The first African American to climb Denali was an administrative assistant from Seattle named Charles Crenchaw. Black American mountaineers were rare enough back then for Ebony to profile Crenchaw in 1963, one year before his historic climb. When asked about the racial diversity in his sport, he remarked, “I have not encountered another negro while climbing.”
50 years later, what is the state of racial and ethnic diversity in the outdoor community? What progress have we made since Crenchaw’s trailblazing example?
The short answer: Not much. Just like Crenchaw, a modern African American climber — or hiker, or skier or kayaker — is unlikely to see another person of similar heritage on the trail. Racial and ethnic barriers have been broken down in nearly every domain, from world politics to golf (golf! the whitest of the white!). Yet as James Mills writes in Alpinist, “the American adventure scene is still primarily populated by college-educated, upwardly mobile white men.”
While hundreds of people climb Denali every year, there has never been a team of all black climbers to reach the summit. This will change in June. An expedition organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School, called Expedition Denali, will send 11 black men and women to the top of Denali — nearly 50 years after Crenchaw and 100 years after the mountain was first climbed in 1913.
The climb is part of a larger project to encourage youth of color to participate in outdoor recreation and to promote healthy living. After the climb, the climbers and other members of the support team will travel around the country and speak to youth of color about their experience.
In a video promoting the climb, Stephen Shobe, one of the climbers, says, “If I… talk to a school, and a kid comes up to me and says, ‘Can I go with you the next time you go” — dude! that’s magic, right there. Because I know I just hooked that kid.”
The Outdoor Diversity Movement
Expedition Denali is one instance of a larger trend in recent years to promote diversity in the outdoor community. Shelton Johnson, a ranger for the National Parks Service, has become a public figure of this movement, appearing on Oprah and Ken Burns’s recent documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There’s at least one blog that encourages African Americans to participate in the outdoors. And REI, the nation’s largest outdoor retailer, recently hired someone to help the business become more relevant to our diverse world. (Not to mention the numerous think pieces on the issue, including this one.)
These people hope to encourage minorities to take advantage of the soul-enriching and healthful activities of the great outdoors. People who are active in the outdoors are generally healthier and happier than those who are not.
And some of these advocates are moved to act by a more pressing matter: how the changing demographics in America will affect the American wilderness. Knute Berger’s essay, Is Mount Rainier too White? observes that non-hispanic white Americans make up the majority of National Park visitors — 76% according to one study — and that the Census Bureau predicts whites will no longer constitute the majority of the American population by 2046. “The strongest advocates for parks come from the people who use them,” Berger writes. “Nowadays, being loved mostly by white people with white hair is not a long-term survival strategy.”
The Adventure Gap
The journalist James Mills in Alpinist coined the term “adventure gap” to describe this lack of diversity in outdoor recreation. Mills’s piece asks why this gap exists: Why is the lust for adventure seemingly less fervent in non-white American communities?
The answer, Mills and others argue, is a combination of historical, economic and cultural forces. Berger’s piece notes that before the 19th Century, the idea of outdoor recreation — the leaving of the urban environment to literally “re-create” ourselves in the serenity of nature — didn’t exist. But after the 19th Century, “The worship of ‘untouched’ nature and the idea of recreational play (hiking, skiing, boating) was largely an obsession of white, urban people who had leisure and money.”
For the under classes and African Americans, nature was associated with labor — farmland to be plowed, trees to be cut down — and not fun. This association was compounded in the African American imagination by the fact that racist violence, like lynchings, often occurred in rural areas. This historical legacy has bled into our present moment.
On top of this, outdoor recreation is quite expensive, often prohibitively so to African Americans and other racial groups who are likely to make far less money than the national average. Mills observes that a climbing rack can exceed $2,000. This doesn’t include the money many people spend on classes and guide services, or the time off from work required to attempt more ambitious projects in the outdoors — luxuries hard to come by for the non-privileged.
Finally, there is the cultural perception that things like hiking and climbing, like farmers markets or BBC TV shows, are just stuff that white people like.
Carolyn Finney, an Assistant Professor at Berkeley, wrote a study called Black Faces, White Spaces: African-Americans and the Great Outdoors. Over interviews with hundreds of African Americans, Finney found many of them to feel that “there is a feeling that being involved with the environment is ‘something white people do.’”
There’s a recent episode of T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle (yes, T.I. has a reality show), where the African American rapper takes his wife and kids skiing. The joke repeated over and over during the half hour is that black folk don’t ski. (Look at how absurd we look on the snow!) There’s unexpected pathos that arises early in the episode: T.I. tells the talking-head camera about his impoverished, ski-less upbringing in Atlanta; his material success allows his kids to have the outdoor experience his parents could never afford.
Crossing the Adventure Gap
Stephen Shobe, one of the more experienced members of Expedition Denali, is an African American who has crossed the adventure gap — with a vengeance! From an early age, the spirit of adventure has moved him. He SCUBA dives. He fights fires. He climbs up telephone poles. He flies helicopters. And for the past 20 years he has been climbing scary rock faces and vertiginous, snow capped peaks.
From his childhood growing up outside of Compton, California, to his current goal to be among the first African Americans to climb the Seven Summits, he has always possessed “a driving desire to experience both the known and unknown,” he writes in an email.
When asked about whether the lack of racial diversity in the climbing community was off putting, he wrote: “When I first started climbing, I truthfully didn’t care that I was not represented in the climbing community. I just cared about climbing.”
Shobe believes that the outdoor community has grown more diverse in the years he has been a part of it. Looking at his teammates, the African American outdoor movement won’t lack new leaders for some time — many of them are much younger than the white-haired Shobe, and one of them is only 18 years old.
“Mountains Have a Way of Making Men Humble”
People of color may not play a leading role in the history of outdoor adventure, but they do haunt the edges of the stage. Mills’s Alpinist article reminds us that Matthew Henson, who was black, may have been the first person to reach the North Pole. Blacks made valuable contributions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Columbus’s voyage to the New World. And most white Europeans wouldn’t have stood a chance of reaching any Himalayan summit without the help of the Sherpa people.
And let’s not forget about the first person to ever stand atop Denali: Walter Harper, who was “half Athabascan” — a native Alaskan tribe — “and half Irish,” according to an article in UA Journey. (Another Denali climb planned for the summer, unrelated to Expedition Denali, is planned to commemorate the original expedition and to emphasize the role Native Alaskans played in the climb.)
Harper was a guide, translator and friend to party leader Hudson Stuck, a white Episcopalian priest. The warm relationship between the Alaskan Native and his white friend at a time when racism was commonplace speaks well of the two, but it also speaks to a broader trend. I asked Stephen Shobe in an email whether he had ever experienced racism within the climbing community. He said no: “My experience as a black man in this community has been nothing but accepting.”
This echoes the experience of Crenchaw, the first African American to climb Denali, who told Ebony: “Mountains have a way of making men humble and respectful to God and life.”
Be a part of history by supporting a Kickstarter campaign to create a feature-length documentary about the first African American expedition to tackle North America’s highest peak.