Denali via the West Buttress

Denali West Buttress RouteThe classic route up Denali, the West Buttress, is the most popular and accessible route to the top of North America. First pioneered in 1950 by the untiring Dr. Bradford Washburn, it climbs more than 13,000 feet (3,960 meters) of elevation from the snow airstrip on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. While not overly technical, the West Buttress does require that climbers have a solid foundation of basic mountaineering skills, a high level of physical fitness, and are prepared for the rigors of climbing a high-altitude, arctic mountain.

There is often a common misconception that the West Buttress is a “walk up” or a “hike.” The lower half of the route is non-technical and is essentially a glacier hike, but climbers need to understand that the Kahiltna Glacier forms some of the biggest crevasses on the planet, which are often completely hidden by snow bridges of uncertain integrity. There have been numerous rescues of climbers who underestimated the Kahiltna Glacier, and more than one tragedy. Risks of avalanche and rockfall increase as you gain elevation with steeper terrain, presenting travel and route selection challenges. The higher altitudes present other risks, including cold and wind, which can often be good reasons to stay put in camp and wait for better conditions. Finally, summit day is very serious. Climbers should expect extreme cold, and only those sufficiently fit and prepared should attempt the top.

Click on the red icons below for details on different sections of the route.

Summit Denali

Climbing Itinerary

Most climbers will fly into the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC), which is about a two-hour drive from the little town of Talkeetna, home to the Walter Harper Ranger Station of Denali National Park and Preserve, the launching point for all Denali expeditions.

Your air taxi will deposit you on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, where you will need to check in with the NPS Base Camp detail and also pick up the fuel you have purchased from your air taxi. Most climbers camp down glacier and north of the airstrip. You can cache supplies for your return, but check with the NPS rangers for direction on where and how to do this.

Depending on when you fly, you might elect to spend the night, part of the night, or just hit the glacier and head out.

Denali - 7,800' CampDAY 2: SINGLE-CARRY TO 7,800′ CAMP
Departing Base Camp, the route drops down the infamous Heartbreak Hill and onto the broad Kahiltna Glacier. Most teams will move camp to about 7,800′, near the junction with the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. This is a moderately tough day of about 5 miles and is a good warm up for the upcoming days.

There are a couple areas of increased crevasse hazard en route, namely the first mile after joining the main Kahiltna Glacier, the subtle icefalls as you pass Mount Francis and, later in the season, the last mile or so before you reach the bottom of Ski Hill at 7,800′.

*Quick stats: 8 km / 5 miles with 365 m / 1,200’ of elevation gain
*Climbing time: ~ 4.5–6 hours

Immediately up glacier from 7,800′ Camp is the 1,800′ glaciated slope known as Ski Hill. At the head of the Kahiltna Glacier is Kahiltna Pass, the low point between Denali and Mount Capps to the west. Weather often pours down onto the Kahiltna Pass from over this 10,250′ pass, resulting in a thick layer of clouds that can completely enshroud the glacier above Ski Hill. There are several options for camping between 9,000′ and 11,000′, but many teams opt to push higher to the basin camp at 11,000’ to avoid getting caught in whiteout conditions in this zone.

If you double-carry this stretch from 7,800’, it is a moderately difficult carry of 7–9 miles round trip, depending on how high on the glacier you bury your cache. Ski Hill has the most vertical gain of the day. There aren’t generally too many crevasses on this stretch, but there can be on Ski Hill, especially in the middle of the glacier. Care should be taken in low visibility conditions as the glacier above Ski Hill is fairly non-descript. There can be icefall hazard on the east side of Kahiltna Pass if you cut the corner to Camp 2 a bit too closely.

*Quick stats: 12.87 km/8 miles round trip, with 670 m/2,200’ of elevation gain and loss
*Climbing time: ~ 6–8 hours

11,200' CampDAY 4: MOVE TO 11,000′ CAMP
For most climbers, the second camp is often in the 11,000’ basin at the base of Motorcycle Hill. This is a beautiful location that basks in alpenglow when the sun travels around the north side of the mountain. You can see out across the tundra to the northwest of Denali on clear nights.

