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Mt. McKinley (Denali) Review

In the heart of mainland Alaska, within 6-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve, the continent's most majestic peak rises into the heavens. Officially known as Mt. McKinley, this 20,320-foot massif of ice, snow, and rock is most commonly referred to by its Native name, Denali, or "the High One." Some simply call it "The Mountain." One thing is certain: it's a giant among giants, and the most dominant feature in a land of extremes and superlatives.

Those who have walked McKinley's slopes know it to be a wild, desolate place. As the highest peak in North America, McKinley is a target of mountaineers who aspire to ascend the "seven summits"—the tallest mountains on each continent. A foreboding and mysterious place, it was terra incognita—unclimbed and unknown to most people—as recently as the late 1890s. Among Athabascan tribes, however, the mountain was a revered landmark; many generations regarded it as a holy place and a point of reference.

Naming the Mountain: Linguists have identified at least eight Native Alaskan names for the mountain including Deenaalee, Doleyka, Traleika, and Dghelay Ka'a. The essence of all the names is "the High One" or "Big Mountain." The first recorded sighting of Mt. McKinley by a foreign explorer was in 1794, when Captain George Vancouver spotted it in the distance. More than a century later, after a summer of gold-seeking, Ivy Leaguer William Dickey reported his experiences in the New York Sun. His most significant news was of a massive peak, which he dubbed "Mt. McKinley," after Republican William McKinley of Ohio. Mountaineer Hudson Stuck, who led the first mountaineering team to McKinley's summit, was just one in a long line of Alaskans to protest this name. In Stuck's view, the moniker was an affront to both the mountain and Alaska's Native people. For these very reasons, a vast majority of Alaskans call the continent's highest peak by its original name, Denali.

Facts and Figures: The mountain's vertical rise is the highest in the world. This means that at 18,000 feet over the lowlands (which are some 2,000 feet above sea level), McKinley's vertical rise is even greater than that of Mt. Everest, at 29,035-feet (which sits 12,000 feet above the Tibetan plateau, some 17,000 feet above sea level). In addition to coping with severe weather, climbers face avalanches, open crevasses, hypothermia, frostbite, and high-altitude illnesses. Nearly 100 people have died on the mountain and hundreds more have been seriously injured. McKinley's awesome height and its subarctic location make it one of the coldest mountains on Earth, if not the coldest. Primarily made of granite, McKinley undergoes continual shifting and uplift thanks to plate tectonics (the Pacific Plate pushing against the North American Plate); it grows about 1 millimeter per year.

Climbing Mt. McKinley: The safest route to the summit is the West Buttress. About 80% to 90% of climbers attempting to ascend the peak take this route, with only about half reaching the top. More than 30 people—including some world-class mountaineers—have been killed on the West Buttress. Halfway to the summit, McKinley's weather is equivalent to that of the North Pole in severity. In summer, nighttime temperatures may reach -40°F. From base camp to high camp, climbers must trek some 16 miles and 10,000 vertical feet—a trip that takes two to three weeks. The most technically challenging stretch is the ascent to 18,200-foot Denali Pass; climbers must cross a steep snow-covered slope then a shallow bowl called the Football Field. Then, still roped together, climbers ascend an 800-foot snow-and-ice wall to reach the "top of the continent" itself.

Early Milestones: In 1903, two different expeditions made the first attempts to climb Mt. McKinley. They only reached 11,000 feet. Over the next decade, other expeditions would try, and fail, to reach the top. Finally in 1913, a team led by Hudson Stuck reached the summit. The first person to the top was Walter Harper, a Native Alaskan. After the Stuck party's success, no attempts were made to climb the mountain until 1932. That year, for the first time, a pilot landed a small plane on one of the mountain's massive glaciers. Another first: a party climbed both the 20,320-foot South Peak and 19,470-foot North Peak. More tragically, the first deaths occurred on the mountain. Alaskans Dave Johnston, Art Davidson, and Ray Genet completed the first winter ascent of McKinley in February 1967. Japanese climber Naomi Uemura completed the first solo ascent of McKinley in 1970.

Updated: 06-17-2013

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