D E N A L I (20,320')
1998 Alpine Ascents Expedition

Mount McKinley Denali
Denali (20,320')
[click to zoom]
(photo: Coombs)
Cybercast Updates
Hear the archived calls from expedition leader Wally Berg on the ascent, on the summit of Denali, and safely back in high camp. [Click for the Expedition Updates]

The Great One. The Cold One.
At the apex of North America stands Mt. McKinley (20,320'), the highest point on the continent. The Athabascan Indians called it Denali, "the great one," and have lived beneath its shadow for centuries. Denali is an extreme challenge that requires strong winter mountaineering and cold weather skills. Join The Mountain Zone as we follow the Alpine Ascents International expedition led by four-time Everest summiter Wally Berg.

Watch the climb updates for photos from Denali; no other ascent offers such breathtaking and diverse views each day of the climb. The summit views from Denali are unparalleled, unveiling austere vistas of the Alaska Range, Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and Mt. Huntington. Denali's glaciers, beginning at 4,590' and continuing to 20,360', are considered the greatest in the world. At a northern latitude of 63°, it is the most northern of any big mountain.

Mount McKinley Denali
[click to zoom]
(photo: Darsney)
Climbing Overview
The Denali climb begins deep in the heart of the Alaska Mountain Range on the Kahiltna Glacier (7,200'). A Cessna 185 aircraft equipped with skis will drop us in this spectacular amphitheater. From here we begin the climb via the West Buttress route. Base Camp plus six higher camps will be established on the mountain. The team will make double carries between all camps, except high camp, to insure proper acclimatization and reduce loads to a manageable weight. In each camp, they build snow walls for protection from possible high winds. The climb takes approximately 17-18 days round trip from base camp, but four days are planned for inclement weather. The ascent requires intermediate alpine skills and is very physically and mentally demanding.

A Brief History
Denali has always been revered by native Athabascans. The first climbing attempt in 1910 was made by the "Sourdough Expedition" using the Muldrow Glacier, summiting the north peak 19,740' In 1913, the true summit was successfully attempted via the Karstens Ridge by Archdeacon H. Stuck, R. Tatum, W. Harper and H. Karstens. Harper, a native Athabascan, was the first to stand atop America. Between 1913-1950, there were few ascents of Denali. The landmark achievement, which opened Denali to more climbers, was Bradford Washburn's 1951 summit of the West Buttress. Mount McKinley DenaliWashburn's team used a ski-equipped plane to access the Kahiltna glacier and pioneered the mountain's most popular route. Barbara Washburn was the first woman to summit Denali as part of this expedition.

Climbing Conditions
Denali is a mountain of extreme conditions where a climber may encounter 100mph winds and -40° temperatures. (Alternatively, some days are quite hot with sunshine lasting up to 20 hours.) Snowstorms are known to last a week at a time. These low temperatures and sporadic high winds greatly increase the rigors of the climb. The ice faces of the mountain feed countless glaciers as snow dominates most of the region. The unpredictable weather coupled with the high altitude of the ascent requires not only technical snow and cold weather skills, but endurance and fortitude.

Expedition Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage. In Anchorage, the climbers will meet guides and team members and run a complete gear check. All preparations are made for an early morning departure.

Day 2: Travel to Talkeetna. After a final gear check, they board a 185 Cessna aircraft to base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier (7,200'). The flight will depart that afternoon or the following morning. The flight to Kahiltna is marvelous, presenting outstanding views of magnificent peaks and glaciers including Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and Moose's Tooth.

Day 3: On the Kahiltna Glacier. They spend the day at base camp, preparing for the climb and reviewing crevasse rescue and glacier travel.

Day 4: Carry loads to Camp I (7,900'). Snowshoes may be necessary between camps on the lower part of the mountain. Double carries are made between most camps to allow for proper acclimatization and lighter load carries.

Day 5: Move to Camp I.

Day 6: Carry loads to Camp II (10,000'), at Kahiltna Pass. This route follows the Kahiltna Glacier.

Day 7: Move to Camp II.

Day 8: Carry gear to Camp III (11,500'). There they turn west and ascend steep terrain. Camp III offers exquisite views and vistas of the 3,000' rock and ice face on the edge of the West Buttress.

Day 9: Move to Camp III.

