Expedition Denali: Why It Matters

Expedition Denali: Why It Matters

I’ve been told it shouldn’t matter. But as one in a handful of black professionals in the outdoor recreation industry I can’t help being wildly excited. In June the first team of African-American climbers will attempt to reach the summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. Also known as Denali at 20,328 feet this mountain is literally the highest physical point anyone can achieve in the United States. And as metaphors go it is the ultimate realization of the dream Martin Luther King Jr. outlined in the 1963 speech that followed his historic march on Washington.

“I have a dream today,” he said “that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.”

Called Expedition Denali this climb marks for the first time a team made up of black men and women who aspire to stand at the very top of America. And though many African-American alpinists have reached the summit over the years since it was first climbed in 1913 Expedition Denali is a bold statement meant to inspire a new generation of all races and ethnicities, particularly minority youth, to travel out into the natural world in search of adventure and join in the movement to help protect it. Organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) this project aims to encourage under represented members of the population to seek recreation experiences outdoors as well as career opportunities in service of the environment.

But in our “post-racial” society there are those, a few in the climbing community, who believe that initiatives like Expedition Denali are unnecessary and not even noteworthy. After having come so far as a nation to rise above our tragic past of racial discrimination and prejudice, many wonder how a climb distinguished by race can be a significant accomplishment in modern mountaineering. In an effort to help me discover the history of black climbers who had made it to the summit a friend posted a query on two climbing web site forums: “Does anyone out there know who the first African-American to summit Denali was?”
The first response set the tone for a heated exchange online that lasted for several days.
“I doubt they’d advertise it,” wrote Donwanadi, a respondent on RockClimbing.com “Pretty lame to claim First Afro-American Ascent. IMO (in my opinion) you’re either first or you’re not.”
“Why does it matter?” wrote Traches immediately after. “Is it harder for a black guy to climb a mountain than a white guy?”
“Why does it matter who the first black climber of Denali (or the highpoint of florida for that matter) is? Why do you climb? For the record books or for yourself?” wrote Keenan Waeschle on MountainProject.com. “Race and sex really should not matter. If an individual comes from particularly humble beginnings then sure I’ll support them because they are an inspiration. If they’re a different race from me (caucasian) good for them, but not because of their race.”

The discussion was filled with similar comments from climbers who share a common belief: When it comes to mountaineering race doesn’t matter. And some even question the logic of inspiring young people by providing them with role models who share their ethnic heritage.
“You assume that minority children can’t look at ANY human climber and get motivated,” wrote hobgoblin11 on Rockclimbing.com. “He has to be a climber of THIER skin color according to you .. so are you implying that children are inherently racist?”
The exchange went on and on like that. Several respondents asserted that an effort like Expedition Denali was itself racially divisive. But there were at least a few who seem to recognize the central point of the issue.

“In a perfect world it doesn’t matter,” wrote marc801 on RockClimbing.com. “but we are involved in a sport/endeavor that has a severe lack of Afro-ethnicity participants. Look at all those triumphant summit photos over the years of the big peaks with the proud ascentionists and I fear you’ll probably have enough fingers to count the number of Afro-origin climbers in those photos.”

That lack of participation is the problem. It’s not a question of whether or not African-Americans can climb high mountains. What matters is as group we tend not to. And for a variety of different social and cultural reasons the world of mountaineering has been relegated almost exclusively to white men. Without any deliberate effort to prevent blacks and other minorities from becoming involved in the sport, the number of non-white participants is conspicuously low. The organizers of Expedition Denali merely hope to change that by introducing a new narrative into the mix and perhaps redefine what it means to be a climber.

“When you think about the story that mountaineering has been it’s been predominantly white male,” said Expedition Denali team member Erica Wynn. “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 and being a part of this helps to change that story.”

Expedition Denali isn’t meant to right past wrongs of bigotry in mountaineering. Rather this initiative aims to demonstrate that despite so few current participants people of color do indeed have a place in this world of adventure. Upon their successful return from Denali each of the team members will go back to their respective communities across the country and share that message of inclusion. Connecting directly with young people of color in particular the Expedition Denali team will serve as role models who share many of the same life experiences and aspirations for the future. This national outreach initiative will include the distribution of feature-length documentary film and a non-fiction account of the climb to be published by the Mountaineers Books.

In answer to my query online I discovered that the first African-American to climb Denali was a Boeing engineer from Seattle named Charles M. Crenchaw. Part of the 1964 McKinley Expedition Crenchaw made it to the top of America the same year the Civil Rights Amendment was signed into law. At a time in this country when millions of African-Americans were denied the right to vote as well as many other liberties we take for granted one man took it upon himself to fulfill his own dream in the world of climbing.

Crenchaw would go on to climb Denali again the following year and through his career he also summited Mount Rainer, Aconcagua and several other notable peaks . He was a member of the Seattle Mountaineers as well as the American Alpine Club having served on the board of each for many years. Crenchaw died in 1998, well regarded by his friends and fellow climbers in Seattle. But with no children of his own he passed away quietly with no one to share his legacy so that future generations might be inspired by not only his courage as a climber but the contributions he made to the mountaineering community as a whole.

The obligation and privilege to share Crenchaw’s story now falls to me. As a journalist and supporter of diversity in outdoor recreation I have the rare opportunity to impart upon aspiring adventurers young and old the knowledge that they are part of a great tradition of mountaineering that continues through this day. Expedition Denali is the next chapter in an ongoing story that truly matters.


A version of this story originally appeared in the National Geographic Adventure Magazine blog Beyond the Edge on May 9, 2013
Thanks to the more than 700 backers on Kickstarter whose financial contributions helped us to conclude a successful campaign to raise the funds necessary to produce a feature-length documentary film on Expedition Denali.