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Mt Mc Kinley: a beginner's trip report

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  1. Introduction
  2. Weather: Mount McKinley is as warm as the Alps
  3. The big mountain: some hard realities
  4. Crevasses : big but not open ??
  5. West Buttress (WB) : an easy route, which needs some care
  6. My route considerations: upper or bottom Rib ?
  7. Day after day
  8. More pratical considerations (books...)
  9. Cost, access...
  10. Gear list
  11. Conclusion
  12. A few rssources
  13. Acknowledgments

  West Face of Mount McKinley.                       A
                                            ______,-' .::\__
                                 _,--------'      (_    .:::\__
                 B   /\_       _/           :::.    \_   ':'   '-,_
               _/\-^/::.'-,C__/     :::.   H ::       \_           \ F
         -^-,_/ "-_/::::  \_         ::       :.        \___       .\
 ,--^^--/          .:::      \        :.       :            \_    .::\
/ .:   |     .:   .::        _)        :             J       :\     ::\
  :::       .:           _,-' |                              .:\ I  .::\
 .:                  _,-' .::: \                 .::           :\_    ::|_
                  E|'  .::  :.  |                  ::     ::\  .::\_   .::\
                 ,-^-,::.    ::. \                  '     '::\   .::\-,  ::\
               _/    \  ::.       |                      .:'::\    '::\   -'\
            ,-'       \            \                         ::\    .::\_  ::
           /       :   \            \_                     .::::'_     ::-_
         ,'   .    ::   \                                    .::::^      ::-_
        /    :     :     \        G
       |    ::      ::    \  D 
     _/    .:'                

based on a post by             A : South Summit. (6194m)  F : Cassin Ridge.
Steven M Sullivan              B : North Summit. (5935m)  G : Camp 14300.
(author uncertain)             C : Denali Pass.           H : Messner Couloir.
                               D : Windy Corner.          I : The West Rib.
                               E : The West Buttress.     J : Orient Express

[this was made in the good old pre-WWW days of Usenet]


I was in Alaska from mid-May to early June 1993. I climbed Mount McKinley (20320, 6200m) partly by the West Rib (a technical route) solo and got down by West Buttress. This trip report is just meant to present a few practical facts about the mountain, during the time I was there. It is restricted to "technical" details and is not a personal account, and does not even attempt to convey the emotions, silences, immensity, and splendor which are part of best remembrances of any McKinley climb. A second part will be devoted to remarks on some gear, a third part on photography.

Weather: Mount McKinley is as warm as the Alps

This year, while the beginning of May was very cold, from mid May to early June the weather was exceptionnaly warm for Alaska. As I wanted to be certain about the temperature, I brought an electronic thermometer with a remote sensor and memory. The lowest temperature that I was able to measure was about -15F (-25C). I would say that in the Alps, at the same time and at comparable elevations, the temperatures are approximatively the same. This was confirmed by climbers on lower peaks (Hunter and Huttington) who complained about the poor snow/ice conditions. The maximum that I had to wear was: While climbing, except on the summit day, I used only thin underwear, shell bibs, and sometimes vapor barrier or shell. I had to carry almost all the time my clothes instead of wearing them. For instance, I never used my thick underwear, heavy mittens, and down parka (though it was a light model), not to speak of storm gear. I really missed sun hat, and ultra-light and white clothes. The solution would have been to move at night, which was that I did on descent.

I did not meet any really bad storm, only five days of marginal weather with some snow falls. Actually, I was stormed at 15900 (4900m) on the Rib during one very unpleasant night, which was sufficient for me to realize that it was better to stay at 14300 (4400m) waiting the for windless days. The 14300 (4400m) camp is well sheltered and it is easy to dig a hole, whereas the snow is frozen hard on upper camps of the Rib.

The big mountain: some hard realities

The main problems on this mountain have only a little to do with climbing:

Backpacking: my skills are quite low in this matter, and I have found that setting and breaking camp and cooking takes hours and hours. I think also that I didn't eat enough, as I used only about 2/3 of the 4000 cal I planned to used daily. Actually more time seems to be spend by anyone (except the folks on the most technical routes) backpacking than climbing, especially since you cannot climb as fast as you want due to altitude.

