WhenAlpinisteditor Katie Ives asked me to write a story about diversity in mountaineering, I was incredibly honored and more than a little thrilled. But upon deeper reflection, I realized to my chagrin that there were only so many writers she might have tapped to address this emerging issue in the world of adventure. As I am one of relatively few people of color actively participating in the American outdoor industry, let alone working as a journalist, it inevitably falls to me to speak to the unfortunate reality that outdoor recreation in this country poorly reflects the racially diverse face of America and the world at large.
Despite better opportunities than ever for all people to explore the farthest reaches of the planet and the edges of human endeavor, the American adventure scene is still primarily populated by college-educated, upwardly mobile white men. Just as the 2012 presidential election demonstrated the shrinking cultural dominance of this particular demographic, so must we realize that in order to preserve the natural places that climbers love, a more diverse constituency of environmental activists and supporters is critical. There’s a racially significant divide between those who choose to recreate outdoors and those who do not. I call it The Adventure Gap.
In 2006, with little fanfare, Sophia Danenberg reached the top of Mt. Everest. She was one of 493 climbers to summit that season, and her story was not widely reported. Nonetheless, there was a historical significance: Danenberg was the first African
American to ascend the mountain. Thus, for the first time, a black climber who was descended from our nation’s past of racial oppression had succeeded in elevating herself to the highest physical point on earth. But Danenberg was not eager for any recognition. “I just look at myself as a pretty average amateur mountaineer,” she said in an interview. “The things I climb are the things that people climb. Some are technical, sure, but nothing spectacular…. I climb because I like to climb. And to have my birth bring more significance to it is tough for me. I know that it has significance for other people, but I struggle with it in my head. It’s almost embarrassing.”
In some ways, for so little attention to be paid to Danenberg’s race is a testament to how far we’ve come. Today, many Americans would like to believe that race doesn’t matter when it comes to the career choices we make, where we live, where we play or how we relate to the communities around us. And for the most part, it really doesn’t. Thanks to the hard work, courage and sacrifices of previous generations, the institutions that once prevented people of color from participating fully as citizens no longer exist. Traditional slavery is long gone, as are legal segregation and employment discrimination. The scale of racially motivated violence that was rampant through the 1960s–the cross burnings and the black men hung from trees–is a nightmare of the past.
But what does remain are cultural artifacts, social cues that define the unwritten codes setting up expectations of what people of a certain racial or ethnic background are “supposed” to do as part of “normal behavior.” For many minorities in this country, these expectations do not include climbing. Despite increasing equality in other aspects of our society, there is an apparent racial divide between those who participate in outdoor sports and those who don’t. This “adventure gap” represents a yawning, and at-times forgotten, chasm in our community, like an invisible crevasse covered white with snow.
Record keepers like the great Elizabeth Hawley of Nepal or the editors of The American Alpine Journal don’t account for racial heritage in their mountaineering statistics. Yet general research suggests that African-Americans spend significantly less time in nature than their white counterparts do. In 2010 an Outdoor Foundation survey reported that out of the 137.8 million US citizens engaged in outdoor activities, 80 percent are Caucasian. That same year, the National Park Service stated that roughly 80 percent of its employees were white. According to Dr. Nina Roberts, a social scientist from San Francisco State University, although African-Americans represent 12.6 percent of the US population, they typically make up a lower proportion of national park visitors (e.g. 5-6 percent, depending on geography). They are more likely to visit parks and monuments of historical significance, often in urban areas like Washington DC, than to travel to natural sites such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. In her 2012 film, The Way Home, Amy Marquis of the National Park Conservation Association reports that only 1 percent of all visitors to Yosemite, one of the world’s most-renowned climbing areas, are African American.
National media and popular culture further reinforce the perception of this under-represented population. American articles and films still portray most mountaineers as relatively affluent Caucasians. Across the racial spectrum, many Americans view climbing as one of the “things white people do.” Economic inequality may play a role. According to the 2010 Outdoor Foundation survey, 61 percent of those who take part in outdoor recreation had personal incomes that exceed the national average of $41,000 per year. Travel, new technical gear and clothing are expensive, especially for mountaineering. The average consumer might easily spend $2,000 on a traditional rack, ice screws, ropes, ice axes, slings, crampons, rock shoes, not to mention camping and skiing equipment. In 2011 the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that African-Americans bring in, on average, about $.75 for every dollar earned by whites. Although some climbers lead a hand-to-mouth existence in pursuit of their sport, the “dirtbag” lifestyle could have little appeal to emerging black professionals who are the first of their families to attend college.
Historical reasons might also preclude some African-Americans from taking pleasure in outside experiences. After centuries of slavery and forced outdoor labor, African-Americans migrated en masse to major US cities during the post-Civil War and Great Depression eras. Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination restricted their movements and segregated them to urban enclaves all the way until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. White supremacist groups typically perpetrated their acts of racial violence in wooded areas beyond city limits. Given this legacy, it’s no wonder that African-Americans have often preferred to remain indoors or to visit urban parks closer to home. “Factors such as perceived discrimination, socialization and upbringing, fear [for] personal safety, concern about not having the right outdoor gear or equipment, and/or lack of knowledge and awareness,” Roberts says, “are a few of the many reasons [African-Americans] provided for lack of visitation to outdoor environments.”
Though legal segregation no longer exists and hate crimes are rare, the adventure gap remains as a mysterious cultural barrier forged in social memory. While collectively we enjoy greater freedom to go wherever we wish, as individuals we might question whether or not we are all welcome when we arrive. In the wilds of nature, without the safety of numbers and locked doors, people of color may feel more vulnerable. So they may simply opt to stay home, denying themselves and, potentially, future generations the opportunity to establish and enjoy a comfortable relationship with the outdoors.
