Denali FAQ
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20,310 feet 6,190 meters
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Here are some common questions about climbing Denali. I am focusing on the West Buttress route since it is the most common route and the one I took in 2001, 2007 and 2011 as one of my Memories are Everything ® expeditions. Since I am not a guide nor a professional climber, this information is based on my experience and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions!

About Denali Training, Gear & Communication Expedition Basics My Experience

About Denali

Q: Where is Denali
A: The giant massif is located in Alaska. It is the highest mountain in North America at 20,310', and one of the 7 Summits. It is famous for extremely cold weather but is very popular as a guided or self-guided climb. As you drive North from Anchorage, you see the huge massif looming above all the other mountains. You fly into Anchorage and drive about 2 hours North to Talkeetna. Then you take a bush plane to the Kahiltna Glacier. View Denali on a larger map

Q: I understand Denali had a name change and new measured height in 2015.
A:
Per this pressrelease from the Secretary of the Interior on August 30, 2015:

In recognition of the long history of strong support from Alaska state, tribal and congressional leaders, and in resolution of an official request for a name change pending for 40 years, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today announced that the highest mountain in the United States and North America, formerly known as Mount McKinley, will be officially given the traditional Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali.

President Obama endorsed Jewell’s decision to issue a Secretarial Order that officially changes the name. Jewell is granted the authority to make such changes in certain cases per the 1947 federal law that provides for the standardization of geographic names through the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The name change will be reflected in all federal usage.

During July, 2015, a GPS unit was placed on the summit to accurately measure the elevation and it resulted in lowering the highest by 10 feet from 20,320 feet to 20,310. You can read more details at this NPS link.

Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: Late April through July however May and June are the primary months. Earlier finds very cold temps and later brings increased crevasse danger. I was there in late June and early July and the temperature was acceptable as was the crevasse danger. An advantage of going later is that many of the snow camps are already built so you do not have to build snow walls at every camp plus it is warmer. However, for two years, 2011 and 2012, teams have been stalled in mid July from summiting due to low pressure systems parked over the summit so perhaps the weather patterns are changing. I would never target Denali summit after June 15 in the future.

Q: Is it true late season climbs (late June) are not as successful as earlier in the season?
A: Yes and no. Guide Dave Hahn told me in 2011 that he had summited 20 out of 26 times - all in late season. A 76% success rate compared to an overall 50% for all expeditions throughout the season. However that is a normal success rate for a commercial climb and recent weather patterns make the late season look more difficult.

Q: I understand that Denali's West Buttress is just a long slog. How hard is it?
A: It is not 'easy' but It depends on what you have done. I did not find it very difficult after Mont Blanc, Everest, Ama Dablam and some technical climbs like The Grand Teton. The biggest issue with Denali is the weather and a very short section above the High Camp that is fixed with ropes. Some people have trouble with pulling the sleds. I did not find this a problem. All this said however, on my 2007 climb I was stopped cold at 17,000' with a mysterious stomach illness and was helicoptered off the mountain to an area hospital. I never did find out what the root problem was after undergoing extensive tests once I got home. It could have been altitude illness or food poisoning - I just don't know. The rest of my AMS team turned back few days after also suffering from aliments.

Q: How does Denali compare with Rainier or Aconcagua?
A: Primarily it is a more physical climb involving heavy loads. It is a much longer climb but similar to Rainier in that you climb on steep snow slopes most of the time but obviously at a significantly higher altitude. You are using fixed ropes on the headwall above the Ranger camp at 14,200' and you are pulling a sled with personal and group gear. Finally the weather can be extreme with brutal winds and cold temperatures.

Q: How does Denali compare with Everest or other 8,000m peaks?
A: It is a great training climb for aspiring Everest climbers to learn about winter camping and experience high altitude climbing. There are no features like Everest's Lhotse Face or Hillary Step on Denali's West Buttress route. Also even compensating for the lower barometric pressure making the "feel like" altitude higher, climbing at 25,000 is significantly more difficult.

Q: Is a Denali climb dangerous?
A: Absolutely. You should only attempt Denali if you have the proper experience and logistics for emergency situations. Almost every year climbers die as a result of a fall or weather. In 2012, 4 Japanese climbers died from a freak avalanche on Motorcycle Hill.

Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: An estimated 32,000 climbers have attempted Denali with about a 50% success rate. 100 have died including 11 in 1992. 2011 saw 7 deaths and 5 in 2012.


