Climbing Alaska's 'Great One': Denali National Park

Do you have what it takes to climb Alaska's Denali? Find out with our mountaineer's guide.
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Do you have what it takes to climb Alaska's Denali? Find out with our mountaineer's guide.

The Northwest Buttress is a long, isolated route but it offers challenging climbing leading to the beautiful summit of the North Peak. This route ascends the west buttress of the North Peak. After the approach, it covers 9 miles with approximately 12,000 feet of gain to the summit of the North Peak. Six camps have been placed on this route, and it may take from 15 to 31 days round trip. It is commonly approached from Kahiltna Pass and/or Mt. Capps, located at the head of the Kahiltna Glacier. Descend to the 7,500 foot level of Peters Basin. (The guide Gary Bocarde describes Peters Basin as, "...a very holy glacier and I mean very, very holy!" In other words there are lots of holes, i.e., crevasses.) After crossing the glacier climb a snow couloir, and then move to the right across a small triangular plateau at the 9,000 foot level. The route then zigzags up to the western ridge to the 10,500 foot outer edge of the Northwest Buttress. Continue up the ridge, which becomes a corniced coxcomb above 10,500 feet.

Beyond the coxcomb is the first of three rock obstacles encountered along the Northwest Buttress. The first is the Abruzzi Ridge, bypassed on its right side for approximately 1,000 feet to the right hand side of Pyramid I. This cliff consists of snow and ice over poor reddish-brown slate, with the steepest (but fun) climbing near the top of the pyramid, at an elevation of 12,500 feet. The route continues up the crest to the base of the next impediment, Pyramid II, at 13,100 feet. Bypass this by traversing to the left, across a large, sloping cirque to a broad snow couloir (avalanche danger!) that leads back up to the crest of the Northwest Buttress at an elevation of 14,200 feet, well beyond the top of Pyramid II. Continue up the crest of the ridge to 14,800 feet, at the base of the last major rock problem.

In contrast to the rotten rock encountered on the lower Northwest Buttress, this rock consists of large blocks of frost shattered pink and orange granite. The climbing is low class 5 over its lower portion and the upper part is made up of steps every thirty to forty feet, ending at 15,600 feet. Continue ascending the ridge that leads northeast to Point 16,620 feet, and continue up more steep snow and ice along the crest of the Northwest Buttress to the plateau that is southwest of the summit of the North Peak. Climb to the beautiful summit of the North Peak via its west ridge.

The North Peak can be traversed by descending to Denali Pass; the ledge system that leads down across the southeast face of Point 18,990 (the west summit of the North Peak) is not readily apparent from above, but it can be found. Another option is to descend the Northwest Buttress route to the 16,600 foot level. Head south to Uemura Basin, south of the Northwest Buttress and north of the West Buttress of the South Peak. From there, it is relatively easy to meet the Washburn Route along the West Buttress. One can either continue down the Washburn Route to Kahiltna Base, or ascend the upper part of the Washburn Route to the top of the South Peak, the true summit of Denali.

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.

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.