I support the renaming of McKinley back to Denali, the native Athabaskan name meaning “the high one,” which Alaskan’s and most climbers have called the highest mountain in North America for years. One of the lessons that you learn leading climbers in the mountains is that you don’t get to the top by obfuscating, prevaricating, or using euphemisms. Climbers learn to call things like they are. And Denali has been the name of the mountain as long as it has had a name given to it by humans.

The wildness, energy and spirit of the place….were intoxicating

This is a significant victory for all Alaskans as well as those who care about history. I was blown away by Alaska the first time I visited that great state, in 1991, for the first World Extreme Snowboarding Championships in Valdez. The wildness, energy and spirit of the place, as well as the people who called it home, were intoxicating.

Everything was so much larger in Alaska! Looking up at a cliff face from the highway, I thought it was 1,500 feet from where I stood to the ridgeline above. It turned out to be 4,000′. I guess it was the clear air that tricked me.

I was fortunate to be able to pioneer first snowboard descents, first in the Valdez area under the tutelage of my late friend Doug Coombs, who ran Valdez Heliski Guides, and later on Denali with its first snowboard descent and several new climbing routes.

On my first trip to Denali in 1993, I planned to complete the first snowboard descent. While on an acclimatization outing above the 14,000′ camp (Advanced Base Camp) I strapped on my snowboard at 16,000′ on the west ridge to make some turns after dropping a load of gear. On my second turn I “booted out,” or lost my edge and started sliding out of control down the 45-degree slope on the firm snow.

 I drove my ice axe into the slope in time to stop my fall

I drove my ice axe into the slope in time to stop my fall before it became a tumble. At that point, once my heart rate dropped, I carefully took off my board and put on my crampons to climb down to safety.

I had not prepared my gear properly and was unable to utilize my snowboard/binding setup safely on firm snow. Although I was extremely disappointed, I switched my focus from making a snowboard descent to climbing and my partner, Alaskan native Dirk Collins, @dirkcollins, and I set our sights on climbing a new route across the SW face from 14,000′ camp to the west Rib to the Cassin Ridge and then up the classic Cassin to the summit.

It’s wonderful to be humbled and reminded how great the human spirit is

We were totally committed with no bivy gear and as we finally reached the summit ridge we were treated to an extraordinary sight. Joan Phelps was on the summit with her two sons. Joan was totally blind. It’s wonderful to be humbled and reminded how great the human spirit is, especially when I was feeling like I was a badass. Way to go Joan!

I  look forward to returning to Denali to do some splitboarding in the next year or 12, when my young sons may join me to experience the magic of Alaska. For now, welcome back, Denali. And let’s work to always call things by their right names.


Stephen Koch is a pioneering snowboard mountaineer, professional athlete and mountain guide. He makes calculated decisions with a high level of uncertainty in the face of extreme danger. As a thought leader and keynote speaker, Koch analyzes the world of high-stakes decision-making and failure. 


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