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Mount McKinley to be Renamed Denali

Climbers have long referred to North America’s highest mountain by its native name, Denali.

U.S. president Barack Obama is visiting Alaska this week to give an urgent message about global warming, saying the state is a canary in the climate change coalmine.

His first order of business is to change the name of  North America’s highest mountain at 6,168 metres from Mount McKinley to Denali. The word Denali translates as High One or Great One.

Denali.  Photo Reuters
Denali. Photo Reuters

Native Alaskans have sought the name change for years. The mountain’s name was changed from Denali to McKinley in 1896 after president William McKinley.

The national park around the mountain was named Denali in 1980, but the peak itself is still listed in official federal documents as McKinley. The name change is backed by other political parties.

“With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement announcing the change.

Traversing the Tent Arête on the Cassin Ridge of Denali, Alaska, 1982. Photo Kevin Doyle
Traversing the Tent Arête on the classic Cassin Ridge of Denali in 1982. Photo Kevin Doyle

American alpinist Colin Haley has long been an advocate of renaming mountains to their native names. On his Facebook page, Haley wrote:

“Many people who know me are aware of my preference for indigenous mountain names in favor of colonialist names. Of course things are not perfect – often the knowledge of indigenous names has become lost or muddled by lack of written history and often the same mountain was referred to by different names by different tribes.

“Nonetheless, I think that any name that was known to be used by indigenous people in the past trumps a colonialist name that was applied hundreds of years later. This is especially true in North America, where many colonialist names have incredibly little relation to the mountain or area. For example, several mountains in Alaska were named as publicity for candidates for political office at the time. Look up the history of the names Mt. McKinley, Mt. Foraker and Mt. Hunter for painful examples.

Colin Haley on the summit of Denali after his climb of the Messner Couloir. Photo Bjørn-Eivind
Colin Haley on the summit of Denali after his climb of the Messner Couloir. Photo Bjørn-Eivind (For more from their ascent, see here)

“Here is an awesome quote by Theodore Winthrop, from 1862: ‘Kulshan, misnamed Mount Baker by the vulgar, is an irregular, massive, mound-shaped peak, worthy to stand a white emblem of perpetual peace between us and our brother Britons. Its name I got from the Lummi tribe at its base, after I had dipped in their pot at a boiled-salmon feast. As to Baker, that name should be forgotten. Mountains should not be insulted by being named after undistinguished bipeds, nor by the prefix of Mt.'”

Haley went on to give examples of other mountains that would benefit from being renamed:

Sultana (Mt. Foraker), Begguya (Mt. Hunter), Tahoma (Mt. Rainier), Dakobed (Glacier Peak), Wy’east (Mt. Hood), Pahto (Mt. Adams), Loowit (Mt. St. Helens), Kulshan Nch’kay (Mt. Garibaldi), Yuh-hai-has-kun (Mt. Robson), Cerro Chaltén (Cerro Fitz Roy).

In 2007, Haley and Mark Westman made the fifth ascent of the Denali Diamond VI WI5 M6 A1. Read more about the Denali Diamond here.