Wired - Exploring The Adventure Gap

Posted on: January 2, 2012

When Alpinist editor Katie Ives asked me to write a story about diversity in mountaineering, I was incredibly honored and more than a little thrilled. But upon deeper reflection, I realized to my chagrin that there were only so many writers she might have tapped to address this emerging issue in the world of adventure. As I am one of relatively few people of color actively participating in the American outdoor industry, let alone working as a journalist, it inevitably falls to me to speak to the unfortunate reality that outdoor recreation in this country poorly reflects the racially diverse face of America and the world at large.

Despite better opportunities than ever for all people to explore the farthest reaches of the planet and the edges of human endeavor, the American adventure scene is still primarily populated by college-educated, upwardly mobile white men. Just as the 2012 presidential election demonstrated the shrinking cultural dominance of this particular demographic, so must we realize that in order to preserve the natural places that climbers love, a more diverse constituency of environmental activists and supporters is critical. There's a racially significant divide between those who choose to recreate outdoors and those who do not. I call it The Adventure Gap.

—James Mills

Sophia Danenberg on Ama Dablam (6812m), Himalaya, Nepal. In 2003 Bruce Braun noted that photos of African Americans rarely appeared in outdoor magazines, an absence he attributed partly to the repetition of assumptions that began to seem like norms. "The image of the [white] climber makes sense because readers can readily draw on other images of climbers—George Leigh Mallory, Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner.... Other [nonwhite] narratives of adventure exist, but they are not readily available" in Race, Nature and the Politics of Difference, ed. Donald S. Moore et al. [Photo] Sophia Danenberg collection. [Photo] Jost von Allmen

In 2006, with little fanfare, Sophia Danenberg reached the top of Mt. Everest. She was one of 493 climbers to summit that season, and her story was not widely reported. Nonetheless, there was a historical significance: Danenberg was the first African


American to ascend the mountain. Thus, for the first time, a black climber who was descended from our nation's past of racial oppression had succeeded in elevating herself to the highest physical point on earth. But Danenberg was not eager for any recognition. "I just look at myself as a pretty average amateur mountaineer," she said in an interview. "The things I climb are the things that people climb. Some are technical, sure, but nothing spectacular.... I climb because I like to climb. And to have my birth bring more significance to it is tough for me. I know that it has significance for other people, but I struggle with it in my head. It's almost embarrassing."

In some ways, for so little attention to be paid to Danenberg's race is a testament to how far we've come. Today, many Americans would like to believe that race doesn't matter when it comes to the career choices we make, where we live, where we play or how we relate to the communities around us. And for the most part, it really doesn't. Thanks to the hard work, courage and sacrifices of previous generations, the institutions that once prevented people of color from participating fully as citizens no longer exist. Traditional slavery is long gone, as are legal segregation and employment discrimination. The scale of racially motivated violence that was rampant through the 1960s—the cross burnings and the black men hung from trees—is a nightmare of the past.

But what does remain are cultural artifacts, social cues that define the unwritten codes setting up expectations of what people of a certain racial or ethnic background are "supposed" to do as part of "normal behavior." For many minorities in this country, these expectations do not include climbing. Despite increasing equality in other aspects of our society, there is an apparent racial divide between those who participate in outdoor sports and those who don't. This "adventure gap" represents a yawning, and at-times forgotten, chasm in our community, like an invisible crevasse covered white with snow.

Record keepers like the great Elizabeth Hawley of Nepal or the editors of The American Alpine Journal don't account for racial heritage in their mountaineering statistics. Yet general research suggests that African Americans spend significantly less time in nature than their white counterparts do. In 2010 an Outdoor Foundation survey reported that out of the 137.8 million US citizens engaged in outdoor activities, 80 percent are Caucasian. That same year, the National Park Service stated that roughly 80 percent of its employees were white. According to Dr. Nina Roberts, a social scientist from San Francisco State University, although African Americans represent 12.6 percent of the US population, they typically make up a lower proportion of national park visitors (e.g. 5-6 percent, depending on geography). They are more likely to visit parks and monuments of historical significance, often in urban areas like Washington DC, than to travel to natural sites such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. In her 2012 film, The Way Home, Amy Marquis of the National Park Conservation Association reports that only 1 percent of all visitors to Yosemite, one of the world's most-renowned climbing areas, are African American.

