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Climbing Denali: The West Buttress Route

Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Denali

Washburn Route
20,320 ft.
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Denali is the Athabaskan Indian name for Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Many climbers have the misconception that climbing Denali is needed to gain more experience before attempting the higher mountains in the Andes and the Himalaya. While expedition experience on Denali is valuable for this goal, mountaineering experience on high mountains in warmer, more benign climates is necessary before attempting Denali!

I underestimated Denali until I climbed it. Before this, I climbed in the Andes, Himalaya, and Karakoram, having the misconception that Denali had to be an easy peak. After all, almost 500 “weekend warriors” climb to the top of the continent each year. Also, a 20,000-foot mountain is minor in the Andes, and barely worth mentioning in the Himalaya or Karakoram. On Denali, I had to draw on my entire Andean and Himalayan experience and I felt lucky to have returned and extraordinarily lucky to have summitted.

There is no other mountain in the world like Denali. It is bigger than the great peaks of the Himalaya and Karakoram. Mt. Everest, for example, has a vertical rise of 12,000 feet from the Tibetan plateau, but Denali is 18,000 feet above the Alaskan tundra. And Mt. Everest is approximately 4 1/2° of latitude north of the Tropic of Cancer, but Denali is 3 1/2° south of the Arctic Circle. This far northern position not only makes Denali bitterly cold but the atmosphere is thinner at this sub-polar latitude than that encountered at similar elevations in temperate or tropical latitudes. And Denali’s proximity to the Aleutian Islands, “the birthplace of winds,” gives it severe weather. Be sure that you are up to this challenge. It is a tough peak. Don’t underestimate Denali.

The standard route on Denali is the West Buttress, or as I prefer to call it, “the Washburn Route,” named after its discoverer, Bradford Washburn. It involves 15.5 miles and about 13,500 feet of gain, and the total time required to summit and return is from fourteen to thirty days. Approximately 80 percent of all the climbers on Denali are on the Washburn Route, and it is not uncommon to have more than 300 climbers on this route at one time. It is a recurring misconception among climbers, especially those who have never been on the route, that it is a crowded, dirty, littered slog to the apex of North America. But the majority of the thousands of mountaineers who have followed this route have done a remarkable job in keeping it clean. The route is a slog during the week-long climb up to 15,000 feet. But above this level, the route becomes aesthetic. The ice wall between 15,000 and 16,000 feet is challenging, ascending the exposed crest of the upper West Buttress is like being on the summit all day, and the route from 17,000 feet to the summit is intricate. The Washburn Route is a classic.

Permits: Organizing an expedition to Denali is a daunting task. Not only is the climbing hard, but one must jump through several hoops to obtain a climbing permit from the National Park Service. Even though the headquarters of Denali National Park and Preserve is located at Denali Park on the north side of the mountain, all mountaineering activities are managed from the National Park Service ranger station in Talkeetna. Registration forms, and the authoritative booklet Mountaineering: Denali National Park and Preserve may obtained from the Talkeetna Ranger Station.

Special Considerations: It is mandatory that all expedition members attempting Denali (and Mount Foraker) pre-register with the Denali National Park and Preserve at least sixty days prior to the start of their climb. Those who are not pre-registered are prohibited to attempt Denali and Mount Foraker; no exceptions.

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In addition to the pre-registration requirement, Denali National Park and Preserve also charges a Mountaineering Special Use Fee of US$150.00 for each expedition member attempting Denali or Mount Foraker. This is not rescue insurance. This money is used by the Denali National Park and Preserve to operate its mountaineering management program.

All expedition correspondence with the Talkeetna Ranger Station must be handled by one person, and this should ideally be the leader. And each expedition must have its own name, and preferably, this expedition name should be short and distinct. Each individual climber must complete his or her own pre-registration form identifying his or her significant previous climbs (hint: emphasize altitude), in addition to name, address, emergency notification, etc. The expedition leader then collects all of the registration forms into one package, encloses a non-refundable and non-transferable deposit of US$25.00 for each expedition member, and sends it to the Talkeetna Ranger Station. Personal checks are not accepted for the deposit, but Visa, MasterCard, or a money order made payable to “Denali National Park and Preserve” will be accepted. The balance of US$125.00 (payable by credit card, money order, traveler’s check, or United States currency) is due when the expedition checks in at the Talkeetna Ranger Station. One new member of the expedition may be added or substituted later. This new member must pay the deposit and submit the registration form at least 30 days before the start of the expedition.

All Denali and Mt. Foraker expeditions must check in at the Talkeetna Ranger Station in person before the start of the climb, even those who plan to approach from the north. Mountaineering Rangers will brief the climbers on the planned route, outline the conditions on the mountain, ensure that the party’s equipment and supplies are adequate (by inquiry, not inspection), review safety and high altitude medical information, and offer sincere, level-headed advice.

The last step is to check in again with the Talkeetna Ranger Station upon the completion of the expedition. Notes will be made on those who summitted, and/or reasons for failure, as well as accidents, injuries, or illnesses.

Guidebook: Denali Climbing Guide, by R.J. Secor. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 1998. $16.95.

Contact: Denali National Park and Preserve, (907) 733-2231; www.nps.gov/dena/mountain/talkeet.htm.

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