Facts for Climbers About Denali, the Highest Mountain in North America

Fast Facts About Denali - Mount McKinley

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Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, is the highest mountain in North America, the United States, and Alaska. Denali, with 20,156 feet (6,144 meters) of prominence, is the third most prominent mountain in the world, with only Mount Everest and Aconcagua having more prominence. Denali is one of the Seven Summits and is an ultra-prominent peak with more than 5,000 feet of prominence.

  • Elevation: 20,237 feet (6,168 meters)
  • Prominence: 20,156 feet (6,144 meters)
  • Location: Alaska Range, Alaska, United States.
  • Coordinates:: 63°04′10″ N / 151°00′27″ W
  • First Ascent: First ascent of the higher south peak by Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tatum, June 7, 1913. First ascent of the lower north peak by a group of Sourdough miners, April 3, 1910.

Vertical Relief of Denali

Denali AKA Mount McKinley has a vertical relief of 18,000 feet, greater than Mount Everest when measured from the 2,000-foot lowlands at its base to its 20,320-foot summit. Everest’s vertical rise is about 12,000 feet. Denali rises about 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) from its base, which is a 2,000-foot-high (610-meter) plateau. This is a greater vertical rise than Mount Everest’s 12,000-foot (3,700-meter) rise from its base at 17,000 feet (5,200 meters).

Temperatures and Weather Conditions for Climbing Denali

Denali offers brutally cold and extreme weather conditions to climbers year-round. Temperatures dip as low as -75 F (-60 C) with windchill temperatures down to -118 F (-83 C), cold enough to flash freeze a human. These temperatures have been recorded at the automated Mount McKinley Weather Station at 18,700 feet (5,700 meters).

Low Oxygen Conditions

Because of its far northern latitude of 63 degrees, Denali has lower barometric pressure than other high mountains in the world, affecting the acclimatization of climbers. The lower barometric pressure is because the troposphere is thinner near the poles and thicker at the equator. Likewise, Denali has less oxygen on its summit than mountains close to the equator. Denali’s summit oxygen is 42 percent of the oxygen at sea level, whereas a mountain close to the equator has 47 percent of sea-level oxygen at an equivalent elevation.

Names: Mount McKinley and Denali

Denali, meaning “The High One,” is the native Athabascan name for North America’s highest mountain. It was renamed Mount McKinley for then-presidential nominee William McKinley by prospector William Dickey during the 1896 Cook Inlet gold rush. Dickey named the peak because McKinley championed the gold standard rather than silver.

The state of Alaska changed the name of Mount McKinley to Denali in 1975. The Alaska Geographic Names Board maintains that Denali is the proper name for the mountain, while the federal Board of Geographic Names continues to uphold the name, McKinley. The name of Mount McKinley National Park was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980. Alaskans and climbers call the mountain Denali.

First Ascents

The first serious attempt to climb Denali was in 1910 when two Alaskan prospectors—Peter Anderson and Billy Taylor—from a party of four reached the summit of the lower 19,470-feet North Summit on April 3. They climbed 8,000 feet from their 11,000-foot camp to the summit and returned to camp in 18 hours—an astonishing feat! The crew, called the Sourdough Expedition, were climbing novices who spent 3 months climbing to win a bet with a bar owner who said it would never be climbed. They wore homemade crampons, snowshoes, Inuit mukluks, overalls, parkas, and mittens. On summit day, they carried doughnuts, caribou meat, 3 flasks of hot drinks, and a 14-foot-long spruce pole and an American flag. Their hope was that someone with a telescope would see the pole and flag and know that the peak had been climbed. After returning to Kantishna, the climbers were welcomed as heroes. Skeptics wouldn’t accept that the greenhorns had summitted Denali. The 1913 South Summit first ascent party, however, saw the flagpole, vindicating the extraordinary ascent.

The first ascent of the main or South Summit of Denali was on June 7, 1913, by Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Robert Tatum from an expedition led by Hudson Stuck. They climbed the Muldrow Glacier route. Stuck saw the flagpole planted by the Sourdough climbers with binoculars on the North Summit, confirming their success.

Climbing Denali Today

The usual number of climbers on Denali each year is 1,275. The most in one season was 1,305 in 2001. The number of climbers who reach Denali’s summit is 656 with an average of 51 percent of annual climbers reaching the summit. The average number of rescues is 14 and the mountain averages one fatality a year.

The National Park Service compiles yearly climbing statistics. For the 2016 climbing season, 1126 climbers made the attempt, with 60 percent from the United States, and 40 percent international climbers from the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Czech Republic, Korea, Poland, Nepal, and a smattering of other countries. As is typical, 59 percent of them reached the summit. The average trip length was 16.5 days. June was the busiest month with 514 summits, followed by May with 112 summits and July with 44 summits. The average climber age was 39 years.

The deadliest climbing season on Denali was May 1992 when 11 climbers in five parties died. Other deadly seasons were 1967 and 1980 when 8 climbers died and 1981 and 1989 when 6 climbers died. In the 2016 stats, there were three cases of high altitude cerebral edema (with one death), five cases of high altitude pulmonary edema, six cases of frostbite, three cases of traumatic injury (with one death), and a case each of hypothermia and respiratory distress.

Notable Ascents

  • First woman ascent: Barbara Polk Washburn, June 6, 1947.
  • First solo ascent: Naomi Uemura, August 26, 1970.
  • First winter ascent: Johnston, Davidson, and Ray Genet, February 28, 1967.
  • First winter solo ascent: Naomi Uemura, February 12, 1984; died on the descent.
  • Fastest ascent: Chad Kellogg, West Buttress, 14 hours 22 minutes, from 7,200 feet to 20,320 feet.
  • First blind ascent: Joan Phelps on May 30, 1993.