In June 2013, for the first time ever, an all-African American team of mountaineers set off to climb Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) in Alaska, the highest peak in North America. After 19 days and at 19,600 feet with the summit in sight, a lightning storm caused Expedition Denali to turn back. But the team of nine hikers achieved their goal: to inspire people of color – especially youth – to get outside and pursue their dreams.
While the health and well-being of America’s increasingly diverse population depend on remaining active and engaging in nature, outdoor participation rates among African Americans are the lowest in the nation. The expedition was designed, developed and led by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
Conservancy Talk sat down with Denali Expedition member Ryan Mitchell to hear about the hike and why he is working build a new and more diverse generation of outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists.
Conservancy Talk: Hiking Denali is something only a skilled outdoorsman should attempt! You’ve obviously spent many years exploring the outdoors. How did you first get involved in nature and outdoor activities?
Ryan Mitchell: As a kid, I grew up in the country – Westown, Pennsylvania – next to a big farm and spent a lot of time outside. There was a lot of open space! Time to time, my parents would take my family up to the Poconos area to hike around on some trails. Throughout my high school years I always enjoyed running on trails in the woods (more than on the road) for cross country practice. I then started bike racing at Penn State University and loved riding in the hills around central Pennsylvania. I also took the opportunity to go hiking and caving while I was a student at Penn State. Those early experiences fueled my interest in taking this further.
Conservancy Talk: What was the most memorable or surprising experience during the expedition?
Ryan Mitchell: I was happy to see that my expedition team was well received by the other climbers on the mountain. At the 14,000-foot camp, we had the opportunity to interact with numerous other climbers, who in turn treated us like we were just another group of climbers. I loved that common bond we shared at that point. I hadn’t expected as warm a reception on the mountain.
Conservancy Talk: What did it mean for you to be part of the first all-African American team to climb Denali? What message do you want to send and why do you think it is important for other African-Americans to spend time outside in nature?
Ryan Mitchell: I loved the fact that on the mountain our expedition team, despite being composed solely of African-Americans, was truly accepted in this stunning environment that few get to explore. Oftentimes it seems that we pigeonhole ourselves into thinking that nature is a place that only other races can explore, yet these areas exist for our benefit and need to be taken care of by everyone. Given how global warming is changing our environment, we ALL need to get out and explore, and take care of our rapidly changing planet! Insofar as the minority population is growing in the U.S., African-Americans have a large stake in and obligation to these national lands.
Conservancy Talk: How have your adventures outdoors impacted your view of nature and conservation? Why should people care about conserving far off lands like those you saw during your Denali expedition?
Ryan Mitchell: Having taught environmental science, and experienced how Denali appears to be changing (I was there two years in a row and observed more rock falls and rock exposure), I am convinced that there is no time like the present for everyone to get out and appreciate our national parks, and become stewards of these amazing places. Otherwise, in 20 years there may be no glaciers to explore at places like Glacier national park! And, given that 70 percent of our planet is covered by water and given that water is a vital nutrient, the cleaner we keep our environment and natural spaces, the healthier we’ll all be.
Conservancy Talk: As more and more of the population become concentrated in cities, do you have any suggestions for how people – especially youth – can connect with nature?
Ryan Mitchell: Having lived many years in Philadelphia and now in Troy, New York, my number one suggestion is to get out to your local parks. Explore, play, and spend some time with the volunteer park service that keeps your parks clean, safe, and builds trails that are environmentally friendly!
[Top image: The Denali Expedition team. Bottom image: Ryan Mitchell. Images courtesy of National Outdoor Leadership School]