Preparation and Training for Denali and other Big, Cold Mountains
Preparing for Denali and Big Mountains
Are you thinking about climbing Denali, but maybe not sure if you’re ready? Don’t be intimidated—it’s a big, cold arctic mountain, but with the right preparation it’s an attainable goal!
We realize it can be difficult to determine if you’re ready for Denali, so we’ll try to give you some solid benchmarks and ideas of what you can do to be successful on a big climb. We’re always happy to talk to you individually to help you develop a program and a plan to be ready. If you’re willing to put in the work to prepare, well … you will have a much more enjoyable experience when you do find yourself carrying a big backpack at high altitude, and you’ll have a much better chance of reaching the summit. One of the most rewarding aspects of guiding is working with climbers to develop long-term goals and a plan to achieve them. Please don’t hesitate to contact us and let’s make a plan to achieve your goals! There are no shortcuts, but the journey is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, and you might learn something about yourself along the way.
When we’re talking to prospective climbers, we try to break the skill sets needed down into three categories and assess an individual climbers readiness.
The West Buttress Route on Denali is NOT considered a technical climbing route, but it IS a mountaineering route on which you need to have what we consider basic climbing/mountaineering skills. Those skills can be learned on just about any introduction to mountaineering course, which Mountain Trip offers in both Alaska and Colorado, or you could take one in a number of other venues. Just because it’s not a “technical” climb, don’t underestimate the challenge of the West Buttress and other mountaineering routes—you will be on steep terrain where your skills with crampons, ice axe self arrest, etc. are important for the safety of you and your team.
Basic mountaineering skills include:
Ice Axe Technique. (Self-belay, self-arrest.) Know how to use your ice axe in self-arrest and self-belay grip.
Crampon Skills. (French Technique, front pointing, descending.) You should practice putting your crampons on the boots that you’ll use on Denali, including with your overboots if you will be using them. Be familiar with basic crampon technique, French Technique; Flat Foot (pied à plat), Duck Foot (pied en canard), Hybrid Technique (pied troisième).
Crevasse Rescue Techniques. We don’t expect climbers joining a guided team to be experts at performing crevasse rescues, as this is a pretty advanced skill. You should, however, be familiar with the techniques so you can help in case of a crevasse fall.
Self-Rescue. You should understand how to ascend a rope using an ascender and a foot prusik.
Team-Rescue. You should be familiar with the concepts of team rescue, including anchor building and hauling systems.
Fixed Lines. You should be familiar with using an ascender on a fixed line, using a “cows tail” backup, and using an “Arm Wrap” as a self belay to descend a fixed line.
Running Belays. We will often use a “running belay,” where a rope team clips into intermediate anchors while traveling in exposed terrain. Understand how to pass an anchor as the middle person of a rope team including the “magic X.”
Rappelling. Although we don’t expect to need to rappel on the West Buttress route, this is a fundamental mountaineering skill that you should be comfortable demonstrating.
Basic Climbing Knots and Hitches. There are just a few knots/hitches with which you should be familiar, such as basic versions of the Figure 8, the Prussik Hitch, the Double Fisherman’s Knot, and the Clove Hitch.
As we mentioned, all of these skills are taught on virtually every 5-7 day Introduction to Mountaineering Course, and being comfortable with them will take you a long way in the mountains. While we will review skills as necessary on a Denali expedition, you will need to learn these skills before your climb, practice them, and have experience using them BEFORE you fly to the Kahiltna Glacier to attempt Denali. Your guides are also instructors and we plan to review skills along the way, but a Denali expedition isn’t the place to learn these things for the first time.
Guides Tip: Get your harness and climbing gear out and practice in the living room, or set up a rope at the local playground to practice ascending a rope! Even professional guides refresh their skills before a trip.
