I admit some apprehension to being in front of the camera. As a trained observer I’ve always been more than a little reluctant to be part of the story. But when it comes to Expedition Denali I’m prepared to make an exception. To be part of the first team of African-American climbers to reach the highest summit in North America is an opportunity tough to pass up. And our little cohort of adventurers aims to change the face of mountaineering and the stories that define what it means to be a climber.
But with one hip replacement down and one to go I won’t be on the climbing team. The second of two surgeries just 10 weeks before boarding a plane to Alaska I have to consider myself lucky to at least get the assignment to report on this incredible journey from base camp. Though I won’t stand on the summit with my teammates I’ll enjoy the great honor of sharing their story with the rest of the world, not as a climber but as team journalist. In our common purpose of inspiring a new generation of young people to embrace the outdoors in the spirit of adventure, it’s not about me or any one person making it to the top of Denali. Our mission is to forge a path so that everyone can follow our example and perhaps create a unique story of their own.
Over a long weekend in early March, the team gathered as a whole for the first time at the National Outdoor Leadership School headquarters in Lander, WY. The summit team of nine, six men and three women, came together from across the country to bond as friends and share their respective ambitions to not only scale a high mountain to but come down safely and share their experience as role models for climbers in the future. Throughout a full day of storytelling we began the first round of interviews that will be included in a documentary film and a book, my first, I have begun to write. Though many on the team have motives unique to themselves most agree the best of all is opportunity to meet and work with fellow climbers of color.
“Building a community is the most important part,” said team member Adina Scott. “Being able to network with other African-Americans who are out in the hills… When we first got together we all looked at each other and said ‘I don’t know you, but where have you been all my life!’”
The weekend offered everyone the chance to share their common experiences. Typically each team member hails from a community of climbers in which they are one of few if not the only African-American. With an abiding love of the outdoors spanning many years some were fortunate to have parents or older adults to inspire their passions. But with each telling of their stories there seemed to be a recurring theme. Growing up few of these climbers saw themselves as people of color represented in the narrative of mountaineering.
“We are exposed throughout our lifetime to many narratives and many stories. And these stories often shape our expectations ourselves and of our lives,” said team member Erica Wynn. “There’s a danger when we’re only exposed to a single story and we can not identify ourselves in that story.”
If you think about the story that is modern mountaineering the narrative is predominated by affluent, college educated, social mobile white men.
“And if a little black girl were to look in mountaineering and hear that single story she would probably say, ‘I don’t have much of a place there’, Wynn said. “Or the odds are against me.’”
The primary purpose of this climb, apart from achieving the summit, is to create a different kind story. African-American men and women ranging in age from 19 to 56 each member of the team offers a new perspective of personal knowledge and experience that might expand the vision and scope of what mountaineering means in the modern world. The team hopes to create an alternate narrative that honors the values of working together to share a common objective and encourage others to seek out similar experiences in the natural world. Wynn in particular wants to change the story for women and girls of color so that they might see through her example the role they might play in the ongoing narrative of mountaineering.
Though historically a self-serving exploit of conquest in the pursuit of fame and national pride this climbing adventure and those that follow might stand instead to represent an example of what anyone might accomplish should they set aside their own apprehensions, fears and doubts that prevent them from attaining their highest goals whatever they may be.
“And I hope that Expedition Denali and being a part of this helps to change that story,” Wynn said, “and helps to have other women identify themselves in something that they might not have been able to do in the past.”