Our Alaska 2000 trip report is divided into two parts.
Part 1 contains the mountaineering expedition to Denali, and part 2 contains our following trip through Alaska. The same applies to the corresponding "practical hints" pages.
Practical hints for organizing your own trip
Part 1: Climbing Denali (Mount Mc.Kinley), Alaska
Denali and the Alaska Range
With an altitude of 6193 m, Denali (Athabaskan: "The big one"), earlier called Mount McKinley, is the highes mountain of the U.S.A. and of North America.
It is the highest peak of the Alaska Range, which is practically the bow-shaped continuation of the Rocky Mountains through Southcentral Alaska towards the Aleutian Range, which then ends in the Aleutian island chain. The Alaska Range is an important weather divide in Alaska, separating the drier interior from the humid south.
All 5000 and 6000 m peaks of North America are situated in the Alaska Range or its neighbor in the southeast, the Wrangell-St.Elias-Mountains, which partly belong to Canada.
Although being situated on the "fire circle" around the pacific ocean, the Alaska Range shows no vulcanism, and it never did, unlike the lower Aleutian Range. The mountain chain was folded already before vulcanism evolved in this region. The magma that later pushed upwards could not reach the surface through the thick crust of the already existing mountains. It cooled in its funnels, partly mixed with the sedimentary rock of the mountains. Later erosion exposed the single funnels; therefore the Alaska Range has only few, very high mountains, throughout consisting of very solid granite. The softer sedimentary material around these mountains is more eroded and forms lower, softer mountain shapes. The highest peaks (Denali with 6193 m and Mount Foraker with 5300 m) are standing in the center as isolated mountains, besides some 4000 m peaks (e.g. Mount Hunter which is also a steep granite peak). All other mountains only reach the 3000 m line. The two hight mountains are therefore not protected from storms, and bad weather can come in quickly and with big intensity.
Denali and Foraker are situated in the core zone of the national park. For these two mountains a permit is necessary; it must be applied for 60 days before the scheduled expedition beginning. The form is found online for printing. The fee is US$ 150 which is used for the ranger station. (There are also rangers at Medical Camp, and they have to be paid somehow.)
Travel to Talkeetna
General facts about travel to Alaska can be found on the separate hints page about Alaska.
Since Talkeetna is not directly on the Parks Highway, there are only two reasonable ways to get there:
a) by rail, because the railroad leads through Talkeetna. Speaking against this way: the strict baggage limit and the high prices of Alaska Railroad.
b) by shuttle service. There are several; links on the WWW see below. A price of US$ 80 per person round trip is considered usual. As far as we could find out, there are no scheduled buses.
Registration at the ranger station Talkeetna
The ranger station is at the end of the village. To reach it on foot: enter the village, turn left at the famous "Welcome to downtown Talkeetna" sign to the main street and trun left where nothing interesting would follow. At first the registration and payment are handled (US$ 125 per person, because $25 were already paid with the preregistration before the 60 day limit; cash or credit card). After that there is an introduction to the route and the rules at the mountain. This is meanwhile implemented as a Powerpoint presentation on a PC that is shown by a ranger, giving - depending on the alpine experience of the "clients" - more or less urgent hints. Unlike reported in earlier years, this is not a horror show but rather a well-differenciated information procedure.
Flight to the base camp
The base camp cannot be reached on foot. In May it might be possible, a one or two weeks foot hike, but the way back after the snow has melted would be very complicated. Therefore people fly from Talkeetna. There are several air transport companies, the prices don't vary much.
We had paid $275 per person for the round trip flight to the base camp. Fuel for the stove and marker wands add to that. Since we had made a reservation, we could fly immediately after the registration. In case of bad weather one might have to wait several days, since the mountains have to be passed on sight, correspondingly a queue might build up.
Arrived in the basecamp, the basecamp manager checks the permit (issued by the rangers) and the basecamp card (issued by the flight company, indicating the amounts of fuel, marker wands, and sleds paid for). The corresponding goods are given then.
