Today, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that in answer to a request made 40 years ago by Alaska’s then-governor Jay Hammond, the name of the highest mountain in North America has now officially been changed back to the Native Alaskan term, Denali, meaning “high one” or “great one.” The change comes about through a Secretarial Order, which Jewell has the authority to issue under a federal law that allows standardization of names through the U.S. Board of Geographical Names.
This is welcome recognition of the heritage and importance of the native people who have lived in Alaska and the surrounding region for thousands of years, especially because Denali was only re-named Mount McKinley during William McKinley’s presidential election campaign in 1896, and McKinley hadn’t even become President until the next year. Fans of The Daily Show might remember a video segment that aired in July titled “Living in Denali,” in which correspondent Jordan Klepper interviews people both for and against restoring the name of Denali to the peak. President McKinley never even saw Denali, nor was Alaska even a U.S. state during his presidency, nor did he ever visit Alaska.
(Apologies to non-U.S. viewers - I couldn’t find this video segment anywhere but the Comedy Central website.)
In fact, what is now properly known as Denali National Park was known as McKinley National Park until 1980, five years after the initial request to restore the mountain’s name. The Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed its name to Denali, which is how it is referred to locally - making the only people insisting on maintaining the “Mount McKinley” moniker generally people who have nothing to do with Alaska.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has applauded this change, as she tried to introduce legislation back in January of this year intending to settle this long overdue name change but was blocked by Ohio representatives.
The peak of Denali is 20,237 feet (6,168 meters) above sea level, and the 18,000 feet base-to-peak rise is one of the largest of any mountain entirely above sea level. Topographically speaking, it is the third most prominent peak after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. It is draped in five large glaciers, all of which present challenging routes to climbers attempting the summit. Each year only a little over half of all climbers who attempt to reach the summit succeed, and the total climb time can vary between two and four weeks.