The early pioneers in Denali's climbing history were explorers and gold miners who unraveled the intricate and formidable approaches to find a route to the summit. In 1910 a group of Sourdough miners struck out from Fairbanks to climb the slightly lower north peak. In 1913 Archdeacon Stuck's team climbed the same route up the Muldrow Glacier and Karstens Ridge, making the first ascent of the higher south peak. The West Buttress route was pioneered by Bradford Washburn's team in 1951. From the Kahiltna Glacier base camp it is 13,000 vertical feet and 18 miles to the summit!
Given a Grade II rating, the West Buttress shares with the Muldrow route the status of having the lowest grade on Denali. This implies it is the "easiest and safest route" to the summit. Relative to other climbs on Denali, it is easier and the terrain is safer. However, anyone who has climbed Denali would never say it is easy. Unique to Denali's rating system is an implied severity grade that makes any route a serious undertaking. High altitude, extreme weather, steep icy slopes, and crevasses combine to make Denali one of the most difficult and severe mountains in the world to climb. AMS guides do not underestimate the severity of conditions or the effects of high altitude and stack the odds in their favor. To reach the summit of Denali is a worthy achievement that does not come easily and must be sought after with the highest degree of attention to detail and expedition climbing strategy.
Route: West Buttress, Alaska Grade II, 20,310 feet / 6,190 meters, 41 miles, 13,110 feet elevation gain, 22 days
Group Limit: 6 expedition members, 2-3 AMS guides, maintaining a 3:1 ratio or better
Cost Includes: AMS Professional Mountain Guides, Denali National Park climber and registration fees, glacier flights, field food and fuel, group camping and climbing equipment (tents, ropes, snow/ice protection, kitchens) emergency supplies (maps / GPS, radios, satellite phone, and repair, trauma and drug kits), pre-rigged sleds, base camp fees, 24/7 support during the expedition from AMS HQ, knowledgeable advice for training, equipment and travel, camping at AMS in Talkeetna, regular updates on social media during the expedition.
You are responsible for: Arriving with excellent physical and mental fitness, transportation to and from Talkeetna, lodging in Talkeetna, personal equipment and clothing, rental items from AMS, travel and medical insurance, gratuities.
The early pioneers in Denali's climbing history were explorers and gold miners who unraveled intricate and formidable approaches to find a northern route to the summit. In 1910, a group of Sourdough miners struck out from Fairbanks to climb the slightly lower North Peak, 19,470 feet. In 1913, Archdeacon Stuck's team climbed the same route via Karsten's Ridge, making the first ascent of the higher South Peak, 20,310 feet. Flying from the south and landing on the Kahiltna in 1951, Bradford Washburn's team pioneered the West Buttress of Denali which is now the most popular route to the summit.
AMS' expedition-style climbing strategy reflects a concern for giving everyone the best chance to acclimate to a lower oxygen environment. Double carries, rest days, and 4-5 nights at 14,200' before moving higher allow most people the time for their bodies to adjust. Expeditions carry a pulse oximeter to measure blood oxygen saturation levels and heart rate as well as prescription drugs to treat life-threatening conditions. Advanced signs or symptoms of pulmonary and/or cerebral edema are serious, life-threatening conditions that require immediate descent. AMS is briefed by our medical director Dr. Peter Hackett, who pioneered high altitude medical research on Denali, on any advancements in the research, prevention, and treatment of altitude-related illnesses. Our training supervisor Lance Taysom, chief life-flight RN and NPS mountaineering ranger also keeps us informed. Together they wrote our medical protocols and standing orders that allow AMS instructors to evaluate and treat within the scope of their Wilderness First Responder training. A class on altitude-related injuries is taught, and touching base individually is made a priority. For those suffering from acute mountain sickness, we aknowledge the benefits of Diamox (Acetazolamide) in conjunction with rest and hydration. Any person showing signs of severe acute mountain sickness should not climb to higher elevations until those signs and symptoms go away.
Denali applicants must adopt a goal of being in excellent physical condition by the start of the expedition. On any mountaineering expedition, there are factors that are completely out of anyone's control, namely weather and individual acclimatization rates. By joining a professionally run expedition, you leave expedition logistics, food, equipment and leadership to us. You do have responsible for and control over your physical fitness and climbing ability. It is imperative that everyone joining our expeditions be physically fit when the expedition begins. The better condition you are in, the more you will enjoy the climb, the safer it will be for you, and the better chance for you have for summiting. The more climbing experience you have prior to the climb, the better prepared you will be for Denali.
