A climber I have been coaching for the past four months is heading to Denali in about ten days and he sent me some questions. I thought I’d share the questions, and my answers, here.
Q: If I have a choice, what is the ideal pace on the mountain to preserve energy and maximize endurance?
A: In a lot of ways climbing Denali is like a self-sustained 14-21 day stage race. Your energy tomorrow is related to how hard you go today. So you need to keep you pace at an “all-day” pace essentially all the time, day after day. When I was guiding a lot of West Buttress and West Rib trips in my 20’s, I would personally climb/hike slowly enough that I could always breathe through my nose. I was pretty fit, and given the altitude, this worked pretty well up to the 14K camp. Above there I had to switch to a ‘rest step’ protocol to set a pace my rope team could sustain all day every day. For most people, nose breathing while moving up that mountain with those loads, will not be feasible. So try to ask for a pace that you can maintain all day. Ideally the guide will intuitively know what this is, even for the weakest member of the group. A good guide will also let you know when the next break will be (typically every 60 min to every 90 min depending on the terrain and pace of the group) and I always liked to notify my group when we were 10-15 min out from the next break because I figured they’d be wondering “when is he going to stop”. Tough question to answer, so I hope this helps clarify some things.
Q: I normally acclimatize okay, do you have any supplements that you recommend?
A: No; assuming you’re getting fed well, supplements won’t help with altitude. I also don’t take vitamins on Denali. What I do make sure to do is eat a recovery snack as soon as I stop moving for the day. This means that I have 300-500 calories ideally within 30 minutes and certainly within 45-60 minutes after stopping. You can bring a recovery ‘shake’ that you mix with water, or have extra nuts on hand (great because you can snack on them while you pitch camp), or something. Avoid bars. You’re going to get sick of bars.
This recovery snack doesn’t help with altitude per se, but it does help with your physical recovery. And what we have seen time and time again is that (work loads being equal among the team) well trained climbers are less fatigued at the end of each day and therefore their bodies have more resources to devote to acclimatization.
A word about Diamox. Diamox is a diuretic prescription medicine that very popular among high-altitude climbers, including Denali climbers. Frankly, I think there is a huge placebo affect at work with Diamox. I’ve been to the top of Denali something more than 20 times, and when I was in my 20’s, my fellow guides and I experimented on different trips with and without Diamox. For me (and keep in mind that different people are likely to react differently to the affects of a drug.) I had to come to the conclusion that Diamox did nothing for me in terms of speeding up or aiding the acclimatization process.
Q: Any key gear for Denali?
A: Yes, a Patagonia Sun Shade Hoody! It’s the best thing you can wear in the hot sun and it will really make a huge difference on the lower mountain. Same shirt works brilliantly for trekking or climbing in any high-altitude environment, these things are seriously lifesavers and a million times better than a light-weight 2nd-hand store white button down shirt. (though those are certainly the next best thing).
Q: What is your layering system for Denali?
A: Up top I go: Baselayer (2 for the whole trip, one short sleeve one long sleeve), Sun Shade Hoody (up to 14k camp), R1 hoody, Patagonia Nano Air Jacket, Patagonia Houdini as a wind shell, and a Patagonia M10 as a hardshell, DAS Parka or Grade 7 Parka. If you run cold you’ll want to add more more mid-layer to the above list, maybe a vest or a thick baselayer. On the bottom I go: Baselayer, Nano Air Pant, Patagonia Galvanized Pant (softshell pant with suspenders and crotch zip) and DAS Pants. Boots: G2SM from Sportiva are the best Denali boots at the moment.
Hope that helps. If anyone has more questions, post to the forum or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org