National media and popular culture further reinforce the perception of this under-represented population. American articles and films still portray most mountaineers as relatively affluent Caucasians. Across the racial spectrum, many Americans view climbing as one of the "things white people do." Economic inequality may play a role. According to the 2010 Outdoor Foundation survey, 61 percent of those who take part in outdoor recreation had personal incomes that exceed the national average of $41,000 per year. Travel, new technical gear and clothing are expensive, especially for mountaineering. The average consumer might easily spend $2,000 on a traditional rack, ice screws, ropes, ice axes, slings, crampons, rock shoes, not to mention camping and skiing equipment. In 2011 the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that African Americans bring in, on average, about $.75 for every dollar earned by whites. Although some climbers lead a hand-to-mouth existence in pursuit of their sport, the "dirtbag" lifestyle could have little appeal to emerging black professionals who are the first of their families to attend college.

Historical reasons might also preclude some African Americans from taking pleasure in outside experiences. After centuries of slavery and forced outdoor labor, African Americans migrated en masse to major US cities during the post-Civil War and Great Depression eras. Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination restricted their movements and segregated them to urban enclaves all the way until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. White supremacist groups typically perpetrated their acts of racial violence in wooded areas beyond city limits. Given this legacy, it's no wonder that African Americans have often preferred to remain indoors or to visit urban parks closer to home. "Factors such as perceived discrimination, socialization and upbringing, fear [for] personal safety, concern about not having the right outdoor gear or equipment, and/or lack of knowledge and awareness," Roberts says, "are a few of the many reasons [African Americans] provided for lack of visitation to outdoor environments."

Though legal segregation no longer exists and hate crimes are rare, the adventure gap remains as a mysterious cultural barrier forged in social memory. While collectively we enjoy greater freedom to go wherever we wish, as individuals we might question whether or not we are all welcome when we arrive. In the wilds of nature, without the safety of numbers and locked doors, people of color may feel more vulnerable. So they may simply opt to stay home, denying themselves and, potentially, future generations the opportunity to establish and enjoy a comfortable relationship with the outdoors.

Long term, the adventure gap could impact the preservation of the environment as a whole. As the populations of racially and ethnically diverse people continue to rise in the US, the Census Bureau predicts that "minorities" will outnumber whites by 2042. If this growing demographic has little vested interest in environmental conservation, there will be fewer people to advocate for wilderness. It is at this point that the need for greater diversity in outdoor recreation becomes more than a matter of race. Inclusiveness will be a critical factor in the continuing viability of the environmental movement and in the protection of the landscapes that climbers love.

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White people who like rap music don't generally go to rap bars because they would feel awkward. I remember in my student days I went to a drum and bass concert and was given a filthy look by the performer as one of the only white people there. Did it put me off? Yes, forever.

2013-02-10 21:17:00

I climbed the north america wall on El Cap once not because the climbing was cool, or the rock was good, but simply for the historical venture. I personally enjoy doing historical climbs and reading about them. But also agree that famously obscure peaks like Thalay Sagar are always enjoyable to read about. Perhaps the Kichatnas will make the pages at some point.

note how I dropped that, am way cool, actually a pretty big deal, by climbing a route on El Cap simply because it was done a long time ago.

also note how I dropped a famously obscure alaska mountain range where I have climbed.

who needs facebook for self-iconicism when ya got internet forums.

2013-01-15 03:59:40

@ the fairbanks climber I expect better from Alpinist. Rock and Ice could do the Eiger, but I expect Alpinist to keep doing peaks like Thalay Sagar

2013-01-15 02:20:01

How can anyone knock the Eiger? Besides the fact that the peak is Alpinism, the peak is also still relevant even at our so called higher standards.

Next thing ya know folks will be saying Yosemite Valley is just another road side crag.

2013-01-14 09:09:19
Katie Ives

Edit to my last post: I left a word out. I meant: "We tend to chose Mountain Profiles partly based on who has the time, the willingness and the expertise to write them at any given moment."

Of course, the question of whether or not a peak has a significant history is also key. =)

2013-01-14 01:32:32
Katie Ives

We've always alternated between well-known and lesser-known peaks and cliffs. I actually have mostly "out-there" ones in mind for the future, although there will be one classic cliff first. But if you want to read about some of the groundbreaking ascents that took place recently, check out the Patagonia articles in Issue 39, or the Tooth Traverse article in Issue 41.

