Frequently Asked Questions About Climbing Denali
Q: What type of experience is needed to climb Denali?
A: Climbing Denali is a very serious undertaking and should be treated as such. We recommend Denali climbers make numerous ascents of other glaciated peaks in places like Alaska, the Cascades of Washington, the European Alps, South America, or Asia to prepare for this climb. Because glacier travel is such a huge component of climbing Denali, it is imperative to your safety and survival that your team is skilled with proper glacier travel, route finding, and crevasse rescue procedures. Denali is an expedition, meaning that the mountain is almost always a multi-week endeavor, which is very different than an overnight or even multi-day climb. All team members should have previous experience in the "expedition environment." Also, Denali is a very cold place. Experience with winter camping in arctic type conditions is extremely valuable and should be considered mandatory. Last but not least, Denali is a high mountain, and some previous experience with altitude and acclimatization is very helpful. Many of the guide services that operate on Denali offer preparatory type programs and there are a number of resources online that recommend "warm-up" or training climbs for Denali.
Q: Do I have to use a guide service?
A: No, many climb as part of private expeditions and do not use a guide. If you plan to use a guide service, make certain that they are authorized by Denali National Park and Preserve. Illegal guiding is prohibited and your climb could be cancelled at any time. Be sure to check out our list of authorized guide services. If you have questions or concerns, please contact the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station at 907-733-2231.
Q: What type of shape do I need to be in for Denali?
A: There are many excellent resources both in print and on the internet that address physical conditioning for mountaineering and for expeditions on Denali. In short, you should train to carry a heavy (40-70 lb) backpack while pulling a heavy (60-80 lb) sled on mostly moderate terrain for 6 to 8 hours at a time. In addition to the climbing and carrying of heavy loads, there is a lot of work involved with building camps on Denali. Focusing on general fitness in addition to uphill and downhill fitness will be a big benefit. Most climbers benefit more from training for endurance and longevity rather than for peak performance. It is fair to say that the best training for walking uphill with a heavy backpack on is, well… walking uphill with a heavy backpack!
Q: How can I prepare myself for climbing at altitude? Should I take altitude medications?
A: Altitude is always a hot topic for climbers preparing for or actively climbing Denali. The effects can be a little different for everyone, every time. That said, there are a few almost universal concepts that can help you set the stage for successful acclimatization. While coming into the climb with a high level of overall fitness cannot hurt, it is not necessarily the answer to avoiding altitude illness. Most climbers follow a "double carry" strategy, i.e. carrying a load of gear forward and dropping it off, then descending to a lower elevation camp for the night, then advancing the following day. Teams that follow this strategy generally find themselves well-acclimated by the time they get to the upper mountain. The rule of thumb is generally 'climb high and sleep low', and don't ascend more than 1,000 feet (300m) per day above 10,000-feet elevation.
In addition to a moderate ascent rate, proper hydration while moving and resting allows one's body to properly acclimatize. Drinking plenty of water and supplementing with electrolytes is imperative to allow the human body to naturally acclimatize to high altitudes. Be sure to drink at least 4 to 6 liters of fluids per day.
With regard to whether or not to take altitude medications, only you can answer this question and the answer will vary based on a number of factors. Generally speaking, there are both benefits and drawbacks to taking altitude medications prophylactically and there are many schools of thought for how to go about that. We do highly recommend using altitude medications to treat the signs and symptoms of altitude illness should they occur, and doing so in accordance with your doctor's instructions.
Q: How difficult is the West Buttress Route? Is it dangerous?
A: Difficulty is a hard thing to quantify in climbing, especially when it comes to expedition climbing and routes. For a mountain like Denali, difficulty needs to be thought of in terms of 1) technical difficulty, 2) weather and conditions, 3) objective hazards, and 4) the environment. In terms of the technical difficulty of the climb, the West Buttress route involves extensive and highly crevassed glacier travel as well as snow and ice climbing to about 40 degrees in steepness. The steepest part of the route -- the headwall above the 14,200-foot camp -- is protected by fixed lines. Conditions on the 'Autobahn', which is the snow and ice slope leading from High Camp at 17,200-feet to Denali Pass at 18,200-feet, can vary from deep snow (avalanche danger) to hard ice. Climbers should be prepared to place their own protection as needed on the upper mountain (i.e. the Autobahn, just below Zebra Rocks, Pig Hill and the summit ridge).The Autobahn has been the scene of more fatalities on Denali than any other part of the mountain.
Q: What route should I climb on Denali?
A: The 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.
Q: Where can I found route information?
A: The Ranger Station has an extensive library with great route information, and mountaineering rangers are available year-round to discuss routes and make suggestions based on a climber's goals and experience level. There are also many recommended books that provide a wealth of Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker climbing information and detailed route descriptions. Our partner bookstore, Alaska Geographic, is a great place for these books.
Q: How busy will it be on the mountain?
A: Being an international destination, the definition of "busy" tends to vary widely among climbing groups. It is rare that a team or climber comes to Denali expecting a solitary experience, especially on the West Buttress. With the growing popularity of the Seven Summits, Denali's West Buttress route can have as many as 500 to 600 climbers on it during the peak of the climbing season from late-May and early June. While climbing teams are generally spread out between basecamp and the summit, both the 14,200-foot camp and the 17,200-foot High Camp can witness a few hundred climbers each during this period.
Q: How long does a Mt. McKinley climb take?
A: The average expedition is 17 to 21 days, round trip. It is possible to reach the summit on day 12 or 13. That said, most groups at a bare minimum opt for one rest day at 14,200 feet and another upon reaching High Camp, which means a bit longer expedition. With a reasonable number of rest days and good weather, it is common for groups to summit in 15 to 18 days. Expeditions that give themselves 21 to 28 days are typically able to wait out adverse weather. It is uncommon but certainly not impossible that teams use all of their days and still do not get a window in which to attempt the summit.
