September 04, 2015 -- Earlier this year, we announced that CompassData would be heading to the summit of Denali to survey the mountain. Today, we are excited to announce that just days after Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, announced that the name of Mt. McKinley is officially being changed to the mountain’s Native Alaskan name Denali, CompassData has completed our mission and the USGS has announced Denali’s updated elevation of 20,310 feet.
The 1953 elevation was calculated to 20,320 feet by Brad Washburn and his T3 theodolite. Using today’s modern Trimble survey equipment on the summit itself, CompassData and partners established a new official height of 20,310 feet. Despite the slight decrease, Denali remains the tallest mountain in North America, and it is the third highest of the Seven Summits.
Why Was Denali Re-Surveyed?
Since the last time that Denali was surveyed in the 1950s, the technology for calculating and measuring precise elevations has improved dramatically. Climbers, mountaineers, scientists, surveyors, and mappers from all around the world have long been curious about the exact height of the peak.
In addition to satisfying curiosity, knowing the exact elevation of Denali provides a baseline for future studies on whether the mountain and its snowpack changes over time. Our new elevation was measured to the top of the snow but the team also used a specialized snow probe to determine that the summit snowpack is about 13.6 feet deep.
The Trek to the Top of Denali
CompassData’s portion of the project involved creating the survey plan and leading the survey party expedition. The survey and climbing party consisted of three climbers and surveyors from CompassData and one scientist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. On June 15th, 2015 the team flew from Talkeetna Airport, which is near Denali National Park, to the Kahiltna Glacier to begin the ascent.
On June 16th, the team spent roughly six hours traveling the seven miles to the first camp. The group made steady progress, arriving at 14,000 on June 20th. On July 24th, two CompassData climbers left camp at 14,000 feet to head toward the camp at 17,000 feet where the survey equipment had previously been cached. Despite the frigid temperatures, the Trimble equipment experienced no technical difficulties and powered on fine at 17,000 feet.
Statistically, the area directly above 17,000 feet is the most dangerous part of the climb. This area, known as the “Autobahn” is an upward traverse across at 3,500 foot face that ends at Denali Pass. The team was pleased with the fine work of the National Park Service to place a network of runners and pickets across the face to allow climbers to perform a running belay. The CompassData team encountered no problems on the Autobahn going up or down.
On June 24th around 3:15 p.m., CompassData reached the highest peak in North American and were able to establish GPS equipment on the summit. The equipment was on the summit for over 24 hours before being recollected. On June 29th, the entire team safely reached base camp. On return to civilization, the data was processed independently by CompassData and partners who established the new elevation of 20,310 feet.