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Mountaineering with a message: Team of African-American climbers prepares to scale Denali

  • Author: Ben Anderson
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published April 2, 2013

More than 1,000 climbers attempt to scale Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, every year. But this summer, on the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of the 20,320-foot tall peak, one group of climbers will stand out, both in the makeup of their expedition and what they ultimately hope to achieve.

Sure, they'd like to get to the top. But for a team of African-American climbers, the aspiration is also much bigger: to inspire young people of color to get more interested in the outdoors.

Expedition Denali, as it's being called, has already drawn some big name sponsors. Hosted by the well-known National Outdoor Leadership School, support is being provided by outdoor retailers The North Face and REI, and foundations like the Sierra Club.

But ask anyone who's been to the Mount McKinley base camp at the 7,200-foot level on Kahiltna Glacier and they'll tell you that it's a bit of a melting pot in its own right. Indeed, people from all over the world come to Denali every year to make a try on the peak, speaking a multitude of languages and with a variety of backgrounds.

So just how necessary is "Expedition Denali?"

McKinley climbers by the numbers

Climbing could already be called a pretty diverse sport. It attracts adventurers from across the globe, though even that is a relatively limited pool. Japan and South Korea regularly make it into the list of five countries with the most climbers tackling Denali every year, though usually trailing behind the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada.

According to Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman with the Denali National Park ranger station in Talkeetna, the National Park Service doesn't keep track of the ethnicity of climbers, only the countries where they reside.

By that measure, the number of climbers coming from South American or African countries hasn't changed much over the last five years, with 26 such climbers attempting Denali in 2008 compared to 27 in 2012. Asian countries account for more, but it's still just a drop in the bucket, considering that about 1,200 to 1,300 people attempt Denali every year.

About half of all climbers come from the U.S., but there may be some hindrances there for minority climbers, as well. Climbing is traditionally seen as a "rich man's sport" -- just getting onto the mountain can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the gear, the training, the time away from work and other costs.

Many climbers on Denali also opt for a guide service, which can cover some other costs. One such guide service, Alpine Ascents International, offers a guiding package that includes a flight to base camp from the jumping-off point of Talkeetna, meals while on the mountain, and additional gear needed for a group ascent. The price tag? $6,800, which includes a non-refundable $1,000 deposit.

So, for demographic groups like African-Americans or Hispanics, who suffer from poverty rates more than double that of white Americans, the cost is just one more prohibitive factor.

And then there's the relative lack of role models for African-American youth interested in the outdoors. That's one concern that Expedition Denali hopes to address.

Youth in the Outdoors

According to Bruce Palmer, marketing director with NOLS, the number of young people getting outside is on the decline generally, but particularly so among minority groups.

"There's a lot of theories on why," Palmer said. "One of the theories is just that kids have gotten a lot more used to watching TV, being on the computer, those kinds of things."

He added that an increase in urbanization across the U.S. is also partly to blame.

Every year, the Outdoor Industry Association puts together a participant survey studying the number of people in America participating in outdoor activities like hiking, running, biking or climbing.

In 2012, only 49 percent of African-Americans ages 13-17 reported participating in outdoor activities during 2011. That compared to 66 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders, 65 percent of whites, and 59 percent of Hispanics.

According to David Mudd, research director with OIA, the study is based on an online survey of 40,000 Americans.

"We're looking at very big picture questions along the lines of motivation," Mudd said. "So we're not saying 'why don't you participate' … we're asking about their general motivations around outdoor activities."

Participants do list common reasons for not participating in outdoor activities, though, and black respondents had reasons similar to other ethnic groups, including a lack of time and interest in outdoor exercise.

Increased participation among African-American youth in the U.S. could have a particularly positive effect on America's black population: African-Americans in 2010 were 1.4 times more likely to be obese than their white counterparts, and increased physical activity could help reduce that number.

To that end, NOLS spokesperson Palmer said that Expedition Denali would be a good way to introduce some new active, outdoorsy examples for black youth to look up to.

"The goal here is essentially to use the climb of Denali as a platform to put forward some role models in the African-American community," Palmer said.

Palmer added that the biggest part of any child's outdoor activity is seeing what kinds of activities their parents engage in.

"There's also this idea of legacy," Palmer said. "I think for a lot of African-Americans, their families don't get outdoors, so they don't either."

So after the team completes their climb, whether successful or not, the participants -- who come from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds and range in age from 19 to 56 -- will head out on speaking tours around the country in hopes of inspiring black children and young adults into a life in the outdoors. Palmer said many of the participants are just as excited for "the aftermath" as they are about the climb itself.

The team is expected to begin the climb on June 8, at the height of the climbing season on the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Denali. McLaughlin said that the first climbers registered for the 2013 season are slated to begin their ascent on April 10.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)