Denali Expedition - West Buttress


AAI’s Denali climb is designed to be the safest and most successful guided expedition program on the mountain.  We accomplish this goal by a process of continuous improvement, subjecting our expedition practices to careful analysis, and supporting our guides with rigorous training, evaluation, and mentoring.  Over our 36-year history climbing the mountain – formerly known as Mt. McKinley – we’ve taken hundreds of people to the summit of North America.

NPS Authorized Denali Climb Concessioner

Our expedition program and guides are so well-respected that we were ranked #1 by the National Park Service in the concession renewal process in 2002. Read on to learn more about our strategy, philosophy, and approach to Denali expeditions, and why climbing with American Alpine Institute is the best choice to achieve your mountaineering goals.

To get a flavor of AAI's guided Denali climb, see the expedition dispatches for the 2017 season.

The Mountain

"Once again, I can't say enough about the guides ... they were fantastic! The overall experience was the highlight of my mountaineering career. Thank you so much AAI!"

– Bryan F. (Bothell, WA)

Denali offers one of the world's greatest mountaineering challenges. While it is exceeded in elevation by peaks in South America and Asia, its arctic environment, with extreme temperatures and harsh storms, and its great height above the Alaskan plain make it a severe test of personal strength, team work, and logistics. No peak in the world has greater relief: Denali rises 17,000 feet above its surrounding plain. In contrast, Kilimanjaro rises 14,000 feet over its surrounding plains and Everest, only 13,000 feet. Vertical elevation gain on Everest from the normal base camp for the South Col route is 11,000 feet; from our landing spot on the Kahiltna Glacier Denali's summit rises another 13,000 feet. As the tallest mountain on the North American continent, Denali is one of the Seven Summits.


Choosing a Guide Service on Denali

Determining if a guided trip on Denali is right for you and picking a guide service that will offer a safe and enjoyable expedition on the mountain can be an overwhelming process.

We have compiled some of the thoughts and feedback commonly given to climbers as we have consulted them over the years. Please take some time to read through our Choosing a Denali Guide outline as part of your planning and preparation process. In addition, for answers to common questions, please see our Denali FAQ.

The American Alpine Institute Approach

As in other parts of the world, AAI expeditions in Alaska are run with small groups of climbers who have carefully prepared for their objective. The Institute takes a team approach to its climbs, and expedition members are expected to take responsibility for themselves and a share of responsibility for the overall operation of the expedition. We do not accept climbers who are only minimally prepared and experienced and who need to be "hauled" up and down the mountain. Trying to push ill-prepared climbers up the peak is what keeps so many guided and unguided groups from succeeding on Denali.

A climber stands on an amazing feature of the West Buttress route, 'The Edge of the World'.

A climber stands on 'The Edge of the World', just outside Camp 3 at 14,200 ft. on Denali's West Buttress.
James Davis

The Institute gives its clients careful and detailed counsel in their preparations for climbing objectives and when appropriate, has them first achieve intermediate goals to fully prepare. Climbs on Denali obviously involve many factors that we cannot control, among them temperature, wind, snowfall, and changeable climbing conditions. The key to success therefore is doing an excellent job working on those areas that a climber can do something about: skill in dealing with cold conditions, skill in climbing at an appropriate technical level, and personal conditioning. To have well-developed abilities in these areas and then to combine them with a carefully designed and guided itinerary is the most direct line to safety and success.



  • Intermediate snow climbing ability
  • Glacier travel skills
  • Experience with backcountry winter camping
  • Excellent cardiovascular condition
  • Ability to carry a 60 lb. pack while pulling a sled


Denali West Buttress Climb from John Grace on Vimeo.

Denali Expedition - West Buttress

Safety and Success

An ecstatic climber at the summit of Denali.

An ecstatic climber at the summit of Denali. Kevin Cannon

AAI expeditions enjoy a rate of safety and success rarely matched by other teams. With well-prepared climbers, we do not have to rely on perfect conditions in order to move. Able to remain poised high on the mountain in poor conditions, our teams often make successful summit bids in small windows of good weather when other teams are out of position. AAI doesn't pretend to guarantee good health, good weather, or success on these expeditions, but we are committed to building strong teams and creating high potential for safe and successful climbs.

The overall summit success rate on Denali varies dramatically from year to year.  While the average individual success rate on Denali is about 54% overall and 59% in guided groups other than AAI, in some years variations in the subarctic weather patterns cause success rates to decline. For example, the overall success rate in 2014 (as reported by Denali National Park) was a mere 35%.

The Institute's success rate for individuals for the last ten years is 70%; for expeditions, it is 75%. In the 2016 season, five of our seven expeditions reached the summit.


