IN A LAND ALREADY RENOWN FOR A LARGER THAN LIFE LANDSCAPE, THE MOUNTAIN KNOWN AS DENALI INSPIRES AWE FROM THOSE THAT OBSERVE IT. WREATHED IN AN ETERNAL CLOAK OF SNOW AND ICE, IT LOOMS OVER THE ALASKA RANGE’S SURROUNDING PEAKS LIKE A RESERVED RULER, THE KING OF THE NORTH. RISING OVER THREE AND A HALF VERTICAL MILES INTO THE SKY, IT WAS FOR MOST OF ITS LIFE ONE OF THE MOST REMOTE MOUNTAINS ON THE PLANET. YET, IT IS VISIBLE FOR HUNDREDS OF MILES ON A CLEAR DAY.
Composed of an enormous chunk of granite that began soaring skyward over sixty million years ago, it was revered by the numerous indigenous tribes that lived around it. “It’s something spectacular that envelops your whole sense; it’s hard to imagine something that massive rising up from the landscape. There is a reason almost every name we have uncovered for it focuses on its overwhelming size.” Erik Johnson, a Historian at Denali National Park & Preserve.
"It's something spectacular that envelops your whole sense; it's hard to imagine something that massive rising up from the landscape. There is a reason almost every name we have uncovered for it focuses on its overwhelming size."
Denali, is the Koyukon Athabascan word for the mountain meaning “The Tall One.” Five glaciers flow down its slopes continually fed by the moisture drawn to the mountain from the Alaskan and Bering Seas. Clouds seem to shroud the mountain most of the time, only adding to its mysterious mystique.
The mountains upper reaches remained isolated and alone for most of its existence. Only loons, eagles, and other high altitude avians could go there. The Grizzly Bears, Dall’s Sheep, caribou, and other animals surrounding the massif were content on its lower slopes. That began to change in the early twentieth century when humans started to ponder climbing the largest mountain in North America.
In 1903 Judge James Wickersham, a newly arrived Alaskan resident, led the first expedition to attempt to climb the mountain. After battling their way through the untracked wilderness, they climbed a glacier to almost 10,000 ft before being turned back by a sheer vertical wall. When he and the four other men he left with stumbled back into Fairbanks months later, haggard and hollow, it was apparent the mountain would not yield its summit easily.
In the following years numerous attempts were made to climb the mountain and all were repulsed. It wasn’t until seven years later that its upper slopes were trodden by human feet. That when an unlikely group of four grizzled miners set out, two of them made it to the top of its north summit and hoisted an American flag. When they returned to civilization, they assumed they had stood atop the mountain. They were mistaken. There was yet another higher point still unvisited by man.
In 1913 a group of four men made it to the top of the south summit and claimed the first ascent of Denali. They had made it to 20,310 feet; it took them eighty-seven days to make it there. While the first man at the top was Walter Harper, The leaders of the expedition were Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal missionary, and Harry Karstens, the person that would become the first superintendent of the National Park soon to surround the mountain. They would be the last people to stand atop its snow-covered summit for nineteen years.
Yet, even though humans have stood atop it, the mountain still is treated reverentially. Something that huge, that grand, demands respect.
Nowadays, Denali is on every mountaineer’s bucket list. As one of the Seven Summits, it routinely hosts over a thousand climbers a year, almost half of them make it to the top. Yet, even though humans have stood atop it, the mountain still is treated reverentially. Something that huge, that grand, demands respect. The lands surrounding it are still wild, its slopes are always full of secrets, and it is simple to get lost in its grandeur. That’s how it should be for this lord of the north, the ruler of all it sees.