Read Caption
Alaska's Mount Denali. Photograph by Brenton Spies, My Shot

Expedition Denali: Making History, Building a Legacy

By Contributing Writer Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, Faculty member and Diversity & Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

On June 7, 1913, Alaska Native Walter Harper was the first person to summit Denali, the highest peak in North America. And though the face of our nation has evolved from mostly white to a mosaic of color in the century since Harper stood atop Denali, few people of color have joined Harper in the annals of Denali’s climbing history.

Interestingly, although women began summiting the mountain in 1947, the summit did not see its first African American mountaineer—Charles Crenchaw—until 1964, the year the Civil Rights Amendment was signed into law. “At a time when many people of color in the U.S. could neither vote nor travel freely, when segregation restricted rights of association and public gathering, this one black man found freedom in climbing,” wrote journalist James Mills in a blog about Charlie Chrenchaw.

James has joined a team of Black role models who are planning to summit Denali in June 2013, the 100th anniversary of Walter Harper’s first ascent. To inspire youth of color—and particularly African American youth—to get outside, get active, and become stewards of our wild places, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) will lead James and his team in Expedition Denali: Inspiring Diversity in the Outdoors.

You can read all about the expedition and team members here. But what you won’t read is that it all started with a meeting between me and a colleague here at NOLS, Marcio Paes Barreto. We are both passionate about diversity in the outdoors, and wanted to brainstorm some creative ideas. Something magical happened at that meeting, a magic that brewed the primordial soup that gave birth to Expedition Denali. And once the idea was born, it took very little time for it to not only grow legs, but sprout wings and fly. And like all mothers, today I spend my time trying desperately to keep up with it.

You see, what I did not know at that meeting with Marcio was that although Charlie Crenchaw paved the way for other African Americans to climb Denali, no team of predominantly Black mountaineers has yet to summit the mountain. The “why” is a complicated story of lack of opportunity combined with the dearth of Black role models in the world of mountaineering.

I also did not know that a number of inspiring role models who have dedicated their lives to involving people of color in the outdoors had been waiting for something like this to come along. “A seismic event,” said Shelton Johnson, when I told him about the project (shortly before he too joined the team).

I don’t know much about much, and sometimes I wonder when I read and re-read the bios of our team whether I am the right person to be holding the reins of Expedition Denali. But on those days, I need to remember that just like my biological child, Expedition Denali is right and good and true, and makes me proud every day. And I also need to remember that this team of inspiring people will have a profound effect on countless children of color, including my own son Kieran.