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(Photo by Johnathan Esper, Mission: Denali 2007)

Mission: Denali 2008

Guide to Denali

About the mountain: Denali (Mount McKinley) is located in Alaska within Denali National Park and Preserve, which is managed by the National Park Service (NPS.)  At 20,320 feet, the summit of Denali is the highest point in North America. Hudson Stuck, a Christian missionary, accomplished the first ascent in 1913. Denali is the highest point near the Arctic Circle. This makes it a cold mountain. Temperatures of  minus-50-degrees F are common at the 17,200-foot camp in early May. Adding to the challenge, the barometric pressure on Denali is lower for a given altitude than on mountains closer to the equator. Denali requires solid mountaineering skills, glacier travel knowledge, stamina, excellent gear, and mental fortitude.


Popularity and routes: There are more than 30 routes on Denali, with the Muldrow and West Buttress routes being the least technical. More than 1,200 climbers attempt Denali each year, with over 90 percent attempting the West Buttress. Due to the changing climate in Alaska this route may not exist in 20 years, according to a NPS mountaineering ranger. Almost all climbing occurs from late April through early July. Colder minimum temperatures occur earlier in the climbing season, but travel on the lower glaciers is more difficult later due to melting snow bridges over crevasses and more inclement weather. The “easy” West Buttress route is often underestimated. The NPS warns that 10 miles on the Kahiltna glacier is not like 10 miles on trails in the lower 48 states but more like 30 or 40 miles. From the south, the usual approach is by ski plane from the town of Talkeetna to the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. From the north, the arduous approach is overland from Wonder Lake over McGonagall Pass.


Registration and costs: The NPS does a good job ensuring that Park resources are not impaired for future generations. Climbers must register with the NPS 60 days before their climb. The leader of the expedition is responsible for compiling registration forms that must be completed by each climber and submitting them in one packet to the Talkeetna Ranger Station with a nonrefundable deposit. Climbers that have climbed on Denali since 1995 may request an exemption and register up to 7 days in advance of their climb. The NPS charges a $200 fee for each climber plus a park entrance fee. Expeditions are limited to 12 members. The NPS has authorized only six guide services to operate on Denali. The NPS patrols the West Buttress route and any individual or group found to be led by an unauthorized guide would have their permit revoked, be removed from the mountain, and cited. The cost of a guided expedition varies by company and route, but start at about $4,900 for West Buttress trips (not including airfare to Anchorage).


Tips: Mountaineering in Denali National Park and Preserve is required reading. This 50-page booklet is available online in the mountaineering section of the Park Web site. For more information see:

  • Denali’s West Buttress: A Climbers Guide to Mount McKinley’s Classic Route by Colby Coombs.
  • The Ascent of Denali by Hudson Stuck.
  • Surviving Denali: A Study of Accidents on Mount McKinley by Jonathan Waterman.
  • Mount McKinley, Conquest of Denali by Bradford Washburn and David Roberts.


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