Denali or Mount McKinley

I just began reading High Alaska: A Historical Guide to Denali, Mount Foraker & Mount Hunter by Jonathan Waterman (1996) as part of my new focus on the Alaska Range I am about to start. Early in, I came across a curiosity about the name of North America’s highest peak.

The formal name of that mountain is Mount McKinely. It’s on the USGS maps. It was named for the American President, who (as everyone points out) had no interest in Alaska. The original native name is Denali, which means great one. Not all that original, but its true and echoes back to an even wilder Alaska where the Inuit lived and trappers and explorers renaming their landscape were rare or nonexistent.

Most climbers these days prefer to call Mount McKinley Denali instead. Still, some refer to it as Big Mac, in more casual conversations. Denali remains the preferred title and most would say that that is so out of respect for the native tradition — or in disrespect to the reference to the former president.

So I was surprised to read a simple remark by Waterman that said the great Bradford Washburn prefers the name Mount McKinley.

I have taken and used the Denali name but suddenly I am rethinking that. The formal name is McKinley. Everest is named similarly poorly but hardly anyone refers to it as Chomolungma, its original native name, meaning goddess mother.

Washburn made the first ascent up the West Buttress among other firsts on the mountain. He is an authority on the subject having climbed it extensively, photographed it an mapped it. You would think that would make it so he preferred the name Denali.

Perhaps Mount McKinley isn’t such a silly name when you take into consideration that it is the officially recognized name and is the name given by the country that holds it. The name is also nearly as unmistakable as Denali or Everest. Besides, all names are subjective; it’s the mountain that matters.

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