Denali – The High Point of Alaska, the United States, and North America

Eventually, as we continue to explore this fantastic orb of ours and, especially, its craggy splendors, we’ll investigate the high points of the continents and all 50 states in America. Since one spot scratches both itches, today we will gaze upon Denali.

Situated in the middle of the Alaska Range, Denali is North America’s highest peak, which of course also makes it Alaska’s high mountain. It rises 20,310 feet above sea level. Denali is the third most prominent and third most isolated peak in the world. In a straight line, one would need to travel 4,629 miles to China to find a higher mountain. Of the Seven Summits – the highest points on a continent – Denali is the third tallest, after Everest in Asia and Aconcagua in South America.

While Everest has 9,000 feet in elevation on Denali, the great Alaskan peak rises three and a half miles above its base to summit, which is a mile more than Everest looms over its base on the Himalaya Plateau. For a land-based mountain, no peak rises higher above its base than Denali.

Denali from the north with Wonder Lake in the foreground

Until 1975 in Alaska and until 2015 nationwide, the mountain’s official name was Mt. McKinley. It was given this moniker in 1896 in honor of the 25th president of the United States, who was at the time merely a presidential candidate. However, the native name of Denali far predates McKinley. Locals have always employed the native name, which roughly translates into English as “the tall one” or “big mountain.”

The mountain is a giant piece of granite that was uplifted during a period of tectonic activity that began 60 million years ago. The Pacific and North American plates are crashing into each other at a rate of approximately one centimeter per year, which means Denali continues to grow higher by about four centimeters each century. The snow and ice field on the mountain is currently permanent and vast. Five enormous glaciers flow from Denali’s slopes: The Peters Glacier, the Muldrow Glacier, the Traleika Glacier, the Ruth Glacier, and the Kahiltna Glacier.

"Midnight Alpenglow" - Denali during sunset at midnight seen from backcountry Unit 13 on June 14, 2019 - photo by Emily Mesner/NPS

Being in Alaska and being extraordinarily high combines for some severe cold and weather on the mountain. In 2003, a weather station on the mountain recorded a temperature of -75.5 °F (-59.7 °C). On the previous day, a reading of -74.4 °F (-59.1 °C) and a wind speed of 18.4 miles per hour (29.6 km/h) produced a North American record windchill of -118.1 °F (-83.4 °C). An earlier thermometer left by an expedition recorded a possible low temperature of -100 °F (-73 °C).

As with Everest, numerous attempts were made to summit Denali before a group ultimately succeeded. Extreme weather and cold, along with technical abilities necessary to tackle ice climbing and vertical walls, make an assault on the mountain remarkably arduous. In the early 1900s and 1910s, many expeditions made a push to become the first to climb Denali, but none was victorious until 1913 when a party led by Hudson Stuck (great name) and Harry Karstens stepped foot on the roof of North America. In modern days, only about 58% of mountaineers who start the trek reach the summit.

Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens in 1913

One member of the Stuck-Karsten party, Robert Tatum, later commented: “The view from the top of Mount McKinley is like looking out the windows of Heaven!”

As someone who can currently only dream of summiting Denali, I have to make do with photographs. Based on the glory and magnificence of images, I have to concur with Robert Tatum. Denali is truly a “big mountain” in more ways than one.

Denali's West Buttress - photo by Bob Webster

Further Reading and Exploration

Denali National Park and Preserve Website – National Parks Service

Denali Weather Station

Denali’s West Buttress: A Climber’s Guide to Mt. McKinley’s Classic Route – by Colby Coombs (e-book version)

The Ascent of Denali – by Hudson Stuck on Project Gutenberg

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