Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter
Learning to climb Denali
Display Avatars Sort By:
Ashley Laurence
(timdaman) - MLife
Learning to climb Denali on 12/07/2012 22:03:50 MST Print View

So I have big dreams of climbing Denali but live in the plains. I get to a mountains wherever I can and do the local stuff when I can't. This has served me well and I have had successful hikes including the AT, Long Trail, JMT, and SHR.

The last couple years I have been going to the ADK Winter Mountaineering School and have learned a lot there and am ready to move up a notch.

The question is where? When I hit Denali I want to be part of a self supported party so I need to get my skills and experience up to snuff. I will be between jobs this Jan-Feb so I was thinking of going with Mountain Madness, Alpine Ascents, or RMI on a course/trip to get practice.

Does anyone have any experience with them or have some other recommendations as to companies good at teaching mountaineering? I would like to have some fun too so expeditions that have a skill building aspect are very appealing.

Any tips on what skills are most important to pick up? Here is my list
Roped Glacier Travel
Crevasse Rescue Systems
Avalanche Safety and Rescue
Altitude Acclimation

I already have the basic Winter camping down and I am able to practice in the flats staying warm and dry.

Thanks for any pointers.

P.S. Anyone up for a Denali trip in 2-3 years? I am looking for 2-3 people to join or join me.

Edited by timdaman on 12/07/2012 22:17:31 MST.

John Whynot

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Learning to climb Denali on 12/08/2012 06:56:02 MST Print View

I went on a 6 day glacier mountaineering course with Mountain Madness in August. It was held on Mt Baker.

We learned and practiced travelling on glaciers, crevasse rescue -- no real altitude. It was a good introduction, but I would still want more training and practice.

I was very pleased with the quality of instruction, and what was included in the price of the course (Mountain Madness was giving a $200 discount at the time I signed up).

I think courses/trips Mountain Madness offers in Jan - Feb would be in South America or Mexico...

Edited by jdw01776 on 12/08/2012 07:10:04 MST.

Art ...
(asandh) - F
Re: Learning to climb Denali on 12/08/2012 07:34:43 MST Print View

I commend you on your goal to climb Denali self supported, by which I think you mean no guides.
guide services are great for learning skills and practicing, but you will get much more out of the final goal if you achieve it on your own.

RMI is a great outfit.
You should definitely climb MT Rainier at least once, and 2 or 3 times if you can, before tackling Denali.
I have not done Denali but have been told its a very serious mountain for its height. much more serious than those 20,000 ft peaks in South America (which would also make great practice peaks if you have the time and money).
but Rainier for sure, a couple times.

and while its not high altitude, maybe some winter practice on Mt Washington in New Hampshire. for experiencing the harsh cold weather its probably even better than Rainier.

Edited by asandh on 12/08/2012 07:38:03 MST.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Denali: A serious adventure on 12/08/2012 12:30:20 MST Print View

I climbed Denali years ago on a guided expedition. It was one of the most rewarding and dangerous things I've ever done.

Don't underestimate how dangerous McKinley is. There are about 1,200 climbers a year attempt the climb. Four climbers were killed in 2010, 7 in 2011, and 5 in 2012.

All those skills you listed are important. Classes can help teach you skills, but they don't do as much for giving you weeks and months of actual experience.

"The fact that the West Buttress route is not technically difficult should not obscure the need to plan for extreme survival situations. Of course, some climbers manage to get up and down in perfectly nice, but rare period of weather; when back home, they encourage others to climb this 'easy walkup' of a mountain. Little do they realize that it was only by sheer luck they weren't trying to keep their tent up in the middle of the night in a 60mph wind at 40° below zero, with boots on and ice axe ready in case the tent suddenly imploded. Because of the non-technical reputation of the popular West Buttress route, it is a terribly underestimated climb."
— Peter H. Hackett, M.D., from "Surviving Denali" by Jonathan Waterman

It will ultimately be your own call, but the more experience and skills you have, the better your odds, especially if you are unguided. And if you are unguided, it would be wise to climb with some true veterans.

Art ...
(asandh) - F
Re: Denali: A serious adventure on 12/08/2012 12:45:42 MST Print View

I have 4 friends who had to turn around 400 ft from the summit (on the West Butt) because one of them decided to use sunglasses instead of goggles for the final push. his eyeballs froze and he went blind in the high winds. the other 3 had to lead him back down to safety. He can now see again so it wasn't permanent.