Also, I should note, in case anyone else is wondering: Because the Mountain Profiles require so much work on the part of a writer (anywhere from four months to a year's worth of research and writing), we tend to chose ones based on who has the time, the willingness and the expertise to write them at any given moment.

2013-01-14 01:30:11

I scanned Issue 40 in my bookstore then decided it didn't need to go on my shelf. Of all the groundbreaking ascents and adventures that happened last year, I didn't need to read a rehash of The White Spider. Back in the Golden Age of Alpinist you guys used to feature "out there" mountains. Now you just focus on the commercial trophy peaks. What's next a Profile of Blanc? or Mt. Washington?

2013-01-14 01:11:03
Katie Ives

Dear climbmore,

If you are interested in the history of Latok I, perhaps you'll enjoy the Mountain Profile we published in Alpinist 30, co-written by Conrad Anker and myself, including an insert essay on the first ascent of Latok I by the Japanese climber Tsuneo Shigehiro.

As far articles about "actual climbing" go: Issue 40, which contained James's article, also had a Mountain Profile on the history of the Eiger, a feature on Yosemite big-wall climber Eric Kohl, an article on one of the hardest new trad routes in Norway, and an illustrated story of the Polish 1989 Everest tragedy, which some see as "the beginning of the end" of that Golden Age of Polish Himalayan alpinism (I hope a new Golden Age lies ahead)—as well as other climbing tales.

Issue 40 included 106 pages (we usually run 98)—more than enough room for a short (3-page) piece on a topic that many of us feel is worthy of discussion. While opinions on the article differ, James's piece has generated some important conversations, ones that I hope will make a difference in terms of making our community a more welcoming place.

While "actual climbing" will always be at the heart of Alpinist, part of understanding that experience is looking into the context in which our ascents take place.

For years, now and then, we have featured short pieces that discuss controversies, that investigate both historical and modern issues, and that raise questions we hope will provoke some readers to think more deeply about the world that surrounds them.

Readers who don't like op-eds can simply skip those short articles and go straight to the features on modern ascents and climbing history.

But many of our readers want those occasional 3-page articles that look at a wider context and that give them ideas to consider, and to argue for or against. Rational, open-minded discussion about a variety of topics is something that our community needs, particularly now, as we face the uncertainties of a rapidly evolving world.

Among the many values that I believe exist in the traditional spirit of alpinism is that of boldness. James's decision to write an article on what he knew might be a controversial topic—and to sign his own real name to it—is an act of courage that I deeply admire.

It is the same kind of courage, applied by others to the mountains, that leads to some of the great ascents in our history.

Take care, Katie

2013-01-13 21:06:33

Oh and where is Boeing based? Seattle. What is that big thing right outside of Seattle? Rainier. Screw the $ argument. Kurz and Hintertoisser were more than poor. How many black people live in Boulder? Maybe the Alpinist Editor should be having more articles written about actual climbing instead of what x minority climbed what? There are even less Pacific Islanders climbing than blacks. But Asians seem well represented. (Latok 1?)

2013-01-13 20:03:03

David Politis - so if the well-documented history of racial persecution and consequent socio-economic inequality in the US is not the reason for this lingering 'personal income disparity' you note, then what is?

Are you saying there are other reasons, not to do with race, that African-Americans are poorer, on average, than white Americans? You can't judge a person's current situation without taking into account what their parents' situation was when they were born.

Widespread social change of this magnitude takes generations and has only recently begun. We climbed Everest before we let Rosa Parks sit up front of the bus.

I think James did a very good job with this article. I agree that lack of fuss around Sophia's achievement is a good sign for racial issues in America. She should not be singled out for her race, and she was not (past tense!).

I sympathise with climbmore's desire to keep it about climbing and not social issues, but one every now and then is fine with me. No less boring than bouldering articles.

Chewtoy? I agree with your first paragraph about tribal political correctness. I might agree with your second paragraph but it was incomprehensible blather so I really don't know, and as a rule I stay away from camp boy-scouts. You should too.

But yeh, Katie Ives, get your damn sh*t together! :-))

2013-01-13 03:18:47
David Politis


Good article, although I believe the direction you were given by "Alpinist" editor, Katie Ives, took your article off point as to the real reason why the majority of climbers are "White." To me, it's more a question of financial status versus race.

