Climb Denali! (20,310′)

We have learned a thing or two about taking care of our climbers over the years. This is reflected in our ability to attract and retain the most experienced Denali guides on the mountain, as well as in the extremely positive feedback we receive from our clients. Denali expeditions have been the centerpiece of our company since 1976, and our base of institutional knowledge and experience is unparalleled among Denali guides.

Our philosophy for guiding a Denali climb can be summed up with three goals:

  1. Everyone comes home in good health.
  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, more than 73% of the 255 West Buttress expeditions we have launched in the last 16 years reached the summit. Certainly, we have benefited from good weather, but our success is also based upon the experience levels of our Denali 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 an expedition for Mountain Trip. We have an almost 100% guide return rate from year to year and have guides with 10 or more years of Denali experience leading our Denali climbs. We love what we do and it shows!

Which route on Denali?

Most climbers choose to climb the classic West Buttress route for their first Denali expedition. Don’t underestimate the West Buttress, as it is a challenge even for strong mountaineers. We invite you to look over our Denali Information Booklet for more detailed information on Denali, it’s climbing history and the National Park Service (NPS) mission.

For an overview of the different route options, please select the “Which Route?” tab below. If you’re interested in a particular climb, please click one of the links below to go straight to the webpage for different routes:

Our success is also based in team work and clear communication among our team members. We do our best to help prospective Denali climbers understand what our expectations are of them, and also help them manage their expectations of us. To some extent this is summarized in a document we call Expectation Management on Denali. Anyone considering climbing Denali, whether with Mountain Trip, on your own or with or another guide service, should read that document first.

Following the 2022 Denali season, we launched Summit Denali, a new website compiling our almost 50 years of institutional knowledge of climbing “The Great One.” Our intent is to share all of this knowledge to recreational and guided climbers alike, from detailed route and itinerary info, to training and preparation, to equipment and guide tips, all to help get you ready to step on the mountain and reach the summit. Please check it out, and let it be a tool as you prepare for your Denali expedition!

Climb with Experienced Mountain Guides

Mountain Trip Alaska, LLC, is an authorized concessionaire in Denali National Park and 2024 will mark the 49th year Mountain Trip has led guided Denali expeditions. No other guide service has helped more climbers climb Denali.

It’s Personal

Climbing Denali is stressful, and our goal is to help you minimize as much of that stress as possible. We provide personal service and attention from the first time you contact our office through the months of preparation before your climb, and we provide the highest quality services during the entirety of your climb. Our office staff are Denali veterans who are easy to talk to about all things big and cold, and we tend to develop lasting relationships with our climbers—it’s one of the joys of this profession and contributes to our ongoing success.

Which Route?

The classic route to climb Denali is the West Buttress. This iconic mountaineering route is a modestly technical but physically and mentally challenging endeavor. Many Denali climbers find this to be the most challenging climb they have done during their career in the mountains. Even Everest guides often feel that a West Buttress climb can be tougher than an ascent of Mount Everest. It’s a shorter endeavor, but the work required is greater.

Historically, we offered Traverse climbs, an expedition that ascends the West Buttress and descends to the north via the Muldrow Glacier route. Those expeditions are endurance events, and last several days or more. They are 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 Muldrow Glacier surged in 2022, and became incredibly fractured and riddled with hundreds of new crevasses. We sent a team in to reconnoiter the route in May of 2023, and determined that the Muldrow is impassable. The last time is surged, it took five years to “heal” to a point where climbers could navigate the glacier.

Experienced climbers seeking more technical routes on steeper and varied terrain might consider the West Rib, the Northwest Buttress or the aesthetic Cassin Ridge.

Why 3 guides with 6 climbers? Some guide services run larger trips with just 2 guides.

Mountain Trip primarily offers expeditions with 6 climbers and 3 guides, a 2:1 climber to guide ratio. This model of smaller teams and lower climber-to-guide ratio is simply a better experience overall, and gives the team a lot of flexibility and options to deal with any issues, such as a climber not being able to continue. Our climbers consistently comment that after doing the 2:1 small trip, they would never choose a larger 3:1 ratio trip. Our 2 climber to 1 guide ratio expeditions cost a bit more, but we feel that the increased security and options available with a 2:1 climber ratio will prove to provide real and tangible benefits to our climbers.

