Mount McKinley or Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America and in the United States, with a summit elevation of 20,320 feet (6,194 m) above sea level. Measured base-to-peak, it is the tallest mountain on land. Measured by topographic prominence, it is the third most prominent peak in the world after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. It is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Geology and features
Mount McKinley is a granitic pluton. It has been uplifted by tectonic pressure while at the same time, erosion has stripped away the (somewhat softer) sedimentary rock above and around the mountain.
The forces that lifted Mount McKinley — the subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the North American plate—also raised great ranges across southern Alaska. As that huge sheet of ocean-floor rock plunges downward into the mantle, it shoves and crumples the continent into soaring mountains which include some of the most active volcanoes on the continent. Mount McKinley in particular is uplifted relative to the rocks around it because it is at the intersection of major active strike-slip faults (faults that move rocks laterally across the Earth’s surface) which allow the deep buried rocks to be unroofed more rapidly compared to those around them.
McKinley has a summit elevation of 20,320 feet (6,194 m) above sea level, making it the highest peak in North America. Measured from base to peak, it is also the world’s tallest mountain on land. McKinley sits atop a sloping plain with elevations from 300 metres (1,000 ft) to 900 metres (3,000 ft), for a base-to-peak height of 5,300 to 5,900 metres (17,000 to 19,000 ft). (Mount Everest, on the other hand, sits atop the Tibetan Plateau at a much higher base elevation. Base elevations for Everest range from 4,200 m (13,800 ft) on the south side to 5,200 m (17,100 ft) on the Tibetan Plateau, for a base-to-peak height in the range of 3,650 to 4,650 metres (12,000 to 15,300 ft). However, McKinley’s base-to-peak height is little more than half that of the 10,200 metres (33,500 ft) of the volcano Mauna Kea, which lies mostly under water.)
Layout of the mountain
Mount McKinley has two significant summits: the South Summit is the higher one, while the North Summit has an elevation of 19,470 feet (5,934 m) and a prominence of approximately 1,320 feet (402 m). The North Summit is sometimes counted as a separate peak (see e.g., the List of United States fourteeners) and sometimes not; it is rarely climbed, except by those doing routes on the north side of the massif.
Five large glaciers flow off the slopes of the mountain. The Peters Glacier lies on the northwest side of the massif, while the Muldrow Glacier falls from its northeast slopes. Just to the east of the Muldrow, and abutting the eastern side of the massif, is the Traleika Glacier. The Ruth Glacier lies to the southeast of the mountain, and the Kahiltna Glacier leads up to the southwest side of the mountain.
The Koyukon Athabaskan people who inhabit the area around the mountain referred to the peak as Dinale or Denali (“the high one” or “the great one”). In the late 1890s, a gold prospector named it “McKinley” as political support for then-president William McKinley. The Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali, which is how it is referred to locally. However, a 1975 request by the Alaska state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names to do the same was blocked by Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, whose district includes McKinley’s hometown. Members of the Ohio congressional delegation continue to protect the McKinley name, blocking attempts by the Alaska congressional delegation to get the Board of Geographic Names to change it to Denali. Thus, “Denali” is correct according to the Alaska state board, while “McKinley” is correct according to the national board.
The Koyukon Athabaskans are the first Native Americans with access to the flanks of the mountain (living in the Yukon, Tanana and Kuskokwim basins). The historical first European sighting of Mount McKinley took place on May 6, 1794, when George Vancouver was surveying the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet and mentioned “distant stupendous mountains” in his journal. The Russian explorer Lavrenty Zagoskin explored the Tanana and Kuskokwim rivers in 1843 and 1844 and was probably the first European to sight the mountain from the other side.
William Dickey, a New Hampshire-born Seattleite who had been digging for gold in the sands of the Susitna River, wrote, after his return to the lower states, an account in the New York Sun that appeared on January 24, 1897. His report drew attention with the sentence “We have no doubt that this peak is the highest in North America, and estimate that it is over 20,000 feet (6,100 m) high.” Until then 18,000-foot (5,500 m) Mount Saint Elias was believed to be the continent’s highest point (Mount Logan was still unknown and Mount St Elias’ height had been overestimated to beat Pico de Orizaba). Though later praised for his estimate, Dickey admitted that other prospector parties had also guessed the mountain to be over 20,000 feet (6,100 m).
The first recorded attempt to climb Mount McKinley was by Judge James Wickersham in 1903, via the Peters Glacier and the North Face, now known as the Wickersham Wall. This route has tremendous avalanche danger and was not successfully climbed until 1963.
Famed explorer Dr. Frederick Cook claimed the first ascent of the mountain in 1906. His claim was regarded with some suspicion from the start, but was also widely believed. It was later proved false, with some crucial evidence provided by Bradford Washburn when he was sketched on a lower peak.
In 1910, four locals (Tom Lloyd, Peter Anderson, Billy Taylor, and Charles McGonagall), known as the Sourdough expedition, attempted McKinley, despite a complete lack of climbing experience. They spent approximately three months on the mountain. However, their purported summit day was impressive: carrying a bag of doughnuts each, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a 14-foot (4.2 m) spruce pole, two of them reached the North Summit, the lower of the two, and erected the pole near the top. According to them, they took a total of 18 hours – a record that has yet to be beat (as of 2006). No one believed their success (partly due to false claims that they had climbed both summits) until the true first ascent, in 1913.
In 1912, the Parker-Browne expedition nearly reached the summit, turning back within just a few hundred yards of it due to harsh weather. In fact, that probably saved their lives, as a powerful earthquake shattered the glacier they had ascended hours after they safely left it.
The first ascent of the main summit of McKinley came on June 7, 1913, by a party led by Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens. The first man to reach the summit was Walter Harper, an Alaska Native. Robert Tatum also made the summit. Tatum later commented, “The view from the top of Mount McKinley is like looking out the windows of Heaven!” They ascended the Muldrow Glacier route pioneered by the earlier expeditions, which is still often climbed today. Stuck confirmed, via binoculars, the presence of a large pole near the North Summit; this report confirmed the Sourdough ascent, and today it is widely believed that the Sourdoughs did succeed on the North Summit. However, the pole was never seen before or since, so there is still some doubt. Stuck also discovered that the Parker-Browne party were only about 200 feet (61 m) of elevation short of the true summit when they turned back.
The mountain is regularly climbed today; in 2003, around 58% of climbers reached the top. But by 2003, the mountain had claimed the lives of nearly 100 mountaineers over time. The vast majority of climbers use the West Buttress Route, pioneered in 1951 by Bradford Washburn, after an extensive aerial photographic analysis of the mountain. Climbers typically take two to four weeks to ascend the mountain.