Environmental Stewardship

AAI has the highest level of commitment to environmental protection and restoration, and on all expeditions and instructional programs we teach and follow Leave No Trace ethics and practices for travel, camping, and climbing. The Institute has been a leader in the conscientious use of wilderness environments, including both remote and popular areas of Denali and the Alaska Range.

The National Park Service presents its Denali Pro awards yearly to people who have made major contributions to protecting the mountain. Twenty AAI guides and clients have had the honor of receiving this highest Denali National Park award since its inception in 1998.


Zero Carbon Footprint Expedition

Climbers For The Climate

This expedition has a zero carbon footprint. Through AAI's Climate Initiative, the Institute pays to offset all carbon emissions incurred by the guides and clients on each trip, including emissions from flight, local transportation, electricity in hotels, and fuel burned to cook in the mountains. To learn more about how this works and AAI’s dedication to environmental protection, click here.


Denali Prep Programs

Join an expedition prep program to gain experience in cold weather climbing and camping and improve your proficiency with techniques like self-arrest, crevasse rescue, and sled-hauling.


K2 Aviation on the Kahiltna glacier.

Climbers unloading gear on the Kahiltna glacier. Scott Parazynski.

Denali Expedition - West Buttress


Virtual Expedition

Denali Routes Tiny

Denali West Buttress Route

Photos and Route Information

We make four camps as we climb alpine style, moving all camps higher as we go and leaving none established above or below. It is not uncommon for temperatures high on the mountain to fall as low as -30F, but at lower elevations daytime temperatures on the glacier can reach as high as 70F, so there we sometimes sleep in the day and ferry loads at night when temperatures are between 0F and 15F. The night's cold improves conditions under-foot, and we still have adequate light because of the extreme northern latitude. Double carries are done during the first part of the expedition to ease the work and to help with acclimatization.

Denali K2 Plane Ride V2

View of Denali from the South. Wyatt Evenson.

All expeditions begin with a meeting and orientation in Anchorage. We spend one night there, then travel by van the next morning to the small town of Talkeetna. There we repack our equipment, meet our ski plane pilots, and as soon as possible, make the beautiful flight to Denali Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier at 7300 feet.

The Kahiltna Glacier

Soon after our arrival at Base Camp, having done a review of glacier travel procedures, divided the gear up, and packed our sleds, we begin moving to our first camp.

We establish our Camp 1 at 7800 feet at the confluence of the main Kahiltna Glacier and its rugged Northeast Fork (the normal approach for West Rib and Cassin Ridge Expeditions). Enjoying spectacular views the whole way, we continue on to Cache 1 at 9800 feet and Camp 2 at 11,200 feet while snowshoeing up moderate terrain. As we do throughout the climb, we travel in rope teams because of the ever-present crevasse hazard. To ease the burden of moving our expedition supplies, we use specially designed sleds that we tether to our packs and pull along the gentle sections of the lower mountain.

Advancing camp on Denali with full sleds.

Advancing camp on Denali with full sleds. Kevin Cannon

Above Camp 2, the climbing steepens as our route takes us past the terminal walls of the West Buttress. We usually cache our snowshoes at 11,200 feet and continue our climb with crampons because of the gradient of the route and the hardening snowpack. We climb out of a basin to reach Windy Corner at 13,100 feet, then make an ascending traverse through seracs and heavily crevassed terrain as we approach the head of the Kahiltna Glacier at 14,200 feet. We enjoy spectacular views as we look down to the lower Kahiltna and out to 17,004-foot Mt. Foraker. In the other direction the impressive summit bulk of Denali rises above us, and we can easily see the details of the upper West Rib and Messner Couloir, as well as the steep headwall of the West Buttress that we will soon climb.

Fourteen Camp (Camp 3)

At Camp 3 (14,200 feet), we take a well-deserved rest day and make final preparations for our summit bid, reorganizing our gear for the carry to the highest camps. For most expeditions, Fourteen Camp becomes almost homey; a relatively sheltered alcove in the mountain, it is the logical place to wait for a window of good weather in which to make a multi-day bid for the summit.

At this point we move into the most demanding part of the expedition: higher elevations combined with steeper ground. From Camp 3, we ascend 1100 feet up a gentle snow slope to the bergschrund at the base of the West Buttress. The bergschrund is at times quite steep but it is short and, with steps established in the ice, not difficult to surmount. We then begin our ascent along fixed lines to the crest of the West Buttress on the 900-foot headwall of 45 and 50-degree slopes. Typically the pitches are of hard ice with some snow overlaid, and we protect them by using self-belays with jumars on a fixed rope. Because of the steepness of the route and the amount of elevation gained, we may make a double carry to establish Cache 3 at over 16,000 feet.

An AAI team climbing the fixed lines on the 50-degree headwall above Camp 3.

