Training & Preparation

Are you thinking about climbing Denali and not sure if you are ready? It’s an intimidating proposition, and rightly so. It’s a big arctic mountain, but with the right preparation it’s an attainable goal.

We realize it can be difficult to determine if you are ready to climb Denali, so we’ll try to give you some solid benchmarks and ideas of what you can do to set yourself up for success on a big climb. We are always happy to talk to you individually to help you develop a program and a plan to be ready. If you are willing to put in the work to prepare well, you will have a much more enjoyable experience when you do find yourself carrying a big backpack at high altitude, and you’ll have a much better chance of reaching the summit. One of the most rewarding aspects of guiding is working with climbers to develop long-term goals and a plan to achieve them. Please don’t hesitate to contact us to get the process started! There are no shortcuts, but the journey is incredibly rewarding, and you just might learn something about yourself along the way.

When we are talking to prospective climbers, we try to break the skill sets needed down into three categories and assess an individual climber’s readiness in each of these different categories.

  1. Mountaineering skills
  2. Expedition climbing and winter camping experience
  3. Fitness and strength

mountaineering skillsThe West Buttress route on Denali is NOT considered a technical climbing route, but it IS a mountaineering route where you need to have what we consider basic climbing and mountaineering skills. These can be learned on just about any introductory mountaineering course, which Mountain Trip offers in Alaska and Colorado, or you could take in many other venues. Although it’s not technically a “technical” climb, don’t underestimate the challenge of the West Buttress. You will be climbing on steep terrain where your skills with crampons and ice axe are crucial for the safety of you and your team.

The basic skills include:

  • Ice Axe Technique. Know how to use your ice axe to self arrest and in the self belay grip.
  • Crampon Skills. Be very comfortable employing French Technique (aka flat foot or pied à plat), Duck foot (pied en canard), Hybrid Technique (pied troisième), front pointing, and how to use them on the descent. Practice putting your crampons on the boots that you’ll use on Denali, including with your overboots, if you will be using them. Do you need to adapt your overboots to fit with crampons? Find out at home, not on Denali.
  • Crevasse Rescue Techniques. Unless you are going with guides, you need to both have a plan to avoid crevasse falls and know 2-3 different ways to extract someone from a crevasse. Sometimes the first technique you try doesn’t work, so it’s good to have multiple systems at the ready, and an understanding of how to switch between those techniques.
  • Self-Rescue. You need to understand how to ascend a rope using prusiks, or with an ascender and a foot prusik. Know how to rig your rope for glacier travel in a manner that enables you to get out of your pack, transfer it to your rope, and begin climbing out of a crack.
  • Team Rescue. You should be familiar with the concepts of team rescue, including anchor building and hauling systems.
  • Fixed Lines. You should be familiar with using an ascender on a fixed line, using a “cows tail” backup, and using an “arm wrap” as a self belay to descend a fixed line.
  • Running Belays. You will often use a “running belay” where a rope team clips into intermediate anchors while traveling in exposed terrain. Understand and practice how to efficiently clip into, or pass an anchor, regardless of your position on the rope.
  • Rappelling. Although you shouldn’t expect to need to rappel on the West Buttress route, this is a fundamental skill that you should be familiar with. You might well need to rappel into a crevasse to help someone or to retrieve an errant sled.
  • Basic Climbing Knots/Hitches. There are just a few knots and hitches that you need to be familiar with for the West Buttress. These include the Figure 8, Butterfly, and Double Fisherman’s Knots, as well as the Prusik and Clove Hitches.

These are fairly basic mountaineering skills that are taught in almost any 5-7 day introduction to mountaineering course, and they will take you a long way in the mountains. Anyone attempting Denali should be comfortable using each of these skills, and it’s a good idea to practice them shortly before your climb. A Denali expedition is not the place to be learning these things for the first time. Each of the skills above should be second nature before you depart for Alaska.