Day 10: Carry gear to Camp IV (14,200'). They will pass around Windy Corner, which exposes stunning panoramic views of surrounding peaks and the northeast fork of Kahiltna Glacier, 4,000' below.

Day 11: Move to Camp IV. Depending upon climbing conditions, they may spend an extra day moving gear to Camp IV. This will aid acclimatization and break up the long carry.

Day 12: Rest and acclimatize at Camp IV. The upcoming ascent is the most demanding part of the climb.

Day 13: Carry loads to Camp V (16,400'). From Camp IV, they ascend 1,100' of moderate snow slopes to reach the beginning of the fixed lines. Using ascenders on the lines to self-belay, the climbers ascend the Headwall which consists of 900' of 45° to 50° snow and ice. Upon reaching the crest of the West Buttress, they enter the world of the mountain tops. The climb takes on an entirely different nature as the feeling of being amongst the clouds and peaks dominates the senses.

Day 14: Move to Camp V.

Day 15: Carry and move to Camp VI (17,200'). They follow an exposed ridge around Washburn's Tower which merges into the main massif of Denali. Camp VI is established on a saddle just above "Rescue Gully" and overlooks Camp IV, 3000' below.

Day 16: Rest day. Rest and prepare for the summit attempt.

Day 17: Summit day. They traverse across a steep snow face to Denali pass. From here the team follows gentle slopes to reach Archdeacon's Tower and a large plateau at 19,400', known as the "Football Field." From the plateau, they ascend on moderate terrain to the crest of the summit ridge. From this vantage point, they look upon the immense 8,000' South Face, with Cassin Ridge and the South Buttress in full view. As they follow an exposed ridge up the last 300', excitement grows as the climbers approach the top of North America.

From the summit, they'll have a 360° view of the Alaska Range, with Mt. Hunter and Mt. Huntington to the south and Mt. Foraker to the west. These peaks, along with scores of others, make this mountain view one of the most impressive in the world.

By day's end, the climbers return from the summit to spend the night at high camp.

Days 18-19: Return to base camp. From high camp they spend two days returning to Base Camp where they will board a Cessna and return to Talkeetna and then on to Anchorage.

Day 20: Depart Anchorage. Fly from Anchorage to home city.

Days 21-23: Extra Days. Extra days for inclement weather and acclimatization may be utilized at any point on the expedition.

Note: This itinerary represents an ideal schedule. Due to the nature of climbing Denali, there may be delays due to weather.

Gordon Janow, Alpine Ascents Program Coordinator

Alpine Ascents International Denali expeditions are operated by Fantasy Ridge, an authorized concessionaire of Denali National Park.

Climbing Denali
(photo: Scott Darsney)

Just the Facts

63° 07' N, 151° 01' W

At 20,320' (6194M), Denali is the highest mountain on the North American continent

Denali (The High One) is the Native American word for North America's highest peak. It was renamed Mount McKinley for William McKinley, a nominee for president, by gold prospector, William Dickey.

"When later asked why he named the mountain after McKinley, Dickey replied that the verbal bludgeoning he had received from free silver partisans had inspired him to retaliate with the name of the gold-standard champion."
— from "Mt. McKinley: The Pioneer Climbs" by Terris Moore

The difference in the barometric pressure at northern latitudes affects acclimatization on Denali and other high arctic mountains. Denali's latitude is 63° while the latitude of Everest is 27°. On a typical summit day in May, the Denali climber will be at the equivalent of 22,000' (6900M) when compared to climbing in the Himalaya in May. This phenomenon of lower barometric pressure at higher elevations is caused by the troposphere being thinner at the poles.

"The highest point near the Arctic Circle... Denali is buffeted by storms from the Gulf of Alaska and from the Bering Sea. In few mountain locales of the world does the weather change so precipitously and dramatically. A balmy day of glacier travel can rapidly deteriorate into a day of survival-snow-cave digging. The intense cold is, of course, another unique feature of Denali, comparable only to the Antarctic ranges. The Himalaya is tropical by comparison. On the South Col of Mount Everest (26,200 feet) in late October, the lowest temperature we recorded in 1981 was 17° below zero. On Denali, this would be a rather warm night at only 14,300 feet in May and June. Temperatures between the high camp and the summit even in the middle of the summer, are routinely 20° to 40° below and even lower at night. This combination of extreme weather and temperature pummels the unprepared."
— Peter Hackett, M.D. from the preface to "Surviving Denali" by Jonathan Waterman

Bradford Washburn has estimated that above 18,000' (5500M) on Denali a person is reduced to roughly 50% of their mental capacity. During the winter climb of 1967, the three members stranded at 18,200' Denali Pass for six days required approximately twice as much time to answer a series of subtraction problems as they did at 7000' on the Kahiltna Glacier.

