Climbing Denali – Which route?

Embark on the ultimate Alaskan climbing adventure! Discover the best routes for summiting Denali and tips for planning your ascent. Choose wisely!

“The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.” – Tony Robbins

Embark on an exhilarating adventure and conquer the towering peaks of Denali, also known as Mount McKinley. Nestled in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness, Denali offers an extraordinary experience for thrill-seeking climbers. As you plan your journey to summit North America’s highest peak, the key question arises – which route should you choose? Johnny summited Denali in May 2022 as part of his seven summit challenge (which he completed in January 2024). You can read on his Denali summit report here.

Key Takeaways:

  • Explore the different routes available for climbing Denali
  • Consider the historical significance of the West Buttress route
  • Learn about the challenges and attractions of the South Side Route
  • Understand the importance of team selection and guided expeditions
  • Plan according to the climbing seasons and weather conditions

History of Denali and the West Buttress

Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, holds a captivating history, with the West Buttress route standing as the most popular path to conquer its summit. Surveyed and pioneered by Bradford Washburn in 1951, the West Buttress quickly gained recognition as the normal route on the mountain. However, the first ascent of Denali’s lower North summit predates the establishment of this route, occurring in 1910. Three years later, in 1913, climbers reached the higher South summit. It wasn’t until 1967 that the first winter ascent of Denali took place, marking a momentous achievement in mountaineering.

“Minus 148 Degrees” is a gripping book written by Art Davidson, a member of the climbing party that accomplished the first winter ascent of Denali. Through his words, he vividly conveys the immense challenges and breathtaking beauty encountered during this historic expedition.

Denali’s First Ascent

The first ascent of Denali’s lower North summit in 1910 was achieved by an expedition led by Archdeacon Hudson Stuck. This momentous accomplishment laid the groundwork for future climbing endeavors on the mountain. Three years later, in 1913, an expedition led by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum reached the higher South summit, solidifying Denali as a prominent mountaineering challenge.

Minus 148 Degrees

“Minus 148 Degrees” is a gripping memoir that recounts the first winter ascent of Denali. Written by Art Davidson, a member of the team that achieved this remarkable feat in 1967, the book provides an intimate and compelling account of their struggles, triumphs, and the profound impact this adventure had on their lives. Davidson’s powerful storytelling captures the essence of the expedition, offering readers a firsthand glimpse into the extreme conditions and unwavering determination required to conquer Denali in winter.

YearSignificant Event
1910First ascent of Denali’s lower North summit
1913Summiting of Denali’s higher South summit
1967First winter ascent of Denali

South Side Route Overview

When it comes to climbing Denali, the South Side Route offers a range of options to suit different abilities and preferences. Three main routes stand out: the West Buttress, the West Rib, and the Cassin Ridge. Each route presents its own challenges and attractions, providing climbers with a variety of experiences to choose from.

West Buttress

The West Buttress is the most popular and commonly climbed route on Denali. It is suitable for climbers of various skill levels and provides a gradual ascent. This route offers a mix of snow ramps, ridge traverses, and high-altitude camps, ultimately leading to the summit. Climbers can enjoy stunning views and relatively steady progress along the West Buttress.

West Rib

For those seeking a more difficult and technical challenge, the West Rib route is an exciting option. Climbers will face steeper terrain, narrow ridges, and a range of technical climbing techniques. The West Rib demands advanced mountaineering skills and the ability to navigate exposed and challenging sections. Successfully completing this route offers a great sense of accomplishment and adventure.

Cassin Ridge

The Cassin Ridge is known as a classic hard alpine route on Denali. It requires a high level of expertise and experience, making it suitable for highly skilled climbers only. This route follows Denali’s south face parallel to the West Rib, showcasing steep ice, narrow ridges, and demanding rock sections. Climbing the Cassin Ridge in true alpine style calls for proficiency in a variety of mountaineering techniques and the ability to handle extreme exposure.

Overall, the South Side Route of Denali offers climbers multiple options, catering to different skill levels and ambitions. Whether you opt for the accessible West Buttress, the challenging West Rib, or the ultimate test of the Cassin Ridge, an unforgettable climbing experience awaits on North America’s highest peak.