Retrace your route to your previous cache site and continue up another 1,000′ into the basin. If you arrive in low visibility, be careful about establishing camp too far south as there are huge seracs ringing the southern side that regularly fall into the basin. Also, probe your camp well! Crevasses run under much of the basin, even in the most commonly used camp area.

*Quick stats: 7.64 km/4.75 miles one way, with 1036 m/3,400’ of elevation gain
*Climbing time: ~ 5.5–7 hours

Consider this an “active rest day,” during which you’ll quickly drop back down and pick up the cache left near Kahiltna Pass. Taking a day here also helps mitigate the big increase in elevation gain between Camp 1 and the next camp at 14,200’.

*Quick stats: 2.4 km/1.5 miles round trip, with 365 m/1,200’ of elevation loss and gain
*Climbing time: 1.5 hours round trip

windy corner

Immediately above Camp 2 is the 1,000′-high Motorcycle Hill. Moderately steep snow climbing rewards climbers with spectacular views. There are often crevasses on Motorcycle Hill and beware of avalanche hazard from the slopes to “climber’s right” as you ascend.

Above Motorcycle Hill are a series of slopes that break away to “climber’s left,” collectively known as Squirrel Hill. These are often windswept and can be icy at times. At the top of Squirrel Hill you can encounter some crevasses as the route gently climbs toward the expansive West Buttress towering above you to the north. The route climbs up along the base of the West Buttress along a glacier often called “The Polo Field.” Sloughs and slides run off the buttress and can sweep the trail, so exercise caution as you make your way toward the infamous Windy Corner. This feature is a steep rock rib that drops down to the glacier and around, which can blow winds sweeping in from the immense South Face of Denali.

Above Windy Corner there can be elevated crevasse hazard and, in recent years, there has been an increased hazard from rockfall tumbling down from the West Buttress. Many teams deposit caches a few hundred meters above Windy Corner. The snow can be quite firm in this zone, so be prepared to work to put in a cache.

*Quick stats: 6.43 km/4 miles, with 700 m/2,300’ of elevation gain
*Climbing time: ~ 6–7 hours round trip

14,200' CampDAY 7: MOVE CAMP TO 14,200′
This can be a tough day and making a weather decision can be challenging because you cannot see Windy Corner from camp. As you climb above Windy Corner and approach Genet Basin at 14,200’, there are some big cracks to negotiate. NPS rangers will often direct climbers as to where they would prefer you camp, so you might want to consult with them before you start digging tent platforms.

Genet Basin can receive tremendous wind, so spend the time to build robust snow walls around your camp.

*Quick stats: 4 km/2.5 miles, with 914 m/3,200’ of elevation gain
*Climbing time: ~ 5–7 hours

If you left a cache near Windy Corner, it’s a pretty easy day to drop down and retrieve it. Consider it an active rest day to help build your base level of acclimatization.

*Quick stats: 1.6 km/1 mile round trip, with 213 m/700’ of elevation loss and gain
*Climbing time: ~ 1.5 hours round trip

It’s probably worth taking a lap up the fixed lines to the ridge atop the West Buttress. You’ll build acclimatization as well as familiarize yourselves with the climbing on the Headwall. It can get hot up there on a clear, still day, so consider an early start.

The slopes leading up to the Headwall are not terribly steep, so climbers will often hike straight up rather than switchback upward. Rocks can fall from the ridge and avalanches can cut loose from the Rescue Gulley up above on climber’s right. This zone can also be one of the bottleneck points of the West Buttress route, so be considerate of other climbing teams.

Note that there are two ropes fixed up the Headwall. The one to climber’s right is for ascending and the left-hand one is for descending. Be patient with other climbers, and if their pace is too slow for you, maybe you don’t need to use the fixed lines?

Atop the fixed ropes there is a somewhat flat area commonly used for establishing caches, although there are plenty of other options along the ridge. There used to be a snow cave off the backside of the ridge, above the Peters Glacier, where climbers would camp in advance of moving to the traditional High Camp. Not too many climbers camp on the ridge anymore as it can be an inhospitable place in a storm. Tents have blown off it and fallen down towards the Peters Glacier.

*Quick stats: 3.8 km/2.4 miles round trip, with 670 m/2,200’ of elevation gain and loss
*Climbing time: ~ 5–7 hours

It is often prudent to take a rest/acclimatization day prior to moving up to High Camp. Many climbers feel this day really helps their acclimatization.

