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Climbers of Color Come Full Circle: The Future of Expanded Representation

Posted on: September 26, 2021 | James Edward Mills |

Phil Henderson on the summit of Denali (20,310'), Dena'ina, Upper Kuskokwim and Koyukon Dene land, in the Alaska Range, June 27, 2013. [Photo] Kt Miller

ON JUNE 27, 2013, Philip Henderson stood on the summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America. At 20,310 feet above sea level, the Alaskan mountain has a vertical relief of up to 18,000 feet, one of the most of any peak on Earth. Its name derives from the Koyukon Dene word Deenaalee, the "Tall One," and its upper regions can seem like a world of their own, a place of strong winds and, at times, intense cold. Though history often fails to celebrate the accomplishments of climbers of color, Alaska Native climber Walter Harper was the first person ever to reach the top in 1913. Fifty-one years later, Charles Madison Crenchaw became the first Black American to do so. But barriers have remained for climbers from historically marginalized groups that go beyond visible obstacles of altitude, weather and terrain. And Henderson was among the relatively few US summiters who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of color (BIPOC).

Henderson's achievement was remarkable in itself. The day before he reached his goal, he, along with more than sixty other climbers, had made a desperate retreat from their initial attempt in the midst of a rare but deadly lightning storm. At 19,500 feet, along a relatively flat, long expanse known as the Football Field, near whiteout conditions with booming thunder, high winds and driving snow had pummeled several teams as they made their way toward the summit. When they were just a few hundred yards from the top, electric energy hummed and crackled through their ice axes, crampons and carabiners. Everyone was driven down the mountain to their camp at 17,200 feet, including members of Expedition Denali, the first all-Black team of climbers to attempt an ascent of the mountain.

I recounted the story of Expedition Denali in my book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. For the next several years, I was under the impression that no one from the evacuation of June 26 had returned to summit Denali that season. But the following day, once the storm had passed, Henderson, with five members of his original crew, had climbed from their camp at 14,200 feet all the way to the summit.

"We were lucky to have the extra time we needed to finish the climb. We were already overdue and everyone else had to get back," Henderson later told me. "Even after we came down, we had to wait out another storm for about five or six days at base camp."

It was never my intention to leave Henderson's success out of the story. He hadn't mentioned his second summit bid earlier, and I'd never thought to ask; I'd been satisfied with this very compelling narrative of survival in the face of adversity. But as in any good story, Henderson's role as a principle character ultimately brings this adventure full circle into something even greater.

From left to right: Rosemary Saal, Abby Dione, Adina Scott and Manoah Ainuu, Hyalite Canyon, Montana, Apsaalooke, Tsitsistas and Suhtaio, Niitsitapi and Confederated Salish and Kootenai ancestral lands. [Photo] Phil Henderson

The members of Expedition Denali returned home to their respective communities with tales that would help to inspire others to follow in their example. The youngest member, Tyrhee Moore, went on to make another attempt on the mountain, as well as on Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro. He also formed a non-profit organization in his hometown of Washington, D.C., called Soul Trak that encourages people in his community to experience the outdoors through adventure activities such as rock climbing and kayaking. Rosemary Saal, the youngest woman on the team, became a NOLS instructor and a mountaineering guide. In 2018 she was part of the first all-Black American expedition to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the African continent. Her mentor and the leader of that trip was none other than Phil Henderson.

"I just want to make sure that Black folks know that there's a place for them, for us, in mountaineering," he says.

In December 2020, the Outdoor Industry Association reported that people of color, relative to our percentage of the population, are represented in fewer numbers than our white counterparts in American adventure sports. Yet over the last few years, there has been an uptick of participation by members of some BIPOC communities. Feature articles and short films present Black outdoors people as talented athletes and social activists. Brown Girls Climb has worked to provide resources and events for non-binary people and women of color, including Single Pitch Instructor courses with the American Mountain Guides Association. National festivals such as Color The Crag, organized by and for BIPOC climbers, have created opportunities for aspiring alpinists to learn and grow through the activity within a culturally relevant and supportive environment. And many more affinity groups are also bringing change.

Through our personal initiative, skills and agency, people of color are affirming their roles as leaders in the climbing world. Henderson is now organizing the first all-Black American team to attempt the world's highest mountain in 2022. He calls it the Full Circle Everest Expedition. Along with Expedition Denali team members Rosemary Saal and Adina Scott, his crew includes Demond Mullins, Fred Campbell, Manoah Ainuu, James "KG" Kagambi, Emile Zynobia Newman, Eddie Taylor, Thomas Moore and Abby Dione. Each member of this team aims to share their experience to inspire others to follow in their example. [A GoFundMe page was recently launched to help support the expedition.—Ed.]

But while an Everest expedition has a powerful symbolism, US alpinists of color are also continuing to pursue cutting-edge objectives. Among them, in 2021, Black ice climber Manoah Ainuu participated in the establishment of The Rave (M10), a seven-pitch mixed route up stone cobbles and thin ice and over the lip of a cave in the storied Hyalite Canyon of Montana. And Indian American ski mountaineer Vasu Sojitra recently took part in a First Disabled Descent of Denali, carving turns down steep, glacial terrain on his single ski with Pete McAfee and their team. The emerging generation is on course to shift the representation of the alpine community to encompass a much broader cross-section of the American public. Black and Brown mountaineers are ascending into a great legacy of their own design. These climbers represent the future of modern alpinism.

—James Edward Mills, a journalist, mountaineer and media producer, is the author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.

[This essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, "The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism." We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!—Ed.]


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