Long term, the adventure gap could impact the preservation of the environment as a whole. As the populations of racially and ethnically diverse people continue to rise in the US, the Census Bureau predicts that “minorities” will outnumber whites by 2042. If this growing demographic has little vested interest in environmental conservation, there will be fewer people to advocate for wilderness. It is at this point that the need for greater diversity in outdoor recreation becomes more than a matter of race. Inclusiveness will be a critical factor in the continuing viability of the environmental movement and in the protection of the landscapes that climbers love.
In any ecosystem, diversity is a sign of strength. Any place that can sustain a variety of different individuals with wide-ranging interests and purposes is far more likely to thrive into the future. Dr. Roberts asserts that “Mental, physical and emotional health is essential for all humans as well, and the outdoors is one of the best places to achieve these benefits. We all connect to the natural world in some capacity. So understanding the experiences of people of color, including religious and spiritual connections, will ultimately increase access and open up new opportunities for all people, not just a few.”
With this understanding, several environmental organizations are working with minority youth to help them establish a relationship with the natural world. The San Francisco-based nonprofit Nature Bridge provides hands-on science learning opportunities at several national parks in California and Washington State for more than 30,000 students every year. And as the nation includes more people of color, the group has expanded its mission to educate the future leaders who will decide the fate of publicly protected land. “What Nature Bridge does is engage kids at a certain age when they are active learners and open to new ideas, when they can have new experiences that are transformative,” says board chairman Dr. Stephen Lockhart. “We teach them about stewardship and why it’s important to protect these places for future generations. And when it comes to kids of color in particular, it’s important because people will protect those places they know and love. If you don’t know it, you won’t protect it.”
There’s something wrong in a free nation where people of color feel limited by where they can and can’t go. If more African-Americans decide that they, too, have a place in the outdoors, they will be more likely to seek out a wide range of pastimes, including mountaineering. In return, they will enjoy a sense of increased geographic freedom and empowerment. A feeling of expanded possibilities arises from the bird’s-eye view on summits, from overcoming the physical effects of gravity and altitude, and the psychological burdens of doubt and fear. Not only will African American climbers encounter the life-affirming experiences of the mountains, but they will also bring more vibrancy to the pursuit. Danenberg’s ascents, which include the
Matterhorn, Mt. Rainier, Denali, Mt. Baker, Ama Dablam and Aconcagua, may be unremarkable in the world of cutting-edge alpinism, but her presence as an underrepresented minority stands as an indicator of the growing relevance of the mountaineering community.
“I don’t feel that I’m speaking to other climbers or mountaineers,” she says. “The audience is people who are like me but self-filter. I hope that my story actually speaks to non-climbers and helps them to try and take that first step to do something like this or anything else that they want to do.” If more African-Americans can remove the filters from their thinking that prevent them from crossing the adventure gap, a new generation of environmental stewards and vertical explorers will, in time, reflect the increasing diversity of our nation. They will bring fresh perspectives that may well encourage exciting innovations to climbing–dreams that have yet to be imagined.
In order to conceive of this future, we have to recognize that African-Americans have always played a role in our nation’s pursuit of dreams, creating a long legacy of adventure that often goes overlooked. Pedro Alonso Nino, a black navigator, sailed with Christopher Columbus in 1492 to discover the New World. York, an African American slave, was a full member of the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1804 through 1806. Matthew Henson, a black explorer from Maryland, is believed to have been the first person to reach the North Pole in 1909, as part of Robert Peary’s team. More than 400 African American cavalrymen, a group known collectively as the Buffalo Soldiers, patrolled Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks from 1903 through 1906. They are considered to be among the world’s first national park rangers.
And in 1964, Charles M. Crenchaw, a member of the Seattle Mountaineers and the American Alpine Club, became the first African American to climb to the summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America. An administrative assistant for Boeing, Crenchaw managed to acquire the requisite experience, financial resources and leisure time to reach major US summits–a privilege then claimed most often by white men. To no small degree, climbing allowed him to achieve a level of physical and social freedom denied to many other African-Americans of his generation. Although he told Ebony Magazine in 1963 that he never encountered another African American during his climbing trips, Crenchaw described most mountaineers as “courteous and polite…. Mountains have a way of making men humble and respectful to God and life.”
By the mid-1960s, Crenchaw had scaled numerous Cascades peaks, including Mt. Shasta, Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier (four times). During the mid-1980s, he served on the Board of Directors of the American Alpine Club. He died of an illness in 1998. Today, his friend Dee Molenaar, a member of the famous 1953 American K2 attempt, recalls Crenchaw as a dedicated participant in mountain rescues, “always in good humor and popular in our Northwest climbing community.” Like Danenberg, Crenchaw had insisted that he was “no better or worse than hundreds of other weekend climbers with the same degree of experience” (Ebony, November 1963). Beneath the humility of those words lies an assertion of equality: the right to be no different from the white climbers on the same crags and peaks. “I climb because climbing is a pleasure to me, both physically and mentally,” Crenchaw said simply. “Climbing develops good coordination and balance. It develops alertness and concentration and builds the body. The climb is exciting and exhilarating. When the summit is achieved, there is a feeling of peacefulness, serenity and happiness, a oneness with God.”
The limitations of society are, all too often, reinforced by our own doubts and fears. At its core, the adventure gap is a division of perception–a disconnect between what each of us might want for ourselves and what others expect from us. Climbing can be a dynamic means to assert the freedom to cross that divide. In a world where ability and spirit are all that matter, alpinism could be the purest expression of the fabled dream in which Martin Luther King Jr. hoped that one day all people might be judged or even judge themselves, not “by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”
This article originally appeared in issue #40 of Alpinist Magazine