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Mt. McKinley shown on map of Alaska
(map courtesy of
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Landing strip on Kahiltna Glacier
High winds on ridge above Camp 5
West Buttress Ridge approx. 16,500'



Mount McKinley (also known by its Native American name, Denali, meaning "great one") is the highest mountain in North America. Although part of the Alaska Range - a massive ice-clad array of spectacular peaks - McKinley utterly dominates its surrounding area. It stands alone, 20,320’ in altitude, with only nearby Mount Foraker even close to it in height.

McKinley is considered the coldest mountain in the world (outside of Antarctica) and its combination of great height, high latitude (just south of the Arctic Circle), and terrible weather make it a unique challenge. Temperatures well below zero degrees Fahrenheit are common, and ferocious winds lash the peak continually.

An ascent of McKinley is a serious undertaking made difficult by the cold, the weather, and the sheer scale of the massive mountain. On average, recent years have seen roughly 1000 climbers attempt the summit, 500 make it, and 3 die.

McKinley’s climbing season runs from mid-April until mid-July. Earlier in the year, it is too cold, and during the late season (with the intense sunlight of Alaska’s long days) the mountain experiences frequent storms and a widening of its glacier crevasses.

McKinley’s standard route is the West Buttress. Virtually everyone initiates their climb with a flight on ski-equipped planes to the 7200' elevation Kahiltna glacier airstrip and base camp. Denali is an awesome mountain.


In early May of 2001, after enjoying near perfect weather for over a week, our team had advanced all the way to Camp 4 (14,200’) on Denali’s large plateau one day ahead of our ‘best case’ schedule. Both “Motorcycle Hill” and the notorious “Windy Corner” had been completely calm.

With the weather forecast indicating a large storm forming over the Aleutian Islands to the West, we decided to hasten up to Camp 5 with as much gear as we could manage in a single carry. After cresting the headwall at 16,000,’ we cached several days of supplies, so we could negotiate the rest of the West Buttress ridge more quickly.

We had just established Camp 5 at 17,200’ when the storm slammed into the mountain. Here, at our planned high camp we remained trapped and immobile for the next week.

My friend Frode Eilertsen (from Norway) and I carved a large ice block wall to shelter our tent. While ambient daytime temperatures never rose above minus 20 degrees, we shivered when three nights dropped below minus 40 Fahrenheit. Add (or more correctly, subtract) the wind chill and you’re dealing with some seriously cold nights.

Finally, on the eighth day, the storm abated. Once again, Denali presented us a near calm, sun-kissed morning. With clear skies above, we climbed in shadows for two hours before the sun crested the mountain. Well acclimatized after our long layover at high camp, we made our final push to the summit!

JPC summit
JPC summit--May 28, 2001
Negotiating ridge just below camp 5
Climbers follow along summit ridge
Cold rest break at top of headwall
Ice blocks surround tent at Camp 5
© 2006-2008 by James P. Clarke.  All rights reserved.