Denali Expedition - West Rib

Overview

A climber pauses during the physical ascent of the West Rib.

A climber pauses during the physical ascent of the West Rib. AAI Collection

Denali's West Rib route is a step up in difficulty from the West Buttress, the route normally used to climb Denali. The West Rib offers steeper climbing with amazing views and fewer crowds than its neighbor to the west. The Rib is not known for its technical challenges, but more for its sustained steepness and exposed, aesthetic route up the edge of Denali's massive south face.

The West Rib offers two variations: the Complete West Rib or the West Rib Cutoff. The Complete West Rib starts from the base of the Rib in the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna; the approach through the Northeast Fork, exposed to avalanche and icefall danger from the steep sides of the gorge, is often the most dangerous portion of the climb with respect to objective hazards.  If conditions allow passage through the Northeast Fork, a beautiful and challenging 9,000-foot ridge climb awaits you on the route proper.

Most parties choose to do the West Rib Cutoff, which ascends the safer standard West Buttress route until 14,200 feet, where the normal Camp 3 is located along with an NPS presence and medical tent. At 14,200 feet the route departs from the crowds of the West Buttress and takes a cut-off to the West Rib, gaining the ridge at around 15,700 feet.  The route then ascends the upper ridge, making one additional camp on the way to the summit. 

Prerequisites

  • Completion of technical snow and ice routes to Grade 4 to 5 (TD, TD+)
  • Experience with glacier travel and crevasse rescue
  • Successful climbing at altitude above 16,000 feet (4877 m)
  • Winter mountaineering experience
  • Outstanding physical condition

Denali Expedition - West Rib

The AAI 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 under 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.

The Institute gives its clients careful and detailed counsel in their preparations for climbing objectives and, when appropriate, has them first achieve intermediate goals. 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 lies in doing an excellent job on those areas in which a climber has some control: skill in dealing with cold conditions, skill in climbing at an appropriate technical level, and personal conditioning. To develop these abilities and then to combine them with a carefully designed and guided itinerary is the most direct line to safety and success.

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 average individual success rate on Denali is 54% overall and 59% in guided groups other than AAI. The Institute's success rate for individuals for the last ten years is 70%, and for expeditions it is 75%.

Climbers approaching the summit after a successful climb of the West Rib.

Climbers descending after a successful climb of the West Rib.
AAI Collection

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. Each year the National Park Service presents "Denali Pro" awards to individuals 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 and Preserve award since its inception four years ago.

With regard to expedition processes, we make five to seven 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.

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 the Kahiltna Glacier at 7300 feet. Soon after our arrival and a review of glacier travel procedures, we begin moving to our first camp.

Denali Expedition - West Rib

Route Options

Complete West Rib

The American Alpine Institute approach is to climb this line "alpine style." In other words, we climb the normal West Buttress route up to Camp III at 14,200 feet to acclimatize. Leaving a cache of food and fuel at Camp III, we descend back down to Camp I at 7,800 feet with light packs. This approach will allow us to efficiently climb the West Rib in a single push without the use of fixed ropes.

Climbing the entrance couloir to the West Rib.

Climbing the entrance couloir to the West Rib. AAI Collection

The following day we will travel up the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna and establish a Camp at 9,400 feet. From the base of our route at 11,100 feet, we face a rather spectacular beginning: a 2000-foot couloir of 45 to 55-degree snow and ice. Pitching out this steep section is important because it is very strenuous and there are no options for shelter before reaching West Rib Camp III at 12,800 feet.

Once comfortably established on the crest of the Rib, we are confronted with another ice dome that requires additional pitching and climbing on hard alpine ice up to 60 degrees. Above the ice dome the climbing eases some, with a mixture of 45-degree snow and rock climbing as we work our way to Camp IV at 14,700 feet and Camp V at 16,400 feet. On summit day we climb snow and ice couloirs and then easy mixed rock, which leads us to the summit plateau at 19,400 feet. From that point we turn east and climb gradually to the final summit ridge.

Besides offering high quality climbing, this entire line of ascent is aesthetically attractive and provides great views of surrounding peaks and routes. As soon as we reach the rib crest we have the impressive outline of the Cassin Ridge off to our east; as we climb higher we see the West Buttress route, the normal route for a Denali climb and then look down onto its 14,000-foot plateau camp; and finally as we ascend the high snow and ice couloirs, we are able to look out to all the major peaks of the Alaska Range. With a descent via the lower half of the West Buttress route, we enjoy varied and remarkably beautiful terrain from beginning to end of this expedition.

