* SUMMIT ELEVATION: 20,320 feet
* TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 12,920 feet
* DURATION: Three weeks
* SNAPSHOT: Combine alpine, ice, and glacier skills on the roof of the continent
READY TO EARN your stripes? Consider what you've encountered thus farglacier travel on Rainier, exposure on Wolf's Head, altitude on Orizabamere warm-ups for surly, burly 20,320-foot McKinley, the highest point in North America. "That mountain chews people up," says Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb the Seven Summits. "You're carrying a 60-pound pack and pulling a sled with 50 pounds of gear; the bad weather is really badit'll bury your tent and you." Planning and training will begin months before your expedition, while the climb itself may well involve gale-force winds, sub-zero temps, punishing altitude, and arduous technical climbing in dangerous conditions. And what, exactly, is the payoff? Nothing less than an all-access pass to any mountain range in the world. Says Weihenmayer, "You're going to carry big loads, you're going to push through multiple storms, you're going to have to take care of yourself, and you're going to learn a lot. Once you've done it, it definitely makes you feel like you're ready for anything."
** The Route
Pioneered by Bradford Washburn in 1951, McKinley's WEST BUTTRESS is notorious for its mind-numbing cold and tempestuous weather, but what a trip: almost 13,000 vertical feet total, one of the greatest elevation gains of any mountain in the world. After catching a bush plane to the Kahiltna Glacier, you'll spend at least nine days hauling gear and provisionssans Sherpasup the crevasse-striped glacier to advance base camp in the Genet Basin at 14,200 feet. After a rest day, ascend The Headwall, a 45-degree snow slope, via fixed rope to 16,200 feet. The stretch above youa mile-long catwalk along the snowy, ice-lacquered spine of the buttresswill blow your mind. At the end of the ridge, you'll make high camp at 17,200 feet, rest for a day, and then head for the summit just after midnight.
GUIDE Alpine Ascents International runs 23-day trips on the West Buttress each year. At base camp, guides will review and perfect your crampon technique and your self- and team-arrest and crevasse-rescue skills. You'll also review glacier travel, how to efficiently climb up fixed lines using ratcheting ascenders, and ways to avoid frostbite, hypothermia, and pulmonary and cerebral edema. ($4,500; 206-378-1927, www.alpineascents.com)
Keep your toes toasty with FORTY BELOW's K2 SUPERLIGHT overboots. Closed-cell-foam insulation around the boot and sole locks in the heat, while the Cordura nylon uppers allow perspiration to escape, the key to preventing frostbite. ($120; 253-846-2081, www.40below.com) In MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR's ABSOLUTE ZERO down parka, you might look like the Michelin Man, but you'll be blissfully warm, even in the worst cold. ($525; 800-953-8375, www.mountainhardwear.com) THE NORTH FACE INFERNO ENDURANCE sleeping bag is rated to 40 below. Overkill? Not on McKinley, where temps drop that low on a nice day. ($649; 800-447-2333, www.thenorthface.com)