Behavior at the mountain
Since Denali is besieged by 1200 people every year, most of them at the West Buttres route, one easily understands that the rangers have defined certain rules that have to obeyed in the interest keeping the mountain clean.
The most important are mentioned here:
- All garbage has to be taken out to Talkeetna again.
- Who installs a cache (this is necessary especially in the lower sections, because one cannot move the whole stuff in one time from camp to camp), buries it under at least a meter of snow. Otherwise the ravens can pillage it, spoiling the whole surroundings. The cache is marked by long bamboo wands (purchased from the flight company, e.g.) with a little flag indicating the name of the expedition and the anticipated date the cache will be removed again. Every cache has to be removed again. Who leaves things at the mountain without a proof of emergency has to pay a considerable fine.
- Camp sited are protected from stoms by snow walls. They should be about as high as the tent. For the high camp a width of at least 1/2 meter(!) is recommended, but fortunately one usually finds unused sited there.
- Every group should define a pee-place using bamboo wands, and everybody should use this place.
For the bigger things, there are toilets in the base camp, in the medical camp and in the high camp. At the other campsites, the group prepares a toilet using a plastic bag, and after leaving the camp this bag is thrown into a deep crevasse. Dont worry, it doesn't smell. It's too cold for that.
Route and anticipated time
About 3/4 of the mountaineers climb Denali via the technically easiest way, the West Buttress.
The time one spends on the normal route is mainly determined by the weather.
The average time of a successful expedition at Denali is - according to the rangers' statistics in Talkeetna - 21 days, of an unsuccessful expedition 17 days. For the West Buttress one should consider 10 to 24 days; the main problem at the mountain are the rapid weather changes, suddenly bringing very cold temperature together with strong storms.
The stages of the route:
In order to be compatible to the map, heights are given in feet(') here.
In summary, everything up to Kahiltna Horn is just hiking terrain, except for the 200 meters on the fixed ropes and a couple of steps in the traverse to Denali Pass. Of course, a good walking technique with crampons is prerequisite.
- From the base camp on SE Fork Kahiltna Glacier at 2200 m (7200') one goes down to the main stream of Kahiltna Glacier. On the flat glacier nordbound towards the mountain; the first crevasse zone is avoided on the left side, the second (at about 8000') on the right side on a somewhat steeper slope ("Ski Hill"). Again flat towards Kahiltna Pass and shortly before the Pass to the right entering a side valley, in the beginning as steep as Ski Hill (this is "Motorcycle Hill"), then flat again. Camp 11000' is situated in the last plain at the left side, before the glaclier becomes really steep.
Between base camp and camp 11000' one can pitch a tent at almost any position, provided one has checked for crevasses.
The way to camp 11000' is 19 km long and usually takes two to three days. From here, one usually continues without skis.
- A steep slope (about 30°) leads up to the divide (the northern slopes load down to Peters Glacier); the following traverse follows the northern side of a rocky hillock and re-gains the crest at 12200'. To the right, below the steep rocks of the West Buttress, there's a shallow glacier basin. The trace follows the gentle ridge and traverses below the rocks, towards a saddle between the West Buttress and the left of two glaciated hills. This is the "Windy Corner" (13200'). The trace traverses upwards below the rocks to a small glacier band which opens a way through between the rocks and the crevasse chaos underneath. Behind this passage there is a larger depression which is suited for a camp or a cache (13500'). In order to reach the large glacier plateau, one has to ascend further up to 14000', then the way to the right is free, where Medical Camp is situated (14300')
The three parts of this day (11000'-12200', 12200'-13200', 13200'-14300') take about 2 hours each.
- From the Medical Camp, the route leads northwards to a glacier slope of about 30° steepness. Further up the slope increases to 45°. There are fixed ropes, one for ascent and one for descent. Use the slope on the right side, looking in the respective direction. The ropes are about 200 m long; some sections are possibly too thick for the ascender (use prussik knot there). At 16200' the crest of the West Buttress is reached in a small saddle; possibility for a cache.