Ferrying loads: I have found it painful to move 100 lbs (45 kg) the first days, and also I found that to climb with a heavy pack removes partly the enjoyment of it. On technical parts, finding a place to take it off without losing one's balance can be a problem, too. Of course soloing doesn't help, as there is no one to share collective gear with.

Altitude: I was very surprised to get mild altitude sickness at 14300 (4400m), since I have slept several times at a comparable elevation in the Alps during week-end trips without any problems. I just took a few days rests and I was fine again. I was also very surprised to see that I had to take a rest between each 10 steps and breathe heavily at altitudes above 18000 (5500m). I had never experienced such a diminution of my capacities. It is sometimes said that due to the obvate shape of the earth and rotation the atmosphere is a little thinner over the artic or near arctic regions, and several people, including Doug Scott, have compared Mt Kinley with a 24000 ft peak. The thing which makes me wonder is that if it is really the case, one should be able to measure that with the altimeter. I don't remember having had to do a lot of altitude readjustments.

Crevasses : big but not open ??

I have not found that the crevasse danger is extremely high, although this may be deceptive, because there are actually crevasses everywhere (including slopes such as Denali pass). When going up, as I had heard about high danger on lower glaciers, I roped up with a team until the 14300 (4400m) camp. I saw plenty of people traveling unroped, which I would not recommend to do during hot hours of the day.

I did not make arrangements in Talkeetna. Rather, after landing at the airstrip, I hung around for a couple of hours, asking each party who appeared to be departing whether they would accomodate me. I eventually found a party of three climbers.

The only three places that seemed dangerous to me were right after the airstrip, W of Mount Frances, at about 8000 (2400m) before the NE fork, and after Windy Corner. I don't want to mean that there are no crevasses elsewhere, but just that one is probably not very likely to have a big snow bridge collapse under one's weight elsewhere. Stepping through a snow bridge can occur everywhere, does generally not lead to crevasse fall and often can even be avoided by carefull watching. This danger was probably minimal during the period where I was, because it is the period of the year where the snow bridges are the thickest. However, I have heard that a woman did a crevasse fall at 8000 (2400m) while being on skis, just after someone told their party to rope. It is generally agreed that crevasses are not especially dangerous above 14300 (4400m). At the descent, I roped up only to Windy corner, and traveled from 11000 (3340m) to base during the night. Everything was frozen hard. Rangers told me that the only people who had problems with crevasses where: foreigners (I am wondering why), unroped, traveling by day.

Northeast fork of Kahilna (you have to travel it to access lower W Rib) seemed more dangerous. I have met a team at 14300 (4400m) which set up a cache, and then got down to start W Rib from the bottom. To my surprise, I met them again going back from 11000 (3340m) to 14300 (4400m) on W Buttress, after they found snow bridges to be too weak for their taste on NE fork. I did not even attempt to travel it alone.

West Buttress (WB) : an easy route, which needs some care

I insisted on getting down this route to see how it looked, and also for safety. The cost was just to having to lug all my gear until the summit plateau. The same day than me, during his summit day, a climber got killed while downclimbing Orient express (he was an extremely nice guy, I met him in Anchorage just before the climb). As he was carrying all the gear, the two other members of his team could not set up belays and reached their high camp back at 5.30am.

Until 16000 WB is almost a walk-up, though there are a few exposed slopes from 11000 (3340m) to 14300 (4400m) which require some attention. Under the pass at 16200, there are two fixed lines, on a slope which is no more than 40. The buttress itself is very beautiful and is probably problematic with high winds. I have found that the most delicate part was to get down Denali Pass. The slope itself is moderately steep (40-45) but it is a traverse down with very narrow steps, where you have sometimes to put one foot right toe-to-hell before the other, which is an highly unusual position for an ice climber. It is the only part of the route where an ice axe is needed, (the steepest sections on the buttress have fixed rope). Above the pass, the view is not very great until the summit ridge because you are on a plateau. Note that exactly at the time I was on the mountain, the WB was successfully climbed by a blind woman, Joan Phelps from Anchorage (She arrived to the summit a couple hours after me), and her two sons, an achievement to which mine cannot by any means be even compared.

