Last year, Rosemary Saal stood on the slopes of Mount Denali as the sun was rising behind the mountain. She looked down and saw the enormous shadow of the peak. It covered the surrounding mountains and reached all the way to the impossibly distant greenery of low-elevation Alaska.
“It was the first time I really realized where I was. After all that training and all the work, I was finally there. I think I even cried a little,” Saal said.
Saal, of Seattle, climbed the mountain in 2013 as part of Expedition Denali, the first all-black team to attempt to summit the highest peak in North America.
The expedition, to mark the 100th anniversary of the first ascent, aimed to pave a way for people of color, especially young black people, to try mountaineering, to get outside or simply to tackle their own challenges.
Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin is the diversity and inclusion manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School. She wanted a way to point out the lack of diversity in the outdoor recreation field — even in NOLS, which specifically strives to encourage diversity in its programs and staff.
“We wanted to do something seismic ... something that the whole outdoor industry would pay attention to,” she said.
“One of the big barriers for people of color is the lack of role models or the lack of visible role models. ... I’m not saying that these role models don’t exist, it’s just that they’re underrepresented in the media,” Rajagopal-Durbin said.
This expedition focused specifically on the black community, one that NOLS historically has struggled to attract and which faces social barriers to participating in outdoor recreation that vary from other communities.
After outreach efforts and training trips in places such as the Cascades, British Columbia, the Patagonian Andes and the Chugach Range of Alaska, NOLS gathered a team of nine black climbers who were led by an internationally diverse team of four NOLS instructors
Climbing Denali is a massive expedition. The mountain is 20,322 feet tall. Climbing it takes weeks, and climbers need to haul all their gear and food. On the first day, the climbers were wearing huge packs and pulling sleds. Hauling about 100 pounds of gear uphill is not for the faint of heart. That first day was “soul-crushing, yet character-building,” said Tyrhee Moore. Moore, one of the youngest climbers, was 18 years old at the time of the expedition.
Moore, during a recent talk for the Mountaineers, described the psychological challenge of climbing in Alaska. The landscape is so huge that “something looks 20 minutes away and it will be eight hours,” he said.
At about 14,000 feet, the team was stalled by weather for eight days. Other climbers were stuck too, and they had their own little mountain party. One of the team members set up a mini-golf course. Climbers put on a costume party, including a climbing ranger wearing a skirt of toilet paper and a bikini top made of metal cans strung together.
And the climbers were able to meet Conrad Anker, a climbing icon. He gathered all the stalled climbers for a group photo.
“If Conrad Anker asks you to take a group photo, you get out of your tent,” Saal said.
Eventually, the weather cooperated, and it was finally summit day. Because of the delay, many groups were trying for the summit. The Expedition Denali team was large, including a film crew, so they let the other climbers go up first. It was challenging — climbing through dense clouds, they couldn’t even see the other team members. Eventually, they broke through and could see all around. The summit, almost in reach, was the only thing above them. They could see a line of climbers almost on top. They rested and ate a snack while waiting for their chance.
Things changed in an instant.
Clouds rushed in, bringing with them an electrical storm and white-out conditions. They saw static electricity on their foil snack packages. Some of the team members’ ice axes started to ring. They made the difficult decision to head down. Conrad Anker and Jon Krakauer, a writer and mountaineer, stopped short of the summit and headed back down. Anker encouraged the other climbers to do the same, which reinforced for the team they were making the right decision.
“When Conrad Anker tells you to go, you go,” Saal said.
The team returned down the mountain feeling they’d accomplished something to be proud of.
“There were so many moments I thought I couldn’t go on and I was able to push through. ... And that sense of empowerment has stayed with me,” Saal said more than a year after the expedition.
Since the expedition, the team members have been sharing their stories with as many people as they can, including many school-aged children.
The team has told their story to more than 8,000 young people across the country. In late June, the film documenting their journey was screened before an audience of more than 300 people in Washington, D.C. The response was overwhelming, Rajagopal-Durbin said.
One mother of a young man who is deaf wrote, “KiJuan ... has been told many times what he ‘can’t do’ and he has defied the odds every time. I knew this film would grab him, and now he is very determined to do something similar.”
Rajagopal-Durbin said the team is inspiring people to try for “their own personal Denali, whether that be other outdoor pursuits, going to college or graduating high school, or getting fit and healthy. Whatever Denali represents for them.”