"With five people crammed in the tent, morale decreased rapidly. There was no interest in cooking meals and by the next day no one was even interested in melting drinking water. We found ourselves very apathetic...not caring whether or not we got enough to drink or eat or if our gear was wet... we just lay there and waited with little or no sleep... by morning the cold had taken its toll... Jerry Lewis and I had numb feet, and I had numb fingers."
— from the diary of Joseph Wilcox, leader of a 1967 Denali party

"Hurricane-force winds, familiar to Mount McKinley's arctic latitude, slowed to a rough gale during the night, then quit toward morning. After five days of living in fear of flying off the Cassin Ridge in our two-man tent, Jeff Duenwald and I prepared to retreat 5,000' down the ridge to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier... We didn't panic, nor did we consider being rescued by the National Park Service. As Himalayan veterans, Duenwald and I climbed with a singular attitude: that responsibility begins and ends with the climber. We began our descent... My only regret was that we had not taken Mount McKinley as seriously as it's higher, but warmer cousins in Asia."
— John Roskelly, 1993, about his 1981 climb

"We had climbed rope but simultaneously, front-pointing forever into a revived storm and relentless wind. Everything was cold, even our souls. Frostbite was waiting to jump at the slightest sign of weakness, but both of us played our own winning game with it. McKinley's climate is tough. We were drawing heavily on all our Himalayan experience just to survive, and it was a respectful pair that finally stood on the summit ridge. It took a few hours to dig a miserable little hole, but free from wind and spindrift, and there we spent and an equally miserable night. We had climbed the mountain too quickly to acclimatize and now we were suffering!"
— Dougal Haston on his climb with Doug Scott, 1977, "American Alpine Journal"

"The fact that the West Buttress route is not technically difficult should not obscure the need to plan for extreme survival situations. Of course, some climbers manage to get up and down in perfectly nice, but rare period of weather; when back home, they encourage others to climb this 'easy walkup' of a mountain. Little do they realize that it was only by sheer luck they weren't trying to keep their tent up in the middle of the night in a 60mph wind at 40° below zero, with boots on and ice axe ready in case the tent suddenly imploded. Because of the non-technical reputation of the popular West Buttress route, it is a terribly underestimated climb."
— Peter H. Hackett, M.D., from "Surviving Denali" by Jonathan Waterman

Denali National Park human waste and sanitation guidelines:

  • Use pit latrines where they are provided. At other locations:
  • Dig a shallow hole in the snow or use a plastic bucket.
  • Line the hole or bucket with a biodegradable sack.
  • Stake the corners of the bag open with wands and use a snow block to cover the top when not in use. A little attention to prevent overfilling will make the process of disposal much easier.
  • Use this bag as the latrine for all members of the expedition while at camp.
  • Develop a separate urinal spot and mark with a wand.
  • When you move camp or the bag fills, simply tie it off and toss it into a deep crevasse. If no crevasses are available, the bag should be carried until a suitable crevasse is found. The wastes are usually frozen and will ride well on a sled. On steep technical routes, the bag can be tossed away from the climbing route or feces can be deposited on snow blocks and shoveled off the route.
  • Crevasse ONLY human waste. All other trash must be carried off.

  • Wally Berg, one of the world's leading mountaineers, has recently summited Mount Everest for the fourth time. He is one of the most active climbers on 8,000m peaks and is considered one of America's top mountaineering guides. He has successfully summited such Himalayan giants as Cho-Oyu and Lhotse. (First American summit). Other noteworthy climbs include Antarctica's Vinson and an outstanding track record on Kilimanjaro. Over the years Wally has developed particular expertise on the mountains and cultures of Elbrus and Kilimanjaro. His patience and expert skills establish him as one of the most respected guides in the mountaineering community. Wally recently guided trips to Everest, Elbrus, Vinson and Kilimanjaro.

    Alpine Ascents International, Inc.
    Denali Expedition

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