4 ways to climb Denali

Every cloud has a silver lining, and one advantage of failing to climb a beautiful mountain like Denali, as I did earlier this month, is that you have an excuse to go back there.

No two climbs are ever the same, but mountains have many facets, and by choosing an alternative route you can feel like you’re climbing a different mountain. Also known as Mount McKinley, 6194m Denali is the highest peak in North America and one of the Seven Summits. For this reason and because it gives a taste of the Himalayas on the doorstep of the Alaskan wilderness, it’s a mountain many people return to. I certainly intend to.

There are some great options on Denali, depending on your talent and fortitude. Here are four of them.

1. West Buttress

Sledge pulling up Squirrel Hill on the West Buttress Route, with the West Buttress up ahead
Sledge pulling up Squirrel Hill on the West Buttress Route, with the West Buttress up ahead

Over 90% of the people who climb Denali these days ascend it by the standard route up the West Buttress. It was first identified as the best line of ascent from an aircraft by Denali legend Bradford Washburn in the 1930s. Washburn climbed the mountain twice by what was then the normal route up the Muldrow Glacier before making the first ascent of the West Buttress with Jim Gale and Bill Hackett in 1951. It was a pioneering ascent in more ways than one, and they owe their success as much to the pilot Terris Moore, inventor of the aircraft wheel ski which allows a pilot to take off on wheels and lower a ski into place for a glacier landing while airborne. Moore landed them on the Kahiltna Glacier at the start of their climb, and this cut out many days of laborious hauling of supplies across mosquito-infested tundra which had dogged expeditions to Denali before then.

These days there are several bush pilots in Talkeetna, Denali’s gateway town, offering a regular service of glacier landings, and the national park ranger service has a full time base camp manager living on the Kahiltna Glacier during the climbing season. It’s easy to see why Washburn predicted the West Buttress would become the standard route if aircraft support became available. A straightforward snow ramp leads between peaks and ridges, and it’s possible to haul a sledge to 14,000 ft Camp (4300m) on a broad plateau looking south. Above here the route is steeper but the climbing is straightforward. A steep slope leads up to a dramatic ridge which needs to be traversed to high camp at 5250m. Summit day involves a short traverse to Denali Pass, the 5545m col between Denali’s north peak and main summit. Above this the route climbs to the left of the ridge crest and crosses a flat expanse known as the Football Field before reaching the short but exposed summit ridge.

You can get more detail about this route by reading my account of our expedition which I posted last week.

2. Muldrow Glacier

The north side of Denali. The Muldrow and Harper Glaciers can clearly be seen leading all the way up to Denali Pass between the two summits (Photo: Derek Ramsey).
The north side of Denali. The Muldrow and Harper Glaciers can clearly be seen leading all the way up to Denali Pass between the two summits (Photo: Derek Ramsey).

Of course, for some people a long trek to the foot of a mountain is part of the experience. For nearly 40 years the Muldrow Glacier on the northern side was the standard route and has a colourful history. The north peak was first climbed from this direction in 1910 by a team of sourdoughs, hardy gold prospectors with a great deal of toughness but no mountaineering experience. Billy Taylor, Pete Anderson and a third climber Charlie McGonagall who stopped just short of the summit, climbed 8000 feet and back in 18 hours without ropes, wearing rudimentary nailed shoes on their feet, and carrying long alpenstocks instead of ice axes. Most remarkable of all they carried a 14 foot spruce pole with them containing the American flag, which they hoped would be seen from the summit to verify their ascent. Nearly everyone doubted their claim for three years until a sharp eyed native American called Walter Harper spotted it from the Harper Glacier (which was later named after him) a few hundred metres below in 1913. Harper’s team was led by an episcopal missionary called Hudson Stuck, the Archdeacon of the Yukon, who had a fascination with Denali. His climbing leader was a wilderness explorer called Harry Karstens, and the fourth member of their team was a young church assistant called Robert Tatum. They made the first ascent of Denali by ascending the Muldrow Glacier and traversing the main summit below Denali Pass on the opposite side from where the West Buttress reaches it, joining the main ridge just below the summit.

These days the Muldrow Glacier Route is hardly ever climbed, despite being as straightforward from a technical point of view as the West Buttress. The reason lies in the logistics, which are harder to organise than they are for the West Buttress because planes are not allowed to fly into the northern side, and so there is no air service. After a three day trek across tundra from the evocatively named Wonder Lake, the route crosses the McGonagall Pass onto the Muldrow Glacier. This huge river of ice leads all the way up to Denali Pass but is broken by the impenetrable Harper Icefall halfway up. To bypass this obstacle climbers ascend to the left of it on the Karstens Ridge. When Hudson Stuck’s team climbed Denali in 1913, there had been an earthquake the year before, and the ridge was a tumbling mass of ice blocks which took them three weeks to ascend by chopping a ladder of steps. These days the ridge is a little smoother and can be climbed in a couple of days. The Harper Glacier at the top of the ridge is really a continuation of the Muldrow Glacier, and leads up to Denali Pass, where it joins the West Buttress Route to the summit.

3. West Rib

Balcony Camp at 5000m on the West Rib during the first ascent (Photo: Barry Corbet / American Alpine Club)
Balcony Camp at 5000m on the West Rib during the first ascent (Photo: Barry Corbet / American Alpine Club)

For those who fancy something a little more challenging there’s the West Rib, first climbed in 1959 by a team of bold New Englanders, Jake Breitenbach, Barry Corbet, Pete Sinclair and Bill Buckingham. They had very little big mountain experience between them, but plenty of talent, and decided to climb the West Rib after reading Bradford Washburn propose it as a possible line of ascent in a magazine. They also had a decent portion of good luck, experiencing immaculate weather conditions for all 11 days as they worked their way up the ridge, cutting steps and setting fixed lines, and avoiding a huge rock fall along the way. Breitenbach was not so fortunate four years later, and died in the Khumbu Icefall during the first American ascent of Everest.

