Climb Denali (Mt. McKinley) 20,320 ft / 6,194 m
Experience is paramount
2014 was Mountain Trip’s 39th consecutive year leading guided Denali expeditions.
We have learned a thing or two about taking care of our climbers over the years and this is reflected in our in our ability to attract and retain the most experienced guides on the mountain, and in the extremely positive feedback we receive from our clients. Climbing Denali has been the centerpiece of our guided expeditions since 1976, and our base of institutional knowledge and experience is unparalleled.
Our philosophy for guiding Denali can be summed up with three goals:
1. Everyone comes home safely
2. Everyone has a great experience
3. Everyone stands on the summit
We will never sacrifice our first two goals for the sake of the third; however, between 2004 and 2013, 111 of our 143 Denali expeditions reached the summit. Certainly, we have benefited from good weather, but our success is also based in the experience levels of our guides. Our guidelines for who we allow to lead our expeditions are more stringent than any other Denali guide service, as we require our lead guides to have a minimum of five Denali expeditions under their boots before they can lead one of our expeditions. We have an almost 100% guide return rate from year to year and have guides with 10, 20 or more years of Denali experience leading our Denali climbs. We love what we do and it shows.
Our success is also based in team work and clear communication amongst our team members. We do our best to help prospective Denali climbers understand what our expectations are of them and help them manage their expectations of us. To some extent this is summarized in a document we call Expectation Management. Anyone considering climbing Denali with us or any guide service should read that document.
Climbing Denali is stressful, and our goal is to help you minimize as much stress as possible. We provide personal service and attention from the first time you contact us through the months of preparation before your Denali climb, and we provide the highest quality services while you are climbing Mount McKinley. Our office staff are Denali veterans who are easy to talk to about all things big and cold.
The classic route up Denali is the West Buttress. This iconic route is modestly technical, but physically and mentally challenging endeavor. Many Denali climbers find this to be the most challenging thing they have done in the mountains.
Climbers looking for a more wilderness experience might consider joining an earlier season West Buttress Climb. Earlier season trips tend to be somewhat colder, potentially more serious undertakings than a mid-season Denali climb, but the rewards of not having many other climbers on the mountain can be tremendous.
We have offered Traverse climbs for decades, that ascend the West Buttress and descend to the north via the Muldrow Glacier route. These expeditions are endurance events, and last several days or more longer than a “typical” West Buttress ascent. The descent out to the north is serious and challenging, with steeper terrain than anything encountered on the West Buttress. The Harper and Muldrow Glaciers are much more crevassed than anything on the West Buttress, and present route finding and glacier travel challenges.
Experienced climbers seeking more technical routes on steeper and varied terrain might consider the West Rib, the Northwest Buttress or the aesthetic Cassin Ridge. Our Sourdough Expedition is extremely challenging and accesses the north side of Denali via dogsled in early April to climb the Muldrow Glacier route. We also climb the Muldrow later in the season and descend the Buttress for a “Reverse Traverse.”
“The combination of Kevin, Cory & Corina was outstanding. They were all very knowledgeable and great resources of information. I really appreciated the time they spent training us on various aspects of mountaineering so we could be better climbers in the future. Even though I did not stay the full 22 days to try and summit, I really admired how long the guides worked to try and get the rest of the team to summit. A+++++ guide group.”
-Holly Freeman, Denali 2012
Denali Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: Why 3 guides? Some guide services run trips with just 2 guides…
A: We feel having 3 guides on a team is very important to the security and success of a West Buttress team. The National Park Service (NPS) allows each guide service concession to launch 18 climbers in each 2-week period of the climbing season. Traditionally, there have been two basic models that fit how the NPS allows mountain guiding concessions to lead teams on the West Buttress. Historically, most teams have consisted of 9 climbers and 3 guides, although in recent years, some guide services have begun offering smaller teams of 6 climbers and 2 guides.
The NPS does not allow concessionaires to leave clients unattended on the mountain, and we have seen many, many teams with only 2 guides lose a guide when a client becomes ill or is otherwise unable to continue uphill. This results in the the team having to attempt the summit with a ratio of 1 guide to 4 or 5 climbers, something we don’t feel is ideal. Having 3 guides enables us to both attend to all of our climbers and adequately staff our summit teams.
In 2013, we began offering two types of West Buttress expeditions, our traditional 9 climber / 3 guide model, and a smaller, arguably more nimble expedition model of 6 climbers and 3 guides. The latter model costs a bit more, but we feel that the increased security and number of options available with a 2:1 climber to guide ratio will prove to provide real, tangible benefits to our climbers. The feedback from both guides and climbers on our 2013 smaller teams
Q: What level of mountaineering proficiency should I have before making the trip? The West Buttress didn’t look overly technical.
