Characteristic: A snow-clad mountain more than 20,000 feet high rising from a rolling plateau, peopled with caribou and mountain sheep
THE highest mountain in North America, scenically speaking the highest in the world, together with an enormous expanse of rolling plateau on its north and west, was made a national park in 1917. Mount McKinley rises from the great Alaska range 20,300 feet above sea level. Down its southern and eastern slopes through a region of arctic sublimity flow glaciers of enormous size, but north and west its sides abruptly drop to grassy valleys only 3,000 feet in altitude. From these valleys, some of which also have impressive glaciers, visitors to the national park may look up 17,000 feet of mountain, a spectacle greater by far than greets the eyes of those who climb into the lofty valleys of the Himalayas to see the several mountains there whose heights measured from sea level exceed McKinley's.
Congress created this national park principally to protect its wild animals. It was feared that with the opening of the Government railroad to Fairbanks, then rapidly building, sportsmen and market hunters would destroy the large herds of caribou on its vast plateau and the myriad mountain sheep upon its foothills. In this refuge, which the hunter has rarely penetrated, these animals will be safe from the fate which so rapidly is overtaking their kind elsewhere in Alaska.
It was none too soon to protect them. Already market hunters from the neighboring Kantishna gold-mining district had begun to invade the plateau from the West, and there is little doubt that, as the railroad neared the park, enterprising hunters would have found profitable markets in the construction camps, and later in the towns which would spring up along the railroad.
The caribou, with its enormous antlers, is a most picturesque animal, the American representative of the reindeer family. Herds of a thousand and fifteen hundred roam the great plateau. Most of these, never having been hunted, are as unafraid as the elk and the deer of the Yellowstone. Charles Sheldon reports having counted as many as 500 mountain sheep upon the foothills which he passed in one ordinary day's journey through the valleys. Moose frequently invade the region from the Tenana lowlands on the north. And the great Alaska brown bear is not infrequently met, even within the belt of perpetual snow.
It is this great treeless plateau, with its rich mosses and grasses, its sudden prominences rising like islands, its sweeping ranges of low hills, its lakes, its innumerable rushing streams, its fertile flowered valleys and friendly animals, its long winding approachable glaciers, and its background of the Alaska Range and Master Mountain, that to the visitor will mean the Mount McKinley National Park. It is an area unlike any other national park; its charm and inspiration are all its own.
Mount McKinley is two-headed. It is the South Peak which is the summit. From the North and the South Peaks, supporting them like ice buttresses, descend northward long ridges which merge in the foothills, and between these ridges flow from the divide between the peaks a series of great glaciers which constitute the only known passage to the summit.
Various attempts have been made to climb McKinley, but only two have been successful. Judge Wickersham, of Alaska, was the pioneer in 1903, but he so wholly underestimated the magnitude of the undertaking that his equipment served to carry him little farther than its base. Dr. Frederick A. Cook, of North Pole fame, made two attempts, one from the north side and one from the south. In 1912 Prof. Parker and Belmore Brown made the ascent, and the following spring Archdeacon Stuck and Harry P. Karstens ascended the glaciers of the north side and reached the summit on that rarest of occasions with McKinley, a perfect day.
One other ascent must be mentioned to complete the record, that of the North Peak in 1910 by a party of adventurous prospectors headed by Thomas Lloyd; but Lloyd himself did not go all the way.
It is probable that trying for the summit will not be one of the popular amusements of the McKinley National Park, but, when railroad, trails, and public camps make this wonderland comfortably accessible, many will find unique pleasure and inspiration in trips part way up the glaciers into the white land of the avalanche.
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009