Normally you can bring as many supplies as you want, and just wait for a 2-day window to go to 17200 (5300m) and then to the summit. The upper camps are quite bad in case of storms, and if you stay there too long, I understand that the only thing that you want is to get down, but the 14300 (4400m) camp is remarkably sheltered, and I don't see what can prevent someone to wait here for a week. Successful parties in the early May just did, whereas climbers lacking patience went down. The key point to any McKinley expedition is probably patience (it was also the reason why I did not complete the integral WR). However in some bad years, waiting even one week might not be enough, and after a while, you might run out of food.

My route considerations: upper or bottom Rib ?

My first plan was to go up on West Rib (WR) and down by WB. I was told by so many climbers that without pre-acclimatization on WB it would be a kind of gamble that I decided to go to the 14300 (4400m) camp and then see. When I was at 14300 (4400m), I took the cut-off to go on the Rib from there, because: Upper WR has mainly snow climbing, barely mixed, the most interesting part being between 15900 (4900m) and 16900 (5200m). The view is always really great. Now that I realize how great the conditions were, I regret not to have tried to spend a couple of days more to go on NE fork and complete the integral Rib.

Day after day

May 14 - 16. After waiting one day at the Base, I find a team of Canadians to travel glaciers with at the end of the afternoon. We move from Base to 11000 (3340m) in two days and half, dragging heavy sleds and carrying heavy packs. I find it really hard. Great weather, it is too hot on the glacier. I have the feeling that the mountain is really big and realize what a 12000 (3700m) vertical elevation is.

17 - 18. We do a double carry to 14300 (4400m) using only packs, and leave sleds, snowshoes, and some food at 11000 (3340m).

19 - 22. Rest days, due to mild altitude sickness (probably developed on strenuous effort on the two previous days - we took only 3h up at each time- and insufficient hydratation) and degradation of weather. The team I was with decides to go up on WB. At 14300 (4400m), with climbers of all nationnalities everywhere, and frequent helicopter interventions, meteo information board, it looks like Chamonix, except that there are tents instead of houses. I feel at home.

23 - 24. The meteo promises good weather for 3 days, the rangers say "Go for it, dudes". I move to 15900 (4900m) on WR. During the night, storm with high winds, on the morning, I cannot get my stove to work perfectly, and I see lots of clouds on the SE side of the mountain, so I decide to back to 14300 (4400m). The 3 days window turned out to be a day and half one only.

25 - 27. Snow falls, but temps remains high. Clearing the last day, with still very high winds up high. I remain at 14300 (4400m) waiting for a calm.

28. I move to Balcony Camp at 16900 (5200m) on WR. The trail has been completely blown by wind, trailbreaking alone to 15900 (4900m) is strenuous, and I can see a 4 man team use the trail to move effortlessly one hour and half after me. But at the camp I am rewarded with a most beautiful and calm evening.

29. Altitude. After 18000 (5500m), I realize that if I tried to go to the summit and down the same day, due to my fatigue my safety margin would be very thin. Sleeping higher would be likely to induce AMS. Trusting the clear sky, I set up a camp on a small ledge at about 18500 (5600m)

30. I leave at least my pack at the junction of WR and WB. Summit 20320 (6200m), and descent to the 17200 (5300m) camp on WB.

31 - June 1 - June 2. Descent to 14300 (4400m), 11000 (3340m), Base. From 15400 to 14300 (4400m) I use my pack as a drag bag. From 14300 (4400m) to 11000 (3340m), pack + drag bag. From 11000 (3340m) to 8000 (2400m) sledding was very fun and efficient (would not work during the day due to softer snow). I find that the Alaskan "night" is very beautiful and think my lazy hours of climbing (I would start at about 11 am) did not have allowed me to experience it fully, shouldn't be this night descent.


Jonathan Waterman's two books are perfectly complementary. High Alaska, which is also the best general guidebook to the area, tells stories of first ascensionists of various routes who make it in spite of any adversity (bad conditions, inexperience...). Surviving Denali analyze all the accidents which occured on the mountain, sometimes in trivial circumstances.

