An Expedition to the Top of North America, by Jay Meyer

The Mountain and the Route

The Mountain
The Kahiltna Glacier
The Upper Camps
Summit Day
Down and Back

Mount McKinley and Mount Hunter

At 20,320'/6,194 m., Mount McKinley (also known as Denali, or "The Great One") is the highest mountain in North America. The centerpiece of Denali National Park, it is located in the Alaska Range north of Anchorage. Although lower than many Himalayan and Andean peaks, McKinley is a special challenge in part because of its location at 63 deg. north latitude, which makes it the highest peak near the Arctic Circle. This location, and weather patterns common in the nearby Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, exposes the mountain to severe wind and cold.

The West Buttress Route

My team ascended the normal West Buttress Route, which covers more than 15 miles and rises more than 13,000'/4,000 m. to the summit from a 7,200'/2,200 m. base camp. Although the route is not technically difficult, successful ascents typically last two to four weeks because of its length and rise in elevation and the mountain's difficult weather.  Bradford Washburn pioneered the route in 1951, after identifying it on his meticulous and beautiful photographs of the Alaska Range.

The Upper West Buttress Route

From its beginning on the Kahiltna Glacier's Southeast Fork at the foot of Mount Hunter, the West Buttress Route follows the glacier's main branch up increasingly steep terrain to a large basin at 14,200'/4,300 m.  Above there, the character of the route changes as it leaves the glacier and climbs a headwall and then the West Buttress' narrow rocky ridge to a high camp at 17,200'/5,200 m.  Between high camp and the summit, the route first makes an exposed traverse up to Denali Pass at 18,200'/5,550', then ascends open slopes to the base of the final, steep Pig Hill and its corniced summit ridge.  The headwall and ridge of the West Buttress are the most technically challenging portions of the route; the top of the headwall is steep enough to justify fixed lines for protection.  But summit day, and particularly the descent from Denali Pass back to high camp, can also be very dangerous for exhausted climbers suffering from high altitude and frigid temperatures.

The Upper West Buttress Route

Next: Preparing

(c) F. Jay Meyer 2007 All Rights Reserved