Success on Denali: Lessons from 45 successful summits

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Denali: Tips for a Successful Expedition

By Uphill Athlete Coaches Steve House, Scott Johnston and Mark Postle

Denali climbing season is here!  While over 1,200 climbers attempt the highest point in North America each season, the success rate hovers around 50%. Denali is a very unique mountain. The climber is faced with a combination of massive glaciers, continuous winter conditions and frequent storms which can be both windy and produce a meter or more of snow in a day, the use of sleds to haul the bulky food and clothing and equipment needed in such a harsh environment, and the generally-accepted double-carry method of getting in position for a summit-weather-window. 

Here at Uphill Athlete we know this mountain intimately. Among our coaches, Scott first climbed Denali in 1976, since summiting 6 times. Steve stood on top in 1992 for the first time and to date he is the only person to have established 3 new routes on the mountain. In total he has summited 25 times, 15 of those as a mountain guide (13 via the West Buttress, 2 via the full West Rib). Mark has 14 summits as a guide since 2004. 

Combining that climbing and guiding experience with the training plans and coaching we’ve done for Denali-bound athletes over the years gives us some insights on what it takes to succeed.  What follows are a number of fitness, gear, skills, and self-care tips, big and small, that will give you your best chance of success.

Fitness:

  • Hopefully you’ve been using a well-crafted training plan like our recommended plan for Denali-bound climbers, our 24-week Expeditionary Mountaineering Training Plan.  If so then you’ve taken care of the biggest determinant for success that is within your control: FITNESS.
  • During the final days leading up to the trip understand that you are as fit as you are going to get before this climb. Do not try to squeeze in extra training while traveling or stuck in Talkeetna waiting to fly to the glacier. Stay active, walk around, short easy jogs are fine as is yoga and stretching.  Your body is used to a daily dose of exercise but don’t try to build fitness during this time.
  • Approach the climb itself as if it’s a three-week stage race. Prioritize recovery (eat and drink at regular intervals, get recovery snacks down within 30 minutes of the end of the day’s climbing, etc.)

 

Skills:

  • While the West Buttress route demands only moderate technical climbing skills it does require a rather unique mountaineering skill set due to amount of glacier travel.  You should be well acquainted with crevasse rescue, snow and winter camping skills and these need to be addressed well before you fly onto the glacier.
  • You will spend all your time on moderate angle snow and ice. Often on skis or snowshoes, and often in crampons. Make sure you’re experienced in walking on very hard snow and low angle (20-40 degree) ice in crampons.  It’s not like walking in boots alone.
  • The ability to move comfortably and efficiently on rough alpine terrain will mean that you’ll use much less energy throughout each day, and recover faster overnight.  Spend as much of your training time as possible on steep rough ground, off trail, even if not snow covered.

 

Gear

Volumes have been written on gear for Denali. Here we’ll share some of the most common failures and hiccups we’ve seen.

  • Double check in town that your crampons are in good shape, all the down-facing points are sharp, fit your boots well (including overboots if applicable). We like basic mountaineering crampons like the “New Classic G-12”. 
  • Sort out the sock combo that works with your boots and won’t give you blisters. Have a plan for drying socks out each night.
  • Boots: For most people, an 8,000-meter boot like the Olympus Mons is overkill. But if you’re on the 7-summit circuit then it probably makes sense for you to climb in the same boot on Denali. If that’s you, go with the Oly Mons.  If you’re buying boots just for Denali, we recommend the LaSportiva G2 SM (click video link to see Steve talking about this boot).  Have the liners thermo-molded to your foot before hand. If they feel high-volume, add a thicker insole. No need to size up with these modern, very warm, boots. If you want to up-size for altitude-swollen feet, go a half-size up at most.
  • Practice putting your harness on, over boots and crampons. A current favorite harness is the Mammut Zephir Altitude because it sits flat under that backpack waist belt and has a plastic coated buckle for easy on during the sub-zero morning starts.
  • Have your ascender or prusik system figured out before heading out from the Kahiltna base. This should include familiarity with how to ascend and descent the fixed line from 15,-16,000 feet as well as for crevasse partner-rescue and self rescue. Your crevasse self rescue must include a plan for how to deal with a loaded pack, sled and wearing skis or snowshoes.  
  • Have your gear well sorted. Know what you have and how to use it.  A minimalist mentality is a good thing when you have to carry all your personal property plus your share of group gear.  Do not bring the kitchen sink. Share items with team members; for instance, not everyone need to bring their own solar panel or repair kit.
  • Many folks like a small chunk of closed cell foam for sitting on in the kitchen. Having a small stuff sack with your mug, bowl, spoon, hot drink fixings and small bottle of hand sanitizer together is very convenient for meal times.
  • A handful of wet ones singles are easy to thaw one at a time in a pocket and nice to stay fresh and clean.
  • 2 pairs of chemical handwarmers in pockets or mittens are worth their weight for a cold summit day.
  • The water bottle of choice is a 1-liter wide mouth nalgene water bottle covered in some kind of insulation. These are easy to refill when melting snow. The opaque HDPE ones are 70 grams lighter than the clear hard plastic model. Do not use a metal bottle. Steve uses a soft Nalgene paired with a 1-liter Zojirushi thermos, here’s the one he likes best.

 

Clothes

Dressing appropriately has never been more difficult. You need to be able to handle sweltering heat (at least in June) and arctic cold.   Wearing your summit day Gore-tex jacket and sweating heavily is a good way to exhaust yourself.

