy arête and no difficulties getting off the ridge onto the snow field. This is the largest flat spot on the route. We continued up another hour or so to the bergshrund and found camping in the bergshrund. It was windy here and spindrift threatened our tent. We had to get up in the night to dig out our tent several times.

1st Major Rock Band –

In years past this bergshrund was a major obstacle. Today there is a huge break and ramp that carries you through the bergshrund to the snow field that leads to the rock band. Carry on through the ‘shrund and up the snow field 600’ until about 300’ below the rocks. Identifying where the break in the rock band lies is difficult. It is on the far right above a small bergshrund that traverses the base of an ice wall that leads to the rock. Some route descriptions say to look for M shaped rocks. We did not know where to look for this landmark. Another landmark is a wooden ice axe shaft sticking out of the ice in the middle of the ice face above the bergshrund. We did spot this and found it to be in the right spot. You don’t actually go through the rock band, but rather go past it on the right and then continue up through mixed ground. The climbing here is excellent and varies from rock to solid ice. Rock pro and screws work well through this section.

We continued up the ridge proper through mixed ground until the 3rd rock bank was in sight. There was no tent site that we could find, but rather found a crude bivy ledge in rocks that barely accommodated the Bibler just below a snow ridge that led up to the 2nd rock band.

2nd Rock Band –

Leaving our bivy site we continued up a snow ridge to confront the 2nd rock band which like the 1st is enormous and confusing. We traversed left under the band several hundred feet into to what looked like the Bombay chimney system only to retreat after difficult rock climbing. I think the tactic is to enter into this rock band quickly and to not traverse too far left. Somewhere right of the middle you can pick your way up through mixed terrain about three rope lengths to surmount the rock band. Above here is the 17,000 foot camp. It is a complex part of the mountain and we traversed far to the right towards the south face onto rock slabs and eventually snow slopes overlooking big bertha on the south face. We continued up to a reasonable area where we could excavate a tent platform.

3rd Rock Band

This is where the infamous hand crack is. We missed it not necessarily intentionally, but the route is huge in this area and we climbed very close to the ridge proper overlooking the south face and got into a couloir that eventually intersected the ridge possibly above this feature.

We also did not encounter the famous Korean camp, although it may have been just below 17,000 more towards climber's left.

Summit Day –

From our 17,000’ platform we again traversed right onto the south face and into a 1,000’ gulley that deposits you back onto the ridge proper. I think this gulley is what is known as the Japanese variation and it avoids the last difficult rock section that is where the hand crack with fixed cams is found. Once out of the colouir it is just a matter of continuing up the ridge proper to the Kahiltna horn. This is where the Cassin converges with the West Buttress 300’ below the summit. The climbing above the last camp is at altitude and slow going. We encountered deep snow and breakable crust and moved very slowly up and up and up. It was surreal eventually stepping onto flat ground at the Kahilta horn and encountering West Buttress parties. We had big packs and lots of gear, but hardly anyone noticed! We dumped our packs and continued to the summit for an awesome reward.

Essential Gear

Current conditions completely dictate what gear to take, however any trip should consider the following:

Alpine Rock Rack:
- Small selection of small, medium and large stoppers.
- Cams up to 2.5".
- Useful cam sizes are Camalot .5, .75., 1 and yellow and green Aliens.
- Up to 7 ice screws 17cm and shorter

Iso Butane is the only way to go and our MSR Superfly with hanging kit worked very well. We melted snow and cooked in the tent about 98% of the time.

We used 40 below overboots and I still frost nipped several toes. I had no problems with cold hands. I attribute this to having several pairs of gloves and mittens so I could change into dry gloves at will. I destroyed one pair of gloves in the Japanese couloir. The rock and ice and gear tore them to shreds.

A repair kit with needle, strong thread, tape and a micro tool with pliers. We repaired gloves and equipment and the tent with this on the route.

We carried one shovel and used it. This item is weather dependent.

We carried one 9.5mm 60m rope. Retreat would have been a nightmare. Our only option was to complete the route and go down the Butt.

Leave your book at base camp, but do not leave your mp3 player behind. This burns the tent bound hours nicely.

We took 6 days of food and fuel and spent 11 days on the route sitting out weather. We were short food, but had just enough fuel.


Things we saw along the way (usually frozen in the ice).

- a nicely coiled rope
- a spatula!
- a copy of Lord of the Rings
- I scavenged several vintage pitons
- A vintage wooden ice axe shaft (critical landmark)

Additions and CorrectionsPost an Addition or Correction

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Buckaroo - Oct 17, 2009 11:40 am - Hasn't voted

Cassin's First Ascent Photos

Cassin thanked Washburn for his photos and help on the Cassin Ridge on Denali by giving him these photos of the climb. A few years ago Washburn donated them to the AAC and they've recently put them on flickr. feel free to put this link on the Cassin route page.

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