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."

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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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