Denali climbing questions. Pace and Gear.

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  • #4661
    Steve House

    A climber I have been coaching for the past four months is heading to Denali in about ten days and he sent me some questions. I thought I’d share the questions, and my answers, here.

    Q: If I have a choice, what is the ideal pace on the mountain to preserve energy and maximize endurance?

    A: In a lot of ways climbing Denali is like a self-sustained 14-21 day stage race. Your energy tomorrow is related to how hard you go today. So you need to keep you pace at an “all-day” pace essentially all the time, day after day. When I was guiding a lot of West Buttress and West Rib trips in my 20’s, I would personally climb/hike slowly enough that I could always breathe through my nose. I was pretty fit, and given the altitude, this worked pretty well up to the 14K camp. Above there I had to switch to a ‘rest step’ protocol to set a pace my rope team could sustain all day every day. For most people, nose breathing while moving up that mountain with those loads, will not be feasible. So try to ask for a pace that you can maintain all day. Ideally the guide will intuitively know what this is, even for the weakest member of the group. A good guide will also let you know when the next break will be (typically every 60 min to every 90 min depending on the terrain and pace of the group) and I always liked to notify my group when we were 10-15 min out from the next break because I figured they’d be wondering “when is he going to stop”. Tough question to answer, so I hope this helps clarify some things.

    Q: I normally acclimatize okay, do you have any supplements that you recommend?

    A: No; assuming you’re getting fed well, supplements won’t help with altitude. I also don’t take vitamins on Denali. What I do make sure to do is eat a recovery snack as soon as I stop moving for the day. This means that I have 300-500 calories ideally within 30 minutes and certainly within 45-60 minutes after stopping. You can bring a recovery ‘shake’ that you mix with water, or have extra nuts on hand (great because you can snack on them while you pitch camp), or something. Avoid bars. You’re going to get sick of bars.

    This recovery snack doesn’t help with altitude per se, but it does help with your physical recovery. And what we have seen time and time again is that (work loads being equal among the team) well trained climbers are less fatigued at the end of each day and therefore their bodies have more resources to devote to acclimatization.

    A word about Diamox. Diamox is a diuretic prescription medicine that very popular among high-altitude climbers, including Denali climbers. Frankly, I think there is a huge placebo affect at work with Diamox. I’ve been to the top of Denali something more than 20 times, and when I was in my 20’s, my fellow guides and I experimented on different trips with and without Diamox. For me (and keep in mind that different people are likely to react differently to the affects of a drug.) I had to come to the conclusion that Diamox did nothing for me in terms of speeding up or aiding the acclimatization process.

    Q: Any key gear for Denali?

    A: Yes, a Patagonia Sun Shade Hoody! It’s the best thing you can wear in the hot sun and it will really make a huge difference on the lower mountain. Same shirt works brilliantly for trekking or climbing in any high-altitude environment, these things are seriously lifesavers and a million times better than a light-weight 2nd-hand store white button down shirt. (though those are certainly the next best thing).

    Q: What is your layering system for Denali?

    A: Up top I go: Baselayer (2 for the whole trip, one short sleeve one long sleeve), Sun Shade Hoody (up to 14k camp), R1 hoody, Patagonia Nano Air Jacket, Patagonia Houdini as a wind shell, and a Patagonia M10 as a hardshell, DAS Parka or Grade 7 Parka. If you run cold you’ll want to add more more mid-layer to the above list, maybe a vest or a thick baselayer. On the bottom I go: Baselayer, Nano Air Pant, Patagonia Galvanized Pant (softshell pant with suspenders and crotch zip) and DAS Pants. Boots: G2SM from Sportiva are the best Denali boots at the moment.

    Hope that helps. If anyone has more questions, post to the forum or send us an email at

Posted In: Mountaineering

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    Anonymous on #4666

    Opportune timing on this post for me. Been self-coaching for a first-time Denali trip this season based off TFTNA.

    Thanks for reinforcing my assumptions about Denali pacing. One of the most valuable methods I’ve learned from TFTNA is the Z1 pacing, nose-breathing strategy. I’ve been amazed at how good I feel post-climb or long training session using this simple method. I’ve found that moving at this easy-but-steady pace ends up getting me up and down in a similar enough time frame to my previous go-hard > break > go-hard > break method and, far more importantly, leaves me feeling noticably less worked. Having said that, I’m assuming the altitude on Denali will really shut me down and I’ll be moving at best 1/2 to 1/3 my regular nose-breathing pace for PNW mountains.

