Just about anyone who writes for a living will be compelled eventually to write a book. Personally, I tried to put it off as long as possible. I simply didn’t have anything truly relevant to say or share on the scale of a 50,000-word manuscript. As it happens though that all changed in the fall of 2011 when I was invited by the National Outdoor Leadership School to take part in the first African-American team ascent of Denali, the highest peak in North America.
Although I was not on the mountain as a climber I had the great privilege to write a detailed account of the circumstances leading up, during and immediately after this historic event in 2013 called Expedition Denali. Along with a series of profiles on great black explorers of the past as well as contemporary role models of the modern era I’ve managed to put together a compelling work of historical non-fiction that directly addresses the issue of diversity in the world of outdoor recreation, the divide between those who spend time in nature and those who do not. I am very pleased to introduce my new project published by The Mountaineers Books, which will hit store shelves in the fall entitled The Adventure Gap.
In an effort to encourage more people of color to participate in outdoor recreation NOLS put together this ambitious project. Their goal was to create a cadre of black leaders who would return to their communities across the U.S. and inspire a new generation of minority youth to spend more time in nature as part of active lifestyle or in professional careers dedicated to protection and preservation of wilderness. It is the hope of these dedicated men and women that the young people they encounter will recognize in themselves a deep desire to venture out into the natural world as stewards of the environment or for simply pure adventure.
As a daily newspaper reporter, columnist and features writer I have written dozens of stories. And as a freelance journalist and online media producer I have created hundreds more for print, Internet and radio. As this book is the culmination of my life’s work (so far), it is only fitting that I acknowledge the hundreds of outdoor retailers, gear and clothing manufacturers, and wilderness education professionals who so warmly welcomed me and encouraged me to explore this wonderful world of adventure that I love so much. Each of them helped me across the gap between apprehension and ambition in more ways than they can ever imagine. I especially want to thank my former boss and good friend Malcolm Daly, the founder of climbing equipment company Trango, who introduced me to the story of Charles Crenchaw. Without Malcolm’s help, this courageous mountaineer might still be lost in the pages of history.
Since I made the transition from salesman to journalist, I’ve had the pleasure to work with many talented and supportive editors. I want to especially thank those who encouraged my work on the topic of diversity in outdoor recreation. Steve Paulson, executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best of Our Knowledge, gave me an excellent start by airing my piece on the Buffalo Soldiers in 2009. Jodi Peterson, the editor of High Country News, commissioned a series of short articles in 2010 and 2011 for her magazine’s blog “A Just West”—these stories followed my journey through six national parks in search of African-American outdoor enthusiasts and their use of public lands. Several of those interviews inform the narrative of this book. Katie Ives, the editor of Alpinist, published my first story on Charles Crenchaw as well as a profile of Everest climber Sophia Danenberg in 2012. Her meticulous editing and fact-checking support brought my work to the attention of Mountaineers Books, whose editor in chief Kate Rogers commissioned this piece of historical non-fiction.
Kate, having championed this book through every stage of its development from start to finish, is the unsung hero of this story. With just the right amount of cajoling and tough-love, she rallied my enthusiasm for this project through some pretty dark moments of writers’ block and an over-abundance of material to create a clear and compelling narrative. Thanks for putting up with my whining, Kate!
Along with editing assistance from Jenna Free, Christina Henry de Tessan, and Erin Moore, I got a lot of help from several key individuals whose contributions shaped this story. A surviving member of the 1964 McKinley Expedition, Ed Boulton, provided first-person information on the life and character of Charles Crenchaw. Lowell Skoog at the Seattle Mountaineers History Committee Archives provided several historic photographs as well as a copy of the expedition log. Librarians Alex Depta and Beth Heller at the American Alpine Club were incredibly helpful in locating many of the historic documents on record. And Dr. Nina Roberts at San Francisco State University was vital in quantifying much of the social science information used in identifying some of the underlying causes of the Adventure Gap.
The information behind the Buffalo Soldiers story came to life with the help of Ranger Shelton Johnson. In addition to writing the forward to this book, he helped me to understand the importance of the role these valiant men played in the creation of Yosemite and the rest of the National Park System. For preserving their memory, Shelton has done each of us a great service. His thoughtful stewardship of this important legacy has inspired many of my projects over the last several years, including this one.
The genius behind Expedition Denali is the remarkable work of the dedicated professionals at the National Outdoor Leadership School. The brain child of Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, this audacious project was supported by public relations manager Jeanne O’Brien—these two incredible women pulled the team of climbers and support staff together to make the 2013 ascent of Denali possible. Over the course of eighteen months, they organized everything from training missions to slide shows that told this inspiring story of adventure. I can only hope that I have done justice to their monumental efforts to make history.
This project would not have been possible without the financial assistance of my sponsors. The outdoor equipment company Patagonia provided me with the resources to work on the road for months at a time while gathering information and materials to tell this very complicated story. I am grateful to Rob Bondurant for backing my every move. MAKO Surgical Corporation not only provided me with the prosthetic implants to replace my failed hips, but also contributed funds to keep me on my feet and working in Alaska throughout the expedition. Special thanks to my talented surgeon, Dr. Richard Illgen at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, and to Amy Cook of AMC Public Relations for arranging a grant from MAKO without which this book would never have been completed.
Early drafts of the manuscript were proofread by my very good friend and neighbor Jennifer Harrington. Her eye for detail helped to spare my editors the agony of horrendous spelling and grammar errors. She also offered suggestions to make the narrative more accessible to a general audience of non-climbers.
The Adventure Gap narrative includes the stories of many remarkable individuals who shared with me, and now the readers of this book, the intimate details of their personal lives. Each profile is the result of several interviews collected over the course of the past five years. For their faith in my discretion and commitment to getting their stories straight I want to thank esteemed filmmaker Ken Burns, aspiring national park service employee Dwayne Smallwood, Mountaineer Sophia Danenberg, professional snowboarder Ryan Hudson, champion sport climber Kai Lightner, polar explorer Barbara Hillary and Expedition Denali NOLS instructors Aaron Divine and Robby ReChord.
Obviously, this book would not have been possible without the generous cooperation, collaboration, and friendship extended to me by the members of the Expedition Denali team. I am grateful for their support and inspired by, their collective strength, courage, and resolve. Thank you Adina, DeBerry, Rosemary, Billy, Ryan, Tyhree, Scott, Erica and Shobe.
And finally I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to my beautiful and loving wife, Shamane. With a busy writing schedule of her own as a daily news reporter, as well as an active calendar of athletic events, she is a constant grounding influence in my life that keeps my otherwise ill-conceived flights of fancy from spiraling out of control. By making a comfortable home for me to come back to after weeks of glacier travel or chasing climbers across half the continent, she is an ever-present reminder of why all summits are optional and each safe return is mandatory.
The Adventure Gap will be available in October 2014
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