Our guide said we needed three things to climb Denali: fitness, footwork, and mental fortitude. Oh, and being okay with cold and discomfort wouldn’t hurt.
I can’t recall exactly when I began to think of climbing Denali, North America’s highest peak at 20,310 feet, but the idea really took hold a few years ago. I was approaching 50, and figured if I was going to do it, I’d better get serious.
To decide whether I really wanted to do an expedition climb, I signed up for an eight-day Denali winter prep course on Mount Rainer in the Washington Cascades in 2017. It provided an overview of the skills and equipment for traveling and camping in snow and cold. The experience reignited my fondness for winter camping in New England.
But before attempting Denali, I needed more experience on glaciated mountains, so I joined a trip to Mount Baker in northern Washington. Even in June this 10,781-foot peak has storms and deep snow. Our group spent two days in tents waiting for the weather to clear for a summit attempt. It didn’t happen, and we hiked out without success. Our guides tried to make us feel better by saying that waiting out storms in a tent is a very important mountaineering skill.
Crevasses on Denali are notoriously huge, and falling into one, especially in the summer as the ice melts, is a serious concern. So team members needed to know how to use rigging systems with mechanical advantage for pulling out teammates. The climber in the crevasse, if able, uses ascending devices such as prusik (friction) knots or mechanical cams to climb out. I went to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and took a two-day course with professional guides that covered the basics.
The ascent up the West Buttress of Denali is the most common route. It follows the Kahiltna glacier for 15 miles from 7,500 feet to the 20,310-foot summit. For about the first ten days, each climber on our team had to pull a sled with personal and group gear, along with an expedition pack, totaling about 100 pounds. At 14,000 feet, when the glacier is left behind and the terrain becomes more technical, snowshoes and sleds are cached, and climbers switch to crampons and an ice axe and begin carrying all gear in packs.
Training Back Home
In my research on preparing and training for Denali I learned there is no one right way. Some on my team hired personal trainers, while others climbed high-elevation glaciated peaks. A guy from Houston pulled a cart loaded with cement blocks along city streets, much to the bemusement of his neighbors.
For me, the Long Trail System in the winter of 2018-2019 proved the perfect training ground. I was one of the only people on the team fortunate enough to have convenient and unlimited access to steep, snow-covered mountains.
I followed a six-month training program suggested by the guide service, designed to build strength and endurance. Its key element was the “McKinley edge:” the principle that at some point your body or mind will tell you “no,” and you must override the desire to quit, and push on. An extra lap or hill climb is built in at the end of each workout in the program to accustom you to going just a bit further or pushing a little bit harder.
It was important to start my regime slowly. To prepare for carrying a 65-pound pack uphill for eight hours a day, day after day, I spent six months gradually increasing the duration and intensity of my workouts.
My work hours as GMC’s executive director made it tough to fit training into a typical day. I did many hours of trail running by headlamp after work or in early mornings. When the snow got too deep for running, I walked and ran on a treadmill at home. I didn’t join a gym, but I installed a pull-up bar and hung a climbing rope over a beam in my barn (think of the climbing rope in your elementary school gym). I used another climbing rope to practice crevasse self-rescue techniques, using prusik slings to pull myself up while wearing my full pack and gear.
If you’re not a climber, you might wonder what a prusik sling is. It’s a loop of comparatively thin rope tied in a friction knot (the prusik knot) that grips the thicker climbing rope when the loop is weighted. With the loop unweighted, a climber can slide the knot up the climbing rope.
Using two alternating slings supporting their feet and a third sling clipped to the upper portion of their climbing harness, climbers can ascend the climbing rope—slowly and laboriously. Getting over the top edge of a crevasse is often the most difficult part, especially if the rope has cut into the edge. That’s when help from above is most useful.
A month before my trip I was training six days a week with at least two days of heavy pack training. I loaded 25 to 30 pounds of gear and five one-gallon jugs of water—weighing an additional 42 pounds—into my 105-liter pack. When I reached a summit, I emptied the jugs to ease the descent a bit. The nice part about training like this was that I never had to worry about running out of water. And dumping gallons of it onto the ground was a good conversation starter with fellow hikers. Eventually, loading and carrying the heavy pack became second nature.
Favorite Training Places
Early morning skinning up Bolton Valley was a favorite training technique—and really the best time to go, when the snow was firm and the woods were quiet and dark. I wore a headlamp to start, but often turned it off at dawn.
