To inspire youth of color—and particularly African American youth—to get outside, get active, and become stewards of our wild places, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) will run an expedition with African American participants who will attempt to summit Denali, the highest peak in North America, in June, 2013, the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of the peak. This journey will involve a group of role models in the African American outdoor community learning and using valuable leadership skills, including expedition behavior, communication, and tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, to work together toward achieving a common goal.
The longest and most strenuous day on Denali will be the summit day, a five-mile trip up and back to High Camp. Five miles is roughly equal to 10,000 steps. During the team’s ascent, NOLS has rallied organizations nationwide to take young people and families outdoors to hike their own “10,000 Steps to Denali” in outdoor spaces near their homes to commemorate this historic event.
More importantly, after the expedition our participants will tour public and charter schools, nonprofit institutions, outdoor outreach organizations, community organizations, and church groups nationwide on speaking engagements. These post-expedition speaking and media engagements will give these role models a platform to inspire youth of color to connect with America’s wild places and take on outdoor pursuits they never imagined possible—whether in recreation, education, policy, conservation, land management, or government.
Rising to 20,320 feet above sea level, Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest peak on the North American continent. Hudson Stuck’s expedition team made the first ascent of the main summit of Denali in 1913. The first woman to summit the peak was Barbara Washburn in 1947. A team of predominantly African Americans has yet to summit Denali.
NOLS provides transformational outdoor experiences for individuals from all communities and walks of life. At the heart of our philosophy is the belief that positive, ethical leaders change the world. NOLS teaches and nurtures these leadership skills, which are transferable to any aspect of our students’ lives, in the wilderness setting. We empower our students to feel like they can take on any challenge in the world, and ultimately give back to their own communities and to the wilderness. We inspire youth to fall in love with wild places and work to protect them. And we create positive role models—heroes—whom youth everywhere can emulate.
NOLS fosters these leaders by taking students ages 14 and up on extended wilderness expeditions into some of the most spectacular and remote locations, where they learn backcountry living skills, technical outdoor skills, leadership, environmental ethics, and how to enjoy nature responsibly. In 2011 more than 15,000 students enrolled at NOLS locations across the globe on expeditions ranging from 10 days to a full year in length.
NOLS was the first commercial outfitter on Denali in 1971 and has regularly run expeditions on Denali since then. The success of NOLS’ Denali expeditions can be attributed to the fact that NOLS does not simply “guide” participants up the mountain. We run our Denali expedition like any other course, training participants to become technically versed in mountaineering skills while they acclimatize and running participants through the leadership progression so that by the end of the expedition, participants who merely followed the instructors become leaders. Today, NOLS runs up to two Denali expeditions every year.
Only a small percentage of our nation’s population of color are participating in the outdoors. Outdoor participation rates among African Americans, and especially kids in that demographic, remain the lowest in the nation. The health and well being of our increasingly diverse population—and especially our African American population—depend on their remaining active and engaging in nature.
The well being of our public lands is also tethered to people of color reconnecting to our wild places. By 2042, people of color will comprise the majority of the U.S. population. Americans of color are the future stewards of the extraordinary and wild lands we all cherish. As part of America’s up-and-coming majority, they will have a mounting influence on the protection of our wilderness. But without opportunities to experience our great outdoors or role models to inspire them to remain engaged in it, passionate voices from this increasingly diverse constituency won’t be heard.
The goal of the expedition is to engage a broader constituency in a public dialogue about diversity in the outdoors, specifically in the field of outdoor recreation and education—to raise awareness of the value of diversity in the outdoors and build a coalition in the outdoor industry that is dedicated to addressing the cultural challenges head-on.
As our nation’s demographics change and our next generation—comprised mostly of people of color—take the reins, their comprehension of the benefits of outdoor recreation to their quality of life and to the stewardship of our wilderness is vital, making Expedition Denali an unprecedented opportunity not only make history, but build a legacy.