Alaska is home to North America’s highest mountain; standing at 6190 metres (20,310 feet) above sea level, Denali, which was until recently known as Mount McKinley is ranked third in the list of the 7 tallest summits on each continent.
Height: 6190 m (20,310 feet)
Location: Alaska, USA
First Climbed: 1913 (Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum.)
Climb Time: 14 - 28 days
Best Season to Climb: April - July
Due to its spectacular Alaskan wilderness and its prominence as one of the "7 Summits" it is understandable that more than 400,000 people visit the park that hosts this mountain every year. Many of these are mountaineers, but there are also people looking to see wildlife in the park, exceptionally gorgeous sceneries and the virgin wilderness of this vast area. Perhaps after you read this article, you will fancy yourself being among these fortunate visitors.
Jump to info on the Main Denali Route
Geography of Denali
Another intriguing fact that captures the uniqueness of this mountain is that it could be regarded as the tallest in the world; from the base of the mountain to the top, Denali rises 5200 metres (17,000 feet), compared to Kilimanjaro at 4300m (14,000) and Everest at 4000m (13,000). In essence, Denali towers above the surrounding area more than any other mountain does.
The mountain is found within an area measuring about six million acres. This area is a wilderness that remains largely untapped and untouched. It has big forests, frozen tundra, glacial lakes and tall mountains. In essence, this area teems with life and Denali is just the main landmark. There is much more to see especially for those who have the privilege of climbing the mountain.
Those who have ascended this mountain agree that in terms of the scenery and views, no other mountain comes close to Denali. Every day of your hiking, trekking or climbing trip here will be filled with unique breathtaking views of the Alaskan wilderness. You can actually see as far as Mt. Huntington, a striking pyramid in the Central Alaskan Range Mt. Hunter and Mt. Foraker. This is an astounding area of mountain wilderness, for the photographer or the outdoor enthusiast a trip here is the trip of lifetime.
The uniqueness of this mountain range is also evident in relation to its location. Denali is located close to the arctic circle where temperatures dip significantly. Harsh storms and plenty of ice and snow throughout the entire year are to be expected. This is different from a place such as Kilimanjaro, near the Equator, where climactic and weather changes can determine when to climb the mountain.
If there is a mountain climbing trip that will exert you physically and mentally, it is surely the Denali one. Its unique extreme arctic conditions also require that you have a certain degree of mountaineering experience. As we shall see later, your logistics should be on point. There is no room for the unprepared on this hill! It is imperative that anyone intending to make a serious attempt takes the time to put in place all the provisions and equipment needed.
The mountain is within the similarly-named Denali National Park. The surrounding area is inhabited by the Koyukon people who always known the mountain to be called Denali and that is why they have fought over the years to have the name Mt. McKinley revoked. They had to endure this ‘foreign’ name from 1917 up to 2015 when it finally reverted to its native name.
The Alaskan government maintained that the mountain is called Denali for some 40 years, while the US government chose to stick with Mount McKinley. However, the US government succumbed to pressure in August 2015 and agreed to go back to ‘Denali’. This was a major move which created pressure in other regions including Washington State and Mount Rainier, but more about the name later.
Denali was formed by tectonic movement involving the North America and Pacific plates. It was at the same time that the sediments on top of the mountain were removed by erosion. It is also important to realize that the Pacific Plate, where the mountain is located has seismic activity consequently there were earthquakes in both the Aleutian Islands and Alaska at the time the mountain was developing.
There are two main summits on Denali: the Southern and the Northern one. The former has a higher elevation than the latter. Some people also tend to view the latter as a unique peak. Well, it is rarer for anyone to climb it, but a few of those who climb the mountain through the north have tried it before.
The mountain sends down water through five key glaciers. These are Peters Glacier, Muldrow Glacier, Traleika Glacier, Ruth Glacier and Kailtna Glacier, which happens to be the one that goes the farthest distance in the entire Alaska Range. In essence, this mountain is very important to the ecosystem of Alaska.
Whats in the name?
