The pinnacle of Alaska, the United States, and North America at 20,237 feet above sea level, Denali, formerly Mount McKinley, is the end goal of highpointers, a tempting target for mountaineers all over the world, and a symbol of those who just need to climb a mountain to leave their mark on the world.
The staggering massif of Mount Denali is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve, just off the Denali Highway in Denali Borough. Denali means “The Great One” in the Athabaskan, and mountaineers and Alaskans refer to it as Denali as well. Thus, why wouldn’t the U.S. government? Well for most of it’s modern history, it’s because of president stuff.
The mountain received its presidential name in 1896 when a gold panner, William Dickey, wrote a story for the New York Sun about his experiences in the area, and he wrote about the behemoth mountain that “We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency.” Some would say that Dickey met many silver prospectors who were in favor of McKinley’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan, who advocated a silver standard of currency, instead of McKinley who favored the gold standard.
Not wanting the mountain to be forever named out of spite, Governor Jay Hammond and the Alaska Legislature in 1975 asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to rename the mountain to Denali, but the then Secretary of the Interior held off the request for two years. Then, longtime Representative from President McKinley’s home district of Canton, Ohio, Ralph Regula, maneuvered to keep the name the same. President Carter had the new national park named Denali in 1980 as a compromise, but at the very beginning of every congressional term since, Representative Regula would introduce legislation to keep the name the same, stymieing it for two more years. He would repeat this strategy until he retired in 2009, when two more Ohio Representatives, Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan, introduced H.R. 229, repeating the strategy for the foreseeable future.
In 2015, President Obama officially renamed the mountain Mount Denali.
Whatever name one refers to this mountain, including the nickname “Mount Mid-Life Crisis” by some mountaineers, Denali is one of the premier climbs in the world. It rises 17,000 feet above the surrounding plain, the highest relief of any mountain from above sea level. Many snow and glacier routes with many variations ascend to the South Peak. The standard route in recent years is the West Buttress Route, a 16-mile route with over 12,000 feet of elevation gain. The climbing season for this route is May through mid-July. May brings colder temperatures down to -40 at times and blistering wind speeds, but more stable weather. Later in the months, weather gets warmer but punishing snowstorms develop more often. All climbers on this mountain must be in the best shape of their lives, be well-versed in snow and glacier climbing, and be prepared to spend three weeks on their expedition in a very hostile environment.
For those who just wish to capture the mountain rising above the wild lands below, many pullouts are available along Parks Highway, Alaska Route 3, to stop and take a picture. The park’s shuttle bus system also provides a 6-hour bus ride to Wonder Lake and Reflection Pond, which provides spectacular photograph opportunities on a clear day, to see the grand mountain rise above an entire continent.
Know Before You Go
Denali National Park and Preserve is entered by the Parks Highway, Alaska Route 3. Mountaineering expeditions start at the town of Talkeetna, AK.