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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 I wanted to kick things off with a story that went unpublished in 2013.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.


Expedition Denali: The first all-black team to climb America’s tallest mountain

IN THE YEARS I’ve spent climbing mountains, descending into canyons, and generally getting into all sorts of adventures, I’ve rarely run into another person of color in the outdoors.

by BANI AMOR June 7th 2013 Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!

Skimming through the travel glossies that so captured my young imagination revealed images of white people doing what society defined as white people things: hiking, camping, climbing. This vague and at once startlingly direct message from travel media and society at large left an impression on me — a Latino city kid — of total exclusion.

Despite the lack of role models in the outdoors industry, I flung myself into it, with hopes that the next generation of youth of color would find a wild world waiting for them if they only were given the opportunity. If they just saw one other person like them doing it, too. It was after hearing about Expedition Denali that I finally felt like this could become a reality.

This June, 100 years to the month after the highest point in North America, Mt. McKinley (Denali), was first successfully ascended, the first team of African-American climbers will attempt the summit. Besides making history, their expedition can pave the way for a new generation of young people of color to get outside and become stewards of America’s wild places. Thanks to the success of their Kickstarter campaign, a documentary film crew will be chronicling their journey, and a book is in the works.

I recently had the chance to speak with team member and 20-year-old alpinist Rosemary Saal, to talk about inspiring diversity in the outdoors with Expedition Denali.

* * *

Climber posing on mountain
Rosemary Saal / Photo courtesy of the National Outdoor Leadership School
BA: How long until the expedition now?
RS: Just short of two weeks! I can’t believe it.
BA: How do you feel now that it’s so close?

RS: “Pumped” is the first word that comes to mind! Nerves are definitely building up a bit as well, but mostly nervous excitement.BA: On other expeditions — comprising mostly white folks — they’ve got to overcome the altitude, cold, physical exhaustion, etc. They’ve got to climb the mountain. But you guys are representing your race and, you know, climbing the mountain. And not just any mountain — a 20,320 foot-high one. Do you feel the pressure?RS: Only slightly, I’ll admit. The media attention is the main source of pressure, just knowing that the entire expedition will be meticulously documented. But then I remember that this pressure-inducing-exposure will greatly help the whole purpose of the project, and my confidence in this team is reassured.BA: You’re definitely following through with what seems to be the goal of the project, to get the word out and inspire other people of color, mostly young African-Americans, to get out ‘into the wild.’ A 2010 survey revealed that over 80% of Americans who engage in outdoor activities are white. Any idea as to why that is?

RS: 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.

Many people of color [in my life] have even jokingly claimed that my urge to explore the outdoors myself is the “white” side of me, following that up with “people of color don’t do that.”

BA: As a teenager into punk rock, I was branded as being into “white people stuff” by family and friends. Maybe some POC are hesitant about losing their ‘race badge’ or something. Like it’s easier to fully belong to one community than take the initiative to be different and risk not really belonging to any group. Is Expedition Denali trying to change that story?

RS: Absolutely! It is stereotypes and labels such as those that perpetuate the notion that POC do not have a place in the outdoors or the means to embrace nature. We seek to shift that view, or at least begin to.

BA: You’re breaking down all sorts of boundaries. Your team is incredibly diverse — from teenagers to elders from all over the States, many of whom are women and mixed-race folks. You represent a whole range of the Afro-diaspora.

RS: We most definitely do! I am very proud to be a part of the diversity within this team.

BA: It’s very refreshing. On the other end, I was a bit surprised that in James Mills’ Nat Geo profile of you guys, he felt compelled (by an onslaught of ‘post-racial’ rhetoric from the majority white climbing community) to explain the critical necessity of an expedition of this sort. Have you had to answer to comments like that, too?

RS: The team has had to answer to such comments, yes. There are a few skeptics out there who do not see the necessity or significance of this expedition.

BA: What do you say to them? Or is the message of this expedition just not for them?

RS: We simply acknowledge and stress that this expedition aims to change the views of one aspect of the outdoor industry. While there are many issues involving ethnicity, socioeconomic class, etc. concerning the industry, it would be an entirely different story to tackle and make an impact on them all.

BA: They should look at the facts: By 2018 the majority of youth in the United States will be of color. Considering that most of them are not spending much time outdoors, a message of inclusion would seem imperative to any environmentalist or climber.

RS: Absolutely, a message of inclusion and a set of role models.

BA: Considering all this stigma, how did you first get involved in climbing?

RS: My involvement in climbing proceeded quite naturally. I always enjoyed climbing on anything I could get my hands on practically since I could walk. I was fortunate to be exposed to resources in an environment that introduced me to technical and more “official” climbing opportunities before I was really aware of the stigma.

BA: The way it should be.

RS: Exactly! I totally agree. That is one of the reasons I’m particularly excited to spread the message of Expedition Denali to youth of color. Hopefully they can see this story and realize their ability to get outside before being exposed to the stigma surrounding this topic.

BA: Finally, what does it mean to you personally to be a part of Expedition Denali?

RS: Personally, this expedition means a lot to me. On a personal level, it is a huge physical challenge to accomplish…

Most importantly, however, I am really looking forward to being a role model, to going out and providing an example of how POC truly do belong in the outdoors as well. I had wonderful role models and mentors when I was first getting involved in climbing. I wish to be that person, inspiring and encouraging the next generation the way I was inspired and encouraged.

BA: You’re only 20 and about to make history by ascending the highest point in North America in the first afro-centric expedition. No biggie, no presh…

RS: I know right?! It’s absolutely bonkers! I could not be more stoked.

BA: It’s a very vivid, beautiful metaphor. In a way, you’re carrying a lot of folks — folks like us — to the summit with you. It sounds like you see that as more of an honor than a burden.

RS: I really do. I am so incredibly fortunate and grateful to be a part of this movement. How could I see it any other way?

BA: Word. I’m stoked too, and honored that you took the time out of your training to talk today. Say hi to Denali for me! I know you’ll do an awesome job.

RS: Thanks girl! I will most definitely send your regards. 

Group of climbers poses for shot
Photo courtesy of the National Outdoor Leadership School

Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!

Read more at http://matadornetwork.com/sports/expedition-denali-the-first-all-black-team-to-climb-north-americas-tallest-mountain/#JC0h1BuKymB6uJU8.99