Expedition Denali: Engaging a New Generation of Nature Advocates

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From High Camp at 17,200 feet, Adina Scott made the last satellite phone dispatch before she and her team made the final push toward the summit of Mount McKinley. On June 24, 2013, she and the 18 other climbers in her party eagerly made a valiant effort under clear skies to find themselves within striking distance of the highest peak in North America, a mountain in Alaska also known as Denali.

“We’re super stoked to have a new view,” Adina said over the line. “It looks like you can touch the summit from here, but that’s just the Alaska scale talking. It’s still pretty far away.”

Despite the distance they had yet to travel, the team was thrilled to have come so far. If successful they would be the first team of African-American climbers to reach the highest peak on the continent (20,237 feet above sea level). But whether or not they achieved their primary objective, this group led by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) aimed to change the face of outdoor recreation forever. Despite traditionally low rates of participation among minorities in the United States, NOLS, Adina, and her team aimed to show that people of color have a vital role to play in the protection and preservation of wilderness. They aimed to help redefine the way African-Americans and other minorities see themselves engaged in the natural world.

Well acclimated and strong, the team hauled their heavy packs across the West Buttress route toward the summit on day 16 of this project called Expedition Denali. As they established their High Camp—more determined now than ever—all that seemed to stand between them and the top was the weather.

“So far folks are tired but in good spirits and looking forward to hopefully getting a summit bid in in the next day or two,” Adina said. “They’re projecting less wind in the near future. So hopefully we’ll be able to go ahead, get up and do our thing.”

As a writer, it is my purpose to inspire those who read my work to venture out into nature and discover ways in which they might engage the world around them. Two years earlier, when NOLS invited me to chronicle in a book their audacious plan to introduce a new generation of urban youth to the wonders of the outdoors, I was naturally thrilled. Through this ambitious project, I was given the opportunity to illustrate a simple fact I had known as an African-American man throughout my entire life. People of color, who most predominantly occupy the urban cities of our country, do indeed spend time in nature. And with the right education and encouragement, more minority youth can grow up to become stewards of nature, even within the confines of a metropolitan environment, surrounded by cinderblock structures of concrete and steel. It is my hope that the narrative of this historic climb will inspire young people and adults alike to overcome their apprehension of spending time outdoors and to cross the divide between those who choose to passionately recreate outside and those who do not, a frightening cultural expanse revealed in my book, The Adventure Gap.

Along with heroic figures and courageous explorers of the past, the Expedition Denali team of black men and women aimed not only to reach the highest physical point in North America but to show members of their community that they too can follow in their example. Upon their safe return from the mountain, the climbers would go back to their homes and share their messages of diversity and inclusion to encourage more minorities across the “adventure gap” and toward a lifestyle that includes outdoor recreation and environmental conservation as a favorite pastime or perhaps a career.

Expedition Denali aimed to address a critical issue slowly gaining momentum within the conservation movement. As a population, African-Americans make up only a small percentage of people who routinely spend time in nature—a group typically composed of affluent, socially mobile, older white men. Very few blacks join environmental protection groups such as the Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society. And an even smaller number can be counted among the corps of professionals in careers dedicated to the preservation and conservation of nature, including national park rangers, foresters, and environmental scientists.

It’s estimated that by 2042, the majority of US citizens will be non-white. Which begs the question: What happens when a majority of the population has neither an affinity for nor a relationship with the natural world? At the very least, it becomes less likely that future generations will support legislation or advocate for federal funding to protect wild places, or seek out job prospects that aim to protect it.

As the population shifts to favor a non-white majority, people of color in cities across the United States will continue to gain more and more political clout and influence. It is this emerging group of citizens whose responsibility it will be to ensure that we all have access to fresh water, clean air, sustainably produced food, and enough open space to roam free away from the traffic, noise, and congestion of the communities in which we live. Nature, therefore, must be a critical part of the urban ethic in the twenty-first century, as African-Americans and other minorities grow to become more directly involved in its protection.

A photo of the Expedition Denali group near the summit of Mt. McKinley

Certainly not everyone will aspire to climb a high mountain, but what Expedition Denali illustrates is the uppermost range of engagement anyone can achieve when they decide to embrace the natural world. People of color, who previously lacked visible role models who shared their ethnic heritage, can emulate the accomplishment of these men and women—and perhaps embark upon some unique adventure of their own design. Even though they might live in an urban center, an ascent to very top of North America is suddenly well within their realm of possibility. And with a worldview so expansive, less ambitious goals—ranging from day hikes in a city park to the creation of an urban garden—seem now by comparison so much more achievable.

On June 26, 2013, the Expedition Denali team made their bid for the summit. But a sudden electrical storm at 19,600 feet drove them, along with 60 other climbers, back down the mountain to take shelter in their tents at High Camp. “Our team did a fantastic job; nature decided it was not our day,” Adina said. “We were all safe and had an incredible story.”

Exhausted after more than three weeks of excruciating effort and inclement weather, the team made the decision to come back home. Though they failed to meet their goal, they returned to their communities with exactly what they had to hoped to share: a truly great tale of adventure and an abiding passion for life engaged with nature.

Image Credit

Photo by Hudson Henry.

  • James Edward Mills

    James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and an independent media producer. In a career that spans more than 20 years, he specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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