Climbing toward diversity

— May 21, 2013

At 20,230 feet, Mt. McKinley, often called Denali, is North America’s highest peak.

On June 7, 1913, four men reached the summit for the first time. On the 100th anniversary this year, another group of mountaineers hope to make history.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

Expedition Denali is a group made up of African American mountaineers, brought together by the National Outdoor Leadership School, to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in the outdoors and inspire people of all races and ethnicities to get outside. The project is the biggest and most far reaching campaign in the school’s history, said Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at NOLS.

The Outdoor Industry Association’s 2012 report showed that 78 percent of those who say they participate in outdoor recreation are Caucasian. It’s a proportion that doesn’t reflect the country’s demographics, as the nation continues to become more ethnically and racially diverse, Rajagopal-Durbin said.

NOLS wants everyone to have the opportunity to find a connection with the outdoors — to unplug from screens and observe the natural world. But encouraging diversity is about more than recruitment for future NOLS courses. Rajagopal-Durbin said that if future policy makers don’t spend time in the outdoors and understand the value of keeping places wild and pristine, they won’t fight to protect them.

“The future of these wild spaces is in jeopardy unless more people in the U.S. discover these places and fall in love with these places,” she said.

About a year and a half ago NOLS staff started brainstorming projects that would inspire people of all races to get outside. NOLS wanted to create an opportunity to raise awareness about diversity in the outdoors and honed in on the African American community, which has the lowest participation in outdoor recreation, Rajagopal-Durbin said. Staff at NOLS then further narrowed it down to focusing on mountaineering an area with some of the lowest participation by minorities.

“Mountaineering, of all outdoor sports, seems most dominated by that white male privilege group,” Rajagopal-Durbin said. “We hoped we would be able to sort of rewrite that narrative.”

Denali came up as a top choice for the expedition because of NOLS history with the mountain — it runs two courses a year there — and because of its prestige as the highest point in North America.

The challenge next was finding a team of African American mountaineers. The team includes nine participants and four NOLS instructors. The goal was to keep the instructors diverse as well, but when one had to drop out last minute, the only replacement was a Caucasian man, Rajagopal-Durbin said.

“That’s the issue, we couldn’t find a group of African American NOLS instructors to lead this,” she said. Out of about 700 instructors, only two are African American. “Our staff doesn’t reflect the diversity of our students right now and definitely does not reflect the diversity of our society right now,” she said.

“Young black kids in urban areas are not looking at mountaineering as the cool thing to do. They have basketball heroes and track heroes, but in outdoor pursuits there are few and specifically in mountaineering- well there are very few,” said Rajagopal-Durbin.

Billy Long, a member of Expedition Denali, climbs in Sinks Canyon. (Photo Courtesy Brad Christensen/NOLS)
Billy Long, a member of Expedition Denali, climbs in Sinks Canyon. (Photo Courtesy Brad Christensen/NOLS)

Assembling the team started with a Google search. It yielded a team of African Americans working to climb the seven summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents). Other participants were recruited by reaching out to former NOLS students and students of other outdoor programs.

Rosemary Saal, 20, who is particpating in climb, heard about the expedition from an outdoor group she was involved with growing up in Seattle. The group, aimed at empowering girls, introduced her to rock climbing and mountaineering.

Spending time in the outdoors has given her confidence.

“When I completed my first mountaineering course, I thought, ‘Wow, I really can do anything I want to,’” she said. It’s a feeling she wants other people to experience. She wants African Americans — and people of all races — to understand they can get outside, and that public lands belong to them, too.

“These outdoor areas — the parks, the mountains — these are our areas too,” she said.

Saal’s instructors in Seattle were women of all ethnicities. She said she was lucky to have made friends in the group who share her love of climbing, hiking and being outside. But she also has friends who don’t understand the lure of outdoor recreation.

A recent Facebook post by a friend asked, What’s with white people and skiing? Saal responded, asking, What’s with people of color not skiing?

There isn’t a definitive reason why the outdoors is so dominated by Caucasians, Rajagopal-Durbin said. But there is the aspect of privilege. Spending time outside for the sake of recreation is sometimes seen as a luxury people can’t afford because of the distance to outdoor space, the cost of equipment or time. Historically, for some groups, the outdoors represents danger or manual labor. But at least one reason is likely a lack of role models.

Saal agrees. She said that if a group is diverse it’s not as intimidating because everyone is different. It’s harder to break into something if everyone looks exactly the same, but you look different, she said. Someone has to set the example and be the role model. She hopes she can be one of those people.

“I’m so thrilled to be the person to inspire the next generation,” she said. “I believe just bringing up the topic and talking about what the mission is of the climb has already changed some people’s mindset.”

The expedition is slated to start climbing June 9. Depending on weather, the climb can take up to three weeks.

While they are climbing, communities around the country will participate in a program called “10,000 Steps to Denali,”  where groups are pledging to get outside and walk or recreate to acknowledge the climb. After, members of the expedition will speak at historically black colleges and in cities with large minority populations.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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