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Expedition Denali: Speaking Up about Diversity in the Outdoors

Here is the latest in a series of posts about Expedition Denali, the all African American team preparing to climb Denali with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) in June 2013. This one is from team member Rosemary Saal:

“Once we think it gets real, it gets ‘realer’.”

This phrase crossed my mind and lips at least 10 times a day while on the NOLS Waddington Range Mountaineering course this past summer in British Columbia.


I’m sure my fellow Expedition Denali team members who trained alongside me will agree; when it comes to learning mountaineering in the field, NOLS provides no shortage of opportunity. And while these opportunities come with many challenges (like muscle soreness), the training we received—on how to effectively self arrest, place protection and respond to real (and not just contrived) situations—has brought our team closer to being able to safely embrace Denali come June.

Although the physical challenges have been great, they are not the only ones. The greater challenge is finding our voices; speaking up about the lack of diversity in the outdoors and encouraging many discouraged people—not only people of color—to embrace nature.


Personally, the struggle of finding my voice is something that I have constantly been working on. It is sometimes so difficult to find the right words that I often choose to just stay silent.

This was something that I was forced to deal with head on while in the Waddingtons. When it came to route finding and reading maps to plan a move, I mostly receded to the back of the group and let the rest of the team make the decisions. Seeing as how a huge part of the NOLS curriculum is improving leadership skills, this silence became a problem. Thankfully, I had an amazingly understanding instructor team and a group of supportive fellow students to help.


Being silent about route plans is one thing, but Expedition Denali is a subject that I most definitely do not want to be silent about. Central to this project is not only telling people about it and raising awareness, but also telling people why we are doing this.

The idea that people of color and nature do not mix is, for some reason, deeply engrained in the minds of so many people. I once had a discussion with my African American hairdresser about my love of nature. Well aware of the fact that I am biracial, she jokingly responded with, “Oh no, girl, that’s the white in you taking over.” At the time, I couldn’t find it within myself to speak up and say, “That is so far from the truth!” So, instead, I shyly giggled and held my tongue.

Since becoming involved with this expedition and realizing even more the importance of finding my voice, I have been able to continue the discussion with my hairdresser, who is now a supporter of the movement. If speaking up can change at least one person’s perspective, why stop there?

Rather than holding my tongue when I hear a person of color say they cannot see themselves immersed in nature because of their race (even in a joking matter), I am determined to find and use my voice to flip that mentality around.

Speaking up about Expedition Denali is not only part of the journey to finding my voice, but it is also part of the journey to 20,320 feet; the journey to the top of North America.

See the previous post about Expedition Denali on The REI Blog.


All photos courtesy of Rosemary Saal except the climbers crossing the Waddington Range snowfield photo by Adina Scott.

Posted on at 11:15 AM

Tagged: African Americans, Climbing, Expedition Denali, diversity and mountaineering

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cool skiing, good shots, thanks for sharing.

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