Standing atop the highest point in North America requires a good bit of luck and a big investment of time. The biggest obstacle on 20,320-foot (6,194-meter) Mount McKinley (or Denali, in native Athabaskan), which is the centerpiece of Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve, is the weather.
A successful climb requires a lot of waiting for the right window. But reach the top and you have claimed one of the most difficult of the famed Seven Summits and the mountain with the greatest vertical relief on the planet, rising 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) from its base. (Compare that with Mount Everest’s 12,000 feet/3,658 meters of vertical rise.) Denali is a test piece for climbers at the top of their game, but the summit is still a solid goal for less experienced mountaineers who hire a guide.
There are numerous ways to the top, but the standard route—and the one most guides use with clients—is the West Buttress, which begins at 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) and steadily makes its way up the mountain. Though it’s not particularly technical, the route is challenging simply for the extended exposure at elevation and requires more vertical stepping than a trip up Everest’s South Col.
Far more challenging is the Cassin Ridge, one of the most famous technical alpine climbs on the planet, dishing out 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) of sustained, exposed climbing on mixed steep ice and 5.7 rock. But those routes are just the beginning: The Harvard Route on the Wickersham Wall, climbed in 1963 by members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, has never been repeated.
Need to Know: Less experienced climbers start with an eight-day training course (starting at $2,000), then sign up for 21-plus days on Mount McKinley (starting at $6,000) with Alpine Ascents International (www.alpineascents.com).