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The Works: Climb Mt. McKinley

Experience the nighttime sky from 20,320 feet up majestic Mt. McKinley -- but first read our guide to the trip.

©Steve Howe

The Great One At 20,320 feet, it’s North America’s alpha–and for scale and grandeur, no Lower 48 peak even comes close. If you make the top, you’ll experience the warm midnight alpenglow of the lower glaciers, the tent-ripping blizzards of high camp, and the blue, biting-cold shade of the morning’s summit climb–and fully test your limits, preparation, and smarts. McKinley is attainable for fit hikers who have their glacier-travel and winter-camping skills dialed.

Weather Keyword: extreme. Baking sun on the lower glaciers, gale-force winds and snow up high. On a typical night at 17,200 feet, it’s -30°F with 50 mph winds.

High and cold Globetrotting mountaineers call McKinley the world’s coldest high-altitude peak, and the low barometric pressure on top (due to its latitude and the Earth’s spin) makes it feel like 24,000 feet in the Himalaya. You’ll find open crevasses at lower altitudes, steep ice and precipitous ridges higher up.

The haul You’ll spend up to 3 weeks pulling a sled with 120 to 140 pounds of gear and doing double-carries on snowshoes or crampons.

Season Go May through July from Kahiltna Glacier, McKinley’s basecamp. May trips are colder, but snowstorms and people are fewer.

Timing Most people take 16-21 days to climb the route, and 2-3 days for descent. Storms can delay fly-in and eat up mountain time, so don’t scrimp.

Readiness You’ll need lots of aerobic training; focus on uphill runs, cycling, stair-stepping, and fast hiking with heavy loads. Know crevasse rescue, crampon use, fixed-line ascent, ice-axe self-arrest, and avalanche-hazard evaluation.

Warmth Dress like an Everest climber: thick down parka and mitts, puffy pants, double boots, overboots, waterproof/breathable shell, and goggles. Take handwarmer packets to put in your mittens on summit day. Pack a -20°F to -40°F sleeping bag and a thick full-length self-inflating pad.

Basecamp From Anchorage, shuttle to your Talkeetna Air Taxi service for the flight to the Kahiltna.

Acclimatize The rule: Climb high, sleep low. Move gear up to the next camp in 1- or 2-day trips, return for a night, then move your camp up. Stay hydrated and eat well; if you’re feeling lousy, descend, rest, and return.

Water and fuel You’ll have to melt snow or ice for every drop. Take an MSR XGK stove, repair kit, and 6 liters of fuel per person.

Grub Use dehydrated and freeze-dried food when needed, but bring filling, high-energy chocolate, cheese, and salami. You’ll want heavy, hearty foods down low and nutritious, easy-to-cook-and-digest meals up high.

Permits Register at least 60 days in advance; permits are $200. www.nps.gov/dena/home/mountaineering

Reading Pick up Denali’s West Buttress, by Colby Coombs.

Outfitters Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (www.rmiguides.com) is among the peak’s numerous qualified guide services.

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