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Seth Waterfall Reflects on the Great Denali Debate
Posted on October 5, 2015

The West Rib of Denali from the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,800 feet

When President Obama took the extraordinary step on August 31 of officially renaming North America’s tallest peak—it’s now Denali instead of McKinley—it was a monumental story for everyone who lives for the mountains. For our guides, many of whom have spent significant time climbing and guiding on the peak, it was even more personal. So we asked Seth Waterfall, who has not only skied from the summit but also met his wife on the mountain, to collect his thoughts on the importance of the name change and of the looming peak. —LYA Editor

Climbers approaching the summit on Denali

Words by Seth Waterfall, Images by Seth Waterfall and Dave Hahn

The Big D, De-gnarly, Mac, the Big Mac, McGnarly, Old Snowy, The Tall One, McKinley and Denali. These are all names I have used to describe the giant granite intrusion that is the tallest mountain in North America. It has captured my imagination more than any other peak, and I’ve had some of my best days on its slopes. It was there that I did my first big guiding expedition, it’s where I met my wife, and where I have had some of my finest personal ski and climbing days. It’s truly a special place for me, and always will be.

Why are climbers from all over the world drawn to this remote and inhospitable place? The sheer beauty has to be the number one factor. The cold temps and heavy snow give the whole Alaska Range the look of what I describe as “mountains with frosting.” Its ridge lines are notoriously complex with flutes, cornices and pillows of snow, and the massive glaciers are a direct result of the extreme northern latitude. I don’t think anyone has ever been underwhelmed upon their first arrival into the heart of the AK Range.


In fact, many ambitious alpinists have scaled back their goals once they were confronted with the realities of Alaskan climbing. It is not uncommon to talk to people who start with grand plans of climbing several peaks, as well as one of the long, steep lines on Denali, and after a few days of plugging away, quickly readjust their plans and end up on the “standard route.” The hazards of glacier travel and of hanging ice overhead are considerably higher than on other great ranges of the world, and you must adjust your approach to risk-taking when climbing there.

Climbers on the West Buttress proper at 16,800 feet on North Americas highest peak

Denali isn’t just for top-notch climbers either. It presents a huge, yet totally doable, challenge for anyone willing to commit themselves to the goal. At RMI, we call Denali the last blue-collar mountain because there is no assistance available from pack animals or human porters. Once you are delivered to the Kahiltna Glacier by ski-plane, it’s up to you and your partners to carry food, fuel, tents and equipment up and down the mountain, a trip that is usually about 18 days. That is the same for everyone, no matter your skill or economic situation or climbing pedigree. On many mountains, the guides will work very hard to tame difficulties, but the sheer scale and remoteness of Denali make that impossible, and so it requires the same amount of hard work from all who attempt it.

Seth Waterfall, Denali POV, from High camp at 17,200 feet looking down at the 14,000-foot camp

Recently, by secretarial decree, the U.S. Department of the Interior has settled the name issue and aligned the name of the mountain and the national park. I have often laughed about the confusion generated by virtue of the mountain being named McKinley and the national park Denali. I have had numerous people ask me, always in a hushed tone, “Is McKinley the same as Denali?” My favorite instance happened when I was checking in for a flight to Alaska. I was headed to Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, nowhere near Denali.

A gentleman next to me in line saw my loaded duffel bags and asked me if I was going climbing. I said sure. He asked if I was going to climb Mt. McKinley. I said no, I wasn’t, and he looked me in the eyes and said, “Well then, you must be going to Denali.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was talking about the same mountain, so I just left it at that. Interestingly, in what was a huge week for government accomplishment, the elevation of the mountain was also readjusted. Using hyper- accurate GPS devices, a team from the USGS measured the summit at 20,310 feet. That’s 10 feet lower than the previous 20,320 feet. I for one am a little disappointed that The Tall One loses some elevation, but it will be just as much of a challenge as ever. As we say, the mountain doesn’t care, it just is. And Denali is always a great challenge.

Denali stat sheet. Photo: Hahn

Author: - Monday, October 5th, 2015

  1. suresh chaurushiya

    Very good article Seth. Loved the description of the mountain, and the photographs with it gave a feeling of Denali’s grandeur:)

  2. Trevor Krauchek

    A very good read but you totally avoided the debate! Do you like the name change? Do you hate? Do you see both sides? What and how you describe the mountain is great but I came here to hear your opinion on the debate and you said nothing on that topic.

  3. Dan K

    Trevor, our headline may have overstated the focus and tone of the article, that’s our editorial bad. But we really appreciated Seth’s perspective on the mountain so we reached out to him for a response. His take is posed below.

  4. Seth Waterfall

    Thanks for the comments Suresh and Trevor.

    My intent wasn’t to avoid any debate over the name change but rather to convey my experiences on the mountain and to point out that what we chose to call it has little to do with it’s nature or our experiences there.

    Personally I’ve only seen arguments on the name change from people that are using it to comment on their support for or disproval of the Presidential Administration. That really has nothing to do with the mountain itself.

  5. KJ Stevens

    I lived in Alaska 28 years and when I moved there, it was called Mt McKinley. Seems that was the original name before they changed it. Then someone told me that the real original name was Denali, and that was the reason for the change, they wanted to go back to the first name. I much prefer McKinley. Been up there 5 times. It’s amazing, spectacular and very tough!

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