AAI’s Denali climb is designed to be the safest and most successful guided expedition program on the mountain. We accomplish this goal by a process of continuous improvement, subjecting our expedition practices to careful analysis, and supporting our guides with rigorous training, evaluation, and mentoring. Over our 36-year history climbing the mountain – formerly known as Mt. McKinley – we’ve taken hundreds of people to the summit of North America.
Our expedition program and guides are so well-respected that we were ranked #1 by the National Park Service in the concession renewal process in 2002. Read on to learn more about our strategy, philosophy, and approach to Denali expeditions, and why climbing with American Alpine Institute is the best choice to achieve your mountaineering goals.
To get a flavor of AAI's guided Denali climb, see the expedition dispatches for the 2017 season.
"Once again, I can't say enough about the guides ... they were fantastic! The overall experience was the highlight of my mountaineering career. Thank you so much AAI!"
– Bryan F. (Bothell, WA)
Denali offers one of the world's greatest mountaineering challenges. While it is exceeded in elevation by peaks in South America and Asia, its arctic environment, with extreme temperatures and harsh storms, and its great height above the Alaskan plain make it a severe test of personal strength, team work, and logistics. No peak in the world has greater relief: Denali rises 17,000 feet above its surrounding plain. In contrast, Kilimanjaro rises 14,000 feet over its surrounding plains and Everest, only 13,000 feet. Vertical elevation gain on Everest from the normal base camp for the South Col route is 11,000 feet; from our landing spot on the Kahiltna Glacier Denali's summit rises another 13,000 feet. As the tallest mountain on the North American continent, Denali is one of the Seven Summits.
Determining if a guided trip on Denali is right for you and picking a guide service that will offer a safe and enjoyable expedition on the mountain can be an overwhelming process.
We have compiled some of the thoughts and feedback commonly given to climbers as we have consulted them over the years. Please take some time to read through our Choosing a Denali Guide outline as part of your planning and preparation process. In addition, for answers to common questions, please see our Denali FAQ.
The American Alpine Institute Approach
As in other parts of the world, AAI expeditions in Alaska are run with small groups of climbers who have carefully prepared for their objective. The Institute takes a team approach to its climbs, and expedition members are expected to take responsibility for themselves and a share of responsibility for the overall operation of the expedition. We do not accept climbers who are only minimally prepared and experienced and who need to be "hauled" up and down the mountain. Trying to push ill-prepared climbers up the peak is what keeps so many guided and unguided groups from succeeding on Denali.
A climber stands on 'The Edge of the World', just outside Camp 3 at 14,200 ft. on Denali's West Buttress.
The Institute gives its clients careful and detailed counsel in their preparations for climbing objectives and when appropriate, has them first achieve intermediate goals to fully prepare. Climbs on Denali obviously involve many factors that we cannot control, among them temperature, wind, snowfall, and changeable climbing conditions. The key to success therefore is doing an excellent job working on those areas that a climber can do something about: skill in dealing with cold conditions, skill in climbing at an appropriate technical level, and personal conditioning. To have well-developed abilities in these areas and then to combine them with a carefully designed and guided itinerary is the most direct line to safety and success.
- Intermediate snow climbing ability
- Glacier travel skills
- Experience with backcountry winter camping
- Excellent cardiovascular condition
- Ability to carry a 60 lb. pack while pulling a sled
Denali West Buttress Climb from John Grace on Vimeo.
We make four camps as we climb alpine style, moving all camps higher as we go and leaving none established above or below. It is not uncommon for temperatures high on the mountain to fall as low as -30F, but at lower elevations daytime temperatures on the glacier can reach as high as 70F, so there we sometimes sleep in the day and ferry loads at night when temperatures are between 0F and 15F. The night’s cold improves conditions under-foot, and we still have adequate light because of the extreme northern latitude. Double carries are done during the first part of the expedition to ease the work and to help with acclimatization.
View of Denali from the South. Wyatt Evenson.
All expeditions begin with a meeting and orientation in Anchorage. We spend one night there, then travel by van the next morning to the small town of Talkeetna. There we repack our equipment, meet our ski plane pilots, and as soon as possible, make the beautiful flight to Denali Base Campon the Kahiltna Glacier at 7300 feet.
