Summiting Denali

BVMA Guide James Bealer Summits Denali

I recently climbed Denali in May and June 2019 while working for RMI Expeditions. Here is the story of my expedition.

Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America

Our expedition began in Anchorage, where the team met in person for the first time. We loaded into a shuttle and drove to Wasilla, Alaska to shop for last-minute food purchases. After grabbing a quick dinner, we continued driving north to Talkeetna, our last stop in civilization. The next day, we began sorting group food, double-checking our tents and stoves, and attended a briefing with the National Park Service. We made sure every single bag was packed and weighed, so K2 Aviation, the company, flying us onto the mountain, knew exactly how much each plane would weigh. K2 even weighed each climber holding his or her mountain boots, which we left in the hanger to be ready to fly the next day.

Getting to the first camp

7,800 feet above sea level

In the morning, we got word that the weather was good to go, so the team loaded two planes outfitted with massive skis and took off. The flight into the Alaska Range is absolutely stunning. You can see glaciers flowing for miles out of the mountains, and peaks soaring higher than the plane is flying just out the window. We circled once over basecamp and then landed on the all snow airstrip. The next hour went quickly, as we packed our sleds with food and fuel for the next 22 days. We headed out of basecamp and began the five-mile trek up the Kahiltna Glacier to Camp 1.


Camp 1 on Denali sits at roughly 7,800 feet of elevation. Once arrived, our team went straight to work setting up camp. There is plenty to do when building a camp in the snow. Tent platforms must be dug out and packed down to be firm enough to sleep on, and the camp has to be checked for crevasses. We made a small kitchen to cook in and melt snow for drinking water. When all was finished, it was quite late, and we quickly went to sleep in preparation for moving camp the next day. Moving a camp takes a total of three days.

[Figure 2]

Getting to the second camp

11,000 feet above sea level

The first day, we carry a large load of food most of the way to the next camp and “cache” it there. Caching means we dig a very deep hole in the snow and bury our food and gear, marking it so that we can return and pick it up later.

Getting to the third camp

14,200 feet above sea level

The second day, we pack up and move all the way up to the next camp. Finally, we get a quasi-rest day as we make the short journey to retrieve our cache. The next week was spent moving gear and camp up the mountain to Camp 2 at 11,000 feet and then to Camp 3, at 14,200 feet.

[Figure 3]

Summiting Denali

20,310 feet above sea level

To summit Denali, you need three days of good weather in a row. One day to move up to Camp 4, one to go for the summit, and one to descend from Camp 4. Until that happens, you sit at Camp 3 and bide your time. We sat at camp for eight days. Most of the time was spent in our tents reading books, listening to music, and eating snacks. Finally, the forecast said it was time to climb. The team moved to Camp 4 and spent the night at 17,200 feet. That morning, we woke up and headed towards the summit. Stunning views greeted us in all directions as we climbed closer to the highest point in North America. We pushed through as the wind chill dropped to -70 degrees Fahrenheit. After 8 hours of slow, labored climbing, we hit the top.

John MacKinnon [Figure 4]

The whole team was standing at 20,320 feet above sea level. We celebrated with hugs, tears, high-fives, and lots of smiles. There are few places in the world as incredible as Denali. Of those places, few are as incredibly challenging. Only a lucky few will ever get to experience the magic found on the top of that mountain. All I can say is, I’m excited to help another group of climbers do it again next year.

James Bealer currently splits his time between guiding glaciated peaks in Washington and guiding for BVMA.


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