We feel strongly that having 3 guides on a team is very important to the security and success of a West Buttress team. There have been two basic models that fit how the NPS allowed mountain guiding concessions to lead teams on the West Buttress. Historically, teams consisted of 9 climbers and 3 guides, and in recent years, some guide services offered smaller teams of 6 climbers and 2 guides.

The NPS does not allow concessionaires to leave clients unattended on the mountain, and they do not permit guide services to guide at ratios greater than 1:3 when ascending above 17,200 feet. Teams of 9:3 that lose one guide when one or two climbers or guides are unable to continue their ascent are in a difficult situation. If there are 7 or 8 clients with two guides at high camp, they cannot legally all go to the summit together, because they will be out of their contract-required ratio.

Having 3 guides with just 6 enables us to both attend to all of our climbers and better support our summit teams.

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With six team members and three guides, how do you handle members that need to go down (or can't climb higher) due to AMS or other? How will the ratio of guides to climbers be maintained in the summit party? Where do the afflicted climbers spend their time while the remaining team members continue their summit attempt?.

We received this question from a climber in July of 2023!

The National Park Service sets strict ratio limits for team composition, and ratios for different sections of the route. With our 6:3 model, we have more options available to us within those limits than might a team of 6:2 or 9:3. One of our goals is to keep as many guides with the team as possible for summit day, and our low ratio model really helps towards that goal.

We don’t see a lot of AMS on our trips, due to our conservative rate of ascent. But we do see it from time to time, and how we address it depends on a whole host of factors. But, if a climber cannot continue, we might leave them at a camp in the company of an assistant guide or with another Mountain Trip team to await the summit team’s descent. This usually is only practical at the 14,200 foot camp. If someone needs to descend (for non-emergent or medical reasons), our first choice would probably be to have the climber join another descending Mountain Trip team, thereby keeping the guide team intact. If there isn’t an MT team headed down, we can send them out with another guide service, if we know and trust that guide team. Descending climbers will be flown out of Base Camp straight away, weather permitting, met in Talkeetna and provided assistance by our staff to return to Anchorage.

Please keep in mind that there are many, many possible scenarios and we’ll encounter new ones in the future. We’ve hiked climbers out accompanied by two guides who turn around and catch back up within a day or two. On occasions, it might be necessary for one of your guides to descend with a climber. If it’s possible for that guide to reunite with the team, then we’ll try hard to make that happen. Often, however, it’s simply not possible to reunite, so the team would continue with two guides. It’s possible to game theory it out in any number of ways.

As you’ve probably learned on previous guided trips – joining a team means embracing the concept of teamwork, which inherently means giving up some degree of control. We offer private team options (and run 5-10 such trips each season) that give climbers more control over their composition of the team, expedition menu and itinerary, etc. Those trips cost more, but are a really good option for many climbers.

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What level of mountaineering proficiency should I have before making the trip? The West Buttress didn’t look overly technical.

You’re right, the West Buttress isn’t too technical, but it does have a few steep and 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. We encourage you to look through Mountain Trip Alaska’s website

Climbers need to demonstrate being comfortable employing the skills listed above, whether you learn them through a course or through spending time in the mountains and mentorship. 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 sections. The more prepared you are when you begin an expedition, the higher quality your experience will be. Fitness and training are ultimately well within your personal control and are your responsibility.

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What level of fitness is needed to climb Denali?

There’s no getting around it: climbing Denali is hard work. The first day on the trail, you’ll have 100+ pounds of kit in your pack and sled. After Camp 1, you will be carrying a 40-60+ pound backpack and pulling a 30-50 pound sled on the lower glacier for up to four or more hours a day. Higher up you will need to negotiate fairly steep terrain with a 50+ pound pack. Climbers who do not train for that level of work generally do not get too high on the mountain and can impact the experience of their teammates.

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!

Since 2018, Mountain Trip has provided our climbers with complimentary access to Uphill Athlete’s 24-week Mountaineering Training Program. We’ve seen it really benefit our climbers to have a dedicated training program. Start. Right. Now!

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With regard to climber health what level of team member monitoring occurs during the expedition, or is it solely up to each climber to self monitor and report any AMS issues?

Guide teams are consistently checking in on climbers. We do what we are able to prevent issues from becoming problems. Our ability to do so is very dependent on the honesty and candidness of each climber. The more information that is shared with the guides, the better we can support our climbers. Guides conduct daily morning and evening meetings, and pull climbers aside to have conversations that might be more fruitful in private. We ask pointed questions and use language that will elicit better responses than, “I’m fine.” But each climber needs to be an active participant in his or her own well-being. Guides have lots of tools available to help, but clear communication is necessary for us to best support our climbers.

