NOLS Expedition Denali: Why Diversity Matters

For the first time, a team of African-American climbers is assembling to make a bid for the summit of the tallest peak in North America, Mount Denali. The National Outdoor Leadership School will lead this expedition in 2013 to encourage minority youth to enjoy outdoor recreation as part of an active lifestyle. The expedition also aims to create a cadre of role models for careers in environmental protection.

At 20,320 feet, Denali – also known as Mount McKinley – is the highest physical point anyone can reach in the United States. And as a metaphor, this mountain also represents exactly what a person in this country can achieve, the literal height of ambition. Unfortunately, far too few people of color in our nation are likely to attain it. But with a bold plan to achieve their lofty goal, this group of adventurers aims to inspire a new generation to ascend beyond their life circumstances to accomplish something greater than themselves.

NOLS Denali Expedition participants: Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, Chelesea Griffie, Philip Henderson, James Mills & Stephen Shobe

“For many of our NOLS grads, the experience has been so meaningful to them that they went on to do great things,” said Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, the diversity and inclusion manager at NOLS. “There are studies that show that being outside really changes your view on education and achievement.”

NOLS offers wilderness leadership training opportunities all over the world. But statistically, there is a profound gap in rates of participation among African-Americans when it comes to spending time outdoors. As a percentage of the U.S. population, blacks and other ethnic minorities engage in outdoor recreation far less frequently than whites. As our population shifts to favor a non-white majority, as predicted to occur in 2042, organizations like NOLS are beginning to recognize the need to more actively encourage people of color to get involved.

“We’re not attracting a diverse demographic of students and our staff does not reflect the changing demographic of the U.S.,” said Rajagopal-Durbin. “It was a shock to me that we had three black instructors in a pool of several hundred instructors world-wide.”

Called “Expedition Denali: Inspiring Diversity in the Outdoors,” the NOLS project aims to create a high-profile event that will help to demonstrate the passion and opportunities that exist in the African-American community for climbing, and hopefully, prompt others to participate. Though not in itself a first ascent, this expedition will be the latest in a long succession of groundbreaking trips to the summit.

In 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Amendment was signed into law, Charles Crenchaw, an aerospace administrative assistant from Seattle, became the first African-American to summit Denali. 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 man found freedom in climbing.

Charles Crenchaw (Photo: Ebony Magazine)

Since Crenchaw first climbed Denali, there have been other African-Americans to follow in his footsteps. But there has never been an expedition made up primarily of African-Americans climbers. Now that NOLS has taken on this particular challenge, some will likely ask the cynical question, why does it matter?

“It matters because this is how you influence young people,” said Philip Henderson, one of three African-American instructors at NOLS.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t have mentors coming up because I did,” Henderson said. “But without role models, people who are like me who came from where I came from, I had to pretty much figure it out by myself. And that’s a lonely place to be.”

The purpose of the NOLS Denali Expedition is to create a nurturing environment where people of color can learn from those who came before them. Less important than the actual summit is the journey this team of climbers will take to get there, a route that those of similar backgrounds can emulate and follow. With the support and encouragement of a new community of black climbers, NOLS aims to inspire the next generation of young people to imagine themselves empowered with the knowledge that they are not alone and that there are no heights to which they cannot reach.


James Mills is the mastermind behind The Joy Trip Project, a newsgathering and reporting organization that covers outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living. The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of its sponsor Patagonia.

This abridged post is used by permission of James Mills.


The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of its sponsor Patagonia

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