The Most Dangerous Trips: Climbing Denali

Tips for surviving seven of the world's deadliest adventures

Oct 3, 2012
Outside Magazine
Denali National Park Alaska dangerous trips

Denali.    Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr

Denali is deceptively short for a man-eater. At 20,320 feet, it's a fraction of the height of peaks like Everest or K2. But Denali’s 18,000-foot vertical rise from its base plateau makes climbing it a three-week slog, one that takes its toll on would-be summiteers. Of the 1,200 or so adventurers who attempt the mountain each year, the vast majority on the West Buttress Route, a little more than half make it to the top. And while most of them make it back down, a disconcerting number don’t. During 2011, seven climbers died, and in the 2012 season six mountaineers lost their lives, including four Japanese climbers who were caught in an avalanche and a Finnish man attempting a ski descent of the mountain.

What makes Denali so deadly? For one thing, climbers underestimate the peak because of its height. But its high latitude and complex weather patterns make Denali unpredictable. And climbers' sheer exhaustion on the descent has made Denali Pass, a 45-degree slope on the way back to high camp, a veritable graveyard for tired mountaineers.

Keeping safe on Denali means turning back at the first sign of trouble. Signing on with a guide service like Alpine Ascents International ups your chances of success and survival. But even that is no guarantee—in 2011, a rope team led by a veteran guide took a tumble, killing two clients.