The Kahiltna Glacier
Soon after our arrival at Base Camp, having done a review of glacier travel procedures, divided the gear up, and packed our sleds, we begin moving to our first camp.
We establish our Camp 1 at 7800 feet at the confluence of the main Kahiltna Glacier and its rugged Northeast Fork (the normal approach for West Rib and Cassin Ridge Expeditions). Enjoying spectacular views the whole way, we continue on to Cache 1 at 9800 feet and Camp 2 at 11,200 feet while snowshoeing up moderate terrain. As we do throughout the climb, we travel in rope teams because of the ever-present crevasse hazard. To ease the burden of moving our expedition supplies, we use specially designed sleds that we tether to our packs and pull along the gentle sections of the lower mountain.
Advancing camp on Denali with full sleds. Kevin Cannon
Above Camp 2, the climbing steepens as our route takes us past the terminal walls of the West Buttress. We usually cache our snowshoes at 11,200 feet and continue our climb with crampons because of the gradient of the route and the hardening snowpack. We climb out of a basin to reach Windy Corner at 13,100 feet, then make an ascending traverse through seracs and heavily crevassed terrain as we approach the head of the Kahiltna Glacier at 14,200 feet. We enjoy spectacular views as we look down to the lower Kahiltna and out to 17,004-foot Mt. Foraker. In the other direction the impressive summit bulk of Denali rises above us, and we can easily see the details of the upper West Rib and Messner Couloir, as well as the steep headwall of the West Buttress that we will soon climb.
Fourteen Camp (Camp 3)
At Camp 3 (14,200 feet), we take a well-deserved rest day and make final preparations for our summit bid, reorganizing our gear for the carry to the highest camps. For most expeditions, Fourteen Camp becomes almost homey; a relatively sheltered alcove in the mountain, it is the logical place to wait for a window of good weather in which to make a multi-day bid for the summit.
At this point we move into the most demanding part of the expedition: higher elevations combined with steeper ground. From Camp 3, we ascend 1100 feet up a gentle snow slope to the bergschrund at the base of the West Buttress. The bergschrund is at times quite steep but it is short and, with steps established in the ice, not difficult to surmount. We then begin our ascent along fixed lines to the crest of the West Buttress on the 900-foot headwall of 45 and 50-degree slopes. Typically the pitches are of hard ice with some snow overlaid, and we protect them by using self-belays with jumars on a fixed rope. Because of the steepness of the route and the amount of elevation gained, we may make a double carry to establish Cache 3 at over 16,000 feet.
Emerging from the headwall onto the top of the Buttress, the atmosphere of the climb changes dramatically. While the earlier parts of the climb have all been on large glaciers and open slopes dominated by immense mountain masses towering above, we now move on an open ridge and enjoy that unmistakable feeling of climbing above most of the surrounding world. As we begin to move along the crest of the Buttress, we gain views across the Peters Glacier to the Alaskan tundra stretching out far beyond, and to the south we can look over the top of Mt. Hunter to the scores of other peaks in the Alaska Range. Initially the ridge is fairly broad, but as we reach the 16,400-foot level it narrows with steep drop-offs to both the north and south.
A fortified high camp at the 17,000 foot level on Denali. AAI Collection
The climb up the ridge to our final camp, Camp 4 (High Camp) at 17,200 feet, is for many people the aesthetic high point of the expedition. We follow a steadily narrowing crest and at times move between and around a series of magnificent, pointed granite gendarmes up to fifty feet high. The climbing is never steeper than 35 degrees, but the exposure is very significant and requires caution as we move up a route that in some sections is reduced to ledges six feet wide. Further east the ridge finally begins to merge with the main part of the Denali massif, and there we establish camp in a basin just below Denali Pass, the low point between Denali’s higher south summit and lower, 19,470-foot north peak. From this point we will climb to the summit in a single day.
On Denali summit day we make an ascending traverse to Denali Pass, crossing above some very large crevasses and traversing a fairly steep section between 17,600 and 18,000 feet. From there we climb gentle slopes to a plateau at 19,400 feet, from which we get impressive views down onto the Harper and Muldrow Glaciers and across to Denali’s North Peak. Our final approach to the summit takes us up moderately steep slopes to the crest of the ridge between Kahiltna Horn (20,120′) and the main summit. At the crest we peer down the 8000-foot drop of the precipitous South Face, looking between the Cassin Ridge to our right and the South Buttress to our left. We ascend the summit ridge on its exposed south side for two rope lengths, then cross to the north side for the final pitches that bring us to the 20,310-foot summit of North America. With steady drops on three sides and the abrupt face to the south, the final steps to the clearly defined summit point are a very exciting finish to a beautiful route.
