Denali — the mountain formerly known as McKinley — is full of surprises

October 16, 2017

Alaska is a perpetual surprise. The fjords are like tickle trunks filled with wildlife and vistas and the occasional summertime ice floe, the cities and towns are Snoopy doghouses, bigger and with more going on than they appear to have from the outside. But the biggest surprise of all is Denali.

It’s not just that it’s the highest peak in North America. You probably knew that. But it’s also part of one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. North Americans tend to think of the Rockies as their Alps, not realizing they’ve got their own Himalayas, too.

But it gets even more surprising.

Everest gets the official highest-mountain designation because its peak is the highest point on the planet above sea level. Fair enough. But it also rises from the Tibetan Plateau, which is itself between 4,200m and 5,200m (13,780 ft and 17,060 ft) high, meaning its actual climbing height — what mountain folks call the base-to-peak height — is between 3,700m and 4,700m (12,139 ft and 15,420 ft). But Denali isn’t standing on anyone’s shoulders. Starting from as low as 300m (984 ft) above sea level, Denali’s base-to-peak is 5,000m to 6,000m (16,404 ft to 19,685 ft). That’s almost three Burj Khalifas (and more than four CN Towers) more climbing than Everest.

That’s a big surprise to read, but it’s an even bigger surprise to see as you stand at its base in Denali National Park looking upward into a sky that makes Montana seem like Medium Sky country. Seeing Everest for the first time can be a disappointment to some, because it’s so much a part of its range. (“Which one is it?” is a pretty common question.) But Denali’s different. Like Kilimanjaro and Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, there’s no mistaking Denali; it’s entire mass and scale are on full display.

But Denali has another surprise in store. Even if you’re not a climber, or even especially interested in mountains, the fact that we call it that is pretty extraordinary. Though the Koyukon people have called it Denali for centuries (which makes sense, it’s the Koyukon word for “tall” or “big mountain”), North Americans — and Americans in particular — have not had a great record when it comes to retaining original Indigenous names for lakes and rivers and cities and mountains. And, unsurprisingly, Denali was called Mt McKinley, named for then-President Elect William McKinley in 1897. It’s only been called Denali officially throughout the U.S. since 2015. But here’s the thing about Alaska: Charles Sheldon, the old Yalie who got a national park established around the mountain, where he used to like to hunt bighorn sheep, was a staunch, even militant proponent of keeping its old name even in the early decades of the 20th century. In his posthumous memoir, published in 1930, he wrote:

“The Indians [sic] who have lived for countless generations in the presence of these colossal mountains have given them names that are both euphonious and appropriate. … Can it be denied that the names they gave to the most imposing features of their country should be preserved? Can it be too late to make an exception to current geographic rules and restore these beautiful names — names so expressive of the mountains themselves, and so symbolic of the Indians who bestowed them?”

The spirit didn’t die with Sheldon, and the State of Alaska decided to give it back its rightful name in 1975. That’s just five years after an Italian-American named Espera Oscar de Corti played the “crying Indian” in that famous PSA telling us all to stop littering. It’s just two years after the Wounded Knee incident, the 71-day standoff between U.S. marshalls and 200 Lakota in South Dakota. This was not a good time for Indigenous–settler relations, and the idea of any kind of discourse or dialogue was decades off. Except in Alaska.

And it wasn’t a blip. The state is home to 13 Native Regional corporations, the largest of which — Sealaska — employs more than 1,000 people. The result is an autonomous people who play an active and decisive role in state life. So in Anchorage, you get the Native Heritage Center; in Juneau, the Sealaska Heritage Institute, housed since 2015 in the most impressive building in the state capital. The influence of the Athabaska, Tlingit, Haida, Aleut, Tsimshian, Yup’ik, and Inupiat nations is everywhere, giving visitors a glimpse of what the first steps toward harmonious co-habitation might look like. Some think of Alaska as a big, glorious, empty wilderness, the land of bears and whales and caribou. But this is an inhabited place, has been for millennia, and in a world in which it’s so easy to ignore any history older than a century or so, it’s good to run into people for whom “millennial” means something more than Instagram and elastic-cuffed chinos.

Mt Denali, as magisterial as it is, is only one aspect of the remarkable Denali National Park. At a little under 2 million hectares (20,000 sq km), it’s bigger than any national park in the contiguous U.S., though, this being Alaska, it only comes in third. It’s not your parents’ walk-in-the-park kind of Boo-Boo-bear souvenir-shop national park. There is one road, a dirt road, 150km (93 mi) long east to west, and much of it you’re not allowed to drive unaccompanied. This is wild nature as unmitigated as it mostly comes. This is Into the Wild country. But you can hike. And hike. And hike. And you can sit on the cottongrass at the base of a black spruce and tilt your head up, then swivel it around, close your eyes, open them again, and try to take in this massive, clean, clear, open space. Then sit a little longer, because the trip is worth it just for this.

Getting there

Keen on a trip to Denali? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Alaska here.

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