Training, Gear & Communication:

Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: I did a lot of running for aerobic conditioning plus weight training for the heavy loads. In 2011, I climbed other mountains extensively as part of my 7 Summits program. While I have never used the CrossFit program, it seems ideal for the demands of Denali.

Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes, it is always a challenge on these big mountain climbs. Many people feel some type of AMS above 11,000'. As I mentioned before, I experienced some kind of problem in 2007 which could have been altitude related.

Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach is to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.

Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:

The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.

You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website. They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week. Outside Magazine posted an article in 2013 questioning their effectiveness.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
Click for a larger view of my Everest gear. A: Mostly I use the same gear I used on Everest. Lot's of layers. My personal technical equipment included a long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It is always critical to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible to frost bite. As for warmth, I always wear a knit cap and at least liner gloves when I get the least bit cool - regardless of the outside temp. I use a 3 layer system of Merino wool base layer (top and bottom), heavier fleece as in the Mountain Hardware Power Stretch (a Farmer's John kind of suit) or just my Patagonia Guide Pants depending on how cold it is that day then my top wind or warmth layer e.g. Patagonia Micro Puff and/or JetStream Shell. When the winds pick up and the temps hover near 0F, I add my Feather Friends 850 Fill down jacket plus my mitts. I have a gear page for reference. I am very pleased with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.

Q: Anything special in your gear for Denali?
A: I used everything on my gear page under Denali. It can be extremely cold and windy so multiple down layers are required. I think a good wind shell is one of the most crucial items in addition to boots and gloves. Goggles are also critical depending on conditions. My boots were the Kayland 6001 with 40 Below Overboots in 2011, Koflachs in 2007 and Everest One Sports in 2001. The Koflachs were warm enough.

Q: Did you use a satellite phone?
A: For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial. I used an Iridium phone in 2007and 2011and a GlobalStar in 2001. The Iridium had spotty connections. Cell phones connections are no longer available on Denali. There used to be support for analog handsets but no longer as of 2011.


Expedition Basics

Q: Which route is most popular?
A: The West Buttress is the most popular. The other routes including Cassin Ridge, West Rib & South Buttress are extremely technical and subject to avalanches. 98% of all Denali climbers use the West Buttress route.

Q: How long will it take?
A: 2 weeks on the mountain plus another few days to get onto and out of the mountain so allow at least 3 weeks. However, it is very common to be stuck for another week somewhere on Denali with bad weather.

Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $6500 to $8000 depending on who you use. Comment: I cannot understand these prices on Denali and feel there is a significant lack of competition that has lead to this situation. If you do everything yourself cut the highest cost in half or more and should cost no more than $2000 assuming you have the basic gear. See my Guide page for more details.

Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: Yes. All climbers must register and pay a $350 fee as of the 2012 season to the National Park Service at the park headquarters in Talkeetna. This can be done online. There is a limit of 1500 climbers, guided or unguided, each season which has never been exceeded.

Q: Are there local guides for Denali?
A: The NPS has approved 6 companies to guide e.g. (charge a fee) on Denali: Alaska Mountaineering School, Alpine Ascents International, American Alpine Institute, Mountain Trip International, N.O.L.S. and Rainier Mountaineering Inc. The NPS requires a 3:1 climber to guide ratio. Anyone caught 'guiding' are removed and fined according to Rangers. Due these regulations almost all the companies charge the same price, run the exact same program and have the same conservative attitude. There have been several deaths over the past few years on commercial trips as well as private ones.

Q: Do I really need a guide for Denali?
A: It all depends on your skills and experience. The monopoly on Denali has created a suspect environment for most commercial outfits causing them to be very conservative. Most commercial Guides are good people but given they run multiple climbs each year (as many as 3 or 4 climbs per guide), they act burned out and appear to have little motivation to go to the summit, especially late in the season. Another issue with the companies who have a NPS concession is that they squeeze as many trip as possible (around 11 back to back) into the three month climbing season. As a result there is virtually no time for weather delays. So once your time runs out, regardless of the weather, it is time to go and your climb is over. With the crazy weather patterns in recent years on high mountains this is becoming a huge issue resulting in many climbers missing summits due to schedules and financial considerations by the operators.

If you want a guided trip I suggest selecting a company who runs only one or two climbs each season through getting a permit from one of the authorized guides. The guides will more fresher and maybe more motivated. However, make sure they use their own guides and do not simply subcontract back to the permit owner which takes you back to the original issue.

