Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage both offer full-service, comprehensive care.
Basin Camp at 4,330 m is the site of a NPS climbing ranger encampment and is occupied from late April to early July. In addition, there is normally a medically-trained individual working on the rotating ranger patrols that criss cross the mountain throughout the season. This is an emergency “facility” – do not rely on the NPS for first aid supplies and other things which should be a normal part of your expeditionary kit! The NPS Search and Rescue Policy states that rescue operations are conducted on a discretionary basis. There is an expectation that Park users will demonstrate a degree of self reliance and responsibility for their own safety as regards extracting themselves from problems. Helicopters configured for high altitude rescue are used for urgent evacuations, but the nature of the weather, distances involved, and availability of rescue personnel on Denali makes this a different situation than, for instance, rescue in the European Alps. Parties are better off performing self-rescue if at all possible – one is better off realizing straightaway that Denali is not a place to expect the sort of “rapid response” rescue service routinely seen in Zermatt or Chamonix!
The standard climbing season is late April through early July. However even in late April it can still be very cold – normal night time temperatures at 4330 m in April are minus 30 or 40 C. Those who climb prior to early May should be prepared for winter-like temperatures and minus 50 C (or less) on the upper mountain. As a general rule, the springtime is typically clear and cold – but windy – with Arctic air masses predominating, and as summer approaches a moist southerly air flow from the Gulf of Alaska takes over. The majority of climbers elect to come to Denali at the time of the seasonal shift (late May to early June) where hopefully they’ll get both clear weather and mild temperatures. It is certainly possible to climb after early July, but the aviation companies usually begin to limit flights to the Kahiltna Glacier at that time since open crevasses start to appear on the runway! If you think you might enjoy walking a week or more in to the climb or out to civilization through mosquito infested tundra and across big glacial rivers – not to mention dodging Grizzly bears – climbing in the latter part of the season has its advantages. The temperatures are often warmer and you’ll benefit from the 20+ hours of sub-arctic summer daylight.
CB radios are widely used on Denali, and both the NPS and the Base Camp Manager on the Kahiltna Glacier monitor channel 19. These radios normally rely on line-of-sight, however. Mobile phones often work well at Basin Camp and above, provided your phone service provider has a roaming agreement with an Alaskan telecom company. Satellite phones are another option, but only Iridium has reception – Thuraya does not work on Denali.
As already suggested, Denali can be a very cold place. However, below approximately 3000 m on the mountain later in the season, it can get very warm. At midday it can feel like you’re trapped in a solar oven! As summer nears, parties below 3000m often choose to travel at night . Although it is much cooler, it is rarely too cold and there is often sufficient light by which to travel. Because of factors such as the tremendous vertical relief of Denali, high latitude, and closeness of the ocean, mountain storms here are legendary. Be prepared to be hit by a couple of storms during the course of the climb. If you are lucky, they may be mild and last only 24 hours or so. However a severe 5-7 day pounding from a single storm system is not unheard of by any means. Be prepared.
The West Buttress is technically straightforward. Nevertheless, you’ll need to be familiar with roped glacial travel, exposed ridge walking and climbing short, steep sections of 40-50 degree snow and ice. The steepest sections of the route, between Basin Camp and Ridge Camp, are protected by fixed ropes. The use of a jumar or other type of ascender is recommended. At times you’ll feel that the real difficulty of the route is to be found in shifting your kit up and down the mountain. Unfortunately, heavy packs and sledges are the order of the day.
The majority of the danger on Denali stems from the high altitude and sub-arctic environment. The incidence of high altitude illness on the mountain is exacerbated by the physiological stress of the hard work needed to haul heavy loads in a very cold environment. Allow sufficient time for acclimatization and enough storm days so that you don’t have to rush your ascent.
See this article for guidance on a suitable ascent profile.
The cold, especially early in the season, can be so intense that frostbite is an ever-present danger. Other routine mountain-related hazards such as falls and avalanches must also be considered, but altitude illness and frostbite are by far the most commonly encountered problems for climbers.
For advice on high altitude illness, see our Medcom papers.
In order to minimize the effects of frostbite:
Ensure that you’re kitted out with the best clothing and equipment possible. Prevention is the key to avoiding injuries from the cold!
Keep well hydrated and don’t skip meals. Weight loss and dehydration will make you more vulnerable to the effects of the cold.
Take time to stop and warm numb areas of skin. In the coldest conditions frostbite can strike in seconds.
Keep feet and hands dry at all times. Frostbite is much more common in damp conditions.
Rewarm frostbite as soon as the chance of refreezing has passed. Repeated frostbite will result in extensive injuries.
To warm the skin, do not rub, beat or cover with snow.
Protect blisters, abrasions and sunburn. These are much more likely to become frostbitten than “normal” skin.
Also see: http://www.christopherimray.co.uk/highaltitudemedicine/frostbite.htm
The NPS mountaineering booklet is a highly recommended reference, and it is available in several languages. There has also been a considerable amount of literature published on climbing (and surviving) Denali, and many relevant titles are listed in the bibliography section of this NPS booklet.
Going to this mountain well-informed and prepared for whatever the high, sub-arctic environment might throw at you is most certainly worth the investment of your time and effort!
For those interested in recent analyses and discussion about fatalities, rescue, and climbing success on Denali appearing in peer-reviewed medical journals, see:
Hallam MJ, Cubison T, Dheansa B, Imray CH. Managing frostbite. BMJ 2010;341:e5864.
McIntosh SE, Campbell AD, Dow J, Grissom CK. Mountaineering fatalities on Denali. High Altitude Medicine and Biology 2008;9:89-95.
McIntosh SE, Brillhart A, Dow J, Grissom CK. Search and Rescue Activity on Denali, 1990 to 2008. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 2010;21:103-108
McIntosh, S., McDevitt, M., Rodway, G., Dow, J., Grisson, C. Phenotypic, Geographic, and Expedition Determinants of Reaching the Summit of Denali. High Altitude Medicine and Biology 2010;11:223-229.
Paper by George Rodway and Jeremy Windsor, members of the UIAA Medical Commission
Acknowledgements: The authors wish to thank David Hillebrandt and Buddha Basnyat for their help in the preparation of this article.