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Closing the Adventure Gap

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

How to welcome minorities into mountain culture in the 21st century

by Theresa Soley


Denali from the air. [i]

***

Before the Stuck-Karstens expedition of 1913, there were eleven failed attempts to reach the peak of mount Denali. The first attempt was by James Wickersham in 1903. The Stuck-Karstens expedition was composed of four climbers, two base camp porters, and a team of sled dogs. Stuck and Karstens organized and co-led the climb, while Harper and Tatum joined the team. Harper was an Indigenous Alaskan climber; the other three were white men.


Front page of the Fairbanks Daily Times on June 21st, 1913. [ii]


On June 7th, 1913 all four individuals reached Denali’s South Peak -- this became the first successful ascent of the mountain. The front page of the Fairbanks Daily Times on June 21st reads:


The topmost pinnacle of North America’s loftiest mountain peak, Denali,

or Mount McKinley, has been scaled by a party of Alaskan climbers...

Hudson Stuck, Harry P. Karstens, Robert G. Tatum and Walter Harper...


Grand Basin Camp 2 in 1913. [iii]


While the name Stuck, who was a white Episcopal archdeacon, is repeated in newspaper headlines and his face is copied in photographs, Harper, who is said to be the first person ever to reach Denali’s summit, is listed last in the list of climbers above.


The news coverage of Denali’s first ascent credits mostly white men, and I see this as a depiction of the patriarchal nature of mountain climbing culture which still persists today. Even in 2020, mountaineering and alpine climbing is an activity where white men make the majority.


Why isn’t Athabascan Walter Harper’s picture on the front page of the Fairbanks Daily Times, as the first person to set foot on Denali’s peak?


***


According to The Climbers by Chris Bonington, [1] humans have been climbing around in the mountains for centuries. The first technical mountain climb documented is Italy’s Mount Etna, which was scaled in 1492, under the order of Emperor Charles VIII. Switzerland’s Gnepfstein came next in 1555. France’s Mont Blanc then summoned mountaineers, and was climbed from Chamonix in 1786.

Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat claimed

the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786. [iv]


By the 18th century Europe was developing an adventure tourism economy, and male mountain guides in Chamonix led others to the top of Mont Blanc. The first mountain guiding company was erected there in 1821.


The first approach of Everest was in 1921, and the first attempt of Annapurna was in 1950. All of these “firsts” in the mountains were by men of European descent.


Though the first person to ever reach Denali’s summit was Walter Harper, an Alaska Native, in 1913.


The first woman to summit Denali was Barbara Washburn in 1947.


The first African American to summit Denali was Charles Crenchaw in 1964. In 2013, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) sponsored an all African American climbing team that attempted Denali, 100 years after the first successful ascent by the Stuck-Karstens expedition.


***


The Adventure Gap, or lack of access to adventure, wilderness and mountain environments for minorities, or non-whites in America, is now being discussed openly; numerous campaigns and organizations are forming in an attempt to lessen this divide.


The Adventure Gap, [2] written by James Edward Mills, an African American journalist who couldn’t accompany the team, documented the 2013 Denali ascent. Mills’s book explains the lack of inspiration for many African American youth in cities to access wilderness areas. The book also shares personal stories of African Americans in mountains, like Sophia Danenberg – international policy analyst at Boeing, and avid mountaineer in her free time.


The cover of book, The Adventure Gap, by James Edward Mills. [v]


Mills notes that changing demographics in the United States predict that people of color will outnumber Caucasians by 2050, or earlier. He argues that if people of color aren’t reaching the wilderness, and their political majority and votes outweigh whites in the future, wilderness areas will become even harder to conserve in the years to come. Mills writes, “there does indeed seem to be hope that we can make the wilderness a place that all people, no matter their race, can feel committed to preserving for future generations.” [2]


Scott Briscoe sees an upswelling of under-represented groups uniting and going outside, loudly, using social media to assist their organizing and public outreach.


I met Briscoe for a showing of An American Ascent at an environmental film festival I worked with while in graduate school. Briscoe is one of the climbers from the all African American Denali team, but he considers himself to be biracial. An American Ascent is the film documentary of the historical climb.


Since his ascent of Denali in 2013, Briscoe has created a nonprofit organization in San Francisco called We Got Next. This organization inspires under-represented groups in outdoor spaces by amplifying individual stories. To Briscoe, outdoor spaces include recreation and adventure, activism, and environmental conservation. Specifically We Got Next represents people of color, those with physical or intellectual differences, and LGBT+ communities, and aims to get these minority groups involved in outdoor spaces.


“I feel like to some extent I’ve been allowed into this space… but I’ve learned kind of the tricks and how to talk to the folks that are in those spaces, predominantly white men,” Briscoe said.


He can successfully hop between white and minority groups, “code-switching.” Briscoe says he uses an adaptive communication technique to take what he’s learned from the dominant culture, and bring these concepts to minorities. By switching his linguistic code, or dialect, slang and word choices between two groups, Briscoe successfully builds bridges and creates more inclusivity within outdoor spaces.


***


The Gender Gap:


I decided I wanted to investigate climbing history and culture in South America, as part of a trip I took to Ecuador in December 2019. I bought a book called Ecuador climbing and hiking guide, [3] which includes a chapter called Mountaineering – A Historical View. This book tells me that the accepted first ascents of large mountains in Ecuador occurred in the 1700s by European men who traveled across the planet to bag big peaks on other continents.


