The Denali concession: is it good for customer choice?

There’s a time in the life of a mountain when it becomes too popular to allow people to roam up and down it freely without some regulation, be that permit fees defining which route it must be climbed, rules about waste disposal, or support services for climbers.

Denali National Park headquarters in Talkeetna, Alaska: the starting point for all expeditions to Denali
Denali National Park headquarters in Talkeetna, Alaska: the starting point for all expeditions to Denali

But if Everest is the world’s most chaotically regulated commercial peak, the world’s most tightly controlled is arguably Denali, the highest mountain in North America, which is regulated by the US National Park Service (NPS). Perhaps the most visible and memorable symbol of Denali’s rules is the Clean Mountain Can (CMC), a green plastic bucket every Denali climber must carry on their sledge and shit into when nature calls. As well as buying a permit all climbers must attend a briefing by park rangers at the Denali National Park headquarters in Talkeetna prior to their climb. The rangers themselves maintain a presence at Camp 3 (4250m) throughout the season to provide assistance and respond to emergencies.

While experienced climbers are allowed to climb Denali independently, anyone who wants to climb with a guide must hire one of 6 licensed operators, a rule which as far as I’m aware is unique for a major international peak. Other expedition operators do advertise expeditions to climb Denali, but they only act as agents. If you book with one, you are likely to find yourself on a scheduled group trip run by one of the 6 licensed operators. This happened to me last year. Shortly after booking a friend told me my name appeared on one of the team lists published on the American Alpine Institute’s website. This was a surprise to me, as I booked my trip through the UK operator Jagged Globe, and at the time I had never even heard of the American Alpine Institute.

The 6 licensed operators – Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS), Alpine Ascents, American Alpine Institute (AAI), Mountain Trip, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI) – have each been granted a 10 year concession by the NPS to run guiding services on Denali. The six concessions are currently up for renewal, and any guiding company wishing to apply for one has until 16 January to submit their proposal.

But is it likely other guiding services will soon be operating on Denali? Last time the contract was up for renewal only nine operators applied for six concessions. In its prospectus the US National Park Service says “the existing concessioners are Preferred Offerors for the new Contracts” due to providing a satisfactory service during the previous term. These are not encouraging words for any prospective new applicants. In addition to this two of the existing operators – NOLS and RMI – have the status of Historical Operators which means they will be allowed to keep operating willy-nilly, regardless of the outcome of the competitive tender process. Effectively this means only four concessions are up for grabs. Selection criteria include how much the operator is willing to pay the NPS, the ability to guide safely, and whether their business is local. This last point won’t encourage operators outside the US, if indeed they are even invited. Don’t be too surprised, therefore, if the operators remain unchanged.

Denali's West Buttress route seen from Camp 1 on the Kahiltna Glacier. 92% of people climb Denali by this route. Does the concession system encourage this?
Denali’s West Buttress route seen from Camp 1 on the Kahiltna Glacier. 92% of people climb Denali by this route. Does the concession system encourage this?

So much for mountaineering operators, what does any of this mean for clients? In its prospectus the NPS outlines the following goal of the concessions system:

“Six concessioners are being sought to maintain a competitive business environment and provide a variety of possible mountaineering services reflecting different prices, style and program orientation.”

But is this aim being met? In a previous post I noted that 92% of people climb Denali by the West Buttress, and I’ve struggled to find an operator willing to offer a trip up the historic Muldrow Glacier route. While I’ve heard few complaints about the high standards set by any of these operators, the suggestion the concessions help promote variety caused me to raise my eyebrows. With the exception of NOLS, whose expeditions are aimed at teaching students and young people outdoor skills, as far as I can see the other operators all seem to be much of a muchness.

Am I being fair? I’m a Denali novice who has attempted the mountain only once last year, and much of my opinion is based on hearsay rather than experience. I expect there are a few Denali veterans reading this who know better, and if you’re one I would welcome your insight. For my own part I decided to examine the websites of the six operators to see what variety was on offer.

You can download my full comparison chart as a PDF here, but here is my razor-sharp analysis.

The two words that spring to mind when comparing the operators are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. NOLS are the one exception, but as I mentioned previously they are a training school for young people rather than an expedition operator, and in the words of one mountain guide I spoke to “expect you to clean your ass with snow”. More importantly, their Denali expedition is for previous graduates only, and doesn’t really constitute a choice for most ordinary climbers. I have therefore excluded them from the rest of this comparison. The other five operators are virtually impossible to tell apart.

Whether an independent climber or a commercial client you'll be digging your own tent platform, pitching your own tent, and dragging your own sledge regardless
Whether an independent climber or a commercial client you’ll be digging your own tent platform, pitching your own tent, and dragging your own sledge regardless

Here are the highlights:

  • With the exception of Alaska Mountaineering School, AAI and Mountain Trip, who offer a smaller number of trips on the West Rib, and RMI, who offer a variant on the West Buttress which ascends the West Rib on the upper section, the operators concentrate principally on the West Buttress. Nobody climbs the Muldrow Glacier or Cassin Ridge routes.
  • Prices are virtually identical: $7300-$7400 for West Buttress, and $8200-$8500 for West Rib.
  • Group sizes are either 6 or 9 climbers. The only exception to this is Alaska Mountaineering School’s West Rib trip, which has a maximum of 4 climbers.
  • Alpine Ascents, American Alpine Institute and RMI all operate a client to guide ratio of 3:1. Alaska Mountaineering School and Mountain Trip are both slightly better, with a ratio of 2:1.
  • Trip lengths are all 21 days, with the exception of Mountain Trip, whose West Buttress expedition is 22 days, and West Rib expedition 24 days.
  • The season is basically the beginning of May until mid July. Nobody operates outside these dates.
  • All expeditions are fully catered. The only company who stands out on this point is RMI, who for some reason ask their clients to bring their own snacks for lunch.
  • All operators expect clients to load carry, which means carrying their own personal kit, sharing in the transport of group equipment, and pitching and breaking camp each day. On average climbers can expect to carry around 20kg on their backs and tow another 30kg on a sledge behind them.
  • Even the hidden costs are virtually identical. Expect to fork out an extra $360 on top of the advertised trip cost for the park fees, and whatever you feel is appropriate to tip your guides. You should also budget for transport from Anchorage, accommodation in Talkeetna, but not flights onto the Kahiltna Glacier. The only exception is Mountain Trip, who pay for your shuttle fare from Anchorage to Talkeetna (yippee).