Climbers approaching the summit of Denali. AAI Collection
In typical years we have recommended that climbers consider the late May and early June dates. This time frame usually holds the best combination of weather and conditions. However, in the last few years it has been warming up in the Alaska Range and the transition from winter to spring has been happening earlier. Over the last few years the weather and conditions have been better earlier in May than they have been in the past. As the Alaska Range and, in particular, Denali undergo the seasonal transformation from true winter conditions to more mild spring conditions, the nature of the mountain weather changes a lot. Earlier in the season (late April and early May) there are more clear days, but the wind tends to be higher on the upper mountain. Into the later season (June) the winds are less significant, but there tends to be more cloudy days and snowfall due to the warmer air. We have seen rain at base camp in April and -35 degree Fahrenheit temperatures at the end of June. Weather on Denali always keeps you guessing. We still recommend trips starting in mid to late May for folks with an open schedule as this is right in the middle of the climbing season.
You need to be prepared for an extremely wide range of temperatures and conditions on Denali. The Kahiltna Glacier, which the West Buttress route follows, can experience some of the of the widest temperature swings on the planet. When the wind is calm and the sun is out, it can be extraordinarily hot, upwards of 80F. At the higher camps, or when a northerly system moves in, the temperatures can dip below -35F. It usually does not stay this cold for too long, but climbers can expect to see these kinds of lows for at least a few days during their climb.
Wind is perhaps the biggest danger on Denali, and climbers should be well prepared to fend off storms and protect themselves and their camps from windy conditions. Even when temperatures are mild, wind chill can accelerate the frostbite process and wreak havoc on equipment and camp sites. Winds in excess of 100mph have been recorded at 14,200 feet. On the other hand, climbers have walked to the summit in t-shirts. Be prepared for everything the mountain has to throw at you and then a little more!
The average individual success rate on Denali is 53% overall and 59% in guided groups other than AAI. The Institute's success rate for individuals for the last twelve years is 77%, and for expeditions it is 85%
Our Denali teams consist of up to nine climbers and three guides. In the rare event that we don't have eight or nine climbers, we can run the trip at a 6:2 ratio as well, but this is not preferable and we are usually able to work other options out in the registration and pre-season scheduling process. AAI has found that due to the nature and amount of work on Denali trips, larger teams are better and more successful for a number of reasons. For one, there are more hands to help with the daily work. Also, with more guides the team has a larger variety of options should climbers need to descend or if they are in need of more personal time and attention. With more rope teams on the climb, pairing climbers of similar ability and pace is much easier.
On summit day, many complicated scenarios may arise that affect strategy. If the entire team, including the guides, are still present, the team will function the same as it has up to this point: one guide and three climbers per rope team. However, often a climber or two needs to descend and abandon their attempt on the summit. When this happens, we may have to send a guide along to accompany the climber on their return to base camp. More often than not, descending climbers are able to join another guided group that is heading back down, leaving our team intact with three guides. Groups, particularly guided groups, work together very well on the mountain and help each other out whenever possible.
We have been guiding on Denali since 1980 and have held a concession through the National Park Service since the inception of their concession program in 1991. There are only five guide services permitted to operate on the mountain. The National Park requires a new application process every ten years. The last instance of this application was in 2002 and AAI was ranked at the top concession applicant after this process was completed. You can read more details about what this means here.
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Our Denali expedition through American Alpine Institute could not have been better. AAI’s guides, logistical support, and professionalism exceeded all expectations. I would sign up for another trip through AAI tomorrow without hesitation, and recommend this trip to any mountaineers interested in experiencing an epic cold weather expedition.
This was probably the best expedition I have ever been on. Everything was organised perfectly from start to finish. We had three very competent guides who got us to the top negotiating bad weather along the way and got us all down safely helping a few other teams on the way down. Great experience and would do it again with AAI in a heartbeat. Team members were awesome also but that was just luck of the draw ;)