You suggest that a decent climbing rack could easily set back a climber $2,000. Okay, but that just gets you the gear. It doesn't get you to McKinley, Denali, Hood, Rainier or any other decent climb in the U.S., let alone account for taking time off to prepare for or attempt such a climb.

And something serious, like K2, Lhotse, or Anapurna, let alone any other peak that's 20K+ feet in elevation, is gonna be halfway around the world from the good ol' USofA. So make sure you add into cost considerations the expenses of getting there and being there, spending time getting acclimated, etc. All of which adds up to a lot of time off and big expenses too.

In your article you note Mr. Crenchaw was a Boeing employee, specifically an administrative assistant. Typically, Admin's are not paid huge amounts, but I suspect he was probably compensated well enough.

And after a few minutes of online research I discovered that Sophia Danenberg is employed today by Boeing, something I suspect is a HUGE coincidence. But in her case, she's a graduate of Harvard University and has worked in the aerospace/DOD marketplace since 1996, including stints at Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, and United Technologies. (According to her LinkedIn profile, Danenberg was employed by Pratt & Whitney in 2006 when she climbed Everest, and she was, from 2005-2009, the "Manager, Global EH&S, Legislative & Regulatory Affairs.")

The Chicago Tribune account about Danenberg and her Everest experience, explains that she took a three-month leave of absence from her then employer, Pratt & Whitney, to prep for and climb Everest. Virtually no one who is poor can take off so much time, let alone be assured their position will be available to them when they want to return to work.

Additionally, the Tribune article also points out that Danenberg had to pay $36,000 in fees to climb Everest, which (as it turns out) is the "cheap" way to attack the highest peak in the world. And remember that $36K is only slightly under the national average of $41K in personal income here in the U.S.

So . . . in deference to you and your writing assignment (as directed by Ives), I am convinced that main reason there are fewer people of color "climbing" or enjoying the outdoors probably has more to do with personal income disparity than with race.

As always, I enjoyed your writing/reporting. Sorry to hear about the forthcoming double hip replacement. Ouch!

May that go well for you, and please know that I wish you all the best in 2013 and beyond.


David ("Poppa P") Politis

2013-01-13 01:27:28

Dang! What a shame and hard to imagine that this interesting article can generate anger. You need to look inside yourselves, people. Then...go for a climb.

2013-01-12 23:55:48

-note Denali is the name used for a mountain by the powerful tribe of time before the next powerful tribe named the peak Mount McKinley. Why does one have more value than the other? In the end Mt. Traileka doesn't care.

From an academic position I wonder about your "historical reasons" for lack of outdoor activities. Prove to me that Jews use the world's rail system less than other groups, avoid groups in brown shirts (boy scouts), and camp less than other groups and I'll buy your argument.

2013-01-09 22:54:48

To your point Climbmore I am indeed relegated to an armchair, thank god not a wheelchair! A diagnosis of advanced osteoarthritis has me in pre-habilitative therapy in advance of a double hip replacement in February at the age of 46. A hard summer that included a road trip through Moab Utah, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon took it's final toll on my legs followed by two weeks of training on the Matanuska glacier in Alaska and a successful summit of Mount Baker, limping all the way. But from this chair I also managed to produce seven articles for National Geographic Adventure and this feature in Alpinist along with two stories for public radio and a photo credit in a new book on the National Park System. Though I am honored to be called an intellectual of any kind I make it a point to thoroughly research and develop any story I pen my name to. That typically requires field work getting up close and personal with my subjects. Though diversity in mountaineering might not be the most interesting topic or even boring an exploration of the history and future of any endeavor makes for good storytelling if only to ask the question: why do people climb mountains? Personally I believe the motivation of black mountaineers has been long overlooked and like Bernadette McDonald's story of Polish alpinists in her book "Freedom Climbers" there are many aspects of the modern adventure era that go untold. So I hope you'll cut me ounce of slack while I continue to intellectualize the sport of climbing after I get my first hip replaced before heading out again on a reporting assignment in Wyoming followed immediately by a trip to China. I'll have my second surgery and less than three months to train for my next project at basecamp in Alaska where I'll report on the first African-American ascent of Denali. How's that for exciting?

James Mills (www.joytripproject.com)

2013-01-08 20:12:25

Racist Schmacist. I can't comment on a boring article now without getting called names?? Alpinist used to be written for and by climbers, now it seems to be written for and by armchair intellectuals.

