Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Route Profile: West Rib of Denali

Denali - 20,320 ft / 6194 m 

Route: West Rib

Difficulty: Alaska Grade IV, 60-degree ice

Season: April to mid-July

West Rib route in orange
Giant glaciers and a horizon full of rock, snow and ice set the background for climbers in Alaska. Of the countless mountains, Denali stands at the top of the list as an alluring challenge and iconic peak. The Seven Summits are well known and Denali stands as one of the most difficult peaks to climb. For many, the West Buttress remains a popular choice and the majority of ascents are via this route. Climbers desiring a more difficult route are rewarded with the aesthetic West Rib on the south face of Denali.

Camp at 11,000 ft
While the West Rib is a step down from the neighboring Cassin Ridge, it is significantly harder than the West Buttress. Landing on the Kahiltna glacier, climbers branch off the main climbing path and travel up the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna. This is a notoriously dangerous area and carries a foreboding name: the Valley of Death. Hanging glaciers and seracs flank either side of the glacier here and devastating avalanches can cross the entire valley at any time. Timing and efficiency are essential to safe passage. Moving between areas of safety, climbers work their way up the glacier and through an icefall to reach the base of the West Rib. A 1200 ft couloir starting at 11,200 ft allows climbers access to the true ridge.

Aerial shot of the West Rib (main ridge
running right to left in center of photo)
Ascending the Chicken Couloir to gain
access to the ridge.

Following a direct line up 9000 ft of ridge, West Rib teams make multiple camps as they move up the mountain in expedition style. Two snow domes offer crux ice bulges that steepen to 50 degrees. The route varies between ridge climbing, snow and ice slopes, and steep couloirs with rock, snow, and ice protection. A camp at 15,700 ft provides a descent option to 14,000-foot Camp on the West Buttress route. This is also the route climbers on the West Rib Cutoff will follow on their ascent. From a high camp at 17,000 ft, parties climb the final 3300 ft to the summit. Descent options include bringing all your gear in a carry over and descending the full West Buttress or returning to high camp and descending the West Rib Cutoff variation.

Gaining the Upper West Rib

Often times the objective danger is too high in the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna and West Rib parties complete a variation of the route. Ascending the West Buttress route, climbers split from the route at 14,000 ft and join the Upper West Rib. This option allows climbers to enjoy the upper 5000 ft of the ridge and not subject themselves to the avalanche dangers of the lower mountain.

For people with a strong climbing background or who have already climbed Denali via a different route, the West Rib offers a remarkable climb in the pure spirit of Alaska!

Approaching Denali via the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna.
Climber on the West Rib
Descending the summit ridge of Denali.  Mount Foraker
is in the background.

Sound like a sweet trip? Find more information on the West Rib Expedition.
--Dylan Cembalski, Seven Summits Coordinator and Guide

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