Podcast Episodes

Legends of Denali

In 1896, the highest summit in America was named by a gold prospector in support of then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. Of course, for centuries before, it had gone by a different name.

On this week’s episode of America’s National Parks, Denali, the 20,310 Alaskan summit, and the six million acres of land that surround it in Denali National Park.


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Denali – National Park Service Website


Transcript

In 1896, the highest summit in America was named by a gold prospector in support of then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. Of course, for centuries before, it had gone by a different name.

On this week’s episode of America’s National Parks, Denali, the 20,310 Alaskan summit, and the six million acres of land that surround it in Denali National Park.

Up first is the late Chief Mitch Demientieff of Nenana, and the legend of Denali.

(Transcript not available)

Denali may not be the highest summit on earth, that, of course, belongs to Everest in the Himalayas. But Denali is actually a taller mountain from base to peak, rising 18,000 feet. That’s about the equivalent of 14 empire state buildings. Everest rises only 12,000 feet.

The climb up Denali is nowhere near as technical as Everest, but its sheer elevation change and its location still make it one of the most challenging climbs.

Mountain climbing tales in history tend to read like fish stories, so it’s not a surprise that there has long been controversy around the first person to reach the top of Denali.

The first claim was laid in 1906 by an explorer, Dr. Frederick A. Cook. In fact, he took a camera and had pictures to prove it. The photo was published in 1908 along with Cook’s account of how he had braved avalanches and ice cliffs to make the first ascent of the then titled Mount McKinley. ”At last!” Cook wrote. ”The soul-stirring task was crowned with victory. The top of the continent was under our feet.”

A couple years later, Cook also claimed that he was the first to reach the North Pole, But a guy named Robert Peary really did reach the North Pole, and challenged Cook’s claim to have gotten there first, putting the Denali claim in doubt as well.

Not many believed Cook’s story, save for a few historians and family members over the years that tried to prove it. Many of his photos seemed like they were taken elsewhere, and finally, in 1998, the negative of the summit photo was discovered. It showed that the published photo had been heavily cropped, and in fact showed Cook at a spot only 5000 feet up the mountain.

Meanwhile, back in 1910, four Alaskan gold miners were sitting in a bar debating Cook’s claim to have reached the top of McKinley. They were unconvinced, and bragged, that they, as Alaskans, would fare far better on the mountain. The bar owner bet them $500 that they couldn’t do it.

Now, these guys were not climbers. They were middle-aged, overweight, and had no real climbing experience. Yet in mid-February, 1910, these four miners set out to climb Mt McKinley. And on April 3, they made it to the top where they planted a flag.

Or so they said.

Their claims were a little far-fetched. Honestly, who could believe they really did it? For example, they said they climbed the last 8,000 feet in one day. Hikers today take 10 to 15 hours to do the last 3-4000 feet, which they save for the last day. And even though they brought a camera, none of the photos they took were at the summit. But they were so adamant that they did.

A couple weeks later, the New York Times Magazine published expedition leader Thomas Lloyd’s story of their climb. It filled three pages, including notes from his journal, and it convinced a lot of people, but for others, the claim was still very much in doubt.

So, another expedition set out in 1913 to reach the summit, and to verify Lloyd’s story. And, in fact, they reached the North summit and found the flag that Lloyd’s party had planted. Four overweight miners with no hiking experience actually did it!

Not so fast.

It’s important to note here that Denali has two peaks. The South, which is the tallest, and the North is about 300′ shorter. It would appear that Lloyd and the miners only made it to the North. Now, the story changes a bit. The miners claim that they only put the flag on the North peak because it would be visible from below (which it wasn’t), and they actually reached both peaks. Many years later, a couple of the miners admitted that they only reached the North peak, but claimed that it was the more challenging climb of the two.

The story would have been incredible enough without the lie, but now it taints their claim forever. That said, the climbers that set out to verify Lloyd’s story actually did reach both peaks, and are credited with the first summit of Denali in 1913.

On the 100th anniversary, in 2013, Jay Elhard of the National Park Service described the first summit and explored the reasons why climbers climb.

(Transcript unavailable)

Denali national park didn’t actually include the mountain when it was set aside to protect Dall Sheep in 1917. It was expended over time, and is now a massive wilderness, with very few trails, intentionally, to preserve hiking and backpacking in a trail-less landscape. The marked trails that do exist are centered mainly around the two visitor centers.

There’s one road through the park, it’s 92 miles long, but only the first 15 miles of it are paved. That portion, leading from the park entrance to Savage River, is open during the summer for vehicles. Travel beyond mile 15 is limited to bikes and hikers, and park buses. It can snow heavily almost any month of the year, so the road in spring or fall may be open or closed depending on conditions.

You can see a lot from the park road, including the namesake mountain and incredible wildlife. One of the best ways to see the vastness of the park is a “flightseeing tour,” where a small private plane or helicopter soars you over gentle foothills, along meandering glaciers, up to the rugged peaks of the Alaska Range.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


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