If you can go without a commercial guide, you would probably have a more positive experience. But you need to have the skills and qualified partners. Denali is dangerous and you can die. There are usually a lot of climbers on Denali so you would probably not be alone but easily could be. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill level carefully. Also crevasse danger is real and always present on the lower glacier area so crevasse rescue skills must be second nature to everyone on the team. Climbing alone or in too small of a team is never a good idea.

Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Denali?
A:
Most reputable guides ask for your climbing resume and require some climbing experience. Ideally they want to see climbs of Rainier or Colorado or California 14ers. But most anyone can get on a Denali commercial expedition these days without many questions and that is a real problem. The guide services all run the same basic formula on the West Butt route and are very conservative with weather, safety and risks.

In a New York times article in July 2012, Colby Coombs, a co-owner of the Alaska Mountaineering School, said "he regularly sees people showing up to buy equipment for expeditions who do not have a clue what they are going to face or what equipment they might need". Yet many of those people end up on commercial climbs.

Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear, routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. You can save a lot of money this way, well over half the list price, but as I said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you self sufficient? What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are really possibilities on Denali - do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. The Rangers will strongly discourage solo climbs. You must bring a two-way radio and a sat phone in my opinion and have the frequency or number of the local rescue resources already programmed in. For help with meals and logistics, ExposureAlsaka will buy, prepare and pack meals, arrange all your lodging and glacier flights for a very reasonable fee. An excellent resource is from Tim Hult after his 2005 climb. He created a somewhat exhaustive guide to climbing Denali on your own. for commercial trips, see my guide page for more information.


My 2001, 2007 and 2011 Experiences

Q: Did you summit?
A: No. In 2001 I reached Denali Pass around 18,000' when high winds stopped our summit climb. In 2007, after waiting 7 days at the 14K Camp, a mysterious stomach illness hit me on the 17K ridge near Washburn's Thumb. I was helicopter off the mountain to an area hospital. I never did find out what the root problem was after undergoing extensive tests once I got home. It could have been altitude illness or food poisoning - I just don't know. In 2011, high winds stopped us at the 17,200' High Camp after waiting there for 8 days.

Q: Why did you choose Mountain trip in 2001 and 2011 and Alaska Mountaineering School in 2007 as guide services?
A: The 2001/7 my trips were scheduled on short notice and these were my only options. Spaces fill up quickly on Denali's short climbing season. I wanted to go with a guided team since I did not have suitable partners to organize my own climb at the time.

Q: How did they perform?
A: I preferred Mountain Trip over AMS due to their overall attitude and guiding style (but would not recommend either today). They treated everyone more like adults and less as students. I observed them again in 2007 while with AMS and saw the same type of attitude. However, I observed in 2011 that all commercial guides seem to follow the same formula and do not show allot of flexibility plus cater to the slowest climber in the group. So if you are fast or experienced, you may be frustrated with one of the authorized guides. I suggest speaking candidly with your guide owner about his before signing up and sending money. I would strongly suggest organizing your own climb if you have the experience and partners to do it safely.

Q: Which route did you take?
A: The standard West Buttress ridge. We had camps at 7.2K, 7.8K, 11.2K, 14.2K, 17.2K to the summit at 20.3K. While it is a bit of a slog, especially on the lower part of the glacier, it is a fun climb. The views are some of the best on the planet overlooking the vast Alaskan ranges. Once above the Ranger camp, the climbing becomes much more interesting with some nice exposure along the ridge plus the extra challenge of altitude, high winds and even colder temperatures.

Q: What kind of weather conditions did you have?
A: It was cold - very cold especially when the wind picked up. I believe Denali has been one of the coldest climbs I have ever experienced.

Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: No, supplemental oxygen is usually only used above 26,300'.

Q: Would you climb Denali again?
A: I am not that excited about another West Buttress climb given I have been there now three times. But I would go with good friends or preferably on a small team to nab this summit.

Bottom Line

Denali is a beautiful climb in an awesome area. It offers many of the same challenges as the 8000m mountains and even more if the weather turns bad. The lower part of the West Buttress climb is kind of boring with long nights of pulling a sled but once above the Ranger camp at 14,000' it becomes an exciting and satisfying experience. The sad part of a Denali climb today is the lack of adventure, the formula and the mass treatment by commercial operators. if you want to climb Denali, find a few qualified friends and make the adventure your own.