Expedition Denali, exploring why diversity matters


Page 2

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.

High Country News Classifieds
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.