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Diversifying the Outdoor Community: Expedition Denali's ‘10,000 Steps Challenge’

Today’s guest blogger, Tanya Morgan Dixon, is a member of the support team for Expedition Denali, the first all African American team of climbers attempting to summit Denali (Mount McKinley) in June 2013. Morgan, as her colleagues call her, lives in New Jersey with her husband Keith and dog Charley. She leads a national nonprofit called GirlTrek which inspires and supports black women and girls to lead healthier, more fulfilled lives—simply by walking.

When I pressed “end” on the call, I knew this was a big freaking deal. The National Outdoor Leadership School was sponsoring an all African American mountaineering expedition up Denali (20,320'), the tallest peak in North America. They asked if I’d be interested in climbing.

Tanya Morgan Dixon of Expedition Denali

After a Tony Soprano-like existential gaze out my window, watching birds land and fly off again, it hit me. Are you crazy?

Number 1: You’re not a mountaineer. Number 2: You’re not a mountaineer. 

I had 2 clear choices. I could train like Rocky in Russia for 16 months straight or I could call NOLS back immediately and say, “Thanks, but no thanks”. 

I did neither. I waffled and rationalized for weeks and agonized with my husband and friends. I googled a gazillion search terms—“weather Denali”, “Denali safe”, “best route Denali” and, yes, “Denali fatalities”. I even googled possible Native American objections to our climb—that would be an excellent excuse.

Then the guilt set in. Who am I to turn down an opportunity to join a historic expedition? Especially one that inspires kids.

I don’t know anything about Catholic guilt, but I do know about black history guilt. We’ve been through a lot and, when opportunity knocks, the whole community says—in Eddie Murphy’s SNL Mr. Rogers’ voice—“Who is it?”

I thought about the history of Denali. A hundred years ago, in 1913, Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens led the first ascent. A member of their team wrote, "The view from the top of Mount McKinley is like looking out the windows of Heaven!”

That was the same year Harriet Tubman died. These 2 monumental events put the history of Denali and the history of my people in stark relief. While climbers were first on Denali, 51 African Americans were lynched in our country. My grandma was born that year. My mom would desegregate her high school in Oklahoma 42 years later. Some 53 years after that, I would be the first in my family to graduate from college.


NOLS invited me to train for the expedition because of my backcountry experience. After meeting the very experienced team of mountaineers, I knew that my best role on the team was to be a support member.

I’m excited to organize. Partner organizations will organize “solidarity walks” on the longest and most strenuous day on Denali—the summit day. The summit day will be a grueling 5-mile round trip up and back to High Camp. Five miles is roughly equal to 10,000 steps. 

The 10,000 Steps to Denali Challenge

Thus was born the "10,000 Steps to Denali" challenge. Our goal is to rally young people and their families to get outside in outdoor spaces near their homes, whether in urban wilderness or national parks, while the members of the Expedition Denali team are making their Denali summit attempt. This grassroots movement will target major cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, New Orleans, New York, Washington D.C. and Atlanta.

I am the co-director of a public health organization called GirlTrek. Our mission is to inspire inactive women and girls to “jumpstart” healthy lives by walking. We currently serve over 12,000 trekkers. GirlTrek and other awesome organizations such as Outdoor Afro will mobilize as many people as possible to walk 10,000 steps on the summit day. They can walk in their communities or find their own mountains to climb in local and national parks.


Morgan with NOLS director of diversity, Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin.

I am so honored to be a part of this historic climb. My 3 hopes for Expedition Denali:

  1. On their toughest days, when the weather kicks up and muscles are spent, I hope that the team draws inspiration from all of the people, like Harriet Tubman, who paved the road to base camp.
  2. I hope that kids are deeply inspired by this story. Not only because the climbers look like them, but also because their stories parallel ours—proof positive that anything is possible. Role models matter.
  3. I hope that we inspire more diversity in the outdoors. Poet Baba Dioum said “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." Attempting the summit is not enough. We are will be successful when we are able to raise awareness of the value of diversity in the outdoors—particularly as we face the monumental task of protecting our natural environment. I aim to have organizations, corporations, schools, supporters, parents and kids create a groundswell of support for this broader dialogue.

Lastly I hope that when I wear my Expedition Denali T-shirt, people mistake me for a mountaineer. I will neither deny nor confirm.

For more information on Expedition Denali, visit

Posted on at 7:00 AM

Tagged: African Americans, Denali, Expedition Denali and mountaineering

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Inspiring story-best wishes ladies on this monumental event!

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Outdoor Afro

Thanks for such a thoughtfully written article Morgan. As you know, I asked myself many of the same questions you posed, and so glad I landed on the side of supporting the ascent team and helping people find and summit the Denalis in their own lives.

Very much looking forward to our journey together! Onward to 10,000 steps!



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