The way continues on the left (northern) side of the ridge, mostly several meters below the crest. The altitude difference is almost done at an impressive rock tower with a fixed ropes; the trace continues directly on the ridge almost at level. Where the ridge goes down a meter again, continue down left again through Rock blocks with several exposed spots (some slings for belay are found here). At the striking black rock, the traverse of the snowfield (left side of the crest) leads up to the edge, and after a couple of meters downwards, the area of the high camp (17200') is reached. Another camp site is ten minutes ahead on the next plain, where the sun lasts longer in the evening.
This stage should also take about 5 to 8 hours.
- From the high camp, the glacier-covered slope towards Denali Pass (18200') is traversed. Since several séracs have to be avoided, it can be steeper than the average of 35°. In the morning, this slope is in the shadow and therefore rather cold.
The way on to the saddle at Archdeacon's Tower (19550') is less steep again; usually people go not too far on the left side of the crest. Around the saddle, memorize the details for the way back; one can easily get too far to the left in the fog, missing the way back. Fog frequently occurs in the summit region.
After the saddle, a 20 m descent leads to the Football Field which is crossed directly towads Kahiltna Horn. The steep slope to Kahiltna Horn in unproblematic (30-35°).
The crest from Kahiltna Horn (20120' according to the map) to the main summit (20320') appears completely harmless on older photographs. At the time of our visit, it was only 10-20 cm (4-8 in.) wide on its top, with uncomfortably steep slopes at both sides. It looked definitely ugly. And, the height difference between the two "summits" is only 30 meters and not 60 as was indicated in the map.
Out summit ascent took 7 1/2 hours, and we had 2 1/2 hours down. The rangers assume a round-trip time of 8 to 18 hours from/to high camp normal, varying with time and conditions.
Literature about this topic:
- The history of all usual routes to Denali, Foraker, and Hunter is described in the book "High Alaska" by John Waterman. ISBN 0-930410-41-6
- The map "Mount McKinley 1:50000" by Bradford Washburn, issued by the Swiss Federal Topography, probably is a must for Denali climbers. The metric scale together with the contours given in feet is something one has to get used to, however.
Mid-May to mid-June is supposed to be the best time. Before, it is colder, and afterwards the weather becomes even more instable, and the snow on the lower glaciers gets wet, increasing the crevasse danger.
The weather forecast given by the rangers in Medical Camp is not too well correlated with the real weather of the next days. The Medical Camp is higher than (except for Mount Foraker) all other mountains in 100 km distance. Therefore, storms can hit the mountains with all their power. The weather forecase can warn of bad weather approaching, but an exact cloud and precipitaton forecast is hardly possible, because the mountain has a very strong local influence on the weather. The strongly glaciated environment also often seems to cause something like a freezing of the moisture of the incoming air, creating fog-like clouds that reach up to 3500-4500 m altitude.
Temperatures are convenient during the day on Kahiltna glacier; during night (as far as one can call it night) -10 to -15°C. At camp 11000' it becomes distinctly colder for the first time, at night here it is often -20°C. At Medical Camp the nights are often -25°C, and during the day it is not much warmer in the shadow. At High Camp we regularly had -35°C or less at night.
The wind was rather weak during our ascent, never more than 70 km/h. But even that would be dangerous at the exposed spots with a heavy backpack.
It is said that storms of over 100 miles per hour occur at the high camp. In those cases, of course one has to hold out and hopefully the snow walls around the tent are high and solid enough.
Equipment that I deem special about Denali:
- Lamp etc. - can stay at home. There is 24 hours daylight from mid-May on.
- Shoes - only the very best. We had Everest One Sport, they were ok. Of course it depends on your personal feeling of cold, but I believe nobody should come to Denali with leather boots.
- Sleeping bag - it can become cold, so don't save money here.
In case of bad weather you have to spend some time there. We never measured the temperature inside the tent, but outside you regularly find -25°C in Medical Camp, and in High Camp temperature dropped below -30°C every night, once to -37°C. All this are measured temperatures without windchill or so.