Locale: Western Michigan
Excellent School for your VISION on 12/08/2012 14:30:38 MST Print View

I sound your need is to expand and further your present skills so I would highly recommend NOLS.....


Washington’s North Cascades (one classroom area NOLS mountaineering is taught), often referred to as the “American Alps,” encompass some of America’s most spectacular scenery—jagged peaks, deep valleys, cascading waterfalls, and more glaciers than any other location in the Lower 48.

Many of the world’s top mountaineers use this area as their training ground; the reasonable access combined with challenging mountain classrooms continue to make this range one of the best places in the world to learn to be a mountaineer.
The pace is gradual in the beginning as you travel through lush, old-growth forests and tangled alder thickets, and it gains momentum as you ascend to the North Cascades’ majestic, snow-clad peaks.
You’ll get a well-rounded base of snow, ice, and crevasse rescue mountaineering skills, with some potential for rock climbing. With a student to instructor ratio of 5:1 and many days of practice, you’ll receive an unparalleled mountaineering education.


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Learning to climb Denali on 12/08/2012 16:29:24 MST Print View

"Any tips on what skills are most important to pick up? Here is my list
Roped Glacier Travel
Crevasse Rescue Systems
Avalanche Safety and Rescue
Altitude Acclimation"

Become very proficient with crampons.
Become very proficient with an ice ax.

To an even greater degree than on a guided climb your butt, and potentially those of your team mates, will depend on those skills, especially on summit day.

Ashley Laurence
(timdaman) - MLife
Thanks fo rthe info on 12/09/2012 22:11:09 MST Print View

thanks for all the info. I do understand the serious of Denali. I am reading "Surviving Denali: A Study of Accidents on Mount McKinley 1903-1990" and it really is driving home the seriousness of the endeavour. Being "blown off the mountain" and falling 1000'+ are routine occurrences in book, especially for those who are not paying attention, not doing rigorous risk analysis, and for those who simply are unlucky. I seems especially important to make sure you are fresh when you reach the summit, a lot of accidents happen to exhausted climbers descending.

I will take suggestions to heart and make sure I have a few assents on Mt. Washington (fairly close to home) and, given the cost, at least one on Rainier.

NOLs is hard to beat reputation-wise and also with cost but their schedule is a bit rough on me. I am trying to take advantage of a gap between jobs in Jan-Feb and it looks like my last day of work (Jan 11th) is after the start of their Patagonia course (Jan 6th).

Ted E
(Mtn_nut) - MLife

Locale: Morrison, CO
climbing in ouray on 12/11/2012 20:35:24 MST Print View

another thing that might help you learn some technical skills is learning how to ice/mixed climb a bit. You're probably not going to be climbing vertical ice on denali, but learning the technique can help out with being confident on steep hard snow and steep icey rock.

the ouray ice festival is a great way to experience some ice climbing in a great atmosphere, and theres a 14er near by (sneffels) if you want to do a calender winter accent. its in mid january, and its always a blast. the san juan mountain guides also have some winter mountaineering and some denali prep courses.

Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
RMI is excellent... on 01/09/2013 17:25:09 MST Print View

I climbed with them last summer, blog links below in case you're interested:

RMI runs several expedition climbs that they recommend for Denali training. Since I am also very interested in climbing Denali, I'm hoping to join some of those. Given that I'm in school right now and won't be done until next July, 2-3 years might work for me... hint hint ;)

The American Alpine Institute and the Mountaineers both offer mountaineering training in the Cascades.

Oh Fool
(dansol) - MLife

Locale: So. Cal
Re:: on 01/10/2013 13:41:12 MST Print View

Hey ashley,

I was in your exact shoes a couple years ago and I did some research on different programs around the world. I worked on Denali (W Butt.) as medical support last year and this year am headed back to climb the West Rib.

Some tips that I discovered might help you out:

-NOLS is expensive (and IMO they focus too much time on their 'theory' of the outdoors and not enough on technical skills that youll need on Denali).
-RMI is great (but also expensive) that being said im headed to Rainier this winter to refresh my skills.
-Alaska Mountain Guides has some great programs for someone looking to get a little more technical (steep slopes, mixed ice, etc.). They are also pretty moderately priced.
-American Alpine Institute has the most technical programs available, although they are not cheap.
-There are also some great international programs, and to really get a feel for the Denali weather your gonna need to spend some time in the Himalayas or Andes. Check out have a couple pretty cheap programs in S. America.

