Denali, also known as Mt McKinley, is North America’s highest mountain at 20,320 feet (6,194 meters). Located just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, Denali’s environment is an eternal winter with possible summer temperatures of 50 below 0. Due to the troposphere being thinner around the arctic, the barometric pressure on the mountain is significantly low. This is said to be a major reason why an unusual amount of climbers succumb to altitude problems. Standing on the summit of Denali at 20,320 feet is thought to have the same effect on the body as being 23,000 feet in the Himalayas. To add more to the challenge there are no porters available to cut some slack for climbers. All expedition members must carry their own gear and a month’s worth of food, usually around 300lbs between a climber and his partner. One last challenge of Denali is something I experienced firsthand; the mountain’s violent weather and powerful subzero winds.
While climbing Denali, the low camps are by far the warmest parts of the mountain. Expect to encounter deep snow and climbing gentle slopes, but with lots of distance to cover. Although the weather and terrain is the not as harsh as higher up on the mountain, the sled pulling combined with heaviest packs you’ll have on the expedition will balance the challenge.
Reaching Advanced Base Camp is similar to travel through the low camps. Heavy backpacks combined with the use of sleds is still the method of travel. Although the distance between the camps is shorter, the terrain is much steeper with some challenges such as Ski & Motorcycle hill. Advanced Base Camp is where climbers will spend the majority of their time, hoping they get that window of opportunity to move on the high camp and later summit.
Spectacular views and intense weather, the high camp is beautiful but brutal. Reaching high camp is the most technical part of climbing Denali. The ascent begins with fixed ropes up 50 degrees of ice right outside Advanced Base Camp. Afterwards, climbers will actually cross the West Buttress which is where this route gets its name from.
Reaching Denali’s summit from high camp includes several technical challenges and difficult terrain. This is likely to be the coldest and riskiest day of the entire climb. After weeks of excitement and boredom, hard work and anxiety, the final push to the summit is what it’s all about.