  • Every guide on the mountain sports a Patagonia SunShade Hoody on the lower glacier. We can’t recommend these highly enough (and not just for Denali).
  • In addition to the above, have a comprehensive plan for sun protection, Buff, Sunglasses with nose beak, hat with a brim, high SPF lip balm and keep small tube of sunscreen in pocket at all times.
  • A very light wind jacket with a hood is a great layer on the mountain for wind protection and will be used often.
  • We use a rotation of 2 sets of socks for most of the climb. Try this: Change socks at bedtime, putting the damp socks next to your base-layer while sleeping. Socks crammed in the bottom of a sleeping bag do not dry! Reserve one clean dry pair for summit day when warmth matters the most.
  • Puffy insulated pants. This is key gear! Steve helped design the Patagonia DAS Pants and we recommend those. You must be able to put on and take off your full side-zip puffy pants while wearing boots and crampons.
  • Parka: Down or Synthetic: For the West Buttress bound climber, a down parka is the best choice. For technical routes where there are few opportunities to dry layers, a synthetic parka is the better choice. Here is Steve talking about a parka he helped develop that would be an excellent Denali Parka.
  • Be prepared for rapidly changing conditions. We recommend having ski goggles, mittens, a facemask (such as a buff, or a thick fleece neckgaitor or a neoprene facemask) and a pair of handwarmers together in a small bright red stuff sack that is always kept with you and always fairly handy.  It’s a good idea to put on your goggles and facemask in town and look in a mirror to check for exposed skin. Cut a small mouth hole in your Buff or neoprene facemask to breathe through more  easily and alleviate steamy goggles a bit

Camping

This is often jokingly referred to as a high-altitude winter camping trip. Winter camping skills play a massive roll in the success or failure of many expeditions, and guides spend a huge amount of time dialing their group’s camping scene.

  • Melting snow. This is a big task and takes hours of each day. Dedicate one (big) pot to melting snow; this keeps the water clean and keeps your beverage from tasting like last night’s dinner.
  • Carry a dedicated snow-bag that you gather snow in, a trash compactor bag is durable and lightweight. Clean snow often has to be gathered some distance from camp.
  • When retrieving snow, dig down into the snowpack for dense snow that you can cut into chunks to feed into the pot. This is much more efficient than feeding powder snow endlessly into the pot. The snow should be close to ice, but not yet ice.
  • Lightweight food. Don’t go heavy on food! This will be the single heaviest thing you carry up the mountain. We recommend spending a lot of time on meal planning and we rely heavily on dehydrated meals due to the light weight. You’re not there for the fine dining.
  • Treats. That said, bring a few treats that don’t count in your planned menu; special chocolate, a (plastic) bottle of a favorite scotch whiskey. Remember: “You can’t put a price on morale.”

Self Care

A surprising number of climbers blow it during the first days of their Denali climb by failing look after themselves. Self-care is super important here, more so than on any other mountain because of the fact that you are farther from base camp each day; no chance for a full recovery.

  • Keep tabs on your feet during the initial warm days on the lower glacier. Put some mileage in your boots before hand during training. If you get hot spots, deal with these issues sooner rather than later on the trip to keep feet healthy. Bad blisters on day two are almost impossible to recover from and have ended a lot of trips early.
  • Keep the intensity low especially on the days getting to the 14k camp.  If you are busting your butt down low you are hurting your chances of making the summit.
  • Drink often. The air will be dryer than you are used to and dehydration can be a problem.  Include electrolyte replacement if you sweat heavily.
  • As soon as you pull into a camp get some water and food in your belly. It will only take a few minutes to do this and then you can pitch in to help with group responsibilities.
  • If climbing with a guide, keep up a dialogue with them about how you are doing. Don’t whine, but if you are having a problem it is better that the guide knows earlier than later.
  • Take a nail trimmer. Sounds small, but DO NOT cut your nails short the day before you fly onto the glacier. Leave both finger and toe nails average length and trim as you go. Your skin will retract from the nail beds at altitude and leave you with very painful finger and toe-nail splits if the nails are cut too short.
  • Beard: Grow ’em if you’ve got them. This is really useful protection, the thicker and fuller the more protective.
  • Embrace a positive attitude about your surroundings and teammates. Be the first one to help out a teammate and they’ll reciprocate. You’re all in it together!

 

Lastly, as a specific example, here is Steve’s preferred clothing list for a Denali West Buttress trip, going from head to toe.  Steve has been a Patagonia ambassador since 1999, so all pieces are Patagonia.

 

  • Warm fleece hat, thick. (Several of my layers have hoods that supplement the hats)
  • Buff. (A brand of thin neckgaitor)
  • Thick fleece neckgaitor.
  • Lightweight sun hat with a large brim that won’t blow off in the wind.
  • 2x baselayer shirts: 1x lightweight baselayer t-shirt and 1x long sleeve lightweight baselayer longsleeve shirt: wool or capilene. These are alternated daily.
  • R1 Hoody Pull-over.
  • SunShade Hoody.
  • Houdini wind jacket.
  • Nano-Air Jacket with hood.
  • M10 Jacket or similar lightweight water-proof breathable jacket
  • Grade 7 Down Parka
  • 2x wool or capilene boxers or briefs
  • 1x Capilene Air Bottoms
  • 1x Nano Air Light Pants
  • Men’s Triolet Pants, a waterproof-breathable fabric, beefy enough they’ll last beyond one trip.
  • (optional for June) Simul-Alpine Pants, a synthetic “soft-shell” pant.
  • DAS Pants
  • 3x sock system. I use a very thin liner sock for blister prevention plus a thick knee-length sock.

 

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