Denali is a big, serious mountain with big mountain weather, geography and acclimatization issues. The following itinerary represents a very basic outline of what could happen on a given day during the course of a Denali expedition. Many factors can, and probably will, contribute to cause the following schedule to change. Our guides know the mountain and may elect to stray from this itinerary in order to give you the best possible shot at getting to the summit.
DAY 1: MEET IN ANCHORAGE. Team Meeting at 10 A.M. for an expedition orientation and equipment check. This is a very important meeting, which you must attend. Be sure to arrive in Anchorage early enough to make the meeting; which may require arriving a day early. Our trip fee includes two nights accommodation at the Millennium Alaska Hotel, which is conveniently located.
DAY 2: TRAVEL TO TALKEETNA AND FLY TO THE GLACIER. Team members will travel by shuttle the several hours to Talkeetna. Everyone will need to register with the National Park Service prior to flying to the glacier. Weather permitting; we will fly into the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200 feet that afternoon. Once on the glacier, everyone will need to pitch in to get Base Camp established so we can proceed with our on-glacier expedition orientation that will cover the following topics: glacier travel, crevasse rescue, sled rigging, rope management and camp site procedures.
DAY 3: CARRY SUPPLIES TO CAMP 1. Departing base camp, we’ll drop down the infamous Heartbreak Hill and onto the broad Kahiltna glacier. Our goal will be to carry loads to the site of Camp 1 at 7,800feet, near the junction with the NE Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. This is a moderate carry of about 9 miles round-trip and is a good shake-down for the upcoming days. Depending on the team and weather we may or may not return to Base Camp. Throughout the expedition we will follow the “climb high, sleep low” technique, for better acclimatization, however the altitude difference between Base Camp and Camp 1 is minimal enough to permit us to occasionally “single-carry” this stretch. On the late May and June expeditions, we may be doing our climbing early in the morning to avoid the excessive heat and soft snow conditions on the Lower Glacier.
DAY 4: MOVE REMAINING SUPPLIES AND ESTABLISH CAMP 1. (If the team double carries to Camp 1.)
DAY 5: HAUL LOADS UP TO KAHILTNA PASS. We’ll head out of Camp 1 and carry loads up Ski Hill. Several options exist for camp sites between 9,000 & 11,000 feet, depending upon weather, snow conditions and team strength. This is a moderately difficult carry of 7-9 miles round-trip, with 2- 3,000 feet of elevation gain and a return to Camp 1 for the night.
DAY 6: MOVE EVERYTHING TO CAMP 2. Camp is often in the 11,200’ basin at the base of Motorcycle Hill. This is an incredibly beautiful camp that basks in alpenglow when the sun travels around the north side of the mountain.
DAY 7: BACK-CARRY DAY. This is an “active rest day” during which we drop back down and pick up the cache we left down near Kahiltna Pass. It also helps give us another day to acclimatize before moving higher.
DAY 8: HAUL LOADS AROUND WINDY CORNER (13,300 FEET). Steep snow climbing up Itinerary p. 2 of 2 Motorcycle Hill rewards you with spectacular views. The total distance is about 4 miles round trip with a little over 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Fun climbing with crampons and ice axe gets you around Windy Corner where the upper Mountain comes into view-have your camera ready! ***Note that we have not planned on a “real” rest day before this point. 30+ years of guiding Denali has taught us that climbers fit enough to climb the upper mountain do not need rest days below Camp 3.
DAY 9: MOVE CAMP TO 14,200 FEET. This is usually a long, hard day. Camp 3 is located at the well equipped 14,200’ camp. Loads are getting lighter and the air is getting thinner. Hopefully everyone will have enough energy left to help get camp in as we need to fortify this camp due to the possibility for fairly severe weather.
DAY 10: BACK-CARRY DAY. This is another “active rest day,” during which the team will descend from Camp 3 to the Windy Corner cache and bring everything up to 14,200 feet. We’ll spend the afternoon going over climbing techniques that we will use in the upcoming days.
DAY 11: CLIMB UP THE HEADWALL TO THE RIDGE. Our goal is to cache supplies on the ridge and return to 14,200 feet. Climbing up the Headwall (fixed lines run from 15,500 to 16,100 feet) with a heavy pack is one of the more strenuous days of the trip, because of the steep terrain, heavy pack and thinning air. The views from the ridge can be as breath taking as the rarified air!
DAY 12: REST DAY. It is often prudent to take a rest/acclimatization day prior to moving up to High Camp.
DAY 13: MOVE TO HIGH CAMP ON THE BUTTRESS. Weather and team strength will again determine this decision. While there is a camp site at 16,100′, it is very exposed, so we usually push for the 17,200 ‘ site which is more secure and the better choice for camp. This is a really tough day, as our loads are big and the terrain is steep in sections. Rewards for our work are in the great climbing along the ridge. Weaving in and out of the rocks and occasionally walking a knife edged stretch, combine with big exposure to create one of the most memorable parts of the route.
From this point on, there are multiple strategies that we can employ to reach the summit and descend. The following is but one of these options…
DAY 14: REST DAY. Moving to 17,200’ and getting High Camp established can be a huge day, so we usually take a Rest Day before attempting the summit.
DAY 15: MOVE CAMP TO UPPER HARPER GLACIER CAMP. Another big day, as we carry our camp up and over the 18,000 foot Denali Pass and onto the Upper Harper Glacier from where we will make our summit bid. This camp enables us to have a shorter summit day and helps firm the team’s resolve for continuing with the Traverse.
DAY 16: SUMMIT DAY: If the weather is favorable, we’ll push for the summit. However if the weather is not good we will not go. It is important to be patient, high on Denali. We will only try for the summit when the weather is good, meaning mostly clear and calm. Our guide staff is the most experienced on the mountain and your guides will make the sometimes difficult decision as to when to head for the top. The round trip climb will take eight to twelve hours or more. Usually you will depart camp early (7-9 a.m.), climb back up above Denali Pass (18,000’) and follow the West Buttress summit route past Arch Deacon’s Tower and the Football Field to the slopes leading to the Summit Ridge. On this spectacular ridge you can often see down into the Ruth Glacier with views of beautiful peaks such as Mooses Tooth, Mt Huntington and Mt Hunter.
***Summit Day is serious***
The weather needs to be good and everyone attempting the summit needs to have demonstrated that they can reasonably give it a shot. This is often the most grueling day of the expedition (some climbers say of their lives!). The guides have the ultimate decision as to when the team will make a summit bid. The guides also have the discretion to decide that a team member has not shown that he or she is capable to make a summit bid. Such occurrences are rare; but remember– bringing everyone home in good health is our primary concern.
DAY 17: Descend through two icefalls on the Harper Glacier and down the steep and exposed Karstens Ridge. This is a huge day. Conditions and team fitness will dictate how far down the route we descend, but nonetheless, it is a very tough day.
DAY 18: Descend the Muldrow Glacier and step off the ice and into the green surroundings of Cache Creek! This can be another huge day, depending on the condition of the Muldrow.
DAY 19: Hike out to the McKinley River. Sometimes we can cross the river and continue to Wonder Lake, but often we need to camp and wait for the flow of the river to abate somewhat overnight. Remember that the river flows from glaciers, which often freeze during the night and therefore their volume of flow decreases.
Day 20: Hike to Wonder Lake and catch the bus back to Denali Park. Joining a busload of tourists is often a highlight for our stinky climbers! We’ll pick up the team and transfer everyone back to Anchorage for showers, steaks and celebration!
Day 21-26: Contingency days