Team Selection and Guided Expeditions

When it comes to climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America, team selection is of utmost importance. The dynamics within your climbing team can significantly impact the safety and success of your expedition. Ideally, you should choose team members with whom you have prior climbing experience and good communication skills. This mutual familiarity and effective communication can help foster a strong sense of teamwork and coordination throughout the climb.

Solo climbing Denali is strongly discouraged due to the inherent risks involved. The unforgiving nature of the mountain requires climbers to have a support system in place, both for safety and logistical reasons. Joining a guided expedition is highly recommended for those seeking a safer and more functional climbing experience on Denali.

Denali National Park has authorized seven guide services to lead commercial expeditions on the mountain. These authorized guide services offer professional guidance and support to climbers, ensuring that you have a team of experienced mountaineers to rely on. Guided expeditions can provide valuable expertise, helping you navigate the challenges of Denali while prioritizing safety at every step.

By choosing a guided expedition and relying on the expertise of authorized guide services, you can embark on your Denali climb with confidence, knowing that you have a team of professionals supporting you every step of the way.

Climbing Seasons and Weather Conditions

When planning a climb on Denali, it’s crucial to consider the climbing seasons and weather conditions. Understanding the climate and knowing what to expect can help climbers make informed decisions and prepare accordingly.

The typical climbing season on Denali spans from late April to mid-July, offering a limited window of opportunity for mountaineers. During this time, the mountain experiences various weather patterns and temperature ranges.

In May, climbers can expect colder temperatures and strong winds on Denali. This is a challenging period where proper gear and cold-weather clothing are essential. It’s important to be prepared for sub-zero temperatures and harsh wind chill factors.

As the season progresses into June and July, the weather tends to mellow out, with milder temperatures and less wind. However, climbers should be aware that these months can bring more snowfall, increasing the risk of avalanches and creating challenging terrain conditions.

It’s crucial to monitor weather forecasts and pay attention to any changes in conditions. Rapid weather shifts are common on Denali, and being prepared for unexpected weather events is key to a safe and successful climb.

Crowded Period on Denali

Denali is known for its popularity among mountaineers from around the world. The mountain can get quite crowded during certain periods, particularly from mid-May to mid-June. During this time, a significant number of climbers are on the mountain, vying for limited resources and camping space.

It’s important for climbers to consider this crowded period when planning their ascent. It may affect availability at base camps, create congestion on routes, and impact the overall climbing experience. Climbers should anticipate potential delays, longer wait times, and a more challenging logistical situation during the crowded period.

However, with proper planning and flexibility, climbers can still have a memorable and rewarding experience on Denali, even during the busiest times. Being prepared and adjusting expectations can help climbers navigate the challenges of a crowded mountain and make the most of their journey.

West Buttress Route Overview

The West Buttress route on Denali is the standard and most popular route to the summit. It offers a gradual ascent with a snow ramp, a traverse along a ridge, and a climb to high camp at 17,200 feet (5242 meters).

From high camp, climbers make their way to Denali Pass, a col between Denali’s north peak and main summit. This section involves navigating steep slopes and crevasses while being mindful of changing weather and avalanche conditions.

The final stretch of the West Buttress route encompasses crossing the aptly named Football Field, a vast expanse of snow, followed by ascending the short but exposed summit ridge. This part of the climb can be physically demanding and require careful footwork to navigate the steep slopes and avoid potential hazards.

Summit day on Denali follows the West Buttress route as climbers continue their ascent towards the peak. With every step, the air gets thinner, and the challenge becomes greater. Climbers must summon their strength, endurance, and mental fortitude to push through fatigue and reach the summit.

The West Buttress route provides a challenging yet achievable path to the summit of Denali, rewarding climbers with breathtaking views and a sense of accomplishment. While it requires physical fitness, technical skill, and the ability to withstand extreme weather conditions, those who undertake this route will experience the thrill of conquering North America’s highest peak.

Muldrow Glacier Route

The Muldrow Glacier route is a remote and challenging approach to climbing Denali. While it was the standard route before the popularity of the West Buttress, it is now rarely climbed due to logistical difficulties.

One of the main challenges of the Muldrow Glacier route is the lack of air access to the northern side of the mountain. Climbers must embark on a multi-day trek across tundra, crossing the McGonagall Pass onto the Muldrow Glacier. From there, they join the West Buttress route near Denali Pass.

