Mountains Beyond Mountains: On Expedition Denali, Race & Adventure in America

Happy New Year people! I wanted to kick things off with a story that went unpublished in 2013. Remember the time I interviewed Rosemary Saal, member of the first African-American team to try and climb Mt. McKinley in Alaska? A lot of people were excited, and I was asked to report on Expedition Denali as part of a corporate social media campaign about travel stories last summer. But once the time-sensitive article was sent, it took over three months for them to finally reject the piece, claiming it was “too risky for their brand”. Well fuck them and their brand. Yes, stories get killed all the time, but aren’t you tired of reading the same shit from the same people? Offensive, cheap and – worst of all – boring “content” permeates travel media nowadays; a little diversity wouldn’t hurt anyone.

So here’s the story and why it’s too important not to be told.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: On Expedition Denali, Race & Adventure in America

Summer 2013. From where I stand abroad, it looks as if folks in the States would prefer to talk about anything other than race and yet are being challenged to do just that on the daily. Fifty years after the I Have A Dream speech shook up our national dialogue on racism, it still remains an enormously tense topic, the negative aspects of which our social media-saturated culture feeds off of. But in between incessant Tweets on Zimmerman walking and Miley twerking, a moment of extraordinary progress was able make this summer memorable for all the right reasons.

Mountaineering project Expedition Denali made history last June as the first all-black team to attempt North America’s highest summit, Mt. McKinley (aka Denali) in Alaska. Sponsored by brands like REI and The North Face, the National Outdoor Leadership School organized 11 African-American climbers from across the diaspora – women and men, young and old, red state/blue state – on a month-long trek to the heights of America. They are now on a country-wide speaking tour trying to engage youth of color to get active in the outdoors and promote equality in the adventure industry as a whole.

“Think about the story that mountaineering has been,” says 21 year-old climber Erica Wynn in the project’s campaign video. “It’s been mainly white male, and if a little black girl were to look into mountaineering and hear that single story, she would probably say I don’t have much of a place there, or The odds are against me. I hope that Expedition Denali helps to change that story.” Teammate Rosemary Saal echoed this when interviewed her before the climb, saying, “I feel that many people of color have the mentality that we do not belong in the outdoors. When the sport was first being developed and explored, the traditional participant was a white male. For some reason, this image has stuck in the minds of many and in actuality has not changed significantly.” Her own friends point out just how stuck this image of the American Outdoorsman is in our minds, joking that ‘people of color don’t do that.'”

Rosemary Saal

Growing up working class and Latina in the city meant my first glimpse of mountains were caught from the glow of the TV or even from the glossy pages of travel mags, but rarely would those graphics reflect anyone who looked remotely like me. Not much has changed.

“I grew up with people telling me what I couldn’t do,” says 56 year-old mountaineer Steve Shobe. “There’s a certain percentage of people who look like me who have also been told you can’t because of your color or, you live in the city and this is not for you.” When sports or travel media do feature black athletes it’s usually in the context of competitive sports or as the ‘exotic’ subjects of some travel narrative or other. “It is stereotypes and labels such as those that perpetuate the notion the POC do not have a place in the outdoors or the means to embrace nature,” adds Rosemary. “We seek to shift that view, or at least begin to.”

The ED Team

It’s funny how American media (the indie stuff is pretty bad, too) keeps this narrow image of The Backpacker going, when many have beards, tattoos, afros, debt. Some are gay, many are women. But it seems like every time I step foot on National Park land I’m surrounded by middle-aged Europeans with an aptness for staring at my brown skin. Similarly, folks have a hard time believing I’m American on trips abroad, because a lot of people associate travel with privilege, and American with white. The fact that people of color will make up the majority of American youth by 2018 but account for less than 20% of citizens engaged in outdoor activities is what’s known as The Adventure Gap, and it’s relatively new.

