Mountaineering at Denali National Park: Adventure in America’s Last Frontier

August 12th, 2011 Permalink

Only about 400,000 brave souls come to the remote and rugged last frontier of Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska each year. Many of those come to see the wildlife or scenery like the highest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley. Together, the park and preserve together cover 9,492 mi² (24,585 km²). The “centerpiece” of Denali National Park and Preserve is Mount McKinley which is known as Denali, meaning “The High One.” It’s massive peak crowns the 600-mile-long Alaska Range. According to the CIA World Factbook, Denali’s summit elevation is 20,335 ft (6,198 meters). Whether you regard it as fearless or foolish, some of the most daring and adventurous souls come to Denali to climb and to taste the clean, cold air of adventure. Some move far beyond “normal” climbing to mountaineering. Not just anyone can take on the world-class mountaineering opportunities at Denali, but climbers come from all over the world to test their mountaineering and wilderness survival skills. Since many of us will never go mountaineering on Denali, here’s a look at some of the climbers, mountaineers, and rangers who are up to the high altitude challenges of Mt. McKinley and the vertical rock and ice walls that line the Ruth Gorge. While we love these pics, we got cold chills just staring at the photos. We cannot urge you strongly enough to read the NPS Mountaineering Booklet from which we snipped bits of wisdom to go with these awesome photos. [37 Photos]

Denali National Park - A mountaineering ranger at high camp performs duties

Denali National Park – A mountaineering ranger at high camp is performing his duties. According to the National Park Service (NPS), “Our goal is that you have a safe journey while climbing in the Alaska Range. All climbers attempting Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet) or Mt. Foraker (17,400 feet) must register with Denali National Park and Preserve. The strictly enforced 60-day pre-registration regulation allows mountaineering rangers to have direct contact with climbers before they arrive in Talkeetna. In doing so, rangers are able to suggest appropriate routes for different levels of expertise and offer first-hand knowledge of conditions encountered in the Alaska Range.” Photo #1 by NPS

Mountaineering Denali National Park  - Basecamp on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier

Mountaineering Denali National Park – Basecamp on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier which is the longest glacier on Denali. The Denali National Park and Preserve published a Mountaineering Booklet which is available in nine languages. It “covers mandatory requirements, search and rescue information, clean climbing ethics, high altitude medical issues, glacier hazards, and self-sufficiency. Climbers should have a solid understanding of the extreme mental and physical stresses associated with high altitude mountaineering.” Photo #2 by NPS


Mountaineering Denali National Park - A view from high above the rest

Mountaineering Denali National Park – A view from high above the rest. According to the Mountaineer Booklet (.pdf), “Alaska has long been regarded as the last frontier offering some of the most remote and rugged mountains in the world. The quest for solitude and adventure lures thousands of climbers from around the world into the backcountry each year to test their skills and wilderness experience. Unfortunately, every year, numerous accidents and some fatalities result from poor judgment. A hundred years ago wilderness survival skills were a way of life in the Alaska. The rules were simple and harsh: Survival was your responsibility, no one else’s. We have grown socially and culturally unwilling to accept that primitive education which dictated that people simply learned or died.” Photo #3 by NPS

A quiet ski in the Alaska Range - Denali National Park

A quiet ski in the Alaska Range. The Denali National Park Service says, “If you plan to climb with a guide, make certain that the service is authorized by Denali National Park and Preserve. Each year climbers mistakenly pay illegal guides that advertise their services. Illegal guiding is prohibited and these climbs could be cancelled at any time.” They maintain a list of authorized guides. Photo #4 by NPS

A morning line-up at Motorcycle Hill at Denali

A morning line-up at Motorcycle Hill. It’s more than climbers and adrenaline junkies who are capable and fit enough, scientists and researchers also come to conduct scientific or medical research in the mountainous or glaciated areas of Denali National Park and Preserve. Photo #5 by NPS

