Expedition Denali For the last nineteen days, eleven determined people of color from six different cities, have been undertaking the first ever all-African American team climb to the top of North America: a climb to the top of Denali in Alaska. Also known as Mt. McKinley, Denali is the highest peak on the North American continent at 20,320 feet. That’s only about 9000 feet less than Mt. Everest. Now this is what I’m talking about when I talk about intrepid! The expedition has been completely crowd funded, raising $111,125, well over its target of $107,500, which shows how very excited people are about this wonderful adventure. A documentary team will be along to film everything.
About the Mountain: Denali National Park is about 240 miles north of Anchorage and welcomes over 400,000 visitors a year. It is a breathtaking, pristine six million acres of wilderness. There is only one road through the whole expanse of park so it is left to the visitor to get out and move through the vast expanse where the flora and fauna are astounding. As viewed from the lower meadows, Denali is a grande dame that rises supreme from the midst of an impressive mountain range. There are various routes to be taken to the summit, some easier than others, but none of them “easy”.
As you can see from the map, Alaska, one of the 50 United States, but not part of the “lower 48”, lies between the Canadian border and Bering Strait. On the other side of the narrow Strait lies, yes, Russia. I wonder if you can see it from the top of Denali. Well, regardless, this is a big undertaking. I don’t want to be a buzz kill, but Denali kills folks, even the most experienced of climbers. 550 to date have lost their lives while attempting to conquer this mountain. Every year approximately 1000 people attempt the climb and only about a half make it to the summit. Extreme storms can kick up and cause some nasty problems. Folks who decide to bivouac on the mountain to ride out an unexpected dust up can also die of pulmonary edema or other such altitude related issues. Make no mistake. This is not a hike, it’s not a meandering nature walk, it’s a climb and this climb is a true challenge.
The Purpose of the Expedition: The climb is being undertaken to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first ever ascent of Denali back in June 1913. The exact date of this year’s climb will depend on the conditions once they reach the mountain as is required in all such expeditions of this magnitude. Nature is…well, nature and doesn’t always do what you want it to when you want it to. This means that your climb schedule has to be flexible enough to adjust to whatever Mother Nature decides to hand out while you are there. That’s all part of the fun if you have done your homework and planned properly.
The historic expedition has been put together in association with the National Outdoors Leadership School or NOLS as it is commonly called. NOLS provides such excursions for leadership development purposes, working to instill ethical leadership qualities into the teams that undertake any one of their many trips, teaching them to work together, lead, and communicate. These capabilities then transfer over into other parts of one’s life. Their trips are intensive and exacting. They take you out of your comfort zone and bring out qualities in you that you didn’t know you had. Cool.
The Message of the Climbers: The eleven intrepid African American climbers, including three women, are all from various backgrounds. All of the folks involved are role models in their own communities throughout the United States and are considered change agents. Each of the climbers has been training at home and they have also taken part in a practice climb up Mt. Baker in Washington state. I think that the undertaking is so fantastic that they need a press name. Something like the Denali 11 or the Denaliens…or… okay, we will leave that for later. I am sure that the public will coin some heroic title for these folks. Back to topic…, the “mountaineers” of the Denali Expedition are climbing to promote diversity in the great outdoors and to encourage young people to get out and move. They also want to teach young folks to appreciate nature and to raise interest in protecting America’s wild spaces. The message is communicated not only by the climb, but also by the diversity demonstrated among the climbers themselves. They are:
- Scott Briscoe – Avid outdoorsman and Howard University grad. Staunch advocate for getting youth into nature.
- Stephen DeBerry – Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, UCLA undergrad and track star, MBA and masters in Anthropology from Oxford, manages a socially responsible investment firm in San Francisco.
- James “KG” Kagambi – International mountaineering instructor. Lives in Kenya with his family.
- Billy Long – Adventure seeking mountaineer raised in Northern California. Studying engineering in New York City.
- Ryan Mitchell – Cyclist and mountaineering Philly native. Science Teacher, graduate of Penn State and UC Davis.
- Tyrhee Moore – Visual Journalism student at the University of West Virginia. Experienced outdoors man. Youngest of the crew at 18 years old.
