Mt. McKinley, locally known by it's native Alaskan name Denali, is America's highest mountain and unsurpassed in challenge and scenic beauty. At 20,310 feet, it rises out of a sea of glaciers and other peaks that compose the Alaska Range. From our start at base camp, we climb 13,000 vertical feet to the summit one of the greatest vertical reliefs and prominences of any mountain in the world. Denali, 150 miles north of Anchorage, lays in the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve. The West Rib ascends a direct line up the south face of the mountain to the summit ridge.
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 the Muldrow glacier ultimately climbing Denali's slightly lower North Peak (19,470 feet). In 1913, Archdeacon Stuck's team climbed a similar route via Karsten's Ridge, then turning south on the upper Harper glacier, made the first ascent of the true summit, the higher South Peak (20,310 feet). The West Buttress Route of Denali was established by Bradford Washburn's team in 1951 and was dubbed "the safest and easiest route to the summit." The West Rib was first climbed June 19, 1959 by the Jackson Hole climbers: Sinclair, Breitenbach, Corbet, and Buckingham. This was a major milestone in North American mountaineering and the ascent was written up in the 1960 American Alpine Club Journal with their faces published on the cover.
Route: West Rib, Alaska Grade IV, 20,310 feet / 6,190 meters, 38 miles, 13,110 feet elevation gain, 22 days
Group size and ratio: 4 expedition members, 2 AMS guides, maintaining a 2:1 ratio
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 expedtion.
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 West Rib was first climbed June 19, 1959 by the Jackson Hole climbers, Sinclair, Breitenbach, Corbet, and Buckingham. This was a major mile stone in North American mountaineering and their ascent was written up in the 1960 American Alpine Club Journal with their faces on the cover.
High altitude, extreme weather, and active glaciation combine to make Denali one of the most difficult and severe mountains in the world to climb. Given an Alaskan Grade IV, the West Rib is several degrees harder than the West Buttress. The approach to the base of the route up the northeast fork presents many hazards and will only be done after scouting and determining risks can be minimized and managed. If the northeast fork is in poor condition, then the expedition will re-route to the West Buttress and rejoin the West Rib at the 16,300'. Summit day is a 3000-3700' day depending on where High Camp is chosen. It is a 12-16 hour day that requires immense stamina. The terrain is steep and exposed and requires expert cramponing skills while roped and efficiency clipping through protection. It is a true climber's route on Denali.
"This method of approaching McKinley directly from the south is so continually steep and difficult, and so exposed to the full force of the
southwesterly storms that none but the most uniformly experienced and powerful team of climbers should even think of attempting it."
Bradford Washburn, Mountain World
Denali's West Rib is an outstanding mountaineering challenge and only appropriate for climbers with significant climbing experience and an attitude to enjoy the rigors of expedition life. As an advanced climb, the Rib requires a dedicated training regime. For the best chance of success, applicants should be in excellent physical condition and have climbed steep mountaineering routes that require roped glacier travel, winter snow camping, and the extensive use of an ice axe and crampons. Prior experience at altitudes above 15,000', technical winter climbing, and winter travel for extended periods of time is necessary. Dealing with the cold on Denali is a day-to-day challenge. Tying knots, coiling ropes, and belaying with gloves and mittens should be familiar tasks. The ability to arrest a fall on a steep icy snow slope with a pack is paramount to your safety and the safety of your team. Expect at some point you will have to crampon up to 40 degrees with a 60-65 pound pack. Most of the route we double carry, but the move to high camp is often a single load. Many sections of the route requires you to clip through running belays efficiently.
It is often said that the greatest challenge of Denali is not the climbing, but the weather. Denali is a sub-Arctic mountain while most of the world's highest mountains are near the equator. Denali is located in the middle of the southern Alaskan mainland 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle at 63° North Latitude. This is 35° further north than Everest; this is the same latitude as northern Hudson Bay and central Scandinavia. Denali's northern location results in a climate around its summit that presents one of the most severe year-round averages of any spot on earth. The weather on Denali will dictate your team's every move and it is fickle and unpredictable. It forces us to be flexible and patient and sometimes spontaneous. Weather is the one thing we cannot change, but teams can be patient and prepared for windows of opportunity.