Backcountry Mountaineering at Denali National Park

Playing around in backcountry. The Mountaineering Booklet advises solo climbers, “The major hazard facing a soloist on Denali is that even the most cautious and experienced climber is unable to determine the location of and/or strength of the many snow bridges that must be crossed. Each year, a number of people take serious crevasse falls on the large Alaskan glaciers. Nearly all of these falls prove to be little more than an adrenaline rush for the entire climbing team… unless of course, the person who fell is either improperly roped or not roped at all. Unfortunately, experience plays little part in determining who falls through these snow bridges. Some crevasses may be faintly visible while others are totally undetectable.” Photo #6 by NPS

camping in the Ruth Gorge - Denali National Park

Camping in the Ruth Gorge. Five large glaciers flow off the slopes of the mountain.The Ruth Glacier lies to the southeast of the mountain. According to Wikipedia, “Its upper reaches are almost three vertical miles (4.8 km) below the summit of Mount McKinley. The glacier’s “Great Gorge” is one mile (1.6 km) wide, and drops almost 2,000 feet (600 m) over ten miles (16 km), with crevasses along the surface. Above the surface on both sides are 5,000-foot (1,500-m) granite cliffs. From the top of the cliffs to the bottom of the glacier is a height exceeding that of the Grand Canyon. Ruth Glacier moves at a rate of 3.3 feet (1 m) a day and was measured to be 3,800 feet (1,158 m) thick in 1983.” Photo #7 by NPS

Scenery outside the tent at Denali

Scenery outside the tent at Denali. From the Mountaineering Booklet, “Many times I have tried to warn climbers and backpackers of nature’s cold and harsh realities. The Alaska environment can be extremely unfriendly to humans. It is indifferent and unforgiving. On top of that, the scale of Alaska is easily underestimated. Most people set unrealistic expectations. Ten miles cross-country in Alaska is not like 10 miles on trail systems in the lower 48 but more like 30 or 40 trail miles.” Make sure you are ready if you attempt such climbs as search and rescue missions put many lives at risk. Photo #8 by NPS

Into the Unknown - Moving off into 5.9R rock, the Battle of Britain, London Tower, Denali NP

The photographer wrote, “Into the Unknown – Moving off into 5.9R rock, the Battle of Britain, London Tower, Denali NP.” While the Mountaineering Booklet is much too polite to be so blunt, any idiot who attempts to climb during an Alaskan winter is beyond stupid. In fact, they most likely have a death wish. The jet stream has winds over 100+ mph and some of the world’s best climbers have “flash frozen” or disappeared. November through April are the coldest on Denali with temperatures averaging from -30°F to -70°F at the 19,000 foot level. Even in early May, temperatures at the 17,200 foot camp can be about -50°F. Photo #9 by cba_inc

Oh, yeah, it's great...Moving up on the Rooster Comb, Denali NP, AK

“Oh, yeah, it’s great…Moving up on the Rooster Comb,” noted the photographer. Due to weather conditions, May through July are the best months to attempt climbing. April is considered a good month for climbing the the lower peaks. Photo #10 by cba_inc

Cornice Crossing - Moving up the Southwest Ridge of Peak 11,300 - Denali

Cornice Crossing – Moving up the Southwest Ridge of Peak 11,300. Photo #11 by cba_inc

Mountaineering Denali National Park weather warning - high winds forecast at the 14,200-foot camp

Mountaineering Denali National Park weather warning – high winds forecast at the 14,200-foot camp. Photo #12 by NPS

National Park Mountaineering Ranger probes the snow looking for crevasses before beginning to stage survival equipment for the Base Camp on the Lower Kahiltna Glacier

A National Park Mountaineering Ranger probes the snow looking for crevasses before beginning to stage survival equipment for the Base Camp on the Lower Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park. Ski planes land on the glacier, and drop off mountaineers on climbing expeditions to Mt. McKinley or other peaks nearby. U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK) Photo #13 by Stff Sgt. Brehl Garza

Denali National Park mountaineers taking a break

Mountaineers taking a break. There are more than 30 routes on Denali. The National Park Service can advise on routes, weather, appropriate equipment for climbing and gear to help avoid frostbite during the arctic climb. And then there’s also the many arctic high altitude mountaineering medical issues to consider. Definitely read the Mountaineering Booklet. Photo #14 by NPS

