Summiting Denali is on a lot of climber’s bucket lists, but be aware that this is not a climb for beginners. No one should be discouraged from attempting this summit, but at a minimum, you should have already been on a glacier and have trained with glacier travel.
Altitude experience is also vital, as you need to have previously climbed summits of around 14,000 feet, ideally in other locations in Alaska or the Himalayas. It’s essential that you understand beforehand how your body will react, and knowing if you are experiencing the usual high-altitude symptoms or if you are close to danger.
That being said, a successful Denali climb is also as much about your physical stamina and technical abilities as it is about your mental toughness. The weather conditions will play games with your sanity, confidence, and fears. If you feel that you’re up to it, read on for the complete guide to climbing Denali.
Denali is the highest mountain in North America, and it has been a climbers dream since its first ascent in 1913. It gains its reputation as a highly coveted summit from being located near the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Circle, meaning it has some of the most savage weather in the world.
Climbing Denali is one of the greatest expedition challenges in the world, as even though it’s not as high as peaks in Asia and South America, it is a significant test of logistics, teamwork, and personal strength. It is the peak with the most elevated relief in the world, rising 17,000 feet above its surrounding plain, compared with Everest at 13,000 feet and Kilimanjaro at 14,000 feet. You will feel that you are climbing higher than you really are in Denali, due to its barometric pressure.
Expect lots and lots of snow, at it snows all the time on Denali. Blinding and sudden snowstorms appear at least once a week, sometimes lasting for days at a time. Don’t be surprised if you have to dig your tent out every couple of hours during severe snow, so that the air keeps on circulating and you avoid suffocation. At one point or another, you will get caught in a snowstorm that will force you to camp where you are, which will sometimes be in a precarious location.
Good weather is not a thing in Denali, so you’ll need to be prepared with the right gear and equipment. The key to surviving will rest on the durability and quality of your outerwear, footwear, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent.
When to go
The best time to go will be from early May to mid-June, as it will be too cold earlier in the year and very dangerous later in the year, with significant crevasses covered in snow. Plan to spend around three weeks on the climb, but bring food for approximately four weeks, in case you get stranded for a few days.
More than 90% of climbers will attempt the West Buttress route, considered the least technical path to reach the summit. The Muldrow Glacier is technically similar, but it’s more involved and committing as you start the climb by hiking to a base camp, instead of flying. The second most attempted route is the West Rib, which is more objectively dangerous and challenging, though still attempted by a small minority of climbers.
Though this route has no technically difficult sections, it is just as exposed as other routes when it comes to the severe weather Denali is legendary for. To attempt this, you need to be highly competent in traveling on exposed traverses and moderately steep ice/snow slopes.
The Basecamp is located at 7,200 feet, and there are several camps at other altitudes, including 11,000 feet up to 17,200 feet. The camp at 16,000 feet should only be used if the weather conditions are ideal, as they are exposed to high winds and avalanches.
The total length of the route is 13 miles horizontally, with around 13,500 feet of elevation gain. Between the base camp and 11,000 feet, the primary hazards are crevasse falls, as the route is relatively flat, steepening above that altitude.
This route will involve rock, mixed snow and moderate to steep snow. It is a more difficult route, but it will offer several escape points along the way. There are two route variations; the West Rib Cutoff or the Complete West Rib, which begins in the NorthEast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.
To attempt a climb of Denali, you must register with the Pay.Gov website or the Talkeetna Ranger Station at least 60 days before your start date. Please note that registration will begin on October 1st of the previous year. The full amount of the permit will be charged at the time of booking, and you will also need to pay a Denali National Park entrance fee when you check in for your climb. You can find more information at the NPS website regarding the current costs and registration period.
As we mentioned previously, the gear required for climbing Denali needs to be durable and high-quality to withstand the severe and inclement weather you’ll encounter. This list does not comprise all of your gear, but it puts together some considerations that are specific to climbing Denali.
Expedition parka with hood: Most Denali climbers choose to bring one lightweight parka and one heavy parka, so they can layer in changing weather conditions. Your outermost parka should fit over your clothing and should have a hood big enough to fit over a climbing helmet.
Insulated pants: Synthetic or down insulation “puffy pants” are perfect for climbing in colder conditions or relaxing at camp. We highly recommend a pair with full-length side zips.
Hardshell Pants and Jacket: These should be durable, breathable and waterproof. We again recommend full-length side zips, so you can put on your jacket and pants and not have to take off your boots and other layers.
Mittens: Mittens should be expedition weight, to avoid frostbite.
Face protection: You can wear a balaclava, face mask, or brimmed hat and goggles, just make sure that there are no coverage gaps on your neck, forehead, and face to avoid sun exposure and frostbite.
Your footwear is one of the most important choices in this expedition. Double boots are necessary, and they should be designed for use in extreme temperatures and for extended use. Integrated synthetic boots are suitable for this climb as they are designed explicitly for high-altitude and cold environments. Your boots should have a built-in insulated gaiter, a boot shell, and a removable liner.
You should field test your boots in comparable terrain and cold temperatures before heading out. Your boots should fit comfortably and integrate well with your crampons and overboot.
You should spare no expense in your tent, as is can mean the difference between life and death. The size should be something that suits the number in your party, and it should always be a 4-season expedition tent. You should be confident that your tent will work in areas of high wind exposure.
Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Pad
It’s essential that your sleeping bag is expedition quality, and rated to at least -20ºF, but you may want to consider a -40ºF rating. Down bags are more highly recommended as they are smaller in size and lighter in weight, and they can be more water resistant. Make sure that you fit comfortably inside your bag while wearing a couple of layers of clothing and boot liners, water bottles, etc. However, your bag should not be so roomy that it leads to cold spots.
You are going to need two sleeping pads; one insulated and inflatable and the other a closed cell foam pad. If you have an inflatable pad, make sure to take along a repair kit in case it gets damaged.
Each expedition is different, but at a minimum, you need to have the following items:
- Climbing Harness
- Climbing Helmet
- Ice Axe
- Trekking Poles
- Steel Crampons
Your training should begin well before you head out, and as you go along, you need to increase the duration and intensity. At a minimum, you should start to train six months prior and discipline yourself to keep to your routine, while using a variety of exercises including cardio and strength training.