It’s important that each climber on an expedition is on the same page. A team with half the members with a “summit at all costs” mindset and half with a very conservative mindset could easily devolve into a hot mess after a couple of weeks on the mountain. Teams with a wide diversity in fitness levels could similarly prove frustrating as the work gets continually harder over time.
It’s important to have a clear organizational structure for your team, as leadership vacuums can result in decision-making challenges. In a perfect world, everyone on the team would have climbed together previously, and, based on each climber’s strengths and weaknesses, you would select your team leader. In reality, teams are often comprised of climbers who might never have climbed together before their Denali expedition. We’ll attempt to address some of the considerations that might influence each climber’s expectations and try to provide you with what we feel are realistic expectations as far as the roles and responsibilities for each party.
(Spoiler alert! Most of what follows is geared toward climbing with guides, because heck … we’re mountain guides!)
Whether you organize a climb with friends or engage a guide service to help you have a great experience on a mountain like Denali, you are entering into a partnership with others in pursuit of your personal dream. As with every partnership, there will be areas of collaboration (teamwork) and competition (the self-serving goals of wanting to reach the top). Both elements are important and can be constructive, but it’s important to get everyone aligned with team goals well before your climb.
Climbing Denali requires everyone associated with the expedition to commit to significant preparation before the climb. It also requires a high level of cooperation amongst team members during the climb. Every participant has a job to do at each step of the journey (literally!). The actions of each member can directly affect the other members of the team. If each participant does his or her job in a satisfactory manner, then the entire team will have a good experience, regardless of whether or not the team has an opportunity to stand on the summit.
The Role of the Guide Service Office
We cannot speak on behalf of all guide services, but at Mountain Trip our office team is tasked with providing the logistics, support, and an experienced staff to help each of our climbers have a great experience on Denali. We achieve those goals through a combination of our 40-plus years of institutional knowledge, a commitment to supporting our staff through good wages, educational and equipment assistance, and a never-ending process of reflection and self-evaluation.
Some of the first steps we take as a company to set our teams up for having great experiences are to 1) help manage everyone’s expectations of what climbing Denali is like, and 2) help ensure that climbing Denali is an appropriate choice for each of our climbers. To that end we strive to:
- Provide helpful and realistic information on our website and in our marketing.
- Try not to “sugar coat” Denali, because it’s important that every prospective climber understand that the mountain can have many moods, including some that are unforgiving.
- Provide a realistic expectation of what workload is required to have a successful ascent of the peak.
- Explain what skills are required to climb the mountain, and which of those skills are ones that we can generally teach and refine while on the expedition.
- Engage each participant (climbers and guides) in a high level of clear, open and honest communication.
- Develop and maintain a Risk Management Plan to support the decision-making of our guides in the field.
- Provide our guides with tools (education, training, equipment, etc.) to perform at the highest levels of the industry, including helping them have a clear understanding of both Mountain Trip and National Park Service protocols and requirements.
The Role of Guides
If you climb with a guide service, your guides are tasked with numerous responsibilities, including:
- Facilitating good communication amongst your team.
- Possessing and maintaining requisite mountaineering skills.
- Maintaining current medical certifications.
- Preparing the food and equipment for your climb.
- Making objective hazard assessments and strategic decision-making.
- Observing and evaluating team members throughout the expedition.
- Treating each climber in a respectful and supportive manner.
- Helping each climber with technical skills they need to learn or refine while on the climb.
The Role of Climbers
Regardless of the composition of your team, all climbers are similarly tasked with responsibilities, including:
- Being willing to participate in clear, open and honest communication among the team, and with the guide service office.
- Fulfilling the requisite NPS or guide service paperwork and financial obligations necessary to join an expedition in a timely manner.
- Assembling the appropriate clothing and equipment for the expedition.
- Arriving in Talkeetna in sufficiently good physical condition to fully participate in the expedition.
- Dedicating the time to develop a base of skills sufficient for participating in the expedition.
- Advocating for themselves regarding skills they need or would like to work on during the expedition.
- Conducting themselves respectfully with all other team members and with other climbers.
Maybe Denali isn’t the best idea?
Over the many decades that we have been guiding and organizing expeditions on Denali, we’ve had many occasions to advise prospective climbers that Denali might not be the best idea for them at the time. Often, this comes after discussing their previous experience and/or level of fitness. If you’re organizing an expedition team, keep in mind that it does not serve anyone to bring a climber on an expedition for which he or she is not sufficiently prepared.
However, if history is any guide, occasionally you will find climbers who arrive on the Kahiltna Glacier lacking some degree of preparation. There are opportunities to teach some skills at the lower camps on the mountain and plenty of time to conduct reviews of skills before heading higher on the mountain, but the reality is that as you get higher on Denali, everything becomes harder and more serious. Most of the time, a team can help or support someone who is struggling with aspects of an expedition so that they end up having a great experience and in a manner that does not negatively impact other climbers on the team, but that is not always possible. Ultimately, it’s the personal responsibility of each climber to arrive with the appropriate level of skills, experience and fitness.