I also would agree with the other posts. Get as high and as cold as you can. And get the most technical instruction you can afford and practice it.

Steve S
(idahosteve) - F

Locale: Idaho
Denali Dreams on 01/12/2013 20:45:25 MST Print View

well, sounds like you have caught the bug for sure! After 35 yrs of climbing, 5 trips above 16k and two aborted Denali trips, I would throw out some simple advice. Go for it. Climbing in the 70's and beyond, if you wanted to climb something, you just worked on it until you could go do it. With Denali, you prob need to look at seriously getting some weeks, and maybe even months of time spent climbing terrain, and altitude, and styles of what you hope to do. We quit our jobs every summer, and just climbed, living like bums, and our skill sets jumped expontntially. The trade off now is that if you aren't willing to drop your job, move to the mountains, there is a real chance that you will not develop the skills or decision making expertise to climb a peak like Denali. Thats not a slam, but a sound observation. Are you willing to put each of your team members lives at risk because of your desire and pride, and lack of experience? Every skill you use on Deanli has to be "instinctive", you do it without even thinking about it. Can you develop that sense living in the flatlands? For what its worth, if you can't, it might be well worth the extra expense of hiring a guided group to make those decisions for you. Then you can concentrate on just becoming a cardio machine and hope for the best. In the meantime, read everything you can on what it takes to get up Denali and keep working on it. The sheer effort of higher altitude snow and ice climbing cannot be understated. You better be ready for efforts that are beyond comprehension, and then be ready to do them again 8 hours later. Guess what I'm saying, like others have pointed out, is that this is a step into the big leagues. Lace em up and get to it.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Denali Dreams on 01/12/2013 20:55:15 MST Print View

"Every skill you use on Denali has to be "instinctive", you do it without even thinking about it."

I think Steve is right on this. When you get up high, like 18,000 feet, your brain gets really punchy. You can be trying to do some simple task, and you "space out" on it. You might think that something like operating a white gas stove at sea level is easy, but up high it can be challenging. When you go significantly higher, the brain problem gets worse and worse. So, you have to be so trained that you do everything almost automatically. Those that underestimate the problem are likely to become statistics.


David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Learning to climb Denali on 01/12/2013 22:52:05 MST Print View

Denali is a bit beyond my own personal limits. Admittedly, fatalities are down to 0.5%, but 25 years ago, when I considered it more actively, 600 people a year attempted, half succeeded and 1% ( 6 per year, on average) died in the attempt.

I've taken training courses from RMI and had instructors such as Nawang Gombu Sherpa (first human to summit Everest twice and Tensing Norgay's nephew) and Marty Hoey (who hoped to be the first American women to summit Everest but was the first American woman to die on Everest). I found their courses to be very well done and the skills I learned are still with me and maybe saved my life, or at least my legs, when I peeled off a steep slope of Pyramid Peak in Desolation Wilderness in winter. I was disappointed by their guided summit climb in that they turned us around prior to the hut, basically because it was going to be a slog and most tourist climbers don't like to climb in bad weather. But their skills courses are well done and especially once past their basic classes, you'd be well-served to learn cravasse rescue, high-angle ice travel, etc.

A friend from my Scout troop had a plan and followed through. He went into the Air Force, finished first in his class and got to pick his assignment. He picked SAR in Alaska and climbed Denali a few times while on leave. Once discharged, he started guiding professionally and mostly did winter trips. Colder weather, but more stable conditions. He said the hardest time he had wasn't any technical climb or rescue but trying to keep his clients sane while pinned down in a snow cave for 3 weeks. Last I heard, he, his wife and children lived in New Zealand we he lays brick, and he'd commute to Alaska each year for the climbing season.

- get your snow and ice skills down to the point were they are instinctive as others have pointed out.

- learn how you react to altitude Do lots of 14ers, but get higher as well. The Mexican volcanos ought to be a cake walk for you before you try Denali unguided, IMO.

- learn how long it takes you to condition before a high summit attempt.

Denali is one of the four "tallest mountains on Earth". It's summit is the highest above its base AND its summit is climatically the highest (highest above local treeline). Everest is highest above local mean sea level. Chimborazo is furtherest from the center of the Earth (due to the equatorial bulge). Mauna Kea is highest from its base (below sea level) with 13,000 feet of dry mountain above 18,000 feet of submerged base. Everest is remote, with the thinnest air, and you need a visa. But Denali is not far behind in difficulty and risk.