When the abolition of slavery gave way to the Great Migrations of the 20th century, over 10 million African-Americans were exiled from Southern farm towns to industrial cities in the North, severing the agrarian roots of black culture and confining the poor majority to urban ghettos. Systematic violence and discrimination in this country has created a schism between an ancestral knowledge of nature and the lived experience of being black in today’s America. Here, access to wild spaces is largely limited to those who have the funds for their own transportation, training, gear, permits or simply the time to not work and take a trip instead. Though many people of color can – and do – manage all that, it’s generally not encouraged in our communities. How could it be? People who are used to having their contributions to mainstream culture go unacknowledged tend to internalize that distortion until it becomes a reality.

Erica Wynn

“Everyone deserves to have opportunities like this,” asserts Erica in ED’s YouTube video. “It’s not fair for [it] to be an exclusive activity.” As simple and uncontroversial as she may sound, it wasn’t long after Expedition Denali was announced that haters started to beat the post-racial drums, the way privilege tends to subvert the thinking of ordinarily reasonable people. Rosemary comments on the backlash, saying that “there are a few skeptics out there who do not see the necessity or significance of this expedition.”

“We have come a long ways,” continues Erica, “but we still are lacking a black presence in a lot of really positive opportunities, and I think that’s why Expedition Denali is still necessary – even though we’re in 2013 and we’ve got a black president – it’s still necessary, there’s still work that needs to be done.”

For those of us who’ve pushed through the stigma and successfully carved out a space for ourselves in different aspects of the adventure industry, it’s our responsibility to shake up any mainstream narrative that doesn’t embrace the diversity of our stories. Not doing so would only fuel a future where our last vestiges of natural freedom are abandoned because none of us gives a damn. “I wish to be that person,” says Rosemary, “inspiring and encouraging the next generation the way I was inspired and encouraged.” Long-time alpinist Billy Long is one of the expedition members on tour now, adding that “it’s all about personal stories delivered in a way and by a person that they can relate to, someone that can take the activity from an obscure thing you see “white people do” on TV and make it relatable, understandable and achievable.” This is how inspiration goes down, and it’s infectious.

Billy Long

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Distill Productions were able to send a documentary film crew along on the journey and a book is in the works, too. The story of Expedition Denali’s historic climb will not go untold, and youth will have real faces to put to real voices that often go unheard. If it isn’t clear enough – McKinley was a metaphor. A living one with a powdery spine that leads to America’s apex, a place that can end you in a very non-metaphorical way. But for this project it also represents the rocky precipice on which we balance our dreams as a nation. The real challenge – whether we can build a community as inclusive as it is intrepid – is a reality waiting for us to wake up to. A summit the black climbers of Expedition Denali have carried us ever closer to.

15 thoughts on “Mountains Beyond Mountains: On Expedition Denali, Race & Adventure in America”

  1. I completely agree with you that the same stories keep getting told. That good, different stories get shot down. It is the idea of the “single” story that intrigues me because it does shut people out, confine them into stereotypes, and keeps those who buy it, blind. Cool story.

  2. This is really great. The race politics of adventure is something I’ve never had to consider due to my white privelege, but the whole travel equated with privelege, american equated with white thing makes perfect sense. Thanks for teaching me something today.

  3. Word, thanks for reading! It’s mind-boggling how rare privilege (of any kind) is brought up in travel writing. Most people would respond positively to a story like this, but folks don’t know what they can’t read – what they aren’t given the chance to see, especially if it doesn’t effect them personally in the day-to-day – and that’s why I think a balance of diverse voices in media is so important.

  4. Well done! I’m glad you took the time to publish this- as you said, it’s too important not to be shared. This has given me some thoughts for a new post- you know you’ve done something well when you cause your readers to question and think! I’m grateful to you for bringing something new to the conversations. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for liking my post, mostly because it brought me here and I got to read this wonderful blog post that shed light on an important topic. Great story!

  6. Right on! (haven’t said that in a long time!) It is a little strange to me when I go to parks and natural areas and see so few people of color. Plenty of women, even out hiking alone, but when I see an African American woman or man (for example) out there, it’s something I notice. Which is itself strange. Latinos seem to be frequenting these places more and more, especially in the West. But still not anywhere near their population, which has grown dramatically.

    1. True! More diversity in travel media can definitely help. Parks, brands and other folks in the outdoor industry have to make a conscious effort to be more inclusive, and everyone wins!

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