Emerging from the headwall onto the top of the Buttress, the atmosphere of the climb changes dramatically. While the earlier parts of the climb have all been on large glaciers and open slopes dominated by immense mountain masses towering above, we now move on an open ridge and enjoy that unmistakable feeling of climbing above most of the surrounding world. As we begin to move along the crest of the Buttress, we gain views across the Peters Glacier to the Alaskan tundra stretching out far beyond, and to the south we can look over the top of Mt. Hunter to the scores of other peaks in the Alaska Range. Initially the ridge is fairly broad, but as we reach the 16,400-foot level it narrows with steep drop-offs to both the north and south.

A fortified high camp at the 17,000 foot level on Denali.

A fortified high camp at the 17,000 foot level on Denali. AAI Collection

The climb up the ridge to our final camp, Camp 4 (High Camp) at 17,200 feet, is for many people the aesthetic high point of the expedition. We follow a steadily narrowing crest and at times move between and around a series of magnificent, pointed granite gendarmes up to fifty feet high. The climbing is never steeper than 35 degrees, but the exposure is very significant and requires caution as we move up a route that in some sections is reduced to ledges six feet wide. Further east the ridge finally begins to merge with the main part of the Denali massif, and there we establish camp in a basin just below Denali Pass, the low point between Denali's higher south summit and lower, 19,470-foot north peak. From this point we will climb to the summit in a single day.

AAI Denali Team #2 reaching the summit. Denali is the highest mountain in North America and one of the Seven Summits. Video footage by Kevin Harker.

Summit Day

On Denali summit day we make an ascending traverse to Denali Pass, crossing above some very large crevasses and traversing a fairly steep section between 17,600 and 18,000 feet. From there we climb gentle slopes to a plateau at 19,400 feet, from which we get impressive views down onto the Harper and Muldrow Glaciers and across to Denali's North Peak. Our final approach to the summit takes us up moderately steep slopes to the crest of the ridge between Kahiltna Horn (20,120') and the main summit. At the crest we peer down the 8000-foot drop of the precipitous South Face, looking between the Cassin Ridge to our right and the South Buttress to our left. We ascend the summit ridge on its exposed south side for two rope lengths, then cross to the north side for the final pitches that bring us to the 20,310-foot summit of North America. With steady drops on three sides and the abrupt face to the south, the final steps to the clearly defined summit point are a very exciting finish to a beautiful route.

Climbers approaching the summit of Denali.

Climbers approaching the summit of Denali. AAI Collection

Denali Expedition - West Buttress

Dates and Details

Max Ratio - 3:1 climber to guide

Capacity - 9 climbers

Duration - 21 days

Cost - $8,900

2019 Climbing Season


Expedition Inclusions and Exclusions


  • Professional AAI Mountain Guides' leadership, services, and instruction
  • Group shuttle (van only) to and from Talkeeta
  • Ski plane flights to and from the Kahiltna glacier
  • Meals while in the mountains
  • Tents and group cooking equipment
  • Group climbing equipment
  • Mechanical ascenders for fixed lines
  • Custom expedition sleds


Exclusions: Food and lodging, except when on the glacier; NPS personal entrance and user mountaineering fee; rescue and evacuation costs; baggage, accident, rescue, and trip cancellation insurances; guide gratuities; personal equipment.

Camp 2 on Denali with views of the Direct West Buttress. Dylan Cembalski

Camp 2 on Denali with views of the Direct West Buttress. 

Travel Insurance

Climbing Denali is a large investment of time and resources. Unforeseen injuries, illness and scheduling conflicts can prevent you from joining an expedition at any time. We strongly suggest climbers purchase trip insurance to cover their investment. Please visit the AAI Travel Services page for more information


Private Expeditions

Successful summit on Denali

Climbers celebrate on the summit of Denali.
Kevin Cannon

Some individuals and groups prefer private program options. Dates for all programs are dictated by the AAI concession contract with the National Park Service and private program options may be limited accordingly. Please contact the AAI office for more information.



Denali Expedition - West Buttress


A climb of Denali by any route requires specialized equipment unlike that required on mountains of comparable altitude in the temperate zones. Even experienced climbers may need to make significant equipment purchases unless they have climbed previously in the subarctic, antarctic, or Himalaya. Special-purpose items like insulated overboots and cold-weather sleeping bags can add a lot to the pricetag of a Denali trip; and the staff of major retailers often do not have sufficient expertise to provide good advice to climbers.

The AAI Equipment Shop

The mission of AAI's Equipment Shop is to outfit our climbers with the best and most appropriate gear for our climbs and expeditions. The Equipment Shop offers

Our gear selection is informed by constant feedback from our guiding staff. Every piece of gear we sell or rent has been tested and used by our guides and clients.

Check out the online Denali equipment list at our shop website.

All our Denali climbers receive a free, in-depth equipment consultation whose goal is to make sure that our climbers arrive in Anchorage fully equipped for success on the mountain.

Denali Expedition - West Buttress

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