As observed earlier, the Koyukon Athabaskans, natives of the area around Denali, were adamant on the name they considered appropriate for their great mountain. Denali or Dinale means “tall” or “high”, obviously a reference to this towering cathedral of nature, on their doorstep. But the locals were not the only ones to have named the mountain. There was a time when Russia owned Alaska and they too had their name for the mountain – Bolshaya. Literally translated it means “big mountain”, which hints at the original name.
Moreover, for about a decade (between 1880 and 1890), the mountain was called Densmore’s mountain. The man, after which it was named, Frank Densmore, is said to be the first person of European descent to arrive at the foot of the mountain. He was in Alaska to prospect for gold. The name “McKinley Mountain” came into being after another gold prospector decided to honor one of the presidential candidates; William McKinley. Although McKinley would go on to win the presidency, it was only in 1917 when the then president, Wilson, decided to recognize it as McKinley Mountain. This he did when he signed into law the Mount McKinley National Park Act.
US presidential interest in Denali did not stop there! It appears the battle for naming rights of this mountain have been ongoing for ages. Winston Churchill, the renowned British nationalist also had the two peaks on Denali named after him; churchill Peaks, by Lyndon B. Johnson, the US president in 1965.
But the parliament of the Alaskan state would hear none of this. In 1975, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names did away with “Mt. McKinley” and renamed the mountain “Denali.” The state’s parliament went ahead and requested the federal government to follow suit. What the Alaskans did not know is that some people within congress had vested interests. The congressman representing the town where McKinley was from (he was called Ralph Regula) blocked the attempt to rename the mountain, fearing it was a dishonor to his town-mate and the city of Canton, Ohio.
Before we look at the key decision that gave back the mountain its original name, it is important to understand that McKinley himself, never stepped in Alaska during his tenure or for his entire life. He, therefore, did not bother to visit the mountain named after him.
Perhaps with this in mind he did not deserve the honour! In any case, he did not ask for the favor but one imagines the prospector who named it had the foresight to see that McKinley might win the elections and wanted to buy favour with the incoming president. He was hardly the first and will surely not be the last.
Current president, Barack Obama, was the man under whose watch Alaskans had the last laugh in the naming of Mt. Denali. Again there are political connotations in this action. The president was about to visit Alaska and the Secretary of Interior made sure that the mountain would be called Denali by the time Obama reached Alaska. August 28, 2015 is the crucial date on which the mountain officially became Denali.
You would think that this action would be met with approval by everyone but this was not the case. Again politicians from Ohio, including the Governor, Senator and House Speaker Boehner were all opposed to the renaming asking Congress to reject the request by the Alaska legislature.
Potential controversies regarding its name might not necessarily have ended here. There are many Alaskan communities in this area and they actually have different names for the mountain and the name Denali belongs to one tribe. Having said this all these names generally refer to the mountain as tall or big and the rest of the communities felt honored by the name Denali because it represents what Alaskans had always wanted – a name that recognizes them and their unique heritage.
First Ascent of Denali
Like many other famous and elusive mountain summits, those which are targeted by climbers for personal glory, Denali has been the subject of countless attempts and a few false summit claims.
Judge James Wickersham was the first recorded person to attempt an ascent to the top of Denali, in 1903. He chose to follow the Peters Glacier route which is found on the northern side. That is why that route is today known as Wickersham Wall. This is one of the toughest routes especially because of the risk of avalanches. Wickersham was not successful and indeed, no one made it successfully to the top by following this route until 1963.
In 1906, a false ‘prophet’ in the name of Dr. Fredrick Cook arose, and boldly claimed to have summited Denali. There were many who believed him, but a sizeable number also doubted his report. It took some time before Bradford Washburn proved that Cook had never reached the summit of the mountain. These things are expected on this kind of stage and in an era where many were looking to make history and a name for themselves through mountaineering.