Guide’s Tip: Get out your harness and climbing gear and practice in the living room, or set up a rope at the local playground to practice ascending. Practice with your gloves and mittens on your hands. Even professional guides refresh their skills before a trip.

winter camping experienceImportant parts of a Denali expedition are the winter camping element, and the extended nature of this expedition. West Buttress expeditions generally last from 14 to 20-plus days on the glacier. That’s a long time to spend camping in the snow! You should be prepared to camp in the snow or on a glacier, and really should have some experience doing it. Guides can help you with techniques to keep your boots dry (if not warm) and demonstrate how and when to clear snow off of your tent when it’s piling up in a storm. It’s understandable that a Denali expedition is, for most people, going to be the longest expedition they’ve done, and it will be a different environment than anything they have experienced in the past. While challenging, these are also some of the unique and exciting elements of a Denali expedition that make it so special!

There are many places to get relevant experience for Denali. If you don’t have the time to spend years apprenticing in ranges like the Alps, Cascades or Rocky Mountains, requisite skills can be learned in most introductory mountaineering courses. Take those skills and apply them on peaks in Europe, South America, or on trekking trips in Nepal. Hone them before you head to the Alaska Range, because Denali should not be your first multi-day winter climbing experience.

In our experience, an expedition that you may want to consider before attempting a Denali climb is Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes. It’s the highest peak in South America and you can attempt it via routes that are non-technical. The duration of most Aconcagua climbs is similar to that of a Denali climb, and provide you the opportunity to experience life at just under 23,000 feet (7,000 meters). Most days are not as hard as a typical day on Denali, making for a good preparatory experience; however, summit day on Aconcagua feels a lot like summit day on Denali, despite its higher elevation.

Climbers who have completed a good introduction to mountaineering course and then climbed Aconcagua are generally sufficiently prepared to join a Denali team. That’s the bare minimum, but if the training “stuck,” it should suffice.

Fitness & strength to climb DenaliMany climbers consider their ascent of Denali to be the hardest expedition that they have ever undertaken. There is no option for porter support, so every climber on a team needs to fully participate with all the work required on a multi-week, arctic climb. The hardest days should not fully max you out physically, but rather should be within your comfort zone.

Physical fitness is the second most common reason for a climber to not summit Denali, after weather and route conditions. Weather and conditions are outside your control, but your fitness is not only within your control, but it’s also your responsibility. It’s not fair to your teammates if you show up unprepared for the rigors of climbing to the summit of North America.

There is a difference between training in a gym and training outside with a pack. Both are important, but arriving “pack fit” is crucial. That means you have put in time carrying a heavy pack over uneven terrain and understand how to efficiently move in the mountains. Prepping for Denali by heading out on another long expedition is a great way to learn about your physical preparedness and can help you determine how much additional training you might need to attempt “The Great One.” Most mortals need six months or more to prepare for their expedition, so start now!

For the past five years, Mountain Trip has partnered with the amazing coaches at Uphill Athlete to help our climbers train for joining us on the mountain. We have seen an appreciable improvement in the fitness levels of our climbers over that time, and so we encourage you to check out their programs and other resources on their website. Started by Steve House and Scott Johnston, they now have many highly qualified and experienced coaches who understand how training for an expedition is different than training for other rigorous events. We believe in their services enough that we purchase their 24-Week Mountaineering Training Plan for each of our climbers. They are the experts, so visit their site!

However you decide to train, you need to arrive prepared to carry a 50-60 pound (22-27 kg) backpack and pull a similarly loaded sled for 5-7 hours with breaks every hour or so. After carrying that load 5 miles (8 km) or more, you will need to shovel snow for at least an hour to prepare your camping area. All of that requires a high level of both strength and endurance. The next day, you’ll test yourself with a similar workload, and then you’ll do it all over again, and again, and again. A Denali climb is a marathon that requires hard work, day, after day, after day.

We’ll be posting several informational videos in the future, so look for links on this site.

Finally, don’t forget that a good attitude and teamwork go a long way to having an experience that is enjoyable as well as successful!

We love working with climbers and aspiring climbers to come up with a plan to reach their goals and maybe go further than they even dreamed possible. If you’d like to climb big mountains or come up with a dream, please contact us!