Denali “The High One” is the third highest of the seven summits, right behind Everest and Aconcagua, at 20,310 feet. It is an “ultra-prominent” peak with soaring vertical relief of 18,000 feet, greater even than Mount Everest (a mere 12,000′ of vertical relief) when measured from its 2,000-foot lowlands to its lofty summit. Luckily, climbers get to shave off many thousand feet of climbing when they fly into Denali basecamp on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200′. Whew. Denali is also the most northerly of the seven summits at a latitude of 63 degrees, which results in a lower barometric pressure than its counterparts, making acclimatization more difficult for climbers, and dishing out brutally cold and extreme weather conditions year-round. On top of all this is the fact that you have to carry all of your own gear plus a portion of team gear – there are no porters on The Great One. Denali may be the third highest, but it is one of the most challenging of the seven summits to complete.
Denali is a mountain that can forge strong camaraderie among a climbing team, since the shared work of the expedition contributes to everyone’s success. Any goal is more satisfying when it requires you to put in tremendous effort and overcome challenges along the way; Denali certainly does that. On a Denali expedition you’ll encounter weather ranging from blustering winds, whiteouts, sweaty sunshine, and bone-chilling cold. You’ll laugh, you’ll try (very) hard, you’ll pull heavy loads, you might find yourself bored in your tent waiting out a storm, and you’ll definitely be filled with awe at the spectacular views of the Alaska Range.
Getting to the summit of any mountain is commendable, but the journey is the real experience. So here’s a visual glimpse into the journey to the roof of North America.
A Denali expedition starts long before you arrive for gear check or step foot on the glacier. Your guides pack up 23 days worth of meals and snacks, carefully measuring and dividing the weight at our Talkeetna headquarters.
To get to basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, you fly into the Alaska range on a single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft. The experienced pilots at Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT for short) fly close to the flanks of mountains like Begguya (Mount Hunter) and Sultana (Mount Foraker) if the weather allows, giving you the first taste of how immense the surrounding mountains are.
As a team, you unload all the equipment you need to survive and thrive during your Denali summit attempt, and dig a cache to deposit some celebratory snacks to enjoy upon your safe return to Basecamp later.
Then your climb begins. You trudge up the Kahiltna Glacier, roped together and loaded down with pack and sled. On flatter terrain, you carry more weight in your sled; when you move into steeper terrain, you pack more weight on your back. Here, rope teams make a turn to avoid a crevasse.
When you arrive in camp it’s time to burst into action (especially when you have inclement weather to contend with) to set up your shelter. It often takes more than one person to get a tent erected in the wind.
You soon settle into an expedition pattern of caching gear high, and returning to a lower elevation camp to sleep. This helps you acclimate, and reduces the weight you have to carry on each journey to the next camp. Here, climbers forge ahead through a whiteout.
After you cache, you head back down looking like sleds with legs. No need to drag an empty sled when you can attach it to your pack.
Of course, you also get some time to rest. Bad weather days and acclimatization days give you a chance to relax in your tent and take a nap, read a book, or attend to any person hygiene needs.
Often your group will gather in a cook tent for communal meals. Other times your guides might deliver you breakfast in bed!
They say that 14,000’ camp (often called “14 Camp”) is the center of the universe. There, climbers from all over the world gather to acclimatize for their summit push, wait out storms, and enjoy the majestic views of the surrounding Alaska Range.
Your guides are constantly checking the weather, coordinating team moves, and assessing route conditions to manage risk as the team moves up the mountain.
The move from 14,000’ to 17,000’ is the most technical section on the West Buttress route. There, you ascend fixed lines and clip through running protection on a rocky ridgeline. Here, climbers work their way up Washburn’s Thumb.
Getting to the summit of Denali is challenging, even if you have almost perfect weather like we did on this day. Here, Sultana (Mount Foraker) peeks above a deck of clouds while climbers go down the summit ridge.
While it takes weeks to ascend Denali, once you summit (or you determine it’s not safe to go to the summit), the trip is almost over. You cruise all the way back down to base camp in one to two days, sometimes walking through the night in “the land of the midnight sun.” It really does stay light through the night! Climbers don’t even bring headlamps on the expedition.
Back at basecamp you are probably exhausted. You need to be ready to hop on a plane as soon as it arrives, or you may have to nap through some poor weather if the planes aren’t able to fly in.
You watch the landscape transform from snow and ice to green swamps and braided rivers on your flight back to Talkeetna, civilization, a shower, and cold beverages. On some level, you are never the same again.
Editor’s Note: While Denali season is wrapped for 2021, it’s never too early to start training and getting stoked to undertake the challenge of Denali in 2022. Trip dates are already up for next year!