Is Climbing Denali the Hardest Challenge in North America?

Denali, the highest peak in North America, is known for being one of the most physically challenging and technical climbs on the continent. While reaching the summit is incredibly rewarding, it requires extensive preparation, specialized gear, and a high level of physical stamina. In this article, I will share my experience climbing Denali and provide insights into what makes this expedition so difficult yet worthwhile.

According to my opinion, climbing Denali was the hardest thing I have ever physically tried to do. Located about 210km north-west of Anchorage and 275km east of Fairbanks in Alaska, Denali towers at 20,310 feet (6,190 meters) above sea level. The mountain’s high latitude means that the atmosphere has less oxygen, making it feel like you are climbing even higher.

I had been preparing for my Denali expedition for a long time, honing my winter camping skills and getting in the best shape of my life. But nothing quite prepares you for the raw, unforgiving nature of the mountain itself. As I discovered, Denali tests your physical stamina, mental resilience, and teamwork like no other climb.

As mountaineering legend Yvon Chouinard once said, “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Climbing Denali pushed me to my absolute limits and forced me to dig deep within myself to find the strength and determination to keep going, even in the face of extreme fatigue, harsh weather conditions, and high altitude.

The Physically Demanding Nature of Climbing Denali

One of the reasons Denali is considered such a challenging climb is the sheer physical stamina required. The West Buttress route, which is the most popular among climbers, typically takes 17-18 days round trip. That’s over two weeks of strenuous hiking, carrying heavy packs, and battling the elements.

The high altitude also takes a serious toll on your body. As you ascend higher on the mountain, the air becomes thinner and it becomes harder to breathe. Many climbers experience symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue. Acclimatizing properly is crucial for success and safety.

In addition, the weather on Denali is notoriously unpredictable and severe. Subzero temperatures, fierce winds, and sudden storms are common. During my climb, we were pinned down in our tents for three straight days due to a relentless blizzard. The physical strain of just surviving in such harsh conditions cannot be overstated.

Preparing and Training for a Successful Denali Expedition

To even attempt climbing Denali, you need to dedicate significant time to preparation and training. This includes both physical conditioning and honing your mountaineering skills.

Cardiovascular endurance is key. I spent months running, hiking with a weighted pack, and doing high-intensity interval training to build my aerobic capacity. Strength training is also important, particularly for your legs, back and core, which take the brunt of the work on the mountain.

Equally vital is practicing technical mountaineering skills like glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and winter camping. I took several mountaineering courses and went on practice expeditions to dial in my systems. Being comfortable and efficient with these skills can make a big difference on Denali.

Some key things to focus on in your Denali training:

  • Cardiovascular endurance – train your heart and lungs with running, hiking, cycling etc.
  • Strength training – build power and stamina in your legs, back and core
  • Mountaineering skills – get very comfortable with glacier travel, crevasse rescue, winter camping, rope management etc.
  • Altitude training – if possible, do some high-altitude hikes or climbs to begin acclimating
  • Putting in the training beforehand allows you to focus your mental and physical energy on actually climbing the mountain when you get there. There’s no shortcut to building the strength and skills needed for Denali – you simply have to put in the hard work and preparation.

    Understanding the Difficulty and Success Rates of Climbing Denali

    So just how difficult is it to climb Denali? The numbers paint a daunting picture. Only around 50% of climbers who attempt Denali actually reach the summit. And even for those who do, it is an immensely challenging and demanding endeavor.

    Climbing with a guided group can increase your chances of success, as guides are intimately familiar with the mountain and can help with decision-making and risk management. However, guides cannot eliminate the inherent risks and difficulties of climbing Denali.

    The high altitude, extreme weather, and technical nature of the climbing mean that Denali has a well-earned reputation as one of the world’s toughest mountains. It attracts experienced mountaineers looking to test themselves against a serious high-altitude objective.

    Some Denali difficulty statistics:

    Summit success rateAround 50%
    Average expedition length17-18 days
    Typical summit temperature-20°F to -35°F (-29°C to -37°C)
    Typical wind speed on summit10-30 mph (16-48 km/h)

    Denali is a mountain that demands respect. Reaching the summit requires not only physical strength and skill but also a huge amount of mental fortitude and smart decision-making. The margin for error is very thin in such an extreme, high-altitude environment.

