Denali Gets A Height Reduction from the USGS

On Wednesday, Lieutenant-Governor Mead Treadwell announced that Denali is 83 feet shorter than previously believed.

That means that instead of 20,320 feet, the mountain now measures in at 20,237 feet.

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It’s not in any danger of losing its place as North America’s tallest peak, but there could still be some impact from the change.

In Talkeetna, Denali is big business. Companies offer tours from the air, water and land that promise visitors a chance at seeing the mountain that dominates the skyline.

In addition, all of the climbers who attempt to summit Denali come through Talkeetna to register with the National Park Service.

Any change involving the mountain is bound to have ripples in the community.

While the change in elevation is significant, Denali Mountaineering Ranger Mark Westman says that this is not a case of the incredible shrinking mountain.

Denali. Photo by Brian Okonek.
Denali. Photo by Brian Okonek.

“I would stress that, at least in terms of what I’ve been hearing, people have been referring to it – saying the mountain has shrunk,” Westman said. “For people who don’t understand the whole thing, I think it’d be important to emphasize that I’m pretty sure, at least at first glance, that the mountain hasn’t actually shrunk, but that the technology just got more precise.”

Dave Johnston, a Talkeetna resident who has made a number of notable Denali climbs, beginning in 1963, says that it’s not unusual for mountains to have their elevations adjusted.

“It’s – I guess – to be expected as technology marches on; go up a little, go down a little,” Johnston said. “Maybe you could attribute it to global warming, but I don’t think so.”

Annie Duquette, who ran Denali’s base camp for a decade, jokingly says that, while the mountain is the same, maybe the smaller number will have a psychological impact. Willi Prittie, reality television and mountaineering veteran, seems to agree, but also thinks that this opens the door to other changes.

“Well, it’s just going to be so much lower and so much easier to climb, now,” Prittie said. “Yeah, I think it’s time for new elevation, new name; Get rid of this McKinley thing and go officially to Denali.”

Beyond mountaineering, which is not likely to change much as a result, there are issues of maps, documents and literal tons of memorabilia that bears the 20,320 foot elevation figure.

Lisa Roderick, current base camp manager on Denali, says that it’s possible some of today’s t-shirts, hats, and other items might be collectibles some day.

For some businesses, the link to Denali’s elevation goes well beyond merchandising.  Jimmy Bush, a manager at the 20320 Alaskan Grill at McKinley Wilderness Lodge says that there are no immediate plans to change the restaurant’s name, despite the new measurements.

The 20320 Grill is not alone in maintaining the use of the accepted elevation figure.  Alaskan Congressman Don Young says he doesn’t plan to change how he refers to Denali.

“This is something that it’s the government says, ‘Do you believe the government?’ I’m not sure I do, so I’m going to leave the original height there of McKinley, as it was,” Young said. “Until someone can show me any different, I’m going to say it’s the height it was, and I’m going to advertise it like that.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski takes a more diplomatic view.

“You know, I’m never quite sure how they actually arrive at their numbers, but this is their proficiency,” Murkowski said. “I was a little distressed when I saw that.”

In the end, Denali is still well ahead of Mt. Logan, the second highest summit in North America, and is not likely to lose its crown any time soon.

In the meantime, anyone who owns memorabilia with the old elevation label has a limited time to sell it as a collector’s item.

If the National Park Service’s estimates are true, Denali is growing and will hit 20,320 feet – in about 36,000 years.