Mount McKinley––soon to be known exclusively as Denali––is the highest point in North America, and thanks to new surveying technology, we’ll soon have a more precise height of its summit. Surveying such high elevations, as it turns out, is no easy task––the last official survey of the summit was taken in 1953, and until recently, subsequent attempts to measure it have failed to provide a more accurate number.
This summer, all of that changed when the USGS, NGS and University of Alaska Fairbanks teamed up to support a team of mountaineers from CompassData and a scientist from UAF’s Geophysical Institute to conduct a new, more accurate official survey of the summit using modern GPS surveying systems.
With the climb now complete and the data analyzed, the team’s findings are expected to be published by the National Geodetic Survey before fall.
While the research highlights the successes of modern GPS technology, it also sheds light on our reliance on surveying’s lasting history––the thousands of survey markers and monuments that help us orient ourselves to the world around us even today.
A recently-discovered Berntsen survey monument played an integral role in the team’s mission
While new surveying technology was an essential to the research, computers and satellites weren’t the only things the team relied on.
Like any other survey project, a real-world reference was needed. For the Mount McKinley team, that reference was a Berntsen survey monument thought to be covered with snow and ice for over 20 years, only to be found by a team of climbers in 2013 after snows receded.
The story of Berntsen’s lost McKinley survey monument as told in Rhonda Rushing’s book, Lasting Impressions is notable in many ways, but perhaps most importantly for its role in aiding the recent effort to measure the mountain.
After being placed atop Denali by a survey team in 1989, it vanished for over 20 years until two climbers––Kurt and Craig Konz––discovered it during their ascent in 2013.
In many ways, this year’s research picks up where the first survey team left off. GPS has come a long way since 1989 and together with Berntsen's survey monument, newer, more powerful surveying systems are finally making it possible to get more precise results at such great heights.
UPDATE: On September 2nd, 2015, the USGS announced Denali's new official height at 20,310 feet. This new measurement is just ten feet less than the previous elevation of 20,320. Click here to read the official newsroom release from the USGS.
Check back for updates on the research or click here to learn more about the story behind Berntsen’s survey monument atop Mount McKinley.
Want to get a whole new perspective on American history and geology from the perspective of the surveyors who shaped the monuments we cherish today? Click here to purchase Lasting Impressions: A Glimpse into the Legacy of Surveying.