- Robby ReChord – Back country skier and whitewater rafter. That’s hardcore. Chicago native now living in Wyoming. Dedicated to the great outdoors.
- Erica Saal- Community college student (love it!) Seattle born, currently living in New Jersey. Been an outdoors woman since before Junior high. Just 20 years old.
- Adina Scott – Childhood love of the outdoors. Engineering and music degrees from Case Western Reserve University. Electrical engineering PhD from Purdue.
- Stephen Shobe – Managing Director of Pioneer Climbing Expedition. Subterranean cave explorer. Scuba diver. Wild fire fighter. Technical climbing instructor for the French government.
- Erica Wynn – Born and raised in Queens, NYC. Junior at American University in Psychology. Promoter of health and fitness for young girls of African American descent.
These mountaineers exemplify the best of the best: education, achievement, pushing one’s limits, and excellence. Many of these folks have a goal of climbing mountains on every continent and a few of them are only a couple peaks away. Some might ask why do a “White people” thing like climbing a mountain? Why use hard earned money to fund this sort of activity? The answer is that nature is there for everyone and POCs are woefully under represented exploring natural places. Remember that Oprah series where she and her best buddy Gail went to Yosemite? Getting out in nature is the most amazing way to replenish what life sucks out of you. And let’s all remember, even Martin Luther King, Jr. had been to the mountaintop.
People may also ask why not just hit a hiking trail or something? True. The answer is to do what works for you. Hiking trails is great too. That’s the point. Get on out in nature, however you choose to do it and just soak it all in. It’s all good stuff. But if you have ever watched a climbing movie like “Into Thin Air” or the series “Everest: Beyond the Limit” and have felt that, I don’t know, sheer longing to just express yourself through strapping on a backpack and some crampons and taking off, on and on, pushing your body to its outer limits…well, you’re a climber and you need to go on and do it. I know I get that feeling when I check out those shows. I also get that feeling when I watch Warren Miller extreme ski films where they go completely off the grid jumping out of helicopters and stuff onto trails that no one else has touched. I just feel so empowered afterwards. I, myself, am a great walker. I love to walk through cities exploring their every nook and cranny. I also love nature. I love to hike. I’ve been training myself to take on the Appalachian Trail and to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in a couple of years so it was great to see some other POCs showing me the way to go and what comes next.
Healthy Effect: The mountaineers don’t harp on it, but the health benefits of this activity are amazing. Medically, I had the POC evil three: hypertension, pre-diabetes, and high cholesterol. After walking through the mountains every day for over a year, my high cholesterol disappeared and my sugar went down to acceptable levels. Still working on the hypertension, but I will knock that out this year, I am certain.
Very Personal Message: I find that this expedition reaches each person in a different place bringing with it its own message to them personally. My message was this: In the world, especially in the United States, there seems to be an unwritten list of things that people of color do not do. Some of them are prescribed by our society, but others, we thrust upon ourselves: POCs do not swim, POCs do not play tennis, POCS don’t do gymnastics, POCs do not play hockey, POCs do not quarterback NFL teams, POCs do not become president of the United States… on and on it goes. Happily, we have disproved all of these, but there is still a lot of work to do around the overall global image of people of color and the removal of profiling and other oppressive tactics. If these folks can come together to work as a team to climb to the mountaintop, we as a collective community should be able to do the same at sea level. We all need to find our own personal mountaintops in our lives and start to climbing. What this expedition says to me is that POCs can organize and move, well, mountains.
So, why don’t we organize towards putting together a national agenda that promotes a more equitable existence for us all? Why don’t we crowd-fund a movement to demand a reduction in the incarceration rates of POCs by 35% by the year 2015? Or why don’t we crowd-fund a movement to demand an increase in the POC high school graduation rates? We’ve had a POC president for the last five years and have not put forward anything resembling an organized request for improvements to our own community. His time in office is almost up and we only have about three more years to get something on his desk that would move us up that crazy ladder, regaining ground we have lost. But we have to be able to be vocal and supportive. To push back against the crazy hype that politics brings with it. We need to keep climbing towards that mountaintop. Reach
higher ground. That’s what a trip like this means to me.