False reports did not end there. The Sourdough Expedition, consisting of four Alaskans, Charles McGonagall, Peter Anderson, Billy Taylor and Tom Lloyd, made an attempt at the summit in 1910. These people did not have any experience in mountaineering but it did not discourage them claiming to have reached both summits. Two people in the team actually erected a pole on the North Summit but nobody believed that they could also have reached the highest point of the Southern Summit. It wa snot helpful that they claimed only a total of eighteen hours to reach the summit was required.
The Parker-Browne expedition of 1912 was the closest attempt at the summit before the first acknowledged successful climb was accomplished. With just a few meters to the top, this team was repulsed by bad weather conditions. It turned out to be a very sensible idea for more reasons than one. Barely a few hours after they had descended the mountain one of the most powerful earthquakes took place and broke the glacier they had climbed. That was the Great Earthquake of 1912 which resulted from the eruption of Novarupta, a volcano within the Aleutian Range.
A year later and Mt McKinley (as it was then) was finally and officially climbed for the first time. Harry Karstens and Hudson Stuck led the triumphant party, however the person who touched the top of Denali for the first time on June 7, 1913 was Walter Harper. Alongside Harper was Robert Tatum, a native of Alaska.
This party used the Muldrow Glacier pathway. The route is still largely used by climbers today and the same one that many early pioneers of climbing on Denali preferred. Interetsingly this team were able to use binoculars to view the North Summit, spying a pole on the summit, thus confirming that indeed the Sourdough had reached the North summit. It was also established that had the unfortunate Parker-Browne group gone a mere 61 meters more, it would have been the first group of climbers to summit Denali.
Climbing Routes on Denali
Like any other important mountain, Denali has quite a number of potential routes. There are those that are considered less risky. However, while some people like to use the well-beaten path, others prefer to try out new pathways.
Western Buttress Route
One of the routes that most guides prefer is through the Kahiltna Glacier. It is found in the hinterland of Alaska’s range of mountains. Climbers then find their way along a route via the epnoymous West Buttress. Whilst not on the scale of Himalayan climbs the mountain does have a base camp as well as several camps en route to ascending. Climbers require intermediate skills to complete this expedition that tends to take about 17 to 18 days to complete and return to base, dependent on weather conditions. For the sake of acclimatisation and to take care of bad weather, it is necessary to plan with more days in mind - it is not uncommon to be delayed by a week.
Bradford Washburn is credited with pioneering the Western Buttress route. However, much as people like to use it, climbers must be wary of the fast and powerful winds and extreme temperatures on this path. Most of the time the mountain is cold and temperatures can dip to about -40˚F on some days. Prepare also for 20 hours of sunshine on sunny days as the northern latitude means long days. Unlike some other of the 7 Summits which can be viewed as trekking peaks, to make this ascent your mental and physical endurance must be at their best ever.
The other less popular routes include the West Rib, Cassin Ridge (named afte rlegendary Italian climber Riccardo Cassin) and the South Buttress. However these are for the more experienced climber; avalanches and other complications are common.
While you can climb this mountain any time you feel like (the first winter ascent was in 1967), it is in your interest that you make the ascent during the "climbing season" between April and July. The mountain is warmer, at least in relative terms, during this time compared to other months. Considering the potential low temperatures on the mountain, this spring/summer period and some warmer conditions lend themselves to a greater chance of a successful climb. Having recommended this period, it is worth noting that between 2011 and 2012, mid-July also witnessed very low pressure on the mountain and many teams stalled. In essence, weather patterns are changing and this is definitely going to affect the times when people can climb with suitably reduced risks. If it is your intention to climb Denali, it is you interests to garner as much information as possible about the conditions on the mountain before you make the ascent.
You also need to prepare yourself adequately. Acclimatisation is key here as well - Denali is higher than Kilimanjaro, so far north that there are places that may require the use of sleds and a tough exposed ascent. When you add the volatility of mountain weather an dpotentially very low temperatures Denali truly deserves its place in the 7 Summits not only on height but on reputation as a tough challenge.
Just as the locals knew the mountain long before a white man gave it the name Denali, so now local guides are best placed to take you up this majestic Alaskan peak.