17,200' CampDAY 12: MOVE TO HIGH CAMP
This is a big day, so be deliberate with your decision making about when to launch for the camp at 17,200’. Some teams will climb up the fixed ropes and grab some supplies from their cache en route to High Camp, while others might opt to carry sufficient supplies for a summit bid and use the cache for re-supply purposes.

The ridge above the Headwall is home to some of the most fun climbing on the West Buttress route, as you weave your way between rock outcrops and along knife-edged sections of ridge. There is a lot of exposure at times, so consider how you will travel and how you will protect roped teams.

Once you arrive at 17,200’, the work has, in some ways, just started. You will probably want to fortify your camp with snow walls, perhaps walls two or more blocks thick. The following is from the NPS Mountaineering Summary from 1981:

“A group camped at 17,000 feet on the West Buttress route reported that six feet of snow fell in one day. The following day winds of 100 miles per hour removed every bit of new snow from the camp.”

*Quick stats: 3.21 km/2 miles, with 914 m/3,000’ of elevation gain
*Climbing time: ~ 6–8 hours

Many, if not most climbers, will benefit from a rest day after the big day of climbing up the ridge. It’s possible to make a summit bid the day after arriving at High Camp, but it’s pretty tough.

Denali SummitDAY 14: SUMMIT DAY
Be patient. Summit day is a hard, long day and there is no good place above High Camp to spend the night, so plan on making a round trip, whether you stand on the summit that day or not. Listen for the NPS broadcasted weather forecasts and plan accordingly. Keep in mind, however, that the forecast is often wrong, so compare what you hear over the radio with what you see outside your tent. Long plumes of snow blowing off the upper mountain, called “flagging,” could mean it’s too windy, but are those plumes growing larger or are they shrinking?

Plan on spending 8–12 hours or more for summit day. There is no good place to stop and rest before reaching Denali Pass at 18,000’, so climbing up to that point in the shade is often very doable as you can probably keep moving to generate body heat. Denali Pass often gets sun by 10 a.m. or so, making for a relatively pleasant place to take a break if the wind is not blowing too hard. Consider starting your summit day between 8 a.m. and noon to maximize sunshine on the route.

Alaska climbers enjoy some dark humor, and the traversing route up from High Camp to Denali Pass is called the “Autobahn” for a group of Germans who slipped. The name is a good reminder to treat this section of the route with respect. It’s the site of the most fatalities on the entire mountain, the majority of which were falls that might have been prevented by clipping protection. In recent years, the NPS and guide services have collaborated to keep snow pickets fixed in place along the route, but it’s worth bringing some along in case some are missing and to place higher up. It’s difficult to pass slower teams, so be patient and communicate with them.

Above Denali Pass the route climbs up past a grey and black rock outcrop known as Zebra Rocks. It can be fairly steep here, and teams often protect it with 1–2 pickets. The route is somewhat non-descript for a bit past Zebra Rocks, winding through rolling terrain until climbing up over the back side of Archdeacon’s Tower at about 19,500’ and then dropping down onto a broad flat stretch known as the Football Field. A moderately steep hill climbs up beyond the Football Field and leads to the summit ridge.

There are different ways to approach “Pig Hill,” as it is known. Climbing up and right will land you on a flat perch where you can reorganize before launching out the summit ridge, or you can climb straight up and bisect the ridge. The ridge is spectacular! It is a truly knife-edged ridge with the entire south face of the mountain dropping 9,000’ off to your right.

Reverse the route to descend, taking care as you descend the steeper sections. Remain vigilant—more than one tired, dehydrated and cold climber has slipped while descending the Autobahn.

*Quick stats: 8 k/5 miles round trip, with 914 m/3,000’ of elevation gain and loss
*Climbing time: ~ 9–12+ hours

Most teams will take 1 to 2 days for the descent, depending on the team’s strength and motivation to get home. Down climbing the ridge to the top of the fixed lines deserves attention and respect, and is probably second, behind the Autobahn, for seeing the most accidents.

As you descend, you’ll clean all your caches, meaning you might have the biggest loads of your climb. Check the NPS website for the most current requirements for managing human waste, but be prepared to carry it all out, along with extra food, trash, wands, etc.