The condensed water and ice in the tent makes everything wet with time, so a sleeping bag should also remain confortable in that case.
- Tent - we had a normal and a more modest tent with us, for two persons. A Vaude Space I for the lower camps and and for our time in the Medical Camp, and a Vaude K2 Peak for the high camp. We were very content with the first one; the high camp tent was a little small on the long term. But having two tents is probably not a bad idea. One can stay for some days in high camp waiting for good weather, but if that doesn't come a comfortable tent in Medical Camp is nice to have for recovering for the next attempt.
- Rope etc. - the crevasse danger seemed not extremely high to us, mid to end of May. For weight reasons, we had a 25 m half-rope with us, but we never had to use it. For the fixed ropes in the ascent from Medical Camp to West Buttress, an ascender is useful. Instead of the figure of eight, for the descent one can also use the biner brake". The terrain is not too critical.
- Harness, belay material - the "usual" stuff for a moderate glacier tour, mainly for crevasse rescur. Ascender for the fixed ropes. There are no rock climbing pitches at West Buttress that would need particular belay, if you are well used to difficulty PD (Swiss rating).
- Marker flags for caches - you buy the marker wands at your flight enterprise. For clearly marking your stuff, you should attach e.g. a piece of marker tape (from the homeworking store) and write your name on it. Therefore: Take marker tape and a waterproof pen.
- Marker flags for the route - we didn't need any, but we had taken some small promotional flags with us in order to mark the route. Get them e.g. from events whereever, e.g. Coca-Cola, travel agency etc.
- Stove - take a good stove for liquid fuel. We had an MSR XGK. Annie in the basecamp gives you white gas in 1 gallon cans (3.8 liters).
For the high camp and as an emergency substitute, we had a gas (butane/propane) stove with us which we used in high camp. A gas stove is better suited for cooking inside the tent (with sufficient ventilation, of course) than a liquid gas flame-thrower.
During twelve days on the mountain, we (being two persons) spent 1.9 liters of white gas (for 9 nights) and a 400 ml propane/butane cartridge (for 3 nights in high camp). But we usually don't eat a lot, and our climb was much faster than we had expected.
- Skis - In the lower regions, where long distances are to be covered, the provide a certain advantage, especially on the way back. Above camp 11000' one probably profits only in case of much fresh snow, I believe.
- Sleds - The amount of baggage for three to four weeks cannot be but into a single backpack. Therefore most people use sleds to attach part of the stuff. We loaned our sleds from the aviation enterprise, those are quite simple plastic sleds. Take strings and small biners to attach them to your harness with you. Skiing with attached sled it not a big pleasure, anyway.
Important hint: To make the sled slower on the descent, you should wrap some small rope once or twice (depending on rope thickness) over the sled's surface perpendicular to the sled's motion direction. Otherwise the descent is a ride to hell.
- Snow saw. I almost would have forgotten the most important. A handsaw is ok, but you can also buy a dedicated snow saw. Without a saw, you cannot cut blocks which you need for the wall.
- Food: I would take muesli bars, chocolate and sweets from Germany. Freeze-dried high camp food is - as almost everything - very expensive in Alaska. We couldn't find any smashed potatoes with milk (that could be prepared just with water) anywhere in the supermarkets.
It is forbidden to import meat and fresh fruit and vegetable into the U.S.A.; wrong declaration entering the U.S. can cause quite some troube. We had checked the form correctly, were only asked about fresh meat or fruit and had no trouble with our 10 kg of food. You find some information about the customs regulations of the U.S. at the U.S. embassy in Germany.
