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Wired - Exploring The Adventure Gap
Stephen Shobe in Ouray, Colorado. [Photo] Dudley Edmondson
In any ecosystem, diversity is a sign of strength. Any place that can sustain a variety of different individuals with wide-ranging interests and purposes is far more likely to thrive into the future. Dr. Roberts asserts that "Mental, physical and emotional health is essential for all humans as well, and the outdoors is one of the best places to achieve these benefits. We all connect to the natural world in some capacity. So understanding the experiences of people of color, including religious and spiritual connections, will ultimately increase access and open up new opportunities for all people, not just a few."
With this understanding, several environmental organizations are working with minority youth to help them establish a relationship with the natural world. The San Francisco-based nonprofit Nature Bridge provides hands-on science learning opportunities at several national parks in California and Washington State for more than 30,000 students every year. And as the nation includes more people of color, the group has expanded its mission to educate the future leaders who will decide the fate of publicly protected land. "What Nature Bridge does is engage kids at a certain age when they are active learners and open to new ideas, when they can have new experiences that are transformative," says board chairman Dr. Stephen Lockhart. "We teach them about stewardship and why it's important to protect these places for future generations. And when it comes to kids of color in particular, it's important because people will protect those places they know and love. If you don't know it, you won't protect it."
There's something wrong in a free nation where people of color feel limited by where they can and can't go. If more African Americans decide that they, too, have a place in the outdoors, they will be more likely to seek out a wide range of pastimes, including mountaineering. In return, they will enjoy a sense of increased geographic freedom and empowerment. A feeling of expanded possibilities arises from the bird's-eye view on summits, from overcoming the physical effects of gravity and altitude, and the psychological burdens of doubt and fear. Not only will African American climbers encounter the life-affirming experiences of the mountains, but they will also bring more vibrancy to the pursuit. Danenberg's ascents, which include the
Matterhorn, Mt. Rainier, Denali, Mt. Baker, Ama Dablam and Aconcagua, may be unremarkable in the world of cutting-edge alpinism, but her presence as an underrepresented minority stands as an indicator of the growing relevance of the mountaineering community.
"I don't feel that I'm speaking to other climbers or mountaineers," she says. "The audience is people who are like me but self-filter. I hope that my story actually speaks to non-climbers and helps them to try and take that first step to do something like this or anything else that they want to do." If more African Americans can remove the filters from their thinking that prevent them from crossing the adventure gap, a new generation of environmental stewards and vertical explorers will, in time, reflect the increasing diversity of our nation. They will bring fresh perspectives that may well encourage exciting innovations to climbing—dreams that have yet to be imagined.
In order to conceive of this future, we have to recognize that African Americans have always played a role in our nation's pursuit of dreams, creating a long legacy of adventure that often goes overlooked. Pedro Alonso Nino, a black navigator, sailed with Christopher Columbus in 1492 to discover the New World. York, an African American slave, was a full member of the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1804 through 1806. Matthew Henson, a black explorer from Maryland, is believed to have been the first person to reach the North Pole in 1909, as part of Robert Peary's team. More than 400 African American cavalrymen, a group known collectively as the Buffalo Soldiers, patrolled Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks from 1903 through 1906. They are considered to be among the world's first national park rangers.
And in 1964, Charles M. Crenchaw, a member of the Seattle Mountaineers and the American Alpine Club, became the first African American to climb to the summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America. An administrative assistant for Boeing, Crenchaw managed to acquire the requisite experience, financial resources and leisure time to reach major US summits—a privilege then claimed most often by white men. To no small degree, climbing allowed him to achieve a level of physical and social freedom denied to many other African Americans of his generation. Although he told Ebony Magazine in 1963 that he never encountered another African American during his climbing trips, Crenchaw described most mountaineers as "courteous and polite.... Mountains have a way of making men humble and respectful to God and life."
By the mid-1960s, Crenchaw had scaled numerous Cascades peaks, including Mt. Shasta, Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier (four times). During the mid-1980s, he served on the Board of Directors of the American Alpine Club. He died of an illness in 1998. Today, his friend Dee Molenaar, a member of the famous 1953 American K2 attempt, recalls Crenchaw as a dedicated participant in mountain rescues, "always in good humor and popular in our Northwest climbing community." Like Danenberg, Crenchaw had insisted that he was "no better or worse than hundreds of other weekend climbers with the same degree of experience" (Ebony, November 1963). Beneath the humility of those words lies an assertion of equality: the right to be no different than the white climbers on the same crags and peaks. "I climb because climbing is a pleasure to me, both physically and mentally," Crenchaw said simply. "Climbing develops good coordination and balance. It develops alertness and concentration and builds the body. The climb is exciting and exhilarating. When the summit is achieved, there is a feeling of peacefulness, serenity and happiness, a oneness with God."
The limitations of society are, all too often, reinforced by our own doubts and fears. At its core, the adventure gap is a division of perception—a disconnect between what each of us might want for ourselves and what others expect from us. Climbing can be a dynamic means to assert the freedom to cross that divide. 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."