Planning and careful research are crucial when considering the Muldrow Glacier route. Climbers need to be prepared for the additional challenges it presents, including the longer distance, difficult terrain, and unpredictable weather conditions.

To give you a better idea of the logistics involved, here is a comparison of the Muldrow Glacier route and the West Buttress route:

Muldrow Glacier RouteWest Buttress Route
Remote and rarely climbedPopular and commonly climbed
Multi-day trek across tundraFly in from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna Glacier base camp
Cross the McGonagall Pass onto the Muldrow GlacierStart at the 7,200-foot camp on the West Buttress
Join the West Buttress route near Denali PassContinue up the West Buttress to high camp at 17,200 feet

The Muldrow Glacier route provides a unique and challenging experience for climbers seeking a more remote and less crowded climb on Denali. However, it’s important to approach this route with thorough preparation, adequate skills, and an understanding of the logistics involved.

West Rib Route

The West Rib route offers a thrilling and technically challenging climb for experienced mountaineers. Diverging from the West Buttress route at Ski Hill, the West Rib follows the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, providing a unique and adventurous alternative to the standard route. However, it’s important to note that the West Rib is known for its technical difficulty and requires advanced climbing skills.

The initial approach to the West Rib, known as the Valley of Death, poses its own set of challenges. This section is hazardous due to the risk of avalanches, requiring climbers to be cautious and well-prepared. It’s crucial to assess the current snow conditions and make informed decisions to navigate this treacherous part of the route.

Once climbers make it through the Valley of Death, they ascend a snow couloir onto the West Rib itself. The route then continues along the ridge, offering breathtaking views and demanding technical skills. It’s important to stay focused and utilize appropriate climbing techniques to navigate this exposed terrain.

The West Rib eventually joins the West Buttress route at 14,000 ft Camp, providing climbers with an option to continue on the West Rib or switch to the standard route from there. This flexibility allows mountaineers to assess their current conditions, weather, and personal abilities to determine the best course of action.

West Rib Technical Difficulty

The West Rib route is considered one of the more technically challenging routes up Denali. It requires climbers to possess advanced mountaineering skills, including proficiency in ice and mixed climbing, route finding, and self-rescue techniques. The exposed nature of the ridge and the demanding terrain make the West Rib a true test of a climber’s abilities and experience. It’s essential to have a thorough understanding of the route and to be well-prepared both mentally and physically before attempting this challenging climb.

West Rib Escape Route

In the event of inclement weather, deteriorating conditions, or personal limitations, having an escape route is vital for climbers attempting the West Rib. One potential escape option is to descend via the West Buttress route. By joining the West Buttress at 14,000 ft Camp, climbers have the flexibility to switch to the standard route and make their way down the mountain. It’s crucial to evaluate the need for an escape route before attempting the West Rib and communicate the plan with your climbing team.

West Rib Route OverviewWest Rib Technical DifficultyWest Rib Escape Route
The West Rib route is a technically challenging climb that diverges from the West Buttress route at Ski Hill.The West Rib is considered one of the more technically challenging routes up Denali, requiring advanced mountaineering skills.Should the need arise, climbers attempting the West Rib have the option to descend via the West Buttress route.
The initial approach to the West Rib, known as the Valley of Death, is hazardous due to the risk of avalanches.Proficiency in ice and mixed climbing, route finding, and self-rescue techniques is necessary for the West Rib.By joining the West Buttress at 14,000 ft Camp, climbers can switch to the standard route for their descent.
The West Rib traverses a ridge, offering breathtaking views and demanding technical skills.Climbers attempting the West Rib should be well-prepared both mentally and physically.Having a well-communicated escape plan is crucial for the safety of climbers attempting the West Rib.
West Rib Route Image

Cassin Ridge

The Cassin Ridge is a highly challenging and technical route on Denali, suitable only for experienced and skilled climbers. First climbed in 1961 by an Italian team led by Ricardo Cassin, this route presents a demanding and rewarding ascent. Following Denali’s south face parallel to the West Rib, the Cassin Ridge is renowned for its steep ice, narrow ridges, and difficult rock sections. Climbing the Cassin Ridge requires advanced mountaineering skills and the ability to handle exposed and challenging terrain.