Q: What type of weather can be expected?
A: You need to be prepared for an extremely wide range of temperatures and conditions. The Kahiltna Glacier can experience some of the of the widest temperature swings on the planet. When the wind is calm and the sun is out, it can be downright hot. At the higher camps, or when a northerly system moves in, the temperatures can dip below -35 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wind is perhaps the biggest danger on Mt. McKinley, and climbers should be well prepared to fend off storms and protect themselves and their camps from windy conditions. Even when temperatures are mild, wind chill can accelerate the frostbite process and wreak havoc on equipment and camp sites. Winds in excess of 100mph have been recorded at 14,200. On the other hand, climbers have walked to the summit in t-shirts. It is best to be prepared for anything!
Q: Which weeks have the best weather?
A: Your crystal ball is as good as ours. If you do not mind colder temperatures, then early season (late April to early May) tends to have more high pressure days. As temperatures warm up in June, clouds become more common and bring precipitation higher on the mountain.
Q: Is a weather forecast available on the mountain?
A: Yes, the weather is broadcast nightly on FRS 1. Weather is also available from rangers at the 7,200 foot and 14,200 foot camps. At check in, you will also be given a phone number with a daily weather forecast recording. However, forecasting weather for Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker is imprecise and difficult. Do not rely solely on the forecast; good judgment should always be used.
Q: What type of equipment will I need to climb Denali?
A: You will need gear that will keep you warm in temperatures that can dip below -40 degrees F, 100 mph winds, heavy snowfall, freezing rain, blazing sun. Furthermore, this gear needs to be capable of doing so for weeks at a time. Be sure to review the Equipment and Clothing section of the Expedition Planning Tools for our recommended list of gear. Choosing what gear to bring and knowing what you need to survive the highly variable conditions on Denali is a big part of what you should be accomplishing in your climbing training and expedition apprenticeship leading up to Denali. On this and any expedition or technical endeavor, your gear is your life and it should be selected and maintained accordingly.
Q: What means of communication is recommended?
A: 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.
Q: Do cell phones work on Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker?
A: Sometimes. However, climbers are encouraged to bring an alternate form of communication in case of an emergency. On mountain cell phone coverage can change substantially year to year. In 2010 the only cell phones that worked were those of Matanuska Telephone Association, the local phone company. Reception was possible at 9,500 feet, at Windy Corner and in the 14,200-foot basin only.
Q: Skis or snowshoes?
A: This really comes down to personal preference. Most climbers leave their floatation at Camp 3, (11,200 feet) and put on their crampons from there. It takes a very experienced skier to descend with a pack and sled. Snow shoes do provide adequate floatation and having either is far superior to none for safety on the glacier.
Q: What kind of food do climbers take for this type of trip?
A: Expedition food varies widely from trip to trip, and from person to person. Being a longer expedition, consideration should be given to long term health and enjoyment in addition to packing things that are lightweight and easy to prepare. Most expeditions mix and match some heavier but more enjoyable items with more convenient dehydrated foods. Many menu and meal plans suggestions exist in various climbing guidebooks and online resources.
Q: How much fuel should I take?
A: There are many variables that affect fuel consumption on Denali expeditions. A few initial considerations revolve around what sort of stove and fuel combination is most appropriate for your group. The options include white gas, propane, and Isobutene. Of these options, most average sized (3-5 members) expeditions prefer white gas fuel and stoves. Isobutene or other canister stoves are very convenient, light, and easy to work with, but canister fuels don't perform well at high altitude and in very cold environments. With regard to white gas quantities, there are a number of formulas that climbers have applied over the years, and again your actual usage will depend on how much you cook, the temperatures on your climb, the efficiency of your stove and cooking system, etc. Typically climbers take one gallon of fuel per person for a three week trip on Denali and plan for one extra gallon. This method usually allows for a small safety buffer. As with your equipment, fuel is your link to food and water and life safety on the mountain. Plan accordingly and manage your fuel conservatively on your climb.
Q: What is the official name of the mountain, Denali or Mt. McKinley?
It's both. The official federal name is Mt. McKinley. Gold prospector William Dickey named the peak in 1896 for presidential nominee William McKinley. However, 'Denali' is the mountain's original native Alaskan name, translated as "the high one", and is the Offical State of Alaska name for the peak. Most Alaskans and locals refer to the mountain by its native name.
In 1980, Mount McKinley National Park was officially re-named Denali National Park and Preserve. However, until the US Congress passes a law changing the mountain's name, park staff and documents like this website will continue to use the names Denali and Mt. McKinley interchangeably.
Q: What will happen if I need to be rescued?
A: Part of our mission is to assist climbers in need when objective hazards can be managed to an acceptable level. Due to the many environmental difficulties including wind, visibility, altitude, and terrain, it is rare that we or anyone can help in a timely manner should you and your teammates find yourself in need of a rescue. For these reasons and others, we cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining self-sufficiency and planning for self-rescue. Neither technology nor support from others can take the place of proper planning and preparation combined with good decision making. In the end, if your situation is an emergency and we are able to help, we will. We undertake rescue missions at our 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.
Q: Do I need to bring something to use to remove my human waste?
A: No, when you check in for your climb your expedition will be issued a Clean Mountain Can (CMC) and degradable bags for removing human waste. There is no additional cost for the use of this system.
Q: Is there someone I can talk to about climbing Denali?
A: The Ranger Station has administrative and mountaineering staff available year round who are happy to field your registration or climbing-related questions. We encourage you to call or email us anytime should you need assistance in planning your expedition.