Lenticular cap over Mt. McKinley

Lenticular cap over Mt. McKinley. Photo #15 by NPS

Traveling in the Ruth Gorge between towering peaks

Traveling in the Ruth Gorge between towering peaks. Photo #16 by NPS

Vacation In Mordor aka Denali National Park

Vacation In Mordor aka Denali National Park. Photo #17 by Dawn Endico

Brrr frozen everything at Denali

Brrr! Frozen everything at Denali. Mountaineers are a special breed to take on Alaska’s cold adventures. Photo #18 by NPS

A rare sunset view for mountaineers at Denali National Park

A rare sunset view for mountaineers at Denali National Park. Photo #19 by NPS

Denali National Park view from up high

Denali National Park view from up high. Photo #21 by NPS

Alaska National Guard Iron Dog snowmobile race, Camp Denali, Alaska

U.S. Army Warrant Officer Rick Fleming, left, and U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Elaine Jackson, assigned to the Alaska National Guard, cut through the fresh powder in preparation for the 2010 Alaska National Guard Iron Dog snowmobile race, Camp Denali, Alaska. Alaska National Guard Photo #22 by U.S. Army Pfc. Karina Paraoan

Rock climbing in the Ruth Gorge

Rock climbing in the Ruth Gorge. Photo #23 by NPS

Dad on Denali

The photographer wrote, “Dad on Denali.” Photo #24 by Clay Junell

Climbers on Mt McKinley take in the view from above

Climbers on Mt McKinley take in the view from above. Photo #25 by NPS

Flightseeing Denali National Park

Not everyone is cut out for climbing or to be a mountaineer. The photographer noted, “Flightseeing Denali National Park. ‘One of America’s Greatest Natural Wonders’ page 563 of 1000 Places to See Before you Die” Photo #26 by Jennifer (-just-jen-)

Mt. Foraker illuminated by the setting sun - Denali National Park

Mt. Foraker illuminated by the setting sun. Photo #27 by NPS

National Park Mountaineering Rangers unload survival equipment from a CH-47 Chinook on the Base Camp on the Lower Kahiltna Glacier

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Simon from 1-52 AV. BN. Fort Wainwright, Alaska assist the National Park Mountaineering Rangers unload survival equipment from a CH-47 Chinook on the Base Camp on the Lower Kahiltna Glacier. The base camp is used as a staging area for mountain climbers waiting to ascend Denali. U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK) Photo #28 by Staff Sgt Brehl Garza

Spc. Dave Shebib is among four wounded warriors attempting to summit Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, in Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve, June 1, 2009

Spc. Dave Shebib is among four wounded warriors attempting to summit Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. Photo #29 by The U.S. Army

Mountaineering at Denali National Park

Mountaineering at Denali National Park. Photo #30 by NPS

Backcountry climbers at Denali National Park

Backcountry climbers. Photo #31 by NPS

Sunset Glacier Valley at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park, Alaska

Sunset Glacier Valley at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo #32 by Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire

Denali Detail

Denali Detail. Much nicer weather, we are going back down, scooting further back, in order to better see where the mountaineers were. Photo #33 by Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire

Reflections on Denali Mount McKinley, Alaska

Reflections on Denali Mount McKinley, Alaska. Photo #34 by Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire

Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo #35 by BillC

Down the valley towards Denali on this beautiful day, with the one park road winding its way

Down the valley towards Denali on this beautiful day, with the one park road winding its way. The National Park Service says, “The road is 92 miles long, and only the first 15 miles of it are paved. That paved portion, leading from the park entrance to Savage River, is open during the summer for public (non-commercial) vehicles to drive. Summer travel beyond mile 15, which is hugely recommended, is by shuttle or tour bus, or under human power. The summer season in Denali runs from late May through early September.” Since the Park Road is a “winding dirt road that travels along cliffs and through mountain passes – highly trained drivers allow you to sit back and enjoy the views while someone else does the driving.” Photo #36 by Nic McPhee from Morris, MN, USA

Light escapes through a break in the clouds over Mt Hunter - Denali National Park

Light escapes through a break in the clouds over Mt Hunter – Denali National Park. We salute the special breed of adrenaline junkies who take on the cold, clean air and challenges of being Denali climbers and mountaineers. Photo #37 by NPS


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