The technical difficulty of the Cassin Ridge makes it a route that should only be attempted by climbers with extensive experience and a high level of expertise. The alpine style of climbing on this route involves moving quickly and efficiently, with a focus on self-sufficiency and minimal gear. Success on the Cassin Ridge requires not only physical strength and endurance, but also mental fortitude and sound decision-making capabilities.

“The Cassin Ridge is one of the most challenging and committing routes on Denali. It offers a true test of technique, endurance, and mental resilience. Climbers who attempt this route must be fully prepared for the technical difficulty it presents.” – John Davis, Experienced Mountaineer

Key Features of the Cassin Ridge:

  • Steep ice
  • Narrow ridges
  • Difficult rock sections
  • Exposed and challenging terrain

To successfully climb the Cassin Ridge, climbers must have a comprehensive understanding of advanced mountaineering techniques, including ice climbing, rock climbing, and route finding. The ability to assess and mitigate risks is crucial, as the route poses continuous challenges throughout.

The Cassin Ridge represents the epitome of extreme mountaineering, attracting seasoned climbers seeking an extraordinary challenge. It requires meticulous planning, a high level of physical fitness, and exceptional technical skills. A successful ascent of the Cassin Ridge is a testament to a climber’s dedication, skill, and resilience in the face of formidable obstacles.

Safety Considerations and Gear Hauling

When embarking on a climb of Mount Denali, safety should be your top priority. The National Park Service has established fixed lines on certain sections of the route to aid climbers in their ascent and descent. It is crucial for climbers to familiarize themselves with the equipment and techniques necessary to safely navigate these fixed lines.

In the event that the fixed lines are damaged or missing, climbers must be prepared to place their own snow and ice anchors. This requires proper training and knowledge of anchoring techniques to ensure the safety of the team.

Another important consideration is gear hauling. While dog sled freight may not be available in certain seasons, it is essential for climbers to properly pack and carry all their gear to and from the mountain. This includes ensuring that all gear is securely fastened and properly distributed for comfortable and efficient hauling.

Safety ConsiderationsGear Hauling
  • Be familiar with fixed line equipment and techniques
  • Place your own anchors if fixed lines are damaged or missing
  • Follow safety protocols and guidelines
  • Communicate effectively within your team
  • Be aware of weather and route conditions
  • Pack gear securely and evenly distribute weight
  • Use proper gear hauling techniques and equipment
  • Be prepared for alternate gear hauling methods
  • Ensure gear is properly fastened and protected
  • Minimize unnecessary gear to lighten the load

By prioritizing safety considerations and implementing effective gear hauling practices, climbers can mitigate risks and increase their chances of a successful and enjoyable climb up Denali.

Denali safety considerations

Approaches to Denali

When planning a Denali climb, one of the important decisions climbers must make is choosing the approach to the mountain. There are two main approaches to Denali: the south side approach and the north side approach.

South Side Approach

The south side approach is the most common route chosen by climbers. Most climbers fly in from Talkeetna and land at the Kahiltna Glacier base camp. From there, they begin their ascent up the West Buttress route, the most popular route on Denali. This approach provides relatively easy access to the mountain and the established route offers a gradual ascent with strategic rest stops along the way.

North Side Approach

An alternative option is the north side approach, which involves trekking across tundra and accessing the mountain from the Muldrow Glacier. This approach is less frequently chosen due to its logistical challenges, such as the lack of air access to the northern side of the mountain. However, for those seeking a more remote and adventurous experience, the north side approach can offer a unique perspective of Denali.

Each approach to Denali has its own logistical considerations and challenges. Climbers should carefully evaluate their preferences, abilities, and the level of adventure they seek when choosing the best route for their ascent.

Recommended Guide Services

When it comes to climbing Denali, having the right guidance and support can make all the difference. That’s why we highly recommend partnering with a professional guide service to ensure your safety and enhance your overall mountaineering experience. Denali National Park authorizes seven guide services that are fully equipped and experienced in leading commercial expeditions on the mountain. These authorized guide services have met the park’s stringent requirements, including possessing the necessary permits and comprehensive knowledge of Denali’s unique challenges.

Choosing the right guide service is crucial, as it can directly impact your success and enjoyment on the mountain. We recommend considering factors such as the guide service’s reputation, safety record, and experience in guiding climbers on Denali. Look for services that offer experienced guides who are well-versed in Denali’s routes, weather conditions, and safety protocols.