A: You’re right, the W. Buttress isn’t too technical, but it does have a few steeper or exposed sections that require fixed ropes or running belays. If you haven’t done a lot of climbing, we highly recommend taking a basic mountaineering course that will teach you crampon and ice axe technique, winter camping, glacier travel and basic rope skills. Climbers need to be comfortable employing the skills listed above, whether you learn them through a course or through spending time in the mountains. Fitness is also very important, not only because of the overall work load, but because being stronger helps you maintain control through the more exposed bits. The more prepared you are when you begin an expedition, the higher quality your experience will be.
Q: What level of fitness is needed to climb Denali?
A: There’s no getting around it, climbing Denali is hard work. You will be carrying a 40-60+ lb backpack and pulling a 30-50 lb sled on the lower glacier for up to four or more hours a day. Higher up you will need to be able to negotiate fairly steep terrain with a 50+ lb pack. A good combination of aerobic and strength training is needed to prepare for an expedition. Summit day can be long and though our packs are fairly light, people often call it the toughest day of their lives. Look over our suggestions for how to prepare for a Denali expedition. Even if you are in good shape to begin with, embark on a training regimen and follow it!
Q: How much time do I need to plan on for a Denali expedition?
A: We pack food to spend up to 22 days on the mountain. With a day on either end for travel between Anchorage and Talkeetna, you need to plan on 24 days in Alaska. Most trips run 16-18 days, but you must plan your itinerary around the longest scenario.
Q: What is the food like on an expedition?
A: Mountain Trip is known for having outstanding food quality and selection on our expeditions. Our guides pride themselves on their mountain culinary skills. Menus can be tailored for those with discriminating palettes, but may contain such entrees as Pad Thai, Chicken Burgers with blue cheese and Burrito night for dinner and French Toast, Omelets with bacon and Chilaquiles for breakfast. Lunches are a combination of snacks on the run and more structured, sit down affairs, with French Dip sandwiches, pizza or quesadillas. Unlike some guide services, Mountain Trip provides all your food on our Denali expeditions, including all your lunches. If you have some favorite “comfort foods,” such as a particular energy bar or grandma’s secret recipe cookies, please feel free to bring them along.
Q: Do I really need all those clothes on the equipment list? I can’t imagine wearing all those layers!
A: Trust us on this one. Though you may get a nice, balmy summit day, there is an equal chance that you will set off from high camp wearing every stitch of clothes on that list. Please bring all that is required and call or email us with any questions regarding layering systems.
Q: What gear would be provided by Mountain Trip?
A: We will provide all the group gear, such as tents, stoves, ropes, snow pickets and sleds. See our equipment list for gear you will need to provide. We have certain items available for rental and these are noted on the equipment list.
Q: What about skis vs. snowshoes for the lower glacier?
A: Most of our West Buttress expeditions carry snowshoes for use when there is deep fresh snow or for when the glacier is melting out and the trail is sloppy. Snowshoes are convenient in that they are light and easy to use. For experienced skiers we might be able to offer certain departure dates for Denali ski expeditions. We caution anyone considering the ski option to be realistic about his or her abilities. Skiing with a full pack and a sled requires a different set of skills than shredding down the black diamond mogul run at your local resort. We are no longer able to offer the opportunity to ski unroped on Denali, as in 2013, the National Park Service decided that such an activity is not appropriate on Denali.
Q: I’ve never been to high altitudes before; is this reason for concern?
A: It helps to know what it feels like to be at altitude, but it is not necessary to have been up high before attempting Denali. All of our expeditions follow carefully planned out acclimatization schedules. The vast majority of people climbing Denali with us do not experience high altitude illnesses due to our conservative rate of ascent and the attention our guides give to each Denali climber regarding their levels of hydration, eating and work loads. The reality is that altitude illnesses are highly subjective and can present themselves in anyone regardless of the number of times you have been at altitude. We can minimize your chances of getting sick by following a safe rate of ascent, but cannot guarantee that no one will suffer ill effects from altitude.
Q: Does the trip cost include the Air Taxi?
A: The Denali climb expedition costs include all regular transportation from Anchorage to the glacier and back to Anchorage, including your scheduled round trip shuttle to and from Talkeetna and your Air Taxi flight to and from the glacier. We’re proud to be flying primarily with Talkeetna Air Taxi.
Q: Denali is a big, unforgiving mountain. How many fatalities have occurred on it?
We’ve had quite a few years (in the past 20) with no fatalities, and the worst year for deaths was in 1992, with 11 fatalities. One last grim detail for the inquiring minds: There are 44 bodies still on the mountain, mostly buried deep in crevasses.
Q: What is the Mountaineering Fee?
A: The National Park Service has charged a Cost Recovery Fee to climbers since 1996. It has gone up over the years and was most recently increased to $350 for climbers over age 24 and $250 for climbers 24 or younger. This fee is currently due in full at the time of registering with the NPS and is non-refundable after January 15th of the year you are registering to climb.
There is also a $10 Park Entrance fee that is payable in Talkeetna. Holders of an Inter Agency Pass do not have to pay this fee.