Glenn Randall's A climber's guide to Mt Mc Kinley was the most usefull, and his gear and food lists proved to be adequate (although overkill the particular year I climbed). This book contains almost everything you could ask about climbing the mountain, including the relevant Washburn photographs (which happen not to be in Washburn's book). Mandatory reading for Mc Kinley candidates, in my opinion. I showed it to Gandis who climbed the mountain ten or fifteen years ago, and he said "Wow, we did not have all this information at this time". This book is out of print, but similar information is now available in Denali's West Buttress : A Climber's Guide to Mount McKinley's Classic Route (that I haven't read in detail). Randall has also a good discussion on gear in Outward Bound Staying Warm in the Outdoors Handbook (which replaces "Cold Comfort").

In addition, three other books should not be missed as they are good to get a feeling about the mountain: the coffee table book of Brad Washburn Mt Mc Kinley: the conquest of Denali, written and photographed by the man who has done more for Denali mountaineering than anyone else, has nice pictures and very interesting stories about the history of the mountain. The story of the first winter ascent, Minus 148, by Art Davidson, is very dramatic, and give an idea of how bad things can get on the mountain. It also suggests that even if you are pinned down in a storm for one week at 18000 feet, with the gear available in 1968, you could survive. Jon Watermann's In the shadow of Denali, by far the best collection of real stories about Denali adventurers, is about characters that Jon knew well, and explores life at the edge of death.

Cost, access, etc...

You'll have to fly to Anchorage. Inquire with your travel agent how much it costs from your location.

From Anchorage to Talkeetna, with Denali Overland its not very expensive (less than $70 round trip).

Talkeetna to Kahilna base round trip (hopefully for you !) was around $300 in 1993.

The NPS fee was $150 last year. Now you need an advance registration of 60 days.

The sled is either rented for cheap ($20) or free from your air taxi depending on the air taxi you chose, and the same applies to white gaz. These sleds work OK uphill but suck downhill, so some people bring their own better sleds.

The food was not particularly expensive, except for the freeze-dried food which will account for most of your expenses. A freeze-dried dinner is around $7, I think a day ration for me was less than $15. You need between 3 and 4 weeks, so that's around $300/$400.

The most expensive might be the expedition grade gear if you don't have it already. Main items are a suitable tent $500, sleeping bag $600 for down (synth is cheaper), expedition boots $600, down jacket $400. Other pieces of clothing such as goretex jacket and bibs, fleece, gloves, etc... are also expensive but are more all-purpose and I assume you have them already.

Gear list

I have found very difficult and time consuming to assemble all the necessary gear in the US, due to the way the distribution system works here. For instance, I had to have my boots buy in Chamonix to get them in time. I think that a good alternative for me would have been to shop only in Anchorage (where there is also no tax) at AMH and REI. The best would be to plan it half a year in advance to beat this problem, as well that of untested gear.

Here is what I had. This list is by no means optimal. It's just the stuff I managed to gather in six weeks for my first expedition climb. See photo of large gear and photo of small gear.

- One Sport Everest boot system.
- thorlo mountaineering socks (2 pairs), polypro socks, vbl socks.
- Patagonia thin capilene underwear, top and bottom.
- Patagonia thick capilene underwear, top and bottom (both not used)
- TNF fleece bibs
- TNF goretex mountain bibs.
- Stephenson vapor barrier jacket.
- REI polartech 200 jacket, and polartech 300 jacket.
- Marmot down vest.
- Feathered friends frontpoint parka (not used).
- Marmot 3L goretex jacket.
- OR expedition mits (liner/cover, not used) + BD mits(liner/cover) + idiot
 leashes  + Patagonia liner gloves.
- Balaclava, neck gaitor, neoprene face mask (not used). 
- Glacier glasses + Bolle gogles (not used).
- sunscreen and lipstick

- Stephenson 2R tent
- Feathered friends peregrine sleeping bag
- REI vapor barrier
- thermarest long thin + ridgerest short thin
- pee bottle (nalgene) 
- insulated water bottle + nalgene bottle and insulator
- knife, spoon, insulated mug, pot with heat exchanger and lib
- msr xgk stove with wire board, and 3 fuel bottles
- toilet paper, toothbrush
- BD shovel + snow saw