The weather for flying in small aircraft over mountainous terrain has to be even better than it does for climbing. Pilots need calm winds and excellent visibility. Sometimes the weather may be un-flyable weather for a day or two. We are well-prepared for delays in Talkeetna, food rations are stored in a large commercial fridge and chest freezers, teams are kept busy with an indoor climbing wall, slide show/class room space, and a fully stocked kitchen. We stay at the ready so that we can be at the airport quickly when the weather clears for flying. We will do our best to ensure that your expedition ends on schedule as. However, we recommend allowing 3-days on the return end of your travel plans (or purchasing flexible airline tickets) in the event that weather prohibits flying off the glacier on time.
The most common question asked by climbers is "which is the best month to climb?" There is no right answer, each year is different. The Alaska range is not know for consistent large and stable weather windows like many of the world's other great ranges. However, it is generally agreed that the practical climbing season on Denali begins in late April and lasts through to the end of July, shrinking the window of favorable conditions at high altitude down to 90 days. In March and April, cold temperatures and strong winds at higher elevations make conditions too severe. The month of May shows less precipitation on average than June or July, but it is colder. Statistically there are more people on the mountain in June so there are more summits, which leads one to falsely think one's chances are better. For the West Rib, May and June's strong winter snowpack is often necessary to navigate safely through lower icefalls on the approach to the climb and soften the steep route from blue ice conditions above.
AMS' expedition climbing strategy reflects a concern for giving everyone the best chance to acclimate to a low oxygen environment. Double carries and rest days allow most people the time for their bodies to adjust. Expeditions carry a pulse oximeter to estimate blood oxygen saturation levels and prescription drugs to treat life-threatening conditions. Advanced signs of acute mountain sickness or symptoms of pulmonary and/or cerebral edema can be serious, life threatening conditions that require immediate response. With that in mind, we focus on prevention. Please read the "Expedition Cold Injury and Altitude Illness Prevention" document for more information.
Successful expeditions are properly equipped, have the necessary skills, but most importantly they learn to become a strong team. Leadership reflects the art of effective team building. Starting in Talkeetna and throughout the climb, your guides will review with you the skills necessary for un-supported expedition life. From Day 1, your expedition will strive towards signs of strength: tight camps, efficient travel techniques, and a positive attitude. We expect you to stay organized, participate fully, have fun, and support the goal of maintaining a strong and safe expedition. Of primary importance is taking responsibility for monitoring yourself; you know best how you feel, how you sleep, how you recover each day. As a team, we are able to help if someone is having a bad day and communicates this. Every member must ultimately be a regular contributor to camp chores for the expedition to be successful. Not participating, or failing to meet the day-to-day demands may mean your early departure from the expedition. We expect you to have self-leadership skills and good expedition behavior: if you are supportive, solution-oriented, hard working, patient, and take initiative and you will be rewarded with the climb of a lifetime.
AMS guides are unique professionals who love the mountains and have a gift for climbing, teaching, and mountain guiding. Our staff are talented climbers and educators with extensive backcountry experience to draw upon. Lead guides have a wealth of experience on Denali as well as teaching mountaineering courses on the surrounding peaks. All our staff are familiar with altitude-related problems, extreme weather, and know how to set the pace for a successful expedition. AMS guides have mountain rescue, avalanche safety, and wilderness medical training. Their knowledge of the natural and climbing history of the area and personal stories of climbing in Alaska add immensely to the climb. Their strength, stamina, and leadership are the right stuff for Denali.
All applicants must adopt a goal of being in excellent physical condition at the start of the expedition. Please don't show up sick, injured, or unprepared. On any mountaineering expedition there are factors that are out of our control, namely weather and individual acclimatization rates. By joining a professionally run expedition, you leave expedition logistics, food, equipment and leadership to us. You are responsible for and have control over your physical fitness and climbing ability. It is imperative that everyone joining an AMS expedition be physically fit at the start. 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 summiting. The more climbing experience you have prior to the climb, the more fun you will have on Denali.
The amount of time needed for training depends on your base level of fitness. Athletes need only to adjust their training habits to include Denalispecific routines. Others may have to plan a year or more of serious training in advance to ensure success. Safe climbers make being in shape a priority. Those that are able should get out and climb as much as possible. Those with less time to climb can lift weights, run, bike, swim, practice martial arts, and red-line the stair master.