Denali is not a mountain on which you can "just get by" with mediocre equipment. Your gear will be put to the ultimate test. A carefully planned layering system will be more comfortable, efficient, lightweight, and hold up. "Quality" does not necessarily mean "expensive"; a trip to the Army surplus store often turns up many of the basics. Carefully read the equipment list created for this expedition; it answers many questions and gives recommendations for particular items. Try to have equipment questions answered by a knowledgeable salesperson in a local climbing store; they are often the most informed about the pros and cons of a particular brand or style. The equipment section of "Denali's West Buttress" by Colby Coombs also provides tips and suggestions. Your instructors will insure you are properly outfitted before you go. Please wait until the morning of the first day to check equipment at AMS, as we are busy preparing for the expedition for three full days before meeting team members on day one of the expedition. The AMS Mountain Shop is able to provide all your equipment needs from head to toe and give you a discount.
AMS provides all of the food for this expedition. To ensure satisfaction, we suggest that you bring some of your preferred hot and cold drinks and 6 pounds of your favorite trail lunch or snack food to supplement the choices you have from the AMS ration's room. Part of this food will be saved for summit day. More information on food is provided on the expedition food sheet. Please contact us if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies.
We climb the West Buttress in traditional expedition style, relaying loads, establishing camps, and climbing slowly enough for proper acclimatization. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The first 9 miles of the route is up the Kahiltna Glacier to 11,000 feet. We typically place 2 or 3 camps on this section. Above 11,000 feet, the terrain is steeper, and we switch from snow shoes to crampons. Advanced base camp is 14,200 feet and located in a large basin relatively sheltered from high winds. We often arrive at 14,200 feet on the 7-9th day. The views of Mt. Hunter and Mt. Foraker from here are amazing. After 4-5 nights acclimatizing, resting, and making a carry to 16,200 feet, we depart for the upper mountain. Between 15,500 feet and 16,200 feet are 40-45° slopes so we climb clipped to a fixed rope to safeguard our movements. We may place a camp at the top of the fixed ropes at 16,200 feet if the weather prevents us from going all the way to high camp. At least at 16'200' we are able to acclimate further and this camp makes the move to 17,200 feet a short move. The stretch to high camp is the most scenic part of the route and climbs a narrow ridge to 17,200 feet. When rested and in suitable weather, we will go for the summit. Summit day usually takes 10-14 hours. We cannot guarantee it, but we give it our best shot. Be prepared to wait at least 5 days or more if necessary. We have had expeditions wait 11 nights at high camp before a chance for the summit. Sometimes we have to make two summit attempts. We usually takes 2 days from high camp to return to base camp.
AMS' approach to Denali falls in line with our mission as a school of mountaineering. Denali's summit is a means, not an end, and we will be pushing every day to increase our skills and performance. The mountain provides an excellent stage to practice good mountaineering. We expect all members to share a goal of becoming better climbers on our expeditions. Subsequently, AMS expeditions always looks good on the mountain a tight, well-oiled machine that all members take ownership of.
Weather and snow conditions will ultimately determine our progress on the mountain. This itinerary is a rough guide and outlines a possible schedule. Our style on the mountain is flexible and will fluctuate on a 24 hour basis depending on conditions. With lucky weather, most expeditions return a day or two early. On the other hand, delays at the start with un-flyable weather and storms at high camp may result in running out of time. It is possible at high camp for us to extend the length of the expedition and allow more time for those who wish to tough it out and who have a flexible schedule.
Day 1 2:00 pm meet at AMS for the expedition orientation, lunch packing, gear check and issuing.
Day 2 8:00 am meet at AMS for skills practice, and National Park Service orientation. 4:00 pm fly to Base Camp, 7,200', distance: 60 miles, elevation gain: 6850'
Day 3 Base Camp: organize, acclimate, review glacier travel and crevasse rescue, take a deep breath and enjoy the view
Day 4 Single to Ski Hill, Camp 1, 7,800', distance: 5.5 miles, elevation gain: 600'
Day 5 Carry to Kahiltna Pass, 9,700', distance: 5 miles, elevation gain: 1900'
Day 6 Move to Kahiltna Pass, Camp 2, 9,700', distance: 5 miles, elevation gain: 1900', under the right conditions we may move all the way to 11,000'
Day 7 Single to 11,000', Camp 3, distance: 1.5 miles, elevation gain: 1300'
Day 8 Rest day
Day 9 Carry to 13,500' around Windy Corner, distance: 1.75 miles, elevation gain: 2500'
Day 10 Move to 14,200', Camp IV, distance: 2.75 miles, elevation gain: 3200'
Day 11 Back carry 13,500' cache, distance: 1 mile, elevation gain: 700'
Day 12 Carry to 16,200' , distance: 1 mile, elevation gain: 2000'.
Day 13 Rest at 14,200'
Day 14 Move to 16,200 feet or 17,200', Camp V, distance: 1.75 miles, elevation gain: 3000'
Day 15 Rest day or move to 17,200 feet, Camp VI, distance: 1.75 miles, elevation gain: 3000'
Day 16-19 Summit days, distance: 4 miles, elevation gain: 3120'
Day 20 Return to 14,200 feet or 11,000', distance: 2.25 miles
Day 21 Return to Base Camp, 7,200', distance: 11.25 miles, fly back to Talkeetna
Day 22 Weather day