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Definition: McKinley, Mount from Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

Mountain in Denali National Park, S cen. Alaska; 20,320 ft. (6194 m.); highest mountain in North America; first climbed 1913. See united states, National Parks churchill peaks.

From Encyclopedia of the Arctic

Mt McKinley in Alaska is the name given to the highest peak (6194 m or 20,320 ft) in North America by prospector William Dickey in 1896. In the local Dena'ina Athapaskan language, it is called Denali (spelled Denaalee in Koyukon), meaning “the high one.” Cognates of this word occur in three neighboring Athapaskan languages as well. The Russians, who started exploring this region early in the 19th century, called it Bolshaia Gora or “big mountain.” Local prospector Frank Densmore talked about the mountain so much in the early 1880s that everyone in the prospecting community called it “Densmore's Mountain.” The mountain and surrounding area have been protected as a national park since 1917, and is today called the Denali National Park and Preserve.

Mt McKinley is located in the heart of the Alaska Range, next to Mt Foraker (5303 m or 17,400 ft), the second highest peak in the United States. The Alaskan Range separates the warmer, moist southern coastal plains of Alaska from the cold, dry interior. The regional climate is greatly affected by the mountains of the Alaska Range, and Mt McKinley is said to create its own climate. Warm, moist maritime air from the Pacific Ocean cools as it rises over the mountains, producing snow, which mantles the landscape and feeds the glaciers. Paleocene continental deposits of conglomerate, sandstone, and shale dominate the geology surrounding the Denali National Park area (Foster et al., 1994).

Athapaskan peoples have lived in the region around Mt McKinley for at least 12,000 years. They lived a seminomadic lifestyle in small bands or family groups of about 50. They were hunter-gatherers and fished in the rivers, trapped near lakes and streams, and hunted caribou, moose, and sheep. In the fall, they lived in camps or villages on one of the larger rivers in the area (the Yukon, Tanana, Susitna, or Kuskokwim) netting or trapping salmon, which they dried for the winter. The hunters would then depart for the tundra regions where they would hunt caribou. The smaller family units would later canoe or hike up the minor rivers and streams to camps where they would set up winter traplines for wolf, wolverine, marten, and fox. During spring ice breakup, the families would load their furs and meats into skin boats and float back down to one of the major rivers, where they would gather on gravel bars and meet up with friends and family for feasting and trading, while awaiting breakup on the Yukon River. They called the mountain Denali long before Europeans arrived in Alaska.

The modern naming of Mt McKinley was controversial from the beginning. William A. Dickey first came to Alaska in 1886. He was a Princeton graduate from the east and had lived in Seattle for ten years prior to coming to Alaska with his gold prospecting partner. Dickey became obsessed with the mountain and, from prior experience with Mt Rainier in Washington, he and his partner estimated the mountain to be about 6000 ft higher than Mt Rainier (14,411 ft). Dickey wrote an article attesting to this fact for the New York Sun in 1897, which was viewed by many with disbelief. When asked why he named the mountain McKinley, Dickey stated that after listening to two prospectors argue for days about a free silver standard, he retaliated by naming the mountain after the champion of the gold standard, William McKinley. McKinley was a senator from Ohio and the republican candidate for vice president, who became president later that year and was assassinated in 1901.

Mt McKinley, Denali National Park, Alaska. Copyright Joel Sartore /National Geographic Image Collection

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) assigned Robert Muldrow and George Eldridge to make an official determination of Mt McKinley in 1889. The two men, along with six others, used a surveyor's stadia line, altitude determinations from six different reference points, and triangulation to come up with a height of 20,464 ft, remarkably close to the official height of 20,320 ft determined by modern methods. The official survey was published in 1900 and an article appeared in National Geographic later that year. Mt McKinley was officially recognized as the highest point in North America.

In 1902, the USGS assigned young Alfred Brooks to explore and map the region around Denali. He came north with a party of seven men and 20 horses and set up camp 14 miles from the summit of Mt McKinley. Brooks climbed a spur of the mountain to about 7500 ft and wrote an article for National Geographic describing possible climbing routes. This set the stage for the next two expeditions attempting to climb the mountain.

James Wickersham, Alaska district court judge for the interior of Alaska, was the first to attempt the ascent of Mt McKinley in 1903. He was followed by Frederick Cook, surgeon on the famed Belgian Antarctica expedition (1897-1899), and who later attempted to reach the North Pole. Neither man got above 10,000 ft, but their attempts fueled the race to be the first to reach the summit of Mt McKinley. Cook made another attempt in 1906, ditched his experienced partners, and claimed to have reached the peak with his packer. This was refuted after he published his book To the Top of the Continent in 1908 showing the summit photo. The photo was later exposed as a hoax by two of Cook's ditched companions, Columbia physics professor Herschel Parker and artist-adventurer Belmore Browne. Parker and Browne made another unsuccessful attempt on the mountain in 1912 when they came within 200 ft of the peak before a raging storm stopped them.

In 1910, a group of Alaskan prospectors, led by Tom Lloyd, made the first successful ascent of the North peak of Mt McKinley, mistaking it for the highest point. Using lessons learned from previous attempts, Alaskans Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum made the first successful ascent of the south peak, the highest point on Mt McKinley, in 1913. Walter Harper, a young Athapaskan, was the first to set foot on the summit on June 7, 1913.

Charles Sheldon, a big game hunter from the east, was the first to come up with the idea of creating a national park around Mt McKinley while overwintering on the Toklat River in 1907-1908. He had to wait while Congress debated the creation of the National Park Service. In 1915, Sheldon presented his plan for Denali National Park. Congress passed the bill creating Mt McKinley National Park, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it on February 26, 1917. The name was changed to Denali National Park in 1980, following the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which tripled the size of Mt McKinley National Park, and named the area Denali National Park and Preserve.

See also Alaska Range

Further Reading
  • Brown, William E. Denali: Symbol of the Alaskan Wild: An Illustrated History of the Denali-Mount McKinley Region, Alaska, Alaska Natural History Association, 1993.
  • Elias, Scott A. The Ice-Age History of Alaskan National Parks, Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1995.
  • Foster, H.L.; T.E. Keith; D.W. Menzie, “Geology of the Yukon-Tanana area of east-central Alaska.” In The Geology of Alaska, Volume G-1, The Geology of North America, edited by G. Plafker & H.C. Berg, Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America, 1994, pp. 205-240.
  • Haigh, Jane Denali Early Photographs of Our National Parks, Whitehorse, Yukon: Wolf Creek Books, 2000.
  • National Park Service website:
  • Washburn, Bradford; David Roberts, Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali, Abrams, 1991.
    Copyright © 2005 by Routledge.

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