It is important to focus on developing stamina and technical skills over brute strength. Although upper body strength is necessary for lifting a pack, shoveling snow, swinging ice tools and building camp; most effort is aerobic because of long-hard days breaking trail and traveling. Maintain a pulse rate 80% of maximum for a half hour during the workout. Vary your routine to prevent overuse injuries and push yourself without injuring yourself. Confidence with crampons and ice tools is necessary for the dramatic exposure and steepness of this route. Train on irregular terrain in poor conditions. Scramble up peaks, climb snow and vertical ice, embark on a rigorous multi-day winter backpacking trip, ski uphill as well as down hill, go snow shoeing. Pushing yourself in uncomfortable environments while staying focused and alert is training. You cannot successfully prepare for this expedition in your office or solely by training indoors.
Denali is not the mountain to "just get by" with mediocre equipment. Your gear will be put to the ultimate test. A well-thought out layering system will be more comfortable, efficient, lightweight, and hold up. Quality does not necessarily mean expensive and a trip to the army surplus store often turns up many of the basics. Read carefully the Equipment List written for this expedition; it answers many questions and gives recommendations for particular items. The equipment section of Denali's West Buttress, by Colby Coombs also provides tips and suggestions. Your guides will insure you are properly outfitted because they know AMS has a rental inventory backed up by a climbing store. Your equipment will be checked the morning of the first day of your climb, as we are busy preparing for the expedition in the days beforehand. Feel free to contact AMS with any gear-specific questions.
AMS provides all the food for this expedition. We like hearty, nutritious and balanced meals on our expeditions. Demands on your body will be high and despite a 3-5,000 calorie/day diet some people still lose weight on the expedition. All our meals can accommodate vegetarians; please call if you need more information. To ensure satisfaction, we suggest that you bring some of your preferred hot and cold drinks and 5-pounds of your favorite trail lunch or snack food to supplement the choices you have from the AMS rations room. Part of this food will be saved for summit day because at high altitude often only your very favorite snacks are palatable. More information on food is provided on the "Expedition Food" sheet. Please contact us if you have any dietary restrictions, allergies or questions.
For those traveling from out of state or country, plan to arrive in Talkeetna two days before the expedition start date. This gives you a chance to rest, take our Denali Skills Workshop, and be high performing the first day of your climb. Fly to Anchorage, Alaska and catch a shuttle to Talkeetna. Once in Talkeetna, check into your lodging or pitch your tent at the AMS' campground. Relax and walk around Talkeetna. Check out the river, ranger station, and the climbing museum. Please read the "Travel and Logistics" sheet for more information.
On the first day, expedition members and guides will meet at 8:00 a.m. at AMS. This is a busy day that ends at base camp on the Kahiltna glacier, so please be on time and take care of all personal business beforehand. Guides will provide an expedition orientation and check each expedition member's gear and equipment to make sure that it is adequate. Any rentals to be issued will be done at this time; we prefer not to do this prior to the start date as we are busy briefing and packing group gear and food. At 12 pm, lunch is provided at AMS. After lunch, we will review fixed-line ascension, attend an orientation with at NPS Ranger station in Talkeetna, and then we pack, dress, and fly onto the glacier in a ski-equipped fixed wing Cessna 185 or a DeHaviland Beaver or Otter. The 30-45 minute flight into Denali National Park is the quickest way to access the snowy, glaciated peaks of the Alaska Range, and is a spectacular and memorable highlight to the trip. Once you arrive at the glacier the rest of the evening will consist of campsite selection, tent spacing, group kitchen set up, and of course dinner!
AMS is the only outdoor school and guiding company based in Talkeetna. We are not seasonal visitors; we live here. Our office in downtown Talkeetna is staffed year-round. For over 30-years we have used Denali National Park for our climbing and we consider it our back yard. Our office and staging area is located at the end of 3rd street, adjacent to the local airstrip. We have an excellent location and proper facilities to outfit expeditions and serve our expedition members. A large staging area allows us to check gear and practice fixed line-ascension. In the event of unflyable weather, our facilities provide a comfortable area to teach classes, show slide shows/videos, and be productive during a "Talkeetna hang."
