Mount McKinley

Mount McKinley—also called Denali—is North America’s highest mountain, elevation 20,237 feet. Mount McKinley/Denali is located within Denali National Park & Preserve.

The Parks Highway provides the most direct highway access to Denali National Park and Preserve (formerly Mount McKinley National Park) from either Anchorage or Fairbanks. On a clear day, Mount McKinley/Denali may be visible from as far away as Anchorage. But because the mountain generates its own weather conditions, even on a clear day it may be shrouded in clouds. Summer’s often overcast or rainy weather frequently obscures the mountain as well, giving visitors only about a 30 to 40 percent chance of seeing the famous peak.

If not obscured by clouds, the mountain is visible from several viewpoints along the 92-mile Park Road that traverses Denali National Park between the main park entrance at Milepost A 237.3 Parks Highway and private land holdings in the Kantishna area to the west. There are also formal viewpoints along the Parks Highway: Denali Viewpoint South, Milepost A 135.2; Denali Viewpoint North, Milepost A 162.4, and Denali View North Campground at Milepost A 162.7. There is a Denali viewpoint on the Talkeetna Spur Road, 12.8 miles from Milepost A 98.7.

First mention of “the mountain” was in 1794, when English explorer Capt. George Vancouver spotted “a stupendous snow mountain” from Cook Inlet. Early Russian explorers and traders called the peak Bolshaia Gora, or “Big Mountain.” The Athabascan Indians of the region called it Denali, “the High One.” In 1896 a prospector, William A. Dickey, named the mountain for presidential nominee William McKinley of Ohio, although McKinley had no connection with Alaska. Protests that the mountain be returned to its original name, Denali, ensued almost at once. But it was not until the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 changed the park’s status and name that the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the mountain’s name back to Denali. (The U.S. Board of Geographic Names, however, still shows the mountain as McKinley.)

The history of climbs on McKinley is as intriguing as its names. In 1903, Judge James Wickersham and party climbed to an estimated 8,000 feet, while the Dr. Frederick A. Cook party reached the 11,000-foot level in 1906. Cook returned to the mountain and made 2 attempts at the summit–the first unsuccessful, the second (according to Cook) successful. Cook’s vague description of his ascent route and a questionable summit photo led many to doubt his claim. The exhaustive research of McKinley expert Bradford Washburn has proven the exaggeration of Cook’s claim. Tom Lloyd, of the 1910 Sourdough Party, which included Charles McGonagall, Pete Anderson and Billy Taylor, claimed they had reached both summits (north and south peaks), but could not provide any photographic evidence. The first complete and well documented ascent of the true summit of Mount McKinley was made in June 1913 by the Rev. Hudson Stuck, Episcopal archdeacon of the Yukon, accompanied by Walter Harper, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum. Harper, a Native Athabascan, was the first person to set foot on the higher south peak. The story of their achievement was colorfully recorded in Stuck’s book, The Ascent of Denali. Out of respect for the Native people among whom he lived and worked, Stuck refused to refer to the mountain as McKinley.

Today, more than a thousand people attempt to climb McKinley each year between April and June, most flying in to base camp at 7,200 feet on Kahiltna Glacier. In the 2013 climbing season, 787 climbers achieved the summit of Denali—68 percent of the 1,151 who attempted it. In 2012, only 41 percent reached the summit of 1,223 climbers.

The first airplane landing on the mountain was flown in 1932 by Joe Crosson. Geographic features of McKinley and its sister peaks bear the names of early explorers: Eldridge and Muldrow glaciers, after George Eldridge and Robert Muldrow of the U.S. Geographic Service who determined the peak’s altitude in 1898; Wickersham Wall; Karsten’s Ridge; Harper Icefall; and Mount Carpe and Mount Koven, named for Allen Carpe and Theodore Koven, both killed in a 1932 climb.

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