The West Rib is a step up in technical difficulty from the West Buttress, with some sustained climbing, without being beyond the abilities of ordinary amateur climbers. Like the West Buttress it is accessed by air from the Kahiltna Glacier, and diverges from the West Buttress Route at the foot of Ski Hill, where it takes the Northeast Fork of the glacier. This walk in is the most dangerous part of the route, and is morbidly known as the Valley of Death because of the risk of catastrophic avalanche from both sides as it passes between the south face of Denali and the Kahiltna Peaks to the south. The crest of the rib is accessed by a 55 degree snow couloir on its eastern side, and crosses two snow domes before traversing to the east below a heavily corniced ridge. At around 4800m there is an escape route known as the West Rib Cut Off, which joins the West Buttress Route at 14,000 ft Camp, where it’s possible to climb the standard route for the rest of the way. Above this the West Rib Route takes a 50 degree snow couloir up a huge rock buttress before crossing bouldery terrain to reach snow slopes at 5400m beneath the summit plateau. Here the West Rib effectively ends and it’s necessary to choose one of two snow couloirs which lead to the Football Field on the standard summit route.

4. Cassin Ridge

An Italian climber encounters a grade 5 overhang during the first ascent of the Cassin Ridge (Photo: Ricardo Cassin / American Alpine Club)
An Italian climber encounters a grade 5 overhang during the first ascent of the Cassin Ridge (Photo: Ricardo Cassin / American Alpine Club)

Long regarded as Denali’s classic line, the Cassin Ridge is a bit more hardcore, and for elite climbers or fools only. I’m neither, although some might debate the second one. As with most new routes on Denali, it was originally proposed by Bradford Washburn, who wrote in 1956 that it was the “last and probably the most difficult and dramatic of all potential new routes”. The challenge was taken up by a team of six Italians led by Ricardo Cassin in 1961. They completed their first ascent expedition style using fixed ropes and hauling loads, but nowadays it’s often climbed alpine style. Unlike the West Rib’s first ascensionists, they experienced bad weather for almost the entire climb, but carried on. One of the team suffered serious frostbite and could not put his boots on afterwards. During the descent a team member slipped and would have pulled several of them off the mountain had not Cassin arrested them with his ice axe. On another occasion a belay did not hold, but Cassin managed to grab the rope with his hand and hold it to stop his team mate from falling. Towards the end of the descent the heroic Cassin was completey buried in an avalanche and lost both his crampons, but survived unharmed and continued with cramponless boots. It seems fair enough that the route was eventually named after him.

The Cassin Ridge contains 2400m of sustained climbing at high altitude. With the risk of Arctic storms ever present and no escape routes, it’s one for only the very best. Like the West Rib it is accessed from the south side up the Valley of Death, and climbs Denali’s south face parallel to the rib a little to the east. Four pitches of steep 60 degree ice lead up a feature known as the Japanese Couloir onto the ridge. The appropriately named Knife Edge Ridge which follows is a narrow blade of hard blue ice and overhanging cornices leading onto a much easier hanging glacier. The glacier ends at a formidable 20 metre ice headwall. Above this a series of rock bands need to be crossed, involving 70 degree pitches of mixed rock and ice climbing. Above the rock bands the ridge crest leads all the way to the summit over much easier mixed terrain, and joins the main summit route at the Kahiltna Horn at the western end of the short summit ridge.

What route on Denali is the most popular?

If you’re wondering how busy each route will be, the following infographic leaves no room for doubting how popular the West Buttress is compared to other routes!

The Denali National Park service publishes comprehensive statistics each year on the number of ascents. Here are figures for the total number of successful summits of Denali by each route over the last five years. The overall success rate is about 50%, so the total numbers of climbers equate to roughly twice these figures.

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total %
West Buttress 652 654 630 629 460 3025 92
Muldrow Glacier 17 6 2 28 0 53 1.5
West Rib 53 12 17 15 28 125 4
Cassin Ridge 20 9 11 12 8 60 2
Other routes 13 1 10 3 2 29 0.5
Total 755 682 670 687 498 3292 100

A shout to Joe Puryear, whose great book Alaska Climbing was my source for these route descriptions. You can see photos of my climb of the West Buttress here.

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6 thoughts on “4 ways to climb Denali

  • August 1, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for another informative post. As always, I also enjoyed your earlier post about your climg. It’s a pity you didn’t make the summit, but I applaud your decision to turn back. 🙂 Good luck for when you try again!

    In May this year Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and Ralph Dujmovits tried the Cassin Ridge but had to turn back due to adverse ice and weather conditions. This just goes to show how hard the route is. They later reached the summit via the West Rib.


  • August 1, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Ah, yes, I’m not quite in their class – I think I’ll stick to the Muldrow next time!

  • August 1, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    I’m sure the trek in for that route is worth the experience, too.

  • May 20, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Well done. Just wanted to say thanks for putting this together. I would also like to say my gift to myself when I top out of my apprenticeship as a lineman is going to climb denali. West rib is ideal. I can only dream about climbing the cassin Ridge. I love pushing the envelope. Thanks again.

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