    Essential Gear and Skills for Tackling Denali’s West Buttress Route

    Gearing up properly for Denali is absolutely essential. This is an extended, self-supported expedition in extremely cold, harsh conditions. Having the right gear can make the difference between a successful climb and a miserable or even dangerous experience.

    Some of the key pieces of gear you’ll need include a sturdy 4-season mountaineering tent, a warm sleeping bag rated to at least -20°F (-29°C), insulated double boots, and a high-quality down parka. You’ll also need technical equipment like an ice axe, crampons, harness, and ropes.

    In addition to gear, you’ll need to be very comfortable with fundamental mountaineering skills like glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and rope management. The West Buttress route involves traveling up heavily glaciated terrain, so knowing how to navigate safely and efficiently is crucial.

    Essential Denali gear includes:

  • 4-season expedition tent
  • -20F or lower sleeping bag
  • Insulated double mountaineering boots
  • Expedition-weight down parka
  • Ice axe, crampons, harness, carabiners, ropes
  • Glacier glasses and ski goggles
  • High-altitude stove and fuel
  • Having the right gear on Denali is literally a matter of life and death. This is not a place to skimp on quality or cut corners. Invest in durable, time-tested equipment and make sure you know how to use it before you get on the mountain.

    Acclimatization and Altitude: Key Factors in Climbing Denali

    One of the biggest challenges of climbing Denali is dealing with the high altitude. At 20,310 feet (6,190 meters), the summit of Denali is in the so-called “death zone” where the human body cannot acclimate and begins to deteriorate.

    Proper acclimatization is absolutely essential for climbing Denali safely. Most guided groups take a slow, steady approach, carrying gear up the mountain in stages and letting their bodies adapt to the increasingly thin air. Rest days are built into the schedule to allow for acclimatization.

    Even with proper acclimatization, most climbers will feel the effects of altitude such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is very common, and can progress to life-threatening HAPE or HACE if not addressed. Descending is the only cure if symptoms are severe.

    I have a distinct memory of waking up at 14,000 feet with a pounding headache and feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath. The mental fog and physical strain of high altitude is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Acclimatizing properly and listening to your body is so important on a mountain like Denali.

    Embracing the Rewarding Experience of Climbing North America’s Highest Peak

    For all the challenges and difficulties, climbing Denali remains an incredibly rewarding and transformative experience. Standing on the summit of North America’s highest peak, looking out over the vast expanse of Alaska, is a feeling that defies description.

    But even beyond reaching the top, the experience of pushing yourself to your limits, overcoming adversity, and sharing the journey with a team creates memories and bonds that last a lifetime. Climbing mountains has a way of stripping away the nonessential and reminding you what really matters.

    In the end, I believe that we climb mountains not simply to reach the top but to challenge ourselves, learn about our own capabilities and limitations, and experience a kind of raw, elemental beauty that is harder and harder to find in the modern world. Denali represents a chance to do all of those things on a truly grand scale.

    Climbing Denali was unequivocally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It tested me physically, mentally, and emotionally like nothing else. But it was also one of the most powerful and transformative experiences of my life. Something shifts inside you when you face your own fragility in such a raw, unforgiving landscape. You gain a new appreciation for the simple things, for the immense power of nature, and for what the human spirit is capable of. It’s an experience I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

    So is climbing Denali the hardest challenge in North America? I would say yes, it certainly ranks up there. The sheer physical stamina required, the technical skills needed, and the extreme, high-altitude environment make it an exceptionally difficult undertaking.

    But I would also argue that the most meaningful challenges are often the hardest ones. Pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone, attempting something that scares us a little (or a lot), is how we grow and evolve. Climbing Denali is the epitome of that kind of transformative challenge.

    If you’re an experienced mountaineer looking for a serious test of your capabilities, Denali is a peak that should absolutely be on your list. With the right preparation, skills, and mindset, it just might be the adventure of a lifetime.

    Photo of author

    Gary Osbi