We’re going to use a term in the next sentence that we rarely use in our world of managing risk: “safely.” Sometimes, despite the efforts of team members to support a climber who is not demonstrating sufficient skills or fitness to safely navigate the terrain, the most appropriate decision is to turn that climber around. As risk managers, we view safety as an outcome, a state we achieved in hindsight, after mitigating risks to an extent that we were able to execute our plan. Sometimes we achieve it by not executing our plan, if we cannot mitigate risk to be within our risk tolerances.
When a climber has not demonstrated that he or she can appropriately navigate terrain, sometimes the most appropriate choice is to not continue upward. A climber without good crampon technique could pull a rope team off their feet along the 16,000-foot ridge or on the Autobahn. A climber struggling with the workload of moving to 14,000′ Camp could endanger the team on the upper mountain if conditions deteriorate. As difficult a decision as it may be, all team members need to understand that sometimes the best option is for a climber not to continue.
We have tried to distill the skills and fitness requirements for different sections of the West Buttress route into clear benchmarks. Each climber on a team should understand that they need to demonstrate the skills and fitness to meet these benchmarks before joining an expedition. Mountain Trip provides these benchmarks to our climbers so they can be used as a dispassionate tool to assess how each climber is performing. Guides use the following to make a “Green Light, Amber Light, Red Light” assessment of each climber before climbing to a higher elevation on the mountain. If you are organizing your own expedition, consider downloading a PDF of these benchmarks onto you phone and bring it with you on your climb.
Basic Benchmarks for Having a Successful Denali Ascent
Generally, there are opportunities to practice technical skills on the glacier, but prior to advancing up the mountain each climber must demonstrate a minimum level of mastery of certain techniques. Each stretch of the West Buttress has specific hazards, skill requirements, and objectives unique to the terrain you will encounter. The lower glacier affords some time to work on skills during the initial days of the climb, but before moving to the 14,200′ Advanced Base Camp, each team member must demonstrate the following:
- The physical conditioning necessary to move appropriately and efficiently through steep and often hazardous terrain.
- The ability to perform basic personal maintenance (clothing selection, application of sunscreen/lip balm, hydration, eating, hygiene, etc.), with minimal outside guidance.
- A high degree of familiarity with the appropriate use and function of your clothing and equipment, also with minimal outside assistance.
- Demonstrate a high degree of familiarity with basic mountaineering techniques such as the rest step, French Technique, front pointing, running belays, and roped glacier travel techniques.
- Exhibit a willingness and ability to be a team member, meaning that each climber must help establish camps and carry a fair share of the group loads.
- The ability to move between camps at a reasonable pace. This is, of course, highly subjective, but 40-plus years of institutional knowledge has shown us that there are some average times that it takes to move between camps in good conditions. You can add a bit of time for tough trail breaking or rough conditions. For example:
- Single-carrying from Base Camp to 7,800’ Camp in good conditions should take approximately 4-5 hours.
- 7,800’ Camp to 11,000’ Camp should take approximately 6-7 hours.
- Carrying around Windy Corner to 13,700 feet and back to 11,000 feet should take between 6-7 hours round trip.
Take time at 14,200’ Camp to review the use of ascenders on fixed lines, and on passing running belays. Those skills are generally not used below the Headwall, which climbs from 15,600 feet to 16,200 feet. After a bit of review, before moving up to High Camp at 17,200 feet, each climber must demonstrate everything listed above, plus:
- The ability to efficiently use an ascender and negotiate the fixed lines with gloves or mittens when carrying loads up to the ridge above 16,200 feet.
- The capacity to maintain an average time (in good conditions) of carrying up the fixed lines to a cache site at 16,400 feet (+/-) and returning to the 14,200’ Camp, in an average round trip between 6-8 hours.
After arriving at High Camp, you will have a lot of hard work to establish your camp before retiring to your tents. Often, teams will take a rest day after moving to the 17,200-foot level. If the weather permits, you might be able to work on skills during that rest day, but it’s really hard to absorb instruction at 17,200 feet. Before attempting the summit, climbers must demonstrate everything listed above, plus:
- The ability to pass running belays with thick gloves and mittens, as you’ll pass dozens of snow pickets en route to and from the summit.
- The physical conditioning necessary to help carry personal gear and group summit day equipment.
- The physical capacity to maintain an average pace of 7-8 hours en route to High Camp, because summit day could easily take 12-plus hours round trip.
If a climber decides not to continue up the mountain, or if it’s determined that continuing higher is not an appropriate choice, a team will have to weigh their options for how to best accommodate the climber. Any decisions made at the time should be in the best interest of both the team and the climber. It might not be possible to descend at a given point in time or that the team will have an option available that will allow a climber to remain on the mountain as the team climbs higher. All guide services legally guiding on Denali have limitations placed upon them by the NPS that, among other things, will not allow a climber to be left unattended at any point of the expedition. Your options will be driven by numerous factors that are present at the time, and what those factors might be are impossible to predict ahead of time. What’s important is to communicate the decision-making process with each other, and in doing so, arrive at the best possible outcome.
We offer the above not to stress anyone out, but rather to help every team member have a clear understanding of what it takes to successfully climb to the top of North America. The information above is intended to give each participant the tools necessary to assess how you are doing, relative to where you are on the mountain. We want every climber to succeed and to have a great experience on the mountain, and as guides we feel we are really good at helping achieve those goals, but each climber must do his or her part.
We encourage any prospective Denali climber to contact us with any and all questions, and to do your best to prepare yourself for your adventure.