The centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Mt. Denali boasts the highest mountain in the United States. Standing at 20,310 feet tall, Mt. Denali is the third most prominent and the third most isolated peak in the world.
In 2015, the mountain had its name changed back to indigenous word Denali from Mount McKinley, given to the peak in 1913. The mountain’s history provides a rich and colorful background, especially for those interested in climbing the majestic and challenging peak. Here’s the history behind Mt. Denali and why it’s considered one of the most inspiring climbs in the world.
The first attempts to climb Denali began in the late-1800’s. Frederick Cook achieved the first ascent in 1906, but he was later discredited after his photographs were proven to be captured from the summit of an insignificant peaklet over 10 miles away from Denali.
In 1910, four “sourdoughs” with no previous mountaineering experience managed to climb the lower North Peak of Denali. These men established a camp and moved up the mountain from the north Muldrow glacier. They were the first to discover the McGonagall Pass, which allowed them to bypass the Wickersham Wall and reach higher areas of the mountain. Many dismissed their claims of ascending the peak until later climbers found a 14-foot spruce pole they had erected near its summit.
In 1912, the Parker-Browne expedition almost reached the summit, turning back due to harsh weather. Perhaps it worked out for the better, as a 7.4 earthquake shattered the glacier they had ascended the day after they turned around.
By 1913, the ascent of the main summit was again attempted via the Muldrow glacier and McGonagall pass by a party led by Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens, with two other men named Harper and Tatum. A prior earthquake had made a previously described gentle slope of three days travel, both dangerous and ice-strewn on a knife-edged ridge (now named Karstens ridge). It took the expedition three weeks to cover the same ground as the Parker-Browne expedition, while Karstens and Harper laboriously cut steps into the ice. On May 30, the team, with good weather, ascended to a new high camp at 17,500 ft in the Grand Basin between the south and north peaks. On June 7, the team attempted the summit Temperatures fell below -20 F at times. Every man suffered from altitude sickness, but Harper became the first climber to reach the summit by midday, followed by Tatum and Karstens seconds later. Stuck arrived last, lying unconscious on the summit.
Upon arrival, Tatum later reflected that the “The view from the top of Mount McKinley is like looking out the windows of Heaven!” During the climb, Stuck spotted the large pole placed near the North Summit, confirming the sourdoughs ascent. Stuck also discovered that the Parker-Browne party was only about 200 feet short of the summit before turning back. Stuck and Karstens’ team accomplished the first uncontroversial first ascent of Denali’s north peak.
However, the landmark achievement which opened up Denali to other climbers was the 1951 expedition led by Brad Washburn. He reached the west summit of Denali from the West Buttress. Washburn and his team accessed the Kahiltna Glacier via a plane fitted with skis and thus pioneered the most popular route on today’s Denali climbs.
Mt. Denali Today
Ever since the mountain became the goal of aspiring high-altitude climbers in 1913, it has earned a reputation as a highly-coveted summit. However, its location near the Arctic Circle and the Pacific Ocean (Gulf of Alaska) surrounds Mt. Denali with some of the world’s most hazardous weather. Due to its notorious weather and accessibility for climbers, some have used Denali as a training ground for climbing 8,000-meter peaks of the Himalayas and for long expeditions to the Arctic or Antarctic.
Mt. Denali hosts some of the world’s most extraordinary expedition and climbing challenges. While peak elevations in South America and Asia are greater, its height which towers above the Alaskan plain makes it a severe test of logistics, personal strength and endurance, teamwork and logistics.
No peak in the world has a greater relief. Denali rises 17,000 feet above the surrounding plain, while Mt. Kilimanjaro rises 14,000 feet and Mt. Everest rises 13,000 feet. On the South Col, vertical elevation gain on Everest from the typical base camp for the South is 11,000 feet, but from the landing spot on the Kahiltna Glacier, Denali’s summit stands at 13,000 feet. For climbers, the mountain often seems like it’s taller than it stands. It’s because the barometric pressure in the northern/southern latitudes is less than at the equator, which makes climbers feel that they are higher up than in reality.
Over 90% of climbers on Denali choose the West Buttress route, considered the least technical way to access the summit. On the north side of the mountain, the Muldrow Glacier is somewhat similar but regarded for its technical difficulty and length. It entails a more committed and involved climb, requiring participants to hike in rather than flying to a base camp. Although much more technically difficult, the West Rib is the next most attempted route, but only sees a handful of hiking expeditions each year. Many acknowledge this route as substantially more challenging and objectively dangerous compared to the West Buttress. Beyond these three well-known routes, other hiking options are significantly more technical and challenging. A list of trail grades and their level of difficulty is listed below
West Buttress (Alaska Grade 2+, Class 3-4)
West Rib (Alaska Grade 4, AI 3)
Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5, 5.8, AI 4)
Muldrow Glacier (Alaska Grade 3, Class 3-4)