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How much time do I need to plan on for a Denali expedition?

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 or 25 days in Alaska. Most trips run 16-18 days, but you MUST plan your itinerary around the longest scenario.

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How long can the team remain on the mountain waiting for a weather window to summit? If the expedition start is delayed by several days due to bad weather, do these days count as part of the available days?

We pack food and supplies for 22 days on the mountain, and we contract our guides to work 22 days, so our plan is to fly out of Base Camp on that 22nd day at the latest. Guides have second Denali trips, and other work/life commitments, so we need to have a hard end date. Climbers who would like to plan for the option of staying longer should consider a private climb, which we’re happy to discuss with you

It is rare to lose more than a couple days in Talkeetna, except for the 2023 season. During that “Season of Storms” we had numerous teams wait 3+ days to fly, and some wait 3-4 days to fly off the glacier. It was a year unlike any other in our almost 50 year experience on Denali.

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What is the food like on an expedition?

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 burritos 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 of your food on our Denali expeditions, including all of 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.

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Do I really need all those clothes on the equipment list? I can’t imagine wearing all those layers!

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 clothing on that list. Please bring every required item and call or email us with any questions regarding layering systems. Your guides will check your clothing and equipment at our pre-trip meeting, and you will not be allowed to go on the mountain without the required gear and clothing on the gear list. Everything needs to be in good condition—Denali is not the place to skimp on gear and clothing!

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What gear is provided by Mountain Trip?

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 rent and these are noted on the equipment list.

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What about skis vs. snowshoes for the lower glacier?

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. After 16 years of negotiating with the NPS, we are now allowed to ski unroped on expeditions that are designated as ski expeditions. If you think you’d like to use skis on the mountain, those would be worth considering. Give us a ring to discuss!

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I’ve never been to high altitudes before; is this reason for concern?

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.

That being said, Denali is so challenging on so many levels that it is worth going to 5000+ meters before experiencing it in Alaska. Understanding how your body does at altitude is within your control, and we recommend getting that first experience somewhere other than Denali.

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Does the trip cost include the Air Taxi?

Our expedition fee includes all regular, scheduled 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.

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What is the Mountaineering Special Use Fee?

The NPS has charged a Mountaineering Special Use fee to climbers since 1996. It has gone up over the years and was most recently increased to $420 for climbers aged 25+ and $320 for climbers 24 or younger. This fee is due in full at the time of registration and is non-refundable after January 15 of the year you are registering to climb. There is also a $15 Denali National Park entrance fee that is payable in Talkeetna. Holders of an Inter Agency Pass do not have to pay the entrance fee, but need to present their pass to the Rangers in Talkeetna.

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What is the difference between Mountain Trip Alaska and Mountain Trip International?

Mountain Trip, Inc. started guiding on Denali in 1976 under the trade name of Mountain Trip and was one of the original concession holders when the National Park Service began that permit process in 1981. Two longtime Mountain Trip guides, Bill Allen and Todd Rutledge, took over the reins of the company in 2004 under the corporate name Mountain Trip International, LLC.

It was important to us to retain the same guides to work on the mountain and to continue the tradition of what Mountain Trip meant to us, namely the family feel of the company and an adherence to the high standards that we’d been taught over the previous decade. We even kept “The Man,” a logo hand drawn by Mountain Trip founder Gary Bocarde in the early 1980s, because we wanted to honor the legacy of what Gary had developed.

In 2017, the NPS issued a Prospectus for the next 10-year contract for guided mountaineering concessions on Denali. Mountain Trip Alaska, LLC was formed in response to that Prospectus, with long-time Mountain Trip guide, Joe Butler, as majority shareholder and Mountain Trip International, LLC as the minority shareholder. Mountain Trip Alaska won the biggest contract the NPS offered and will be guiding climbers in Denali National Park and Preserve beginning in 2019.

Mountain Trip International will act as the official booking agent for Mountain Trip Alaska’s Denali operations. Climbers will still have access to the institutional knowledge of the collective 40+ years of Mountain Trip history on Denali. The same guides will be helping climbers have great experiences on the mountain and the long tradition of Mountain Trip will continue under the newly formed Mountain Trip Alaska.

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