Thursday, March 14, 2013

Top tips for going light on Denali’s West Buttress.

This time last year I was getting super psyched for my trip to Alaska. I spent a lot of time thinking, worrying and over thinking about whether I had the right gear, what the weather would be like, how cold it would be and how much food I would need. I’m currently over thinking my planned trip to Yosemite and Patagonia this autumn.

Below is a load of the information I wished I’d had before I went. Take all this with a pinch of salt: It’s what worked for me, not the only way to do it.

Livingstone all loaded up!
Skis or snowshoes

This is the major dilemma for all Denali aspirants. My advice is if you can ski (by you I mean everyone in your party) then ski. It is safer, faster and way more fun. You don’t need to be a shit hot skier either. Neither Livingstone or I had ski toured before our trip.

However, unless you can ski in climbing boots don’t try too. Take touring boots and carry your climbing boots in your sledge.

We took our skis up to 14k Camp. I wouldn’t bother if I was going again and would stash them, with boots at 11k Camp.

Climbing gear

You hardly need any climbing gear at all for the West Buttress. The climbing is never harder than exposed Scottish I. Think Crib Goch in winter, but a bit easier with more exposure and a plastic bag on your head. There are also insitu snow stakes that the NPS install whenever it gets remotely difficult/exposed. These often have karabiners left on them by lazy guided parties that can't bothered to take them with them.

We roped up once on the West Buttress after Windy Corner heading to 14k Camp, but that probably isn’t recommended.

I would probably take a 30m half rope if I was going as a pair or a 50m half rope if I was going as a three.

In terms of climbing equipment. Standard glacier travel kit is more than adequate.

For the West Buttress each carry along the lines of:
1 240cm sling and krab
1 120cm sling and krab
4 spare snap gates for clipping onto insitu snow stakes (if you are roping up between 14k and 17k). Also useful for rigging your sledge and clipping things like water bottles to your harness.
2 screw gates
Reverso style belay plate is useful for rigging a pulley system.
3 prussiks and maybe a tibloc/ropeman.
2 ice screws. It is worth racking these on a screwed up screw gate so you don’t loose them!
6m or so of 7mm cord for rigging a sledge.
Harness - Lightest most simple one you can find. BD Couloir Looks good.
Ice axe - a nice simple mountaineering model around 55cms long. DMM Cirque, BD Venom and Grivel Airtech are all good. You can often get the excellent Mountain Technology Technical Axe second hand on Ebay for less than £20.
Crampons - A good 12 point pair with anti bailing plates. Make sure they fit your boots!

Things you don’t need!
Helmet - This is your decision, but I didn’t experience or notice any objective danger.
Snow stakes - There are loads insitu anyway.
Head Torch - If you are going in June it doesn’t get dark, just cold! It might be worth taking one if you are going in early May however.
Any rock gear - If you are planning on doing any of the climbs around KIA (Kahiltna International Airport), stash the gear you need for those there. Don’t lug it up Denali!

Blagging food and fuel

Whilst I wouldn’t recommend taking no food. Count on being given a whole load of food and white gas at 14k Camp by bailing parties trying to lighten the load.

For a three to four week trip I would probably buy 3 gallons of white gas. Leave one in you cache at KIA along with two days food and other crap you don’t need.


We ate fairly standard camping food like we would in the UK or Alps. 2 Sachets of instant oatmeal for breakfast. A bagel with cream cheese and pepperoni for lunch. 6 chocolate or ceral bars for throughout the day. A big pasta meal for dinner.

We also brought a big jar of Jelly Belly beans that provided hours of entertainment.

A bagel fried in butter makes a great rest day lunch. 

You can’t buy decent chocolate or tea in the US so take a few big bars of Dairy Milk and a box of Yorkshire Tea out with you! We were ecstatic when some departing Brits gave us a big bar of Dairy Milk!

Freeze dried meals are expensive, but they are very quick to make and yummy. It is well worth buying a few of them to eat when you are knackered after a hard day of sledge hauling or an acclimatization run to 17k. The Mountain House ones are really tasty.

