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So You're Thinking About Climbing McKinley (Also Known As Denali)?

March 14, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 149

Whether you call it McKinley or Denali, at over 20,000 feet, the highest peak in North America is certainly a challenge. There are no "walk up" routes on the mountain. Most people who say it's a walk up haven't been there. Teams usually plan for 3 weeks for the climb. About 50% of the people that try the climb fail to summit. Occasionally people die.

If any of this is new to you and you're serious about attempting Denali, it's time to do some more homework, and more climbing; or sign up for a guided trip. There are several good companies running expeditions on the mountain.

What it takes.

In the past 10 years, I've come across many teams coming to Alaska from all over the world to climb Denali. It's been very interesting to see the patterns before the expedition that lead to success on the mountain. I can often make a good guess on their chances of success within one hour of meeting the team at the airport!

One of the main indicators is attitude. Calm yet excited. A little apprehensive but able to joke. Organized but not uptight. And they have to want it.

While a few inexperienced teams get lucky and make it up and down successfully, most climbers have had years of experience and Denali is another step in a carefully pursued progression. This path might include extensive rock climbing (outside of the gym!). Maybe a Mexican volcano. Mt. Washington in winter. Aconcogua for some altitude experience. Rainier for glacier travel practice. Backcountry skiing and ice climbing to hone the skills and the ability to "deal" with the less than ideal.

Self reliance.

Once you've turned your sights on Denali, a good first step would be to obtain and read, cover to cover, The Mountaineering Booklet put out by the Park Service.

The introduction by (now retired) Ranger Daryl Miller is particularly valuable and should help calibrate your attitude to what it should be for this mountain. One of his key points is that you should be self-reliant.

There will be many other teams around and the NPS has a presence on the mountain, but you should be entirely self-sufficient. Many teams are already maxed out and may not have enough left to help anyone else.

Rescue or emergency assistance can not be expected or relied upon. Your team should have the training, experience and equipment to deal with any situation. This is where your depth of experience comes into play. If you've only climbed in a gym and only hiked on trails you may be in sad shape when your buddy goes in a crevasse.

Think you're fit?

Well, you could always be better. Your team will be counting on you. Usually by January before the climbing season you should be hitting it really hard. Six days a week at a high intensity would not be too much.

Remember, about half the people who try Denali don't summit. Weather, luck, whatever. There are no solid numbers on it but a lot of people just don't want it bad enough. You need to want it bad enough to be training hard.

It's gonna take some gear.

Your gear should be in great condition and top quality. Your equipment is the only thing between you and the weather, and the weather can kill you. Don't plan to use your old, nearly worn out stuff on McKinley. It might not last and could end your trip; or worse. New boots and over boots, new mittens and gloves, bomber tent (that's not UV damaged!) and reliable stoves are all absolutely critical. If you have any doubts at all get new gear and test it before the trip.

You'll need either skis or snowshoes. If you can ski at all, skis are far better than snowshoes. Skiing down hill, in a rope team, with a pack and towing a sled usually sucks no matter what. But it's still a lot faster and easier than snowshoes.

Your Team

You'll be traveling on a glacier with many crevasses. If you're not already familiar with crevasse rescue you shouldn't be going unless you're on a guided trip. If you are familiar, it's important that your team practices together, Base Camp can be a good opportunity for a final tune up of your skills. Your team needs to have this dialed. Falling in a crevasse is a very real risk.

A three-person team can be strong and effective in self-rescue. Two, two-person teams can be even better, if they stay close together. One team can come over and effect a rescue with a separate rope.

A single, two-person team needs to practice more complex hauling systems and be extremely efficient in single-handedly rescuing their teammate.


Food is almost as important to success as attitude.

A good strategy is that you should eat big and eat well on the lower mountain (up to Advanced Base Camp at 14,000'). A good breakfast followed by a continuous stream of snacks every hour on the hour until you make camp at the end of the day. A big dinner, often a desert and hot drinks. Rest days are a good time to lay off the snack food for a change and indulge in more elaborate meals; possibly an extra "dinner" at lunch time.

How much? It's hard to say exactly and it depends a lot on temperatures and the experience of the team. An experienced team will know how to eat on the mountain. 2 - 2.5 pounds per person per day. (approximately 1 kg) seems to be about right.

Above Advanced Base Camp, your appetite and motivation to cook will both be diminished. You'll want foods that are simpler (and easier to digest). Quantities can be slightly less. No sense carrying it if you're not going to eat it.

5-day rations seem to break a large amount of food into more easily managed quantities. Also, for the standard route on Denali, the timing breakdown seems to be convenient for planning loads and caches.

You can do it.

Climbing Denali is a significant, yet achievable challenge for many outdoors people. One of the first steps is in deciding which path you should take to get there. Rack up the experience and hone the technical skills needed to do it on your own. Or go with a guided trip and focus on being as fit as possible for the expedition. In either case, you don't want to be that guy holding the team back.

Don Wray wrote this piece on climbing Denali. He has summited the mountain and provides expedition food and logistical support for private teams from around the world through his business Exposure Alaska.

Exposure's Expedition Support Service is for experienced climbers with limited, valuable time who are not interested in a guided trip. They meet teams on arrival in Anchorage and have everything arranged including food, accommodation in the city, flight to base camp, ranger briefing and more.

Source: EzineArticles
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Climbing Mckinley


Climbing Denali


Expedition Food


Expedition Planning


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