Ski trails are great training for glacier travel. They flow linearly through mountains like glaciers, and at night or early in the morning they can be hard and icy. Black diamond trails are good practice for wearing crampons and using an ice axe on steep slopes.
My favorite local mountain and trail for hiking and training was the Monroe Trail on the Duxbury side of Camel’s Hump. I wore snowshoes lower down, even if the trail was packed, and switched to crampons on the steep upper sections. When wind was ferocious on the summit I hunkered down in my cold-weather gear and drank hot cocoa. This was a good way to test gear and clothing, especially for occasions of forced immobility in severe weather.
On one winter trip up Mount Washington when winds exceeded 30 miles an hour and the temperature was well below zero, I got a good look at potential conditions on Denali. Above Lion’s Head, the wind really hit me. I was sweating from the climb and needed to add layers and cover exposed skin quickly. I cursed myself as I fumbled for gloves and my fingers chilled. My bag was poorly organized, and I wasn’t ready for the sudden change in weather. That hike was humbling, and I realized I needed to improve my skills because I couldn’t afford to make mistakes like that on Denali.
Fortunately, I grew stronger and more proficient as my training progressed. After a winter on snowshoes and crampons, my stride and foot placement became more comfortable and efficient. I learned to organize my pack better, and no longer had to dig to the bottom for critical gear. As the last mountain snows melted in late May, I put away my gallon water jugs and was finally ready.
The critical limiting factor on Denali, other than weather, is altitude. My team spent almost two weeks progressing slowly from base camp up the mountain. After each move to a new camp, we rested a day or two. To eliminate the need to carry the full weight of our gear the entire distance, team members ferried loads up the mountain beyond each camp, and then returned to sleep at camp with empty packs. This also accelerated acclimatization to altitude, by providing exercise high up, followed by rest and sleep lower down.
On some days we did nothing physical—literally nothing. I read book after book on an e-reader. The summer sun doesn’t really set in the Alaskan interior, so sleeping was difficult, especially on days with no physical exertion. Our job on those down days was to eat, rest, and acclimate. In short, climbing Denali came with long stretches of extreme boredom, punctuated by brief moments of exhilaration and risk.
Once at high camp—17,000 feet—everything changed. No more rest days. After two weeks putting ourselves in position for the summit, the day arrived. A good weather window had the guides telling us we were going for it. Weather changes quickly on the mountain, so when you get a good summit day, you always go for it. You never know if you will get another chance. This was the third attempt for one teammate, the second for two others. All three had been stuck in their tents at 14,000 feet for five days on previous climbs with no weather window for a summit attempt.
On the morning of June 22, our team got up, ate breakfast, and began the steep climb to Denali Pass. We summited at midday under clear, calm skies. To say we were lucky is an understatement. The view from the top was spectacular and sharing that special moment on the highest point in North America with my teammates was exhilarating.
Climbers say a piece of you stays on the mountain. You dedicate so much time and energy to preparing and climbing that when the experience is over, there is a void in your life. I like to think that whatever piece of you is left out there is replaced by something that is a better, purer expression of yourself.
Denali: 20,301 feet
Base camp: 7,500 feet
Camps (6): Base; Camp 1; Camp 2; 11,000 Camp (3); 14,000 Camp (4); 17,000 Camp (5)
Team: 9 clients; 3 guides
Team success: 77%
Average trip duration: 17 days (National Park Service data)
2019 registered climbers: 1,230
Average overall summit rate: 65%
Percentage of U.S. climbers: 63%
Percentage of women: 12%
Rest Days: 6
Distance traveled: 15 miles
Average pack weight: 120 pounds (including sled)
Temperature swing: -20F to 90F (in sun)
Highest altitude: 20,301 feet
Calories per day: 6,000-8,000
Favorite food: Bag of bacon
Food storage: Cache dug in the snow
Human waste: #1 in designated communal holes. #2 in “clean cans.” Yup, everyone on the team defecates in a can. All solid waste is carried out of the park.
Trail pests: Crows that tried to get into our food cache and my clean cans!
Worst ailment: Sunburned tongue –yes, really
Fondest memory: The views
Interested in learning more? Come see Mike’s Taylor Series talk about his Denali climb on Thursday, January 30, 2020.