2) Expedition Climbing and Winter Camping Experience
The extended nature of the climb and the fact that you’ll spend every night of the expedition camped on the snow make winter camping skills a necessity. We schedule our West Buttress expeditions to include up to 22 days on the glacier, and while most trips get back long before the 22nd day, you can count on spending a long time in the snow. We have some systems in place that help make things a bit more comfortable and enjoyable, but the reality is that much of the Denali experience involves time in camp. Denali climbers must arrive with a familiarity with winter camping skills. Our guides will share many, many tips and provide lots of instruction to help you with techniques, like keeping your boots dry (if not necessarily warm!), and how and when to clear snow off of your tent when it’s piling up in a storm. But it’s imperative that you arrive with an understanding of the basics of winter camping. The length of the trip poses an additional layer of challenge atop the snow camping skills.
For most people, a Denali climb is going to be the longest expedition they’ve done, and, coupled with the arctic environment that most people have not previously experienced, the duration of the climb can prove to be a serious challenge. While not a requirement, we encourage any prospective Denali climber to embark on a longer trip (2+ weeks) before attempting Denali. Camp 3 at 14,200 feet is not the place to learn that you just flat-out don’t like camping in the snow or that you get too claustrophobic when camping in a small tent. The extended time needed to climb Denali is just another one of the unique and exciting elements that make it so special!
Again, there are many places to get snow camping experience, and it’s generally a part of most introductory mountaineering courses. Mountain Trip offers these courses both in Alaska and in Colorado, but there are plenty of other good venues, including the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest, Colorado’s 14’ers, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the Alps, or even in the Himalaya. Regardless of where you gain the expedition-type of experience necessary to succeed in the Alaska Range, Denali should not be your first multi-day winter climbing experience. A great way to prep for some of the skills needed for a Denali climb is Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes, the highest peak in South America. The route that we climb on Aconcagua is non-technical, and you get the opportunity to join an expedition to just under 23,000 feet (7,000 meters). This is a great opportunity to get a 2+ week expedition experience and high altitude experience in a much friendlier environment than the Alaska Range. It’s also just a great trip, and really fun experience in it’s own right!
In summation: Climbers who have completed a good introduction to mountaineering course and then climbed Aconcagua are generally very well prepared to join a Denali team.
You need to be in very good physical condition for a Denali trip. Summit day shouldn’t be maxing out your strength and endurance, rather it should be well within your comfort zone. Many variables associated with climbing big mountains are outside of our control (weather, etc.), so we really need to be sure we manage the ones that we can. Your fitness is something that is within your control and can directly effect the success and safety of you and your fellow climbers. Climbing big mountains is primarily an endurance event, but you do need strength as well.
If you are noticing a common theme in this article, it’s that having experience on a couple of other mountains prior to going to Denali is a really good idea. That experience will also help you gauge where you are physically. Regardless, when it comes to training, start now! Don’t expect to be able to train for just a few months and be ready to climb Denali unless you start at a pretty high level of fitness to begin with.
Training for mountaineering and climbing is complicated and many climbers have questions about how to best get started or proceed. We understand that your personal and professional lives are busy and complex. Many climbers just don’t have the time to plan their training and would like to follow a plan designed by experts. Mountain Trip has partnered with Uphill Athlete (by Steve House and Scott Johnston) to create scientifically sound training plans designed by two professional coaches and leading mountaineers. Even fit and experienced climbers will benefit from a good training program. We are big fans and we encourage you to check out their program at Training Peaks
Denali is one of the few expeditions that we offer where we can’t really provide “porter” support to lighten the loads. We often leave Base Camp with 50+ pound (22+ kg) packs, and drag almost as much (or more) in a sled behind us. You really need to train with a pack that heavy as part of your training regime, so that your body can adapt to it, otherwise it can be crushing. Again, check out the training plans on Training Peaks to formulate a specific plan, but what is most important is that you make a plan and stick to it as best you can!
Please check out our brand new website, Summit Denali, a Denali Climbing Guide, for more information on preparing for Denali.
Finally, don’t forget that a good attitude and teamwork go a long way to having an experience that is enjoyable as well as successful!
We love working with climbers and aspiring climbers to come up with a plan to reach their goals and maybe go further than they even dreamed possible. If you’d like to climb big mountains or come up with a dream, please contact us!