We didn’t take any but we blagged some GU brew from a departing team. It’s really good. I’ll buy some next time. We had a big jar of Tang, which was really great for making melted water taste better.

Cooking stuff

Me brewing up at 17k Camp on our summit day. We drank two litres of water each here, ate a freeze dried meal each and melted an extra litre to take with us.
Take two MSR XGK stoves. We took a Whisperlite and an XGK and the Whisperlite was nowhere near as good. It’s worth taking a spare pump as in my experience they break. A service kit is also recommended as is a good understanding of how your stove works.

Make a small stove board out an off cut of wood. If you want to be really plush coat it in heavy duty tinfoil to reflect the heat!

Take a massive 4 litre pan for melting snow as well as a couple of medium sauce pans for cooking in. Don’t bother with a camping frying pan. In my experience they are expensive and don’t work very well. Buy a cheap medium sized one from a supermarket. Take lots of lighters.


It is cold in Alaska, but I didn’t think it was anywhere near as cold as folk make it out to be. I don't mean turn up in shorts and tee shirt, just take all the hyperbole about it being the coldest mountain on earth with a pinch of salt. Think Scottish winter plus double boots, puffy trousers, a couple of good pairs of mitts and a duvet jacket (but not one so thick that you'll have to commit goose genocide to fill it).

Livingstone above Denali Pass with puffy trousers and a big down jacket - Chilly!
Low down on Denali it can get really warm and hiding from the sun becomes a big issue. It isn’t going to rain so you don’t need waterproofs.

The following is more than enough clothing for a trip up Denali. There is no point taking too much stuff as it just adds unnecessary weight.

Double boots are essential. I wore Spantiks without issues. Scarpa Phantom 6000m look good too. If you are wearing conventional plastics (Scarpa Vegas) then a pair of Forty Below overboots is probably prudent for the summit day
Socks - 3 pairs of quality merino wool socks. Teko Expedition socks are superb.
Gaiters if you softshell trousers don’t have any
A pair of synthetic or Down booties are nice luxury.

3 pairs of wool boxers
Thin long johns
Warm softshell trousers - Ideally in a light colour. I used Mountain Equipment G2s.
Powerstretch bibs - Tights will do but the bibs are brilliant for eliminating cold spots.
Primaloft overtrousers with full side zips. These are good for the summit day and also for sitting around 14k.

Two long sleeved merino wool base layers. (Maybe leave a clean one in your cache at KIA!)
A stretch fleece hoody like a Patagonia R1
A pertex windshirt preferably with a hood
Maybe a second fleece of a Vapour rise to add a bit of variety!
A thin primaloft jacket with a hood. Something like Rab Xenon. This will act your outer layer high on the mountain.
A hooded down jacket. This doesn’t need to a be a super warm model. Something like the ME Vega or Rab Neutrino Endurance is more than adequate.

Big floppy sun hat for low down on the mountain
A couple of beanie hat
Powerstretch Balaclava
Sun glasses and nose guard - the nose guard isn’t that flattering but at least you’ll have a nose at the end of it!
Ski googles
Lip balm - take 3 each you’ll use them up quick
Little tubs of high factor suncream. Children’s suncream often comes in indestructible tubs.

You probably need less in the way of gloves than you think. I don’t think you need big technical gauntlets gloves and see them and as an expensive way to get cold hands!

2 pairs of leather palmed softshell gloves for skinning and the like low down on the mountain.
A pair of gore-tex mitts with a pile liner. These don’t need to be flash and will keep your hands warm.
A pair of large synthetic over mitts that will fit over the other mitts. I used the outers of Mountain Equipment Fitzroy Mitts.
A pair of Dachsteins or Buffalo mitts are probably a good back up.

Summit from Fourteen Thousand Foot Camp.

Heading up above 17k Camp. Note: the small bag.
 My number one tip for climbing the West Buttress would be to avoid camping above 14k Camp if possible. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly lugging a tent up to 17k looks like a lot of hard work. Secondly 17k is horrible and supper exposed to wind. Thirdly it is a lot higher and more often in bad weather.

