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Expedition Denali, exploring why diversity matters

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James Mills | Mar 05, 2012 05:55 AM

For the first time a team of African-American climbers is assembling to make a bid for the summit of the tallest peak in North America, Denali. Led by the National Outdoor Leadership School in 2013, this expedition aims to encourage minority youth to enjoy outdoor recreation as part of an active lifestyle as well as create a cadre of role models for careers in environmental protection.

Also known as Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet Denali is the highest physical point anyone can reach in the United States. And as a metaphor, this mountain can also represent exactly what a person in this country can achieve, as a literal height of ambition. Unfortunately far too few people of color in our nation are likely to attain it. But this group of adventurers aims to inspire a new generation to ascend beyond their life circumstances, by ascending Denali themselves.

NOLS Denali Expedition participants Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, Chelsea Griffie, Philip Henderson, James Mills and Stephen Shobe.

“For many of our NOLS grads the experience has been so meaningful to them that they went on to do great things,” said Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, expedition member and diversity and inclusion manager at NOLS. “There are studies that show that being outside really changes your view on education and achievement.”

NOLS offers wilderness leadership training opportunities all over the world. But statistically, there is a profound gap in rates of participation among African-Americans when it comes to spending time outdoors. As a percentage of the U.S. population, blacks and other ethnic minorities engage in outdoor recreation far less frequently than whites. And as our population shifts to favor a non-white majority, as predicted to occur in 2042, organizations like NOLS are beginning to recognize the need to more actively encourage people of color to get involved.

“We’re not attracting a diverse demographic of students and our staff does not reflect the changing demographic of the U.S.,” said Rajagopal-Durbin. “It was a shock to me that we had 3 black instructors in a pool of several hundred instructors worldwide.”

Called "Expedition Denali: Inspiring Diversity in the Outdoors" the NOLS project aims to create a high-profile event that will help to demonstrate the passion and opportunities that exist in the African-American community for climbing and hopefully prompt others to participate. Though not in itself a first ascent by African Americans, this expedition will be the latest in long succession of groundbreaking trips to the summit. Let's be clear: Denali is a popular mountain, and in fact scores of people make it to the summit every year. Since Alaska native Walter Harper first climbed it in 1913, approximately 12,000 individuals have seen the view from the top. In 1947 Barbara Washburn became the first woman on Denali’s peak. And over the last 100 years all manner of other ‘firsts’ have been achieved. But try to find that reference for the first African-American to summit Denali and you would be hard pressed.

To be fair, the American Alpine Club doesn’t account for race when recording the successful summits of the world’s mountains. And the National Park Service as a federal agency does not collect that information when issuing permits. As a culture, the mountaineering community perhaps best exemplifies the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. in which men and women are “judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” And John Muir implied no restrictions of race when he said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

Roped together on a high peak, the ancestry of one climber over another matters little when the line pulls tight in a fall and all that stands between life and death is the strength and skill of that person on the other end. So why then should it matter if a single African-American in particular or for that matter an entire team ascends to the summit of Denali?

One answer is that, at its core, climbing has always been about firsts. The rush to plant a flag on the summit of big mountains had spurred the pride of nations around the world throughout the 20th century. Even during our global military conflicts and the economic strife of the Great Depression, men and women dreamed of escape to high places and the elemental reward of deliberately pitting their courage against the impartial tests of nature. In 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Amendment was signed into law, Charles Crenchaw, an aerospace administrative assistant from Seattle, became the first African-American to summit Denali. At a time when many people of color in the U.S. could neither vote nor travel freely, when segregation restricted rights of association and public gathering, this one black man found freedom in climbing.

Part of an 18-person team, Crenchaw helped to make mountaineering history. The 1964 Mt. McKinley Expedition then claimed the largest party to reach the summit in a single day, 15 climbers including the 4th, 5th and 6th women. It was also on this trip that the highest radiotelephone transmission was sent and received.

Almost 50 years later there are firsts that remain unaccomplished. Since Crenchaw first climbed Denali there have been other African-Americans to follow in his footsteps. But there has never been an expedition made up primarily of African-Americans climbers. And now that NOLS has taken on this particular challenge some will likely ask the cynical question: Why does it matter?

“It matters because this is how you influence young people,” said Philip Henderson, one of NOLS’ three African-American instructors.

“Go to Everest and you’ll find the first Slovenian woman, the first Chinese woman, the first blind person, the first person with diabetes. And when it comes to the first African-American person and you ask who cares? It drives me to say, WE care.”

And in the case of mountaineering with few role models to guide them, many young African-Americans can’t even know where to begin.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t have mentors coming up because I did,” Henderson said. “But without role models, people who are like me who came from where I came from I had to pretty much figure it out by myself. And that’s a lonely place to be.”

The purpose of the NOLS Denali Expedition is to create a nurturing environment where people of color can learn from those who came before them. Less important than summiting is the journey this team of climbers will take to get there, a route that those of similar backgrounds can emulate and follow. With the support and encouragement of a new community of black climbers, NOLS aims to inspire the next generation of young people of color to imagine themselves empowered with the knowledge that they are not alone and that there are no heights to which they cannot reach.

James Mills' writing on diversity , cataloged on his blog The Joy Trip Project, is supported in part by Patagonia.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Charlie Crenchaw photos courtesy Ebony magazine.

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