Preparing for Denali (Mount McKinley) *

* compiled by Edward Earl

Although trip reports are always provided with a caveat that the information in them can be used only at the reader's own risk, many are, in practice, useful guides in climbing a high point. Denali, however, represents a major exception to this rule. Whereas the warning that attempting to reach a highpoint can lead to serious injury or death is just a legal disclaimer for most highpoints, it is the absolute truth for Denali. No trip report can ever possibly prepare a highpointer to climb Denali safely. For this reason, this report does not provide any step-by-step directions to the high point. Instead, it advises the aspiring Denali climber as to the necessary skills and experience and provides direction to locate useful resources (e.g. guide services).

Perhaps the biggest decision facing an amateur climber planning to scale Denali is whether or not to enlist the services of a guide. There are a number of pros and cons on both sides of this decision. A guide service is of great help in planning logistics: packing food, a first aid kit and other emergency supplies, and an endless array of group gear, such as ropes, pickets, wands, tents, shovels, stoves, and sleds, just to name a few. Very few amateur climbers own all of these items and most would incur considerable expense in acquiring what they do not already have. In addition, guided trips are far safer than private trips. The guides are experienced professionals with years of experience dealing with unexpected events on the mountain, such as crevasse falls, injuries, altitude problems, and unexpected weather. No amateur climber can possibly expect to have this range of experience in dealing with the unexpected. Finally, all guide services are tightly regulated by the Park Service to ensure that they adhere to the highest possible standard of safety.

The biggest drawback of hiring a guide is, of course, the cost. They are not cheap; a climb of the West Buttress route typically runs several thousand dollars. For some, this is prohibitive. But since the cost of a guided trip is within my means, and because the enhanced safety and leadership is well worth it, my decision to hire a guide was a no-brainer.

There are six guide services that are licensed to organize trips to the summit of Denali. They are:

I chose to enlist the services of AMS. Whereas the final decision was based on what I felt would best fit me personally, most of these guide services would be adequate for a county highpointer, with one exception. I would not recommend NOLS to a county highpointer. While NOLS has a national reputation as a premier provider of guided backcountry trips, its trips to Denali are oriented more toward wilderness education (as its name suggests) than reaching the summit. All other guide services on Denali usually reach the summit unless safety dictates otherwise.

Denali is a world-class mountain and is normally climbed as a full-scale mountaineering expedition in much the same manner as Everest. Climbers normally fly in a skiplane to the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier at 7100 feet. From there the party establishes a series of camps up to 17,200 feet. The summit is climbed as a "day hike" from the high camp. The entire expedition often takes a total of three weeks. Because of the massive quantities of gear that the party must carry (winter tents, campcraft tools, technical climbing gear, cold weather clothing, as well as three weeks worth of food), the loads are so heavy that a climber usually cannot carry his/her share of the load all at once. Consequently, it is usually necessary to carry part of the load to a cache near the site of the party's next intended camp, and then move camp the next day. Sometimes the cache is left well short of the next camp, and a third day is taken to "back-carry" from the higher camp. In addition, even a single load is often too heavy for a climber to carry in a backpack. Most parties use sleds to carry part of the load. In my case, my personal gear and my share of group gear amounted to some 110 pounds at the beginning of the trip. That included about 50 pounds of food which, of course, dwindled gradually as the expedition progressed. We used sleds as far as 14,300 feet. Above that, steep, uneven, and rocky terrain made sleds impractical. Although the total loads were a little lighter by that time, having to carry them all in a backpack made my pack so heavy that I had trouble keeping my balance in soft snow.

Even a climber who hires a guide must still posess a broad array of skills in order to be an effective team member on an expedition. Top physical shape is mandatory, as is extensive experience in backcountry camping for many days in a row. Winter camping skills are essential; each team member must be able to help set up tents (which are anchored very differently on snow than in soil) and build snow structures such as walls, benches, and a kitchen. Though the West Buttress route does not have any serious technical climbing, each team member must be comfortable on steep snow and ice; experience with ice axe, crampons, and self-arrest technique is essential, and a basic ability to do frontpointing is helpful. All climbers must know how to travel as rope teams on crevassed glaciers. While it is not necessary that every team member be skilled in every detail of crevasse rescue, enough team members must have this skill so that the team can deal effectively with a fall into a hidden crevasse. Whereas most guide services would probably accept a client who does not previously have skills in prusiking, jumaring, setting snow anchors, transferring loads with mule-munter hitches, and setting up pulley systems, a client who is weak on these skills would definitely be a disadvantage to the team.

Prior experience at high altitude is important. Whereas Denali is not high enough to warrant the use of oxygen, the severe conditions make it not a training ground for climbers testing their abilities at altitude for the first time. Altitude symptoms vary widely from one person to another. Fortunately, however, a given person will usually experience the same pattern of symptoms each time s/he ascends, at least if the ascent rate is similar. This offers each person a chance to learn his/her own body's reaction to altitude. Prior experience at altitude will help indicate to a climber what s/he can experience on Denali. The 14,495 foot summit of Mount Whitney is not high enough to be a useful altitude test for Denali. A prior climb to at least 18,000 feet is highly recommended.

To an adventurous novice who aspires to climb Denali someday, I would recommend the following regimen to build the necessary skills and experience.

Year 1, summer: Take several long (multiple-day) hikes into the backcountry in places such as the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevada. Learn how to travel and survive in the wilderness.

Year 2, summer: Climb several snow- and glacier-covered peaks, such as Mount Rainier or Mount Shasta. Learn snow camping, glacier travel, and crevasse rescue skills.

Year 2, late fall or early winter: Climb to at least 18,000 feet above sea level. Learn your body's reaction to altitude. For an American, the most convenient place to do this is Orizaba, in southern Mexico, but many places in South America (e.g. Ecuador, Peru, or Bolivia) also qualify.

Year 3, midwinter: Make an overnight backcountry snow camp where it is extremely cold; the overnight low should be well below zero. Learn to do camp chores (e.g. set up a tent, start a stove, change clothes) in very severe weather conditions. Test the equipment you intend to use on Denali to make sure it can keep you warm. I did this exercise in the back woods of northern Minnesota in February.

Year 3, late spring: If you did all of the exercises in this regimen (possibly over a longer time period), enjoyed them and feel confident you've developed your skills in all of these areas, you may be ready to make an attempt on Denali sometime during this year's climbing season, which generally runs from late April to early July. But don't dawdle; the Park Service requires each climber on Denali to register at least 30 days in advance.

A person who already has some of the skills to be learned in this regimen can probably shorten the lead time to develop the remainder. There are a number of books that discuss all matters of climbing Denali. While reading only develops one's academic knowledge, and not physical skills, the former is an essential first step in learning the latter. A (very) partial list of such resources would include:

In addition, the Park Service also distributes its own self-published guide to mountaineering in Denali National Park. Because it is very brief (only about 40 pages), it should not be relied upon to provide first-hand education. But if a climber who reads it recognizes most of the content, it's a good sign that the person's academic knowledge is sufficient to climb Denali. I recommend that anyone planning to climb Denali read it, but only as a "final exam" to test one's knowledge, where passage of the test is measured by recognition of most of the content.

The Park Service also has information about climbing on the Denali massif online.

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