Eventually, in the late 1800s, Ecuadorian men followed this mountain madness, and began achieving first ascents, too. The book credits 33 first successful ascents by Ecuadorians after 1965;


Bernardo Beate, Marco Cruz, Cesar Ruales, Carlos Oleas, Fausto Ayarza,

Humberto Sanchez, Milton Moreno, Ramiro Navarrete, Romulo Pazmino,

Hernan and Mauricio Reinoso, Santago Rivadeneira, Hugo Torres, Ivan

Rojas, Luis Naranjo, Sixto Rosero, Digna Mesa, Rogelio Lopez, Patricio

Loayaza, Jimmy Desrosiers, Paul Williams, Fabian Almeida, Jose Moreano,

Roberto Fuentes, Marcos Suarez, Marcos Serrano, Fabian Caceres, Marcos

Cevallos, Ramon Gomez, Danny Moreno, Santiago Palacios, Omar Cevallos,

Belisario Chiriboga… [4]


All of the names are for men.


Before even reading this chapter I had already contacted Juliana Garcia from Quito, Ecuador – she is the first and only woman in South America to become an internationally trained and recognized mountain guide. She currently serves as President of the Ecuadorian Association of Mountain Guides (ASEGUIM – Asociacion Ecuatoriana de Guias de Montana).


In a conversation with Juliana Garcia she mentioned that she personally had a fortunate and supportive upbringing that led her to climbing. Yet, she stated, “If you go back here in Ecuador in the Andes, it’s so male dominated the idea of being outdoors in general... since we grew up as a culture, as kids… Like you get a Barbie, the other person gets a bike."


“It changes the rules 100%,” Garcia explained from her experience as a female professional mountaineer. “As soon as you find that you are a minority… I learned that everybody has a voice all the time. And that is a big deal that I just figured out recently. And if you don’t create that environment for people to speak, then it’s hard to say something... Being the only one in this profession…”


“Many, many females give up, or they don’t even start,” Garcia said. She mentioned that empowerment and motivation toward female climbers in Ecuador is low in general.


“The environment is not welcoming you... If the community is not helping you, of course we are going to, all the time, be behind.”


***


“There is, I believe, but one absolutely essential pre-requisite

to a fairly good mountain climber… a sound heart.”

-- Annie Steck, in A Woman’s Place Is at the Top [5]


Rain Felkl is a member of the Alaska Mountain Women Ski Denali team that will attempt the peak in spring of 2020. Felkl is also part Indigenous Alaskan. Her tribe is of the Tlingit and Haida peoples, and her clan is the Yanyeidi, established through her mother’s family. Felkl is of the Eagle/Wolf house, from the Taku River, Yukon Territory of Canada.


“My given Tlingit name is Kuwaats’ after my great grandmother,” Felkl said.


Rain Felkl, Alaska Mountain Women, in the mountains. [vi]


“How can we make everyone feel welcome in the outdoor space and in the mountains?” Felkl began. “It’s a heavy topic to kick off the weekly phone chats, but shows how deeply rooted this topic is for AK Mountain Women, whether it is a reference to gender, culture, body image, pronoun, or simply your background.”


To Felkl, Alaska Mountain Women is an inclusive group united by a common interest. “We have all come together to share our thoughts, dreams, backgrounds, and experiences. We welcome all women, for love [of] the mountains.”


Felkl said she plans to reach out to her tribal council before the climb. She could be the first Tlingit woman to summit Denali, but she doesn’t know where historical climbing records of this nature exist.


***


Read more about Indigenous Place Names by Alaska Mountain Women


***

[1] Bonington, C. (1992). The Climbers A History of Mountaineering. London, Britain: BBC Books.

[2] Mills, J.E. (2014). The Adventure Gap. Seattle, Washington: Mountaineers Books.

[3] Rachowiecki, R., & Thurber, M. (2009). Ecuador Climbing, Hiking and Trekking. Viva Travel Guides.

[4] Rachowiecki, R., & Thurber, M. (2009). Ecuador Climbing, Hiking and Trekking. Mountaineering -- A Historical View. Viva Travel Guides.

[5] Kimberley, H. (2017). A Woman’s Place Is at the Top. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press.


[i] Photo taken by Theresa Soley, 2019.

[ii] Bross, D. (Feb. 7, 2013). Historic newspaper article about Denali ascent. Expedition To Mark 100th Anniversary of Conquest of Denali. KUAC. https://fm.kuac.org/post/expedition-mark-100th-anniversary-conquest-denali

[iii] Project Gutenberg. Grand Basin Camp 2. A Brief Account of the 1913 Climb of Denali. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/historyculture/1913ex.htm

[iv] Bonington, C. (1992). The first ascent of Mont Blanc. Above left and right, Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat whose ascent in August 1786 won a prize and fuelled a controversy. The Climbers A History of Mountaineering. London, Britain: BBC Books, p. 29.

[v] The Adventure Gap. The Joy Trip Project. Accessed Feb. 5th 2020. https://joytripproject.com/the-adventure-gap/

[vi] Image offered by Rain Felkl.

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