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What is Mount McKinley?

By B. Schreiber
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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Mount McKinley is a mountain in Alaska, in the United States. It is also known as Denali, a Native American Indian name. At 20,320 feet (6,194 meters), it is the highest point in North America.

Mount McKinley is located in the Alaska Range in central Alaska. The Alaska Range itself is part of the Pacific Mountain System, which contains the largest North American glaciers. It once belonged to the Mount McKinley National Park, which has since become the Denali National Park and Preserve. The mountain has two peaks, North and South. The lower North Peak stands at a height 19,740 feet (5,934 meters).

The Alaska Range formed from the remains of oceanic crusts and former volcanic islands. These remains and the subduction of the tectonic Pacific plate under the continental plate led to the height of Mount McKinley and its neighbors. The violence of this process caused magma to form below the range. Much of Mount McKinley is part of a much larger batholith that includes the nearby mountains of Foraker and Hunter. A batholith is a geological feature that results when magma cools and intrudes into other rocks.

The Alaska Range was inhabited by ancestors of the Native Americans perhaps as early as 7500 B.C. but became known to Europeans when George Vancouver sighted it in 1794. Efforts to climb the mountain began in earnest in the early twentieth century. Dr. Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the summit of Mount McKinley in 1906, but suspicion abounded at the time and it is now known that he did not reach the peak. In 1910 William Taylor and Pete Anderson reached the top of the North Peak. In 1913, a party led by Hudson Stuck became the first to reach the top of the South Peak.

Climbers from all over the world are attracted to the challenge of climbing Mount McKinley and other peaks in the Alaska range. With the mountain's proximity to the Arctic Circle, cold temperatures and high winds can make it a daunting task. Most successful attempts have been through the West Buttress route.

Mount McKinley takes its name from the United States president William McKinley. It seems to have been so named by a New England prospector while McKinley was the elected presidential nominee in early 1897. The mountain is also known by its Native American name, Denali, which means "the great one" or "the high one" in the Athabascan language. Mount McKinley National Park was created in 1912. In 1980, it was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve and expanded.

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Discussion Comments
By summing — On Dec 15, 2011

I really like to watch movies and TV shows about mountain climbers and the incredible feats that they accomplish. It seems like there is quite a bit of footage of people climbing almost all of the wold most famous peaks and mountains but I have never been able to find much good footage of people climbing McKinley

Does anyone know of a good documentary or internet source to see climbers going at it? I love the challenges of cold weather climbing and I have heard that McKinley has some pretty intense routes. I think this would look incredible on screen.

By whiteplane — On Dec 14, 2011

I have seen Mt McKinley on several occasions. I find it inspiring every time I see it. Thinking about that being the highest point in North America really boggles my mind.

You figure, at the top of that Mountain you are higher up than anywhere else in North America. As high up as many planes travel.

I would love to climb it one day but this is just a pie in the sky idea. I've never climbed a single mountain so its probably not wise to start with one of the world's tallest.

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