- Lowepro cerro torre II backpack with additional pounches
- telescopic ski poles
- two CM pulsars
- grivel 2F crampons + antiboot plates
- readfeather snowshoes (lower elevations)
- BD alpine harness
- 30m x 8m rope
- a few slings, biners, prussik loops
- sled (from K2 aviation, lower elevations)
- light duffle bag to use as sled (higher elevations, coming down)

- Nikon FM2 + 24-50 + 85 + Yashica T4 + film + mini-tripod + 
 handheld meter (not used) 
- reading material + diary
- aerial photos, map, compass, altimeter, fancy thermometer
- first aid kit
- repair kit

What does it take ?

A question I have often been subsequently asked is how one gets ready for Denali. If you are going to tackle the West Buttress, the mountaineering skills needed are, in my opinion, limited. You need to know about roping and crevasse rescue to travel over glaciers. You need to be confortable enough with crampons and a big pack on snow/ice slopes up to 35/40 degrees that you could solo them safely. Then, you need to have experience in big mountains and cold weather to know that you can handle the sort of conditions you will be confronted to. Besides that, it's just general backpacking experience. I would say that if you are a total beginner, you can get ready for Denali in two years or less. Take some good instruction in the key technical areas, go snow-camping, climb a couple of big glaciated mountains such as Mont Blanc or Rainier (preferably in winter).


This was my first true expedition (I went up a secondary peak in the Himalayas at about the same elevation, but there at 14300 (4400m) one can find villages). I succeeded in climbing McKinley, partly by the West Rib (a technical route) solo and got down by West Buttress. I have met truly excellent weather conditions which would have probably allowed me to pursuit a more ambitious objective, and this is my only regret. Nevertheless, I can at least say without exaggeration that I climbed with a very big safety margin, superior to the one I took usually in the Alps, although my preparation itself was very shallow: I just did a few of hours running starting two weeks before the climb, and a Mt Shasta trip the week before (I was recovering from knee injury and had allergic asthma problems), I started planning the expedition a month and half before my departure, which did not allow me to test my gear and food before. On the positive side, I read a great deal about the mountain. When you expect -40F (-40C) and high winds, (relatively) warm windless temperatures makes everything seems easier. When I learned from my French friend one month before the tentative departure date that he would not be able to join me, I decided to climb alone.

I have met problems that were unusual for me, as well as beauty which was also far more than that I was used to know in the mountains. I made several friends during the expeditinon, some of which are netters (I was recognized by randall@math.rutgers.edu at the Seattle airport, and by hal@ll.mit.edu on the glacier at 8000. The net is not too impersonnal...) had really good time, and came back home with the desire to return up high.

Note about Asthma: at the time I climbed McKinley, I had to control asthma carefully. If I did efforts in the cold without appropriate warm up (this included running in the mild California winter, or going cross-country skiing), sometimes I would get a mild attack. I had to carry Ventolin everywhere. Yet, on McKinley, I found that with one inhalation in the morning, and one before going to bed, I didn't have any problem. I have been told that a few high profile mountaineers, such as Catherine Destivelle are asthmatic.

Web resources


Jeff Deifik provided me insight about vapor barrier and helped me buy a Stephenson tent. Allen Sanderson, Wally Mann, and Bob Berger, Pierre Montiglio (relayed by others), and Gandis (Linda Bushnell's fiance) gave me first-hand advice about the mountain. A bunch of people gave me information on places to acclimatize (that I did not use eventually because of lack of time) in California. My parents were not too worried and bought the boots in Chamonix for me. Gelu, Marcel, and Rudy accepted that I travel with them on the common part of our climb and were very kind with me. The rangers in Talkeetna and at 14300 (4400m) were very helpfull. A group of Rainier Mountaineering, and also the Frozen Frogs gave me some of their extra food and gas. Ruedi, my german tent neighboor in "McKinley city" fixed my recalcitrant stove. A lot of climbers greeted me with their friendship and company. Thanks to you all.

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