    I do have some questions, though I put the caveat out there now that these are rather geeky in their gear-exactitude. Also, I work for another outdoor brand besides Patagonia (hey, we’re all brothers of the breathable membrane, right?) so I’m trying to match your suggestions with our equivalents (hence the specificity).

    1. Sun Shade: Is the main advantage of the Sun Shade hoody over the R1 Hoody the reflective colour? Curious to insight as to why the Sun Shade is so superior to the R1 for the lower mountain.

    2. Galvanized Pants: Perhaps I’m in error, but are these not hardshell/waterproof pants? I ask as my original pants-plan was: light baselayer > heavier baselayer > mid-weight softshell > light-weight hardshell > puffy over-pants. Ever in the hopes of saving weight, I’m wondering if you believe having both the soft and hardshell pants is overkill. Or, assuming the Galvanized are in fact the waterproof layer, do the Nano Air pants act as both the heavier baselayer and the softshell layer in one?



    Colin Simon on #4748


    the Sun Shade hoodie is nice because it is so loose-fitting, it allows air to pass around you and keep you cool. The hood droops over your baseball hat and keeps out the sun(don’t forget the baseball hat!). On the lower glacier it can be very hot, but you want to stay covered since the rays are so intense. It’s a bit like having desert robes – the R1 hoodie does too good a job of keeping you warm.

    I found just the softshell pant to be enough. I think it’s a lot nicer to layer puffy pants over most softshells than most hardshells.

    Don’t be surprised when your breathing ramps up to a high rate despite going slowly up high! Relax and be patient.

    Anonymous on #4764

    Thanks for the info Colin — “desert robes” — now I get it. I was having trouble telling the difference between the two tops online based on materials, weight, etc. That totally helps.

    I generally don’t bother with hardshell pants once the spring season hits, but I’m quite ignorant when it comes to high altitude climbing and Denali specifically, hence the over-analytical (I may have come across like a douche) questions.



    Colin Simon on #4765

    Don’t worry, you didn’t sound douchey at all. Perfectly reasonable questions. And in general if it’s your first big trip to a place like that, better to err on the side of asking too many questions than to show up without any good options.

    High on Denali(above 14k) it’s cold enough that the snow tends to be less wet. I find you mainly get wet from sweating or from sitting around in the snow day after day. The Houdini is nice because it blocks the wind and snow, and layering on top of it works nicely. And it’s about as breathable as you can get unless someone starts making garments out of actual tissue paper. On the other hand if it snows a lot down low (7000ft, late spring) you could want a hard shell.

    Don’t forget to cover your face up high! And you will breathe hard through a balaclava. I cut a mouth hole in one, some people use multiple Buffs.

    Anonymous on #4774

    Thanks again Colin. It’s really helpful to get this kind of hands-on info from those who’ve been there. I appreciate the responses!

    Jake907 on #5046

    You suggest G2SMs as the best Denali boot. Do you suggest pairing those with Silveretta skis? Or a real ski and boot for the lower mountain and the G2SMs up high? In the recent past I know a lot of climbers were still using Silverettas but I don’t know what the “state of the art” Denali set up is in 2017.

    sambedell on #5741


    I would also be curious about what you recommend for ski travel on Denali. I’m sure you have a pair of Silveretta’s but they are hard to find these days. What would you recommend for someone just getting into trying some AK range objectives?

    For reference I have lightweight dynafit ski boots that I’m comfortable climbing a fair bit in but are not warm enough for Alaska. I have light-weight snow shoes but would much rather ski if reasonable.

    Steve House on #5771

    The ski-issue for Denali is a tough one. I do have a “new” to me pair of Silvretta 400 bindings I got at a ski swap for $40 (score of the century). But they’re really hard to find. I did use Fritschi Diamir bindings

    on quite a few Denali expeditions. I always carried a spare toe piece (which are prone to cracking) and they are fidgeting to get set up for a mountaineering boot, but they worked. I would not do any exposed skiing on them, meaning I’d leave them at the 11,200′ camp, but they can be made to work.

    Finally, A lot of people climb Denali in ski mountaineering boots. If you up-size the shell (usually shell sizes change every full mondo-point size, but check with a specialist) and get a thick custom liner, like the warmest Intuition offers, this set up can work really well, be super warm, and buckles are easier to manage with gloves than laces, and best of all you can use a good light ski set up with a Dynafit-style binding.

    sambedell on #5791

    Thanks Steve. One last question… what setup would you use to approach south face routes such as Cassin R. and D. Diamond? Stash skis or snow shoe carry over or just boot it?

    Thanks again.

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