Appendix: Short temperature overview
The following table gives an overview about the lowest temperatures that we encountered
while we were on our way. These are not the minimum night temperatures (which are lower). You also find the estimated maximum wind speed for the corresponding days.
|Date||Stage||min. Temp. °C||Wind km/h|
|16.05.2000||Base Camp - Ski Hill||-12||10|
|17.05.2000||Ski Hill - 11000'||-13||30|
|18.05.2000||11000' - Depot - 11000'||-18||60|
|20.05.2000||11000' - Medical Camp - 11000'||-11||30|
|21.05.2000||11000' - Medical Camp||-20||10|
|23.05.2000||Medical Camp - High Camp||-21||20|
|25.05.2000||High Camp - Denali - High Camp||-35||30|
|26.05.2000||High Camp - Medical Camp||-25||70|
|27.05.2000||Medical Camp - Base Camp||-18||0|
Appendix: Our times
|Base Camp - Ski Hill||6 h|
|Ski Hill - 11000||5 1/2 h|
|11000 - Medical Camp||4 to 6 h|
|Medical Camp - High Camp||6 1/2 h|
|High Camp - Denali||7 1/2 h|
|Denali - High Camp||2 1/2 h|
|High Camp - Medical Camp||2 h|
|Medical Camp - Base Camp||8 h|
Appendix: What did it cost
At the end, find here a short cost table, per person.
Those were our expenses until our return to Anchorage. The cost of the complete trip was of course higher, as we traveled through Alaska for two weeks, rented a car etc. The amount mentioned above should, however, be sufficient for Denali alone. Our food supplies would easily have lasted 1 1/2 weeks longer; we gave away most of it before descending from Medical Camp.
|Amount||in DM (US$ rate 2.00 DM)
|Food, purchased in Germany||DM 50||50|
|Medicine, purchased in Germany||DM 30||30|
|Equipment, purchased in Germany||DM 25||25|
|High camp food etc., purchased in Germany||DM 75||75|
|National Park Service, Denali Mountaineering Fee||$ 150||300|
|Talkeetna Shuttle||$ 80||160|
|Doug Geeting Aviation||$ 281.25||562.50|
|Flug FRA-LAS-SEA-ANC-FRA||DM 1500||1500|
|Hostel (3 nights)||$ 45||90|
|Food purchase for expedition, Anchorage||$ 23||46|
|Food purchase Anchorage||$ 15||30|
|Maps, postcards||$ 11||22|
|Bicycle rent, Anchorage||$ 5||10|
WWW-Links about Denali
Separately mentioning the enterprises we used, doesn't mean that the others would be worse. We chose those enterprises, were content with them and can recommend them. We simply don't have any experience with the others.
The official site of the Talkeetna ranger station, with the application form and the mountaineering statistics of the last years
Ken Baynes page about Denali: A very good information page for mountaineers at Denali. We found a lot of interesting things there.
- Transportation to Talkeetna
- Flight to base camp. Don't forget to ask about the additional services: cost of fuel, sled included, bunkhouse in Talkeetna with how many nights included....
Other Denali trip reports on the WWW
The link list above will not be updated in future. Newer Denali reports will then be found in my Link List under "Expeditions/7 Summits", "Alaska" or "Personal Homepages". That page will also be updated in regular intervals.
- Isabelle Meyer: diverse Expeditionen und Fernreisen: Grönland-Durchquerung, Elbrus, Bolivien, Mt Mc Kinley, Huascaran, Aconcagua, Gasherbrum 2, Baffin Island u.v.a.m.
- The 7 summits pages by Harry Kikstra (NL)
- Jaime Viñals El Desafío 7 cumbres del mundo
- 1999 Denali Expedition The Bluegrass Express
- Denali 1998 trip report by Scott W. Kinkele
- Denali climb by three Orange county climbers 1999 (with useful route description photos)
- Denali trip 1998, Ken Leiden
- Denali (Mt McKinley)Expedition, May 1996 by Eric Keppel
- Climbing and Mountaineering in Alaska, Photos of Denali (Mt. McKinley) and Mt. Foraker, by Phillip Lee
- High Alaska Magazine Mountaineering in Alaska
- expedition to Mt Mc Kinley (Denali) in Tuan Luong's mountain gallery
© 2000 Hartmut Bielefeldt
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Last updated January 16, 2001 by Hartmut Bielefeldt