Mount McKinley

Denali:  "The Great One."
Climbing North America's Icy Giant

by Jim Garlinghouse


"The adventurer in each of us yearns to explore these icy reaches, where we seem to get a broader perspective on our own minuteness and, at the same time, our own significance."

Andy Selters


A cold, biting wind whistled down from the sharp-edged mountains behind Ushuaia, Argentina. Zipping my parka against the cold and leaning slightly into the breeze, I made my way toward a dilapidated phone booth at the end of the dock. Moored in its berth was the Russian ship on which I had spent the last three months working as a naturalist/polar historian, cruising the continent of Antarctica. We had arrived earlier that morning. Now, with time to kill, I thought I’d make some phone calls.

The southernmost city in the world located at the tip of South America was in the throes of a busy work day. Noise and bustle filled the air. A bag of cement being loaded onto a freighter had ruptured and spilled onto the pier; there was also a fight between a local cab driver over a lost fare. “Never a dull moment in Ushuaia,” I thought as I reached the phone booth. My mind was still envisioning icebergs, penguins and leopard seals as I picked up the phone.

“Hey, Jim” said a voice on my answering machine, “How would you like to climb Denali?” The voice belonged to Dan White, a friend with whom I had previously climbed the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains in Alaska. He and his brother Neil were looking for a third to join them. I still had two more cruises to complete before the Antarctic season ended, but already, with this teaser from Dan, my mind was beginning to focus on this great Alaskan peak.

Located in the Alaska Range at a height of 20,306 feet, Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, is a massive peak of rock, snow and ice, with extreme temperatures, unpredictable weather, and the greatest vertical rise of any mountain on the planet. Denali, meaning the “Great One,” is also considered one of the coldest mountains; winter temperatures of -60F have been recorded. Simply put, “The Great One” is one of mountaineering premium challenges.

The optimum time to scale Denali is between the months of May and July with nearly 24 hours of daylight. Denali itself is so high it creates its own atmospheric conditions and long periods of calm, clear weather on the upper slopes are rare. A combination of skill, physical fitness and common sense are a must on any mountaineering venture--but more so on Denali. I was very pleased to climb again with Dan and Neil; both were strong, enthusiastic climbers, and all of us had various ascents in Alaska and the lower 48 to our credits. In addition, both Neil and I had previous ascents of Denali, and I had the privilege of exploring the rarely-visited East Buttress of the mountain in 1994 as a member of the Ruth Glacier expedition backed by the Frederick A. Cook Society.

The Antarctic season ended and I returned home preparing for “the Great One.” Our plan was to arrive the second week of June in Talkeetna, a small town of less than 500 souls located 120 miles north of Anchorage. From there, we would fly to the 7,200-foot base camp and follow the West Buttress route -- the most popular and well traveled route on the mountain. From base camp the route is roughly 16 miles and a climb of 13,000 vertical feet to the wind-scoured summit.

On June 16th the White brothers and I arrived in Talkeetna. A horde of mosquitoes greeted us as we made our way to Cliff Hudson’s air hangar. It was a blisteringly hot day, but the peak itself was wreathed in heavy cloud cover---not a good sign. The rule among the bush pilots who routinely land climbers at the 7,200-foot base camp was “No sky, No fly.” So as we stood inside the spacious hangar, waiting for the mountain to clear, we stared at the pile of gear on the cement floor, and wondered how on earth we would possibly get all this stuff up the mountain. When fully loaded, our packs weighed a good 60 pounds a piece. This did not include the 20-30 pounds of food and fuel we would be dragging behind us on lightweight plastic sleds.

Read about previous Mount McKinley/Denali topics.


Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society