Advantages to Climbing the Complete West Rib

1. This is a highly aesthetic line on one of America's most beautiful mountains. Were it not for the extreme popularity of the West Buttress to the left of the route, and of the notoriety of the world-class Cassin Ridge to the right of the route, this line would be one of the most recognized and sought after on the mountain.

2. An ascent of the Upper West Rib misses nearly 5000 feet of interesting and engaging climbing on the crest of the Rib proper adjacent to the beautiful Cassin Ridge.

3. An ascent of the entire West Rib is significantly more committing than an ascent of the Upper West Rib. Many see mountain commitment as an attractive element and seek out trips with such an aesthetic.

4. Many find the exposed and complex terrain of the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to be both exhilarating and frightening. An ascent of the complete West Rib requires late night/early morning travel through this well-known zone. 

 

Upper West Rib Variation

Two trip are available each season; a Complete West Rib trip and an Upper West Rib trip. Many individuals are interested in climbing Denali via a route other than the West Buttress, but don't want to commit to something as serious as the complete West Rib.

The Upper West Rib provides for a fantastic adventure on a classic line while still providing you with many of the aesthetics found on the West Buttress. On this climb, out team will ascent the standard West Buttress route up to Camp III at 14,200 feet. From there, we will climb up the West Rib Cut-Off to join the upper Rib.

High camp on the West Rib

High camp on the West Rib.
Joe Stock

After arriving at Camp III, most teams will make an acclimatization climb up to the 17,200-foot West Buttress camp. There they will leave a cache set-up for their descent a few days later.

After waiting for an appropriate weather window at Camp III, the team will work its way up the Cut-Off to join the ridge crest at 15,700 feet. Once the crest is reached, the climbing is absolutely fantastic. The team will climb a steep and sustained couloir to a protected camp at 16,400 feet.

On summit day, we will climb a six-hundred foot steep and windy couloir with sections of sixty-degree terrain to a flat spot at the base of the last crux. From here the team has two options, a traverse across the top of the infamous Orient Express couloir or an ascent up another steep couloir to the east. Both options top out on the "Football Field," a flatish spot below the final summit ridge. From here, the route once again joins the West Buttress to the mountain's summit at 20,320 feet.

Our descent will take us back down the West Buttress route to the camp that we prepped on our acclimatization ascent at 17,200 feet. From there, we will make our way down the West Buttress and back to Base Camp.

Advantages of Climbing the Upper West Rib

1. Climbing the Upper West Rib allows for a lighter ascent. If you climb the complete route, you must carry multiple days worth of food and fuel on your back. If you only climb the Upper Rib, the ascent to 14,200 feet will be sled assisted.

2. After climbing all the way up to Camp III at 14,200 feet, it can be demoralizing to descend all the way back down to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to start your "real" ascent.

3. Though this is an incredibly physical climb, it is ultimately an easier ascent than the Complete West Rib.

4. An ascent of the Upper West Rib avoids the complexity and the objective danger that complete Rib climbers face in the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

Denali Expedition - West Rib

Cost and Details

Approaching the West Rib on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Approaching the West Rib on the Kahiltna Glacier.
Myles Osborne.

$10,000

Duration - 21 days

Max Ratio - 6:2 (Climber:Guide)

Max/Min Capacity - 6/3 climbers

**Low-ratio climbs are available (1:1, 2:1, and 2:2). Please call our office to discuss the details.

 

Dates

  • 2017 dates are being determined...

 

Flight Information

You will need to arrange your travel schedule so that you can attend the mandatory expedition orientation and gear check with guides at the hotel at 2pm on the day BEFORE the scheduled start date of the trip. Your return flight home should be no earlier than two full days after the trip ends.

 

Expedition Inclusions and Exclusions

Inclusions:

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

 

Exclusions:  Transportation to and from Talkeetna; food and lodging while not on the glacier; rescue and evacuation costs; national park fees; baggage, accident, rescue, and trip cancellation insurances; guide gratuities; personal equipment.

 

Denali National Park Statistics and Annual Reports

You can download Adobe Acrobat Reader documents that summarize the annual activities and statistics on Denali and within the park by going to Denali National Park Summary Reports Web Page

Denali Expedition - West Rib

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