Authorized guide services on Denali provide valuable expertise and logistical support, allowing you to focus on the climb itself while they handle the necessary arrangements. They have a deep understanding of the mountain’s terrain, navigation, and the best practices for acclimatization. With their knowledge and guidance, you can navigate challenging sections, make informed decisions, and maximize your chances of reaching the summit.

Whether you are a novice climber or an experienced mountaineer, climbing Denali with an authorized guide service offers added reassurance and peace of mind. Their guidance can help you overcome obstacles, make the most of your abilities, and ensure your safety throughout the expedition.

Benefits of Climbing Denali with a Guide Service:

  • Expert guidance from experienced mountaineers who have extensive knowledge of Denali’s routes, weather conditions, and safety protocols.
  • Affordable access to specialized equipment, such as avalanche safety gear, that may be costly to purchase independently.
  • Logistical support, including air transportation, base camp setup, and food provision, allowing you to focus on the climb itself.
  • Promotion of responsible mountaineering practices and adherence to park regulations, ensuring a sustainable and respectful climbing experience.

When selecting a guide service for your Denali climb, carefully research and consider your options. Look for reviews, testimonials, and recommendations from climbers who have previously used their services. Evaluate their safety record, responsiveness to client needs, and the overall quality of their guided expeditions. By choosing a reputable guide service that aligns with your goals, you can embark on a successful and fulfilling journey to summit North America’s highest peak.

Authorized Guide Services on Denali
1. Alaska Mountaineering School
2. Alaska Denali Guiding
3. Mountain Trip
4. Alaska Mountain Guides
5. International Mountain Guides
6. Alpine Ascents International
7. Ascending Path

Important Considerations When Choosing a Guide Service:

  • Reputation and reviews from past climbers
  • Years of experience guiding on Denali
  • Guide-to-client ratio
  • Guide qualifications and certifications
  • Services and logistical support provided
  • Price and included amenities

Climbing Denali – Timing and Considerations

Climbing Denali requires careful timing and considerations. The climbing season from late April to mid-July offers different weather conditions and challenges.

When planning your Denali climb, it’s important to assess your experience level, physical fitness, and cold weather tolerance. The ascent to Denali’s summit is physically demanding and requires a high level of fitness and endurance. Prepare yourself by engaging in regular physical training and conditioning exercises to build strength and stamina.

Considering the timing of your climb is crucial. Late April and May bring colder temperatures and strong winds, which can present additional challenges. June and July offer milder weather and less wind, but there may be more snowfall during this time. Take into account your cold weather gear and clothing for these conditions.

Acclimatization is another key factor to consider. Denali is a high-altitude mountain, and climbers need to allow their bodies sufficient time to adjust to the thin air. Plan for rest days at designated camps to allow your body to acclimate and recover before continuing the ascent.

The journey to the summit of Denali is as much a test of mental strength as it is physical. It requires determination, perseverance, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

By carefully considering these factors and preparing both physically and mentally, you can increase your chances of having a successful and enjoyable climbing experience on Denali.


Climbing Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is a thrilling and challenging adventure that offers mountaineers the opportunity to conquer North America’s highest peak. With various routes to choose from, climbers can tailor their experience based on their skills and aspirations. Whether you choose the popular West Buttress route, the remote Muldrow Glacier route, or the technical Cassin Ridge route, careful planning and consideration of safety precautions are essential for a successful climb.

By selecting the right route for your abilities and interests, you can maximize your chances of reaching the summit and experiencing the awe-inspiring beauty of Denali. It’s important to research and understand the challenges and risks associated with each route, and to choose the one that aligns best with your mountaineering experience and goals.

Additionally, joining a guided expedition with an authorized guide service can provide the expertise and support needed for a safe and enjoyable climb. These professional guides have the necessary experience and knowledge to navigate the mountain, ensuring the best possible chance of success while prioritizing safety.

Climbing Denali is not just a physical feat, but also a mental and emotional journey. It requires determination, resilience, and a deep respect for the power and unpredictability of nature. With careful preparation and the right mindset, climbers can embark on an unforgettable adventure and proudly join the ranks of those who have summited this iconic peak.

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