How to Hike Mount McKinley

How to Hike Mount McKinley
At 20,320 feet high, Mt. McKinley, or Denali, as most mountaineers call it, is the highest peak in North America and one of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent, making it a popular mountain to climb. Though its altitude isn't as high as many in the Himalaya Mountains, its northern latitude and lower barometric pressure make it feel 2,000 feet higher than its actual elevation. It is also subject to extreme cold. Noted Himalayan climber Dougal Haston, commenting on the weather and cold, wrote in the 1977 American Alpine Journal, "We were drawing heavily on all our Himalayan experience just to survive." The standard route of ascent for Denali is the West Buttress, which ascends 13,000 feet from a landing zone on the Kahiltna Glacier. Other popular routes include the Muldrow Glacier on the north side and the West Rib.


Difficulty: Challenging

Things You’ll Need:
  • Permit
  • Double plastic mountaineering boots
  • Insulated overboots
  • Crampons
  • Expedition weight long underwear
  • 300-weight fleece jacket and pants
  • Goretex Jacket and pants
  • Heavy down overcoat
  • 2 heavy hats
  • Mittens and gloves
  • Glacier glasses or ski goggles
  • Four-season tent
  • Sleeping bag rated to -30 or better
  • Sleeping pad
  • White gas stove (MSR XGK or equivalent)
  • White gas
  • Food
  • Toilet paper and toilet kit including hand disinfectant
  • Climbing harness
  • 2 snow pickets
  • 2 snow deadmen
  • 2 ice screws
  • 50 or 60 meter single climbing rope
  • Ascender equipped for crevasse rescue
  • 70-cm ice axe
  • Adjustable ski poles
  • Skis with Alpine touring bindings and climbing skins or mountaineering snowshoes
  • Expedition size backpack
  • Expedition sled with harness to pack
Step 1
Secure your permit for Mt. McKinley (see the Resource 1 link). Pay the required $200 nonrefundable special use fee before going to the mountain. Pay a strict 60-day preregistration, with a $25 nonrefundable deposit, first. Upon arriving in Talkeetna, you must pay the rest of the special-use fee at the ranger station.
Step 2
Arrange for a glacier flight, if attempting the standard route. Bush pilots fly you to the landing strip base camp at 7,200 feet. (See Resource 2 for authorized air taxis.) As a bonus, the flight services take care of getting white gas to the glacier; get it from their stash upon arrival in base camp. Rent radios from the flight services so you can be in contact with the Park Ranger at base camp.

Make the 19-mile hike in from Wonder Lake, if attempting the Muldrow Glacier, as airplanes are not allowed to land in Denali National Park.
Step 3
Land on the glacier and set up a camp. Plan to spend one night at base camp to start acclimatizing.
Step 4
Put overboots on over your plastic boots, as the extreme cold is often more than even plastic mountaineering boots can handle. Pack as much gear as you can in the sled, and carry the rest in your pack.
Step 5
Put on your climbing harness and set up the rope for glacier travel. With a party of two, travel 75 to 100 feet apart, each carrying the extra rope in a coil for Z-pulley crevasse rescue and the snow deadmen and pickets on your harness so that you can build an anchor if your partner falls into a crevasse. Ski or snowshoe across the Kahiltna to the next camp, at 7,800 at the entrance to the Northeast fork of the Kahiltna. Stay roped through this section of glacier. A route is usually marked, though if a storm has come through before you leave, you may need to route-find. Pay careful attention for crevasses.
Step 6
Set camp. You will need to build snow walls at least three feet high around your tent, in case of bad weather. Inflate the sleeping pad and put the sleeping bag on it. Cook food on the stove in the vestibule of your tent, or, ideally, outside of it.
Step 7
Ski or snowshoe up Ski Hill to the next camp at 9,700 feet. Again, pitch your tent and build snow walls around it.
Step 8
Carry half your food, fuel, and gear to the 11,000 foot camp. Return to the 9,700 foot camp and sleep.
Step 9
Move the rest of your gear to the 11,000 foot camp and set camp. Stash skis or snowshoes at this camp to pick up on the return trip.
Step 10
Do an equipment carry with half the food and fuel to Windy Corner at 13,400 feet and cache the gear. Return to the 11,000 foot camp to sleep.
Step 11
Move your tent, sleeping gear and rest of the equipment to the 14,200 foot camp and pitch your tent.
Step 12
Return to Windy Corner to pick up the rest of your gear. Spend an extra day resting at the 14,200 foot camp.
Step 13
Climb high, sleep low the rest of the way up the mountain. There are fixed lines on the headwall above the 14,200 foot camp to the ridge at 16,200 feet that facilitate moving gear. Most climbers stash gear at 16,200 feet and set a final camp at 17,200 feet at the base of Denali Pass and ascend the summit in a long push from there the following day.
Step 14
Descend from the summit to 14,200 feet, first picking up your camp at 17,200 feet. Sleep. Descend from the 14,200 foot camp to the landing strip, picking up skis at 11,000 feet and skiing or snowshoeing out.

Tips & Warnings

The climbing season lasts from May to early July. Early season, the crevasses are better covered with snow, but June has more stable weather. By early July, the snow bridges across the crevasses are prone to collapsing.
As fuel is heavy, it is best to bring food that needs only hot water to be added, instead of requiring extensive cooking.
Altitude sickness is common on Mt. McKinley. The ascent route should have plenty of carry-high, sleep-low days to acclimatize. Pay attention to the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, such as nausea and headache, and be prepared to descend if you suffer from them.
Though there have been several high-profile helicopter rescues on Denali, every climber should be aware that self-rescue is the best option. Do not count on a rescue if you get in trouble.

Article Written By Candace Horgan

Candace Horgan has worked as a freelance journalist for more than 12 years. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including the "Denver Post" and "Mix." Horgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and history.

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