I don’t know what I was expecting to find, that Alpine Ascents conducts expeditions in Mandarin Chinese, or RMI gets its guides to climb dressed in clown outfits, but the degree of similarity was certainly an eye opener. If you’re looking for variety then aside from hiring Susan Boyle and Jerry Seinfeld to host a party, bespoke/private trips seem to be the only way to go. Having said that AAI quote the exact price for a private trip on their website based on the number of clients and guides, which makes you wonder just how bespoke these trips can be. It seems there are only two choices (and according to their site, one climber and one guide isn’t one of them). Supposing I wanted to trim the cost a little, for example by bringing my own food? What if somebody just wanted their guide to guide, would that be possible? I can see why AAI might not want to provide that kind of service, but if none of the licensed operators are prepared to offer more flexibility then NPS should consider dropping one of them for an operator who is, or otherwise increase the number of concessions so that clients have more choice.

With so many supplies to manage, guides to pay, flights to buy and margins to calculate, how on earth do all companies end up charging exactly the same price?
With so many supplies to manage, guides to pay, flights to buy and margins to calculate, how on earth do all companies end up charging exactly the same price?

Perhaps the most shocking statistic is the cost, which suggests collusion worthy of the most notorious cartel. While I have no evidence of price fixing, it’s something the NPS should examine thoroughly when it evaluates the concessions.

It’s worth looking at this point more closely to put things in perspective. I assume not all operators pay their guides the same wage. Some might employ a more experienced lead guide accompanied by others with less experience. One guide may be a promising youngster guiding on Denali for the first time who is earning much less. Then there’s food. Not every operator shops at the same store or cooks their clients the same meals. One operator doesn’t provide snacks for lunch. Tents: some operators may use the same ones for years, while others may be upgrading their tents every season. Some sleep two to a three-man tent while others three to a five-man tent. Operators use different airlines to fly them onto the Kahiltna Glacier, who may charge different prices. And then there’s the simple question of margins. Some operators offer repeat clients as much as a 25% discount (which suggests the margins are quite healthy) while others may charge all their clients the same. The larger guiding companies operate worldwide and Denali expeditions constitute a smaller proportion of their business. These operators may be in a position to lower their prices and make less of a profit on Denali because they have income from other peaks.

With all these factors to take into account (and these are just a few of them), how on earth do their trip prices end up being exactly the same? I hope the NPS will be asking just this question, and perhaps requesting a thorough breakdown of costs to see how it all adds up. In their defence, even in places with fewer restrictions adventure travel companies seem to end up copying each others trips, but at least customers have other options.

While there are some surprising differences – for example, Alpine Ascents advertises its Denali expedition as climbing to 6195m instead of Denali’s widely accepted height of 6194m – here are some more serious suggestions the US National Park Service might look for when evaluating proposals if they truly wish to promote variety.

Alpine Ascents climb a metre higher than their competitors
Alpine Ascents climb a metre higher than their competitors
  • Since the Denali concession is pretty much a license to print money for 10 years, companies who are willing to cut their margins and offer cheaper trips without compromising on quality.
  • Cheaper trips offering fewer services to their clients, such as a higher client to guide ratio, or asking clients to bring food and/or cook their own meals.
  • More luxury expeditions for those willing to pay extra, which provide portering services, or guides who pitch and break camp.
  • Include the guides’ tips in the cost of the trip, for the benefit of clients who come from countries without a strong tipping culture.
  • Longer expeditions for those who have time.
  • A willingness to climb the Muldrow Glacier or Cassin Ridge, despite the extra logistical challenges these routes impose.
  • Trips to climb Denali’s North Peak as well as its higher South Peak.
  • Itineraries that trek to the foot of the mountain rather flying onto the Kahiltna Glacier.
  • A willingness to employ non-US guides, especially those whose first language is not English (as stewards of a mountain with global appeal it’s in the interests of everyone for the NPS to manage it for an international client base).

I expect plenty of people will offer reasons for maintaining things as they are. Equally, I’m sure there are other ways operators can offer variety. These are just suggestions to get the ball rolling, but there’s one thing this comparison illustrates clearly: if an aim of the concession is to promote variety, then it’s about as effective as Eminem in a no swearing contest.

One final note on cost. In its prospectus the NPS asks operators for an 8% franchise fee (presumably of the trip cost), up from 4.25% last time. It’s likely operators won’t bear this cost themselves, and will simply pass it on to their customers. Effectively this means a hike of around $300 in the national park fee. How the NPS will be spending this money in a way that provides tangible benefits to Denali climbers remains to be seen.

Still, at least we can assume they will do something useful with it, unlike other people I could mention. Denali’s concession-based model of regulation is certainly better than that of Everest, which is more of a free for all, with many clients and operators without suitable experience. But does it go too far? As with most things in life the best way is usually somewhere down the middle, perhaps like Aconcagua, where the national park service provides enforceable regulation without being quite so restrictive about who operates there.

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