It might be about nine-thousand feet short of Mount Everest, but Alaska's Denali is no small feat to conquer. It's not recommended to any climber without glacier travel experience or even high-altitude experience, as acclimating to the steep height of this mountain is all part of the battle in reaching its summit. The excursion will undoubtedly take weeks - not days - to complete, and camping along the route are all part of the trek. On average, the climb to the summit will take roughly 21 days give or take depending on the weather, and just over 500 people complete their climb to the summit during the month of May.
While this mountain does come with risks that are less than that of Everest, that doesn't mean there's no danger involved whatsoever. According to the National Parks Service, climbing Denali should be treated as the serious hike that it is, with required winter climbing experience, high-altitude experience, and an excellent level of physical fitness. The weather is a major factor in climbing Denali, as Alaska's wilderness is completely different from that of any other - especially at an altitude of over 20,000 feet above sea level. So what's it like to climb the highest peak in all of North America?
There Are Four Base Camps In All And The Time In Between Is Unpredictable
There are four base camps in total that climbers will hit throughout their climb of Denali. The first is at the base of the mountain, the second at 11,000 feet, the third at 14,000 feet, and the fourth - and last - at 17,000 feet, also called High Camp. Altitude sickness becomes a threat at around 8,000 feet, meaning that by the time climbers reach the second base camp, they're likely already started to acclimate or should be working on it. The goal is to hike high and camp low, according to the Denali summit account by James Barkman, and adventure photographer.
In between base camps, the weather is truly unpredictable at times. Climbers are encouraged to get between camps at a safe but quick pace, however, this is nearly impossible due to the need to acclimatize, meaning the weather can become a factor, and quickly. Climbers can use a radio to listen to the weather report every night and plan ahead but when a storm is coming, the best thing to do is hunker down and wait it out. With so much to do to set up camp, climbers should be aware of the choice that can be made between staying put or trying to reach the next camp.
Get Ready To Pull Your Own Weight, Then The Weight Of Pack, Then The Weight Of A Sled
No one said that high-altitude climbing was easy and it's far from it. Not only do climbers need to work through increasing altitudes - making every pound feel like it's five-times its weight - but they'll need to be strong enough to carry a 40lb backpack and a 60lb sled behind them in between camps as well. It takes months, if not years, of training, and the National Parks Service even suggests summiting other similar, smaller glacial ridges and mountains before even attempting Denali.
The Temperatures Range From Hot To Frigid
Due to the glare from the snow, heat can be reflected back at climbers and reports of up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit have been made from climbers while summiting. In stark contrast, reports have also been made of temperatures falling to -30 below zero. Depending on the time of year a climber decides to summit (the most popular is May), temperatures will vary according to seasonal changes. This, of course, should be accounted for.
Storms Can Last For Days With Unrelenting Snow And Wind
In James Barkman's account, his group opted to reach the higher base camp before an impending storm and did deal with some altitude sickness, but made it in time. For days, they worked on melting snow and listening for wind gusts before they were able to continue their trek, as it can be nearly fruitless to continue in harsh conditions such as the ones on Denali. Shoveling out camps can also be a reality if the storm is bad enough - nothing at this altitude is predictable, including the conditions under which climbers will be sleeping and temporarily living.
The Summit Comes With A 45-Degree Climb And 75% Less Oxygen, But It Will Change A Climber's Life
The final leg of the climb comes with a final push, as many high-altitude climbs do. There's no reward without effort, right? At the final push to Denali's summit, climbers will be trekking through snow and truly putting their ice mountaineering skills to good use for a 700-foot vertical hike. This is the point in time where many climbers will hunker down and go for it, or decide the risk is far too great combined with the unbelievable pressure on their lungs. For those who make it to the summit, the views - and the experience - are completely life-changing.