2013-01-07 03:42:52

I for one, completely enjoyed this article. Great writing. I enjoy excellent journalism. To those speaking out against the piece, go back to your racist, neanderthal caves and stay there. Thanks Katie

2013-01-07 02:09:02

A truly incisive, historically accurate, and forward thinking piece. Well done, James.

2013-01-07 02:05:04

BOOORRRRING! Is this what Alpinist has come to? When did exploring the alpine world turn into exploring liberal-academic-white-guilt whatever. When I want to read about climbing I used turn to Alpinist. When I want to read about social issues I read the NYT. Get your sh*t together Katie Ives and bringing back the exciting stories of the climbing life.

2013-01-06 23:00:44


I don't think it makes you a racist. It makes you SOUND like a racist though. Without knowing anything about you, it gives the impression of a white man whining about how he is getting blamed for everything wrong with this nation. I'm not by any means saying that is who you are. You are probably someone who does not see race, in general.

To the main issue of your post, I think this is a very interesting article. Other than the ones mentioned in the article, name a non-white climber. The only one that comes readily to my mind is Ashima Shiraishi, the 11yo rock climbing and bouldering phenom. Until reading this, I had never heard of Charles M. Crenchaw. Doing a quick Google search, I doubt anyone else has either. This is a shame, because the trail he blazed, though unintended, could lead other African Americans into the world of climbing, or the outdoors in general.

What makes that important, and this article significant, are the statistics cited by Mills. Less than half of the population of African Americans visit National Parks outside of those in urban areas. And only 1 percent of visitors to Yosemite are African American. If these numbers remain unchanged as the ratio of their population to white males decreases, there will be less interest in, and less support for preserving the outdoors, including climbing areas.

One remedy to this is the other important reason why not knowing the name Charles M. Crenchaw is significant. There are no prominent African American climbers. Nor are there prominent climbers of Hispanic descent, and few from other minorities in the US. Or at least that is the perception. And based on this article, they may not want to be known for being a "minority climber." The just want to be known as a "climber." But that leaves not just an Adventure Gap, but a Role Model Gap. Without that person to look up to, to admire, to strive to be like, without the exposure that a good role model can give, the chances that a young person will spontaneously ignite a passion for the outdoors is very small.

That interest is significant. That a disproportionate number of a group of people have not had a positive exposure to the outdoors is significant.

We may not see color when we climb, but maybe we should. If only so that it is not so rare when we do.

Gram Parker

2013-01-03 00:23:08
Katie Ives

Dear badlargo,

Please note the last sentence in James's article (on the second page of this Web version):

"In a world where ability and spirit are all that matter, alpinism could be the purest expression of the fabled dream in which Martin Luther King Jr. hoped that one day all people might be judged or even judge themselves, not 'by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.'"

James isn't saying that climbing is "prejudicial," but rather he is pointing out that African Americans, for a variety of possible cultural, historical and economic reasons, appear to be participating less in mountaineering and in other forms of outdoor recreation than white Americans currently are.

The perception of discrimination, even if it is not actually present in a significant sense, can be a powerful force for some people, holding them back from trying new activities. As Sophia Danenberg says, many African-Americans "self-filter" out of outdoor adventure—and her intention, like James's, is to make them realize that they don't have to make that choice, that they have more freedom than they realize.

One solution, I think, is to make it clearer, as you say, that "ALL are welcome." And that is, in its essence, part of the message James's article is attempting to convey.

Take care,

Katie Ives, editor Alpinist Magazine

2013-01-02 20:35:15

As you state, "for so little attention to be paid to Danenberg's race is a testament to how far we've come.". From what I read, Ms. Danenberg is a climber, her purpose was the experience and summiting and not to be the ‘first’.

Climber's I have met over the years are excited about climbing and only climbing with very little concern about sex, age, race, religion, orientation, political views, financial status, or anything that can put them in a category.

Please let the growth of climbing (and other adventure activities) ONLY happen naturally from exposure and interest. It is absurd and wrong to infer that climbing and other adventure activities are prejudicial - ALL are welcome.

2013-01-02 19:31:15

Good grief. Must we inject the "race" issue into EVERYTHING? This is an utterly ridiculous article. Does that make me a racist?

2013-01-02 12:11:52
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