AMS is a professionally run operation committed to high standards at all levels. We urge you to carefully research and look into climbing with us. Search for Alaska Mountaineering School and our directors Caitlin Palmer and Colby Coombs on the Internet. Talk to climbing rangers at the Talkeetna Ranger Station (907-733-2231). Try calling your local climbing store and ask if they have heard of us. We are small, but our reputation extends far. Our guides and instructors represent a tight group of over 50 professional educators and mountain guides whose affiliation includes: Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Exum, AMGA, NOLS and Valdez Heli Guides. A note on certification: other than AMS' Mountain Guides Course, there is no certification in the US or Europe that takes into account the expedition skills necessary to guide in the Alaska Range. AMS has spearheaded an initiative to develop an expedition component to the AMGA Alpine certification.
The West Rib is an excellent climb for experienced climbers who want an advanced level expedition-style mountaineering experience. The climb starts at Kahiltna Base, 7,200' and travels up the Kahiltna Glacier to the base of Ski Hill and the intersection of the Northeast Fork, 7,800'. Our next camp is "Safe" Camp at 9,500' in the Northeast Fork. After negotiating an ice fall, we establish camp in the bergshrund at the base of the Chicken Couloir, 11,000'. Using fixed lines, we climb the couloir and cache at 12,500'. The following day, we climb to 12,900' and establish the Apex Camp. Climbing along the ridge, we establish the next camp in a bergshrund at 14,800'. Continuing along the ridge, the next good camp location is in a bergshrund at 16,300'. From here a summit attempt can be made or sometimes a higher camp at 17,200' is established. When the team is wellrested and the route is in suitable climbing condition, we leave for the summit. Picking our way through the rock bands high on the south face of Denali is an awesome mountaineering experience. The West Rib proper ends at 19,300' when we exit onto a large plateau called the Football Field. A final climb along the summit ridge lead to the top (20,310'). Summit day can take up to 16 hours by the time we return to Camp. From our High Camp, we descend onto the West Buttress route at Basin Camp 14,200' and return to Kahiltna Base via the West Buttress Route.
We strongly suggest you plan to spend the night in Talkeetna once you have returned from your expedition. Climbers are often tired from a strenuous expedition and need time to de-issue equipment, bathe, and celebrate their climb with dinner with teammates. Transportation schedules may require that you catch your shuttle to Anchorage the following day. AMS staff can provide a current list of options for transportation and lodging upon your return. Many climbers feel that any extra time spent in Talkeetna helps them to transition from the quiet of the mountains to their busy lives. In addition to attracting climbers from all over the world, Talkeetna boasts world-class fishing and other activities. The "Travel and Logistics" sheet offers helpful information.
This itinerary is a rough guide and outlines an anticipated schedule. Weather and snow conditions will ultimately determine our progress on the mountain. Our style on the mountain is flexible and will fluctuate on a 24hr. clock with the weather.
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, 7200 feet: glacier travel and crevasse rescue review, organize loads
Day 4 Move to Ski Hill, Camp 1, 7800 feet, distance: 5.5 miles, elevation gain: 600 feet
Day 5 Carry to "Safe" Camp, 9500 feet, distance: 6 miles, elevation gain: 1700 feet
Day 6 Move to "Safe" Camp, 9500 feet, distance: 3 miles, elevation gain: 1700 feet
Day 7 Carry to Couloir Camp, 11000 feet, distance: 3 miles, elevation gain: 1500 feet
Day 8 Move to Couloir Camp, 11000 feet, distance: 1.5 miles, elevation gain: 1500 feet. Fix lines up the Chicken Couloir in the evening
Day 9 Carry to 12900' feet, distance: 1 mile, elevation gain: 1900 feet
Day 10 Move to the Rib and Camp 4, 13900 feet, distance: .75 mile, elevation gain: 2900 feet. Pick up cache, distance: .5 mile, elevation gain: 1000 feet
Day 11 Carry to the West Rib cut-off at 15800', distance: 1 mile, elevation gain: 1900 feet
Day 12 Move to Upper Ridge Camp, 16300 feet, distance: .75 mile, elevation gain: 2400 feet
Days 13-16 Summit Days, distance: 2.5+ miles, elevation gain: 4000 feet
Day 17 Descend to 14200 feet, distance: 1 mile
Day 18 Descend to Base Camp, 7200 feet, distance: 11.25 miles
Day 19 Fly back to Talkeetna
Days 20-22 Weather Days