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Denali, The Alaskan Behemoth Remains Among North America’s Toughest Climbs

The mountain offers a blend of ferocious weather, altitude, and remote location, enough to challenge any climber.

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This article is part of Climbing’s online archives documenting climbing’s greatest mountains, such as Everest and K2, and climbing’s pioneering practitioners such as Marc-Andre Leclerc.

Denali (20,310 feet), the crowning peak of the Alaska Range, is the highest mountain in both the United States and the North American continent. Denali is also the third most prominent peak on Earth, after Mount Everest and Aconcagua, and the world’s northernmost mountain higher than 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). Denali is approximately 200 miles north of Anchorage, and the centerpiece of the eponymous Denali National Park and Preserve.

Denali is often considered among the most difficult mountains in North America and the most difficult of the Seven Summits. This is not just because of its altitude and remote location, but because of the notoriously violent weather conditions often encountered on its heights, due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle and the Gulf of Alaska. A summit of Denali entails a climb of around 13,500 feet from base camp. The peak is home to many routes considered classics of North American mountaineering, such as the Cassin Ridge.

History

Climbers began to make attempts on Denali during the early 20th century. Among them was controversial polar explorer Dr. Frederick Cook, who led a well-received 1903 expedition that only reached 10,900 feet on the North Buttress, but became the first to circumnavigate the mountain. On his second expedition, in 1906, he and partner Robert Barrill claimed to have reached the peak’s summit via the Ruth Glacier, though this claim is widely disputed, and generally accepted as bunk.

Supposed first ascent of Denali, of Ed Barrill on the summit. It was later proved that he was on a different mountain miles away.

A 1909 winter expedition by Alaskans Billy Taylor, Tom Lloyd, Peter Anderson, and Charles McGonagall returned with conflicting claims—some of the men reported to have reached the slightly lower north summit (19,470 feet), while Lloyd later claimed three of the team actually summited the main peak. Like Cook’s attempts, the legitimacy of the expedition has long been disputed. In 1912, a team led by Herschel Clifford Parker and Belmore Browne, both veterans of Cook’s expedition, made it within 200 vertical feet of the summit but turned back amid foul weather.

Denali’s first confirmed—and today, generally accepted—ascent was on June 7, 1913, by a four-man team of Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum. All four reached the summit, Harper, a native Alaskan, in the lead.

Hudson Struck led the first undisputed ascent of Denali in 1913.

Though it was long known as Denali by the indigenous peoples who lived around the mountain, the peak was referred to as Mount McKinley by the U.S. federal government for most of the 20th and 21st centuries. It was dubbed McKinley in 1896 by a visiting gold prospector, William Dickey, in honor of then-presidential candidate William McKinley, and was officially referred to as such by the federal government from 1917. In 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior changed the mountain’s official name to Denali, although Alaska’s Board of Geographic Names had already referred to it as Denali since 1975.

Climbing Routes

Denali is home to two summits, a south (20,310 feet) and north summit (19,470 feet). A fraction of Denali expeditions attempt the northern peak, which has a prominence of 1,270 feet and is sometimes considered a separate summit entirely. 

Over 90% of climbers on Denali attempt to summit via the West Buttress route pioneered by Bradford Washington in 1951. The “West Butt” is the least technical line on the mountain, and travels approximately 13 horizontal miles with 13,500 feet of vertical gain. 

The route used for the 1913 first ascent, the Muldrow Glacier (also known as Karstens Ridge after first ascensionist Harry Karstens) is similar in difficulty to the West Buttress but significantly more committing, and as such sees far fewer climbers. Karstens Ridge requires a lengthy approach and an overall expedition time of around a week longer than the 17-day average on the West Buttress. Some climbers link the two routes, ascending one and descending the other. Neither route requires technical climbing, though the objective hazards from avalanches, crevasses, weather, and exposure cannot be overestimated.

The West Rib is the third-most-popular route on the peak,but is significantly more technical than the former two lines. It can be done either as a cut-off variation—beginning on the West Buttress and joining the Rib around 15,000 feet—or a full-length route. The Cassin Ridge, an 8,000-foot line extending up the peak’s south face, is the mountain’s most popular technical route, and a rite of passage for many elite Alaskan climbers. In total, there are more than 30 named routes on Denali, ascending from nearly all aspects of the peak.

Prominent among Denali’s geographical features is the Wickersham Wall, one of the largest mountain faces in the world with nearly 15,000 feet of elevation gain. The formidable wall was first climbed twice in 1963, first by the tk route, and then via a more direct line up the face, done by members of The Harvard Mountaineering club with David Roberts, Pete Carman, Chris Goetze, John Graham, Don Jensen, Rick Millikan, and Henry L. Abrons.

David Roberts, in center in white, on the summit of Denali after a new route up the Wickersham Wall, in 1963. (: David Roberts collection)

Also Read: Wickersham Wall by David Roberts

A June 2022 study published in the journal High Altitude Medicine & Biology found that out of 2,799 reported mountaineering accidents in the United States from 1947 to 2018, Denali had the greatest frequency of both accidents and deaths out of any mountain, followed by Rainier. Denali was home to over 11% of all accidents and 8% of all fatal accidents recorded during the 71-year study period. However, Colorado’s Capitol Peak (14,131 feet) was the deadliest mountain in terms of fatality-to-accident ratio, with 91% of accidents on the peak resulting in fatalities.

Facts and Figures

  • Elevation: 20,310 feet
  • Range: Alaska Range
  • First ascent: June 7, 1913
  • First ascentionists: Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum.
  • Cumulative successful summits: ~25,000
  • Approximate fatality rate: <0.2%
  • Average success rate: 52%
  • Average cost to climb: $8,000