My itinery for climbing the West Buttress would go like this.
Day 1: Fly into the range. Collect your white gas, sort your stash, make sure your sledes aren’t too heavy. Set off at 10pm and single carry to the top of Ski Hill.
Day 2: Spend the day resting your tent, brewing up and hiding from the sun. When the sun goes away single carry to 11k Camp.
Day 3: Rest at 11k Camp acclimitzing.
Day 4: Rest during the day. When the sun goes away carry a load up the Windy Corner. Cache it there and ski down if you are feeling brave.
Day 5: Rest during the day. Strike camp and take everything else up to the 14k Camp.
Day 6: Sort you camp at 14k out. In the afternoon drop down to the windy corner to collect your cache
Day 7 & 8: Rest and acclimitize at 14k.
Day 9: Head up to the top of the fixed lines and back to acclimitize
Day 10: Rest and recover
Day 11: Head up to 17k Camp to acclimitze. Spend a few hours there. Have a freeze dried meal. Return to 14k Camp
Day 12 & 13: Rest and wait for the weather.
Day 14: Summit Denali in a very long day from 14k Camp.
Day 15: Recover and celebrate. Then strike camp and descend through the night.
Day 16: Arrive at the airstrip early morning and fly out to Talkeetna, where everything thing will feel surreal.

It would be sensible to have another 6 days or more in hand on top of this so you can wait out the weather.

To summit from 14k Camp I would recommend taking the bare minimum so you can more as fast as possible. It is well worth taking a superlite 25litre day/running sack to use on the summit day. It will make a good stuff sack the rest of the time.

I would take:
The clothes you stand up in
Walking poles
Harness and 240cm sling each. I would dispense with the rope but a sling could be very useful for shepherding down a climber with AMS. (A competent mountaineer would never rope up on similar terrain in the UK.)
Down Jacket
Sythetic Over Trousers
Over Mitts
1 Litre of Water each - melt another 2 at 17k.
Petrol Stove and Pan
2 Freeze dried meal each and load of bars and gels.
Bothy bag

Me on the summit!
Other  random tips.

Piss Bottle - Make sure it is bigger than one litre and has a wide mouth with a good seal

Altimetre watch - These are really handy for working out how much further you have to go.

Tent pegs
- We didn’t take any used buried bin bags, which I must have read in a gear review somewhere. This is a shite idea I’d take snow tent pegs in future. They might be a bit heavier but they are way put in/take out.

Flying into Anchorage in the morning.

This more a tip for saving money. Buy a flight that lands in Anchorage at around 8am. Have breakfast somewhere and get a cab to REI. Do any last minute gear shopping in REI (or AMH opposite). REI will do you a good deal if you are buy lots of gels and freeze dried meals. Arrange for a transfer bus to pick you up from REI and take you to Talkeetna via a
supermarket. They’ll charge you about $20 for this. Fred Mayer is a good shop and sells Cliff Bars cheaper than REI, don’t buy too many as you’ll go off them! Costco is brilliant for bulk stuff but you need to be a member, which costs money. You might be able to blag it by asking a friendly local to use their card! Arrive in Talkeetna and sleep in TAT’s (you are flying with TAT right?) free bunkhouse. The next morning have breakfast at the Road House, enjoy your ranger briefing and fly into the range.

Descending from 14k at sunset. Does it get any better?
So there you have it. My top tips for climbing Denali if there is anything I’ve missed drop me a line:


  1. Stealing carabiners off the fixed pickets is just that --stealing. Please change your blog to say that carabiners on the fixed snow pickets are to be left for other parties to use.

  2. Actually, Mr Hicks, I think anything that you take into the mountains and don't take out or dispose of properly is littering. Unless the biners are installed by the NPS then removing them is doing a service.

  3. I like the post. Would you be willing to do one about gear for the Cassin?

    1. As if by magic...