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'What's Your Denali?:' Thinking About the Glass Ceilings of the Outdoors

Today's guest blogger is Laura Swapp, REI's diversity and inclusion director:

I am not black, and I am not going to summit Denali—at least not this year. But I do think that the Expedition Denali team has a game changer on their hands. And I love a game changer: something that is big, unexpected and transformative.

Rising 20,320' above sea level, Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, is the highest peak on the North American continent. In June, to inspire youth of color—and particularly African American youth—to reimagine the possibilities for their place in the outdoors, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) will run an expedition with African American participants who will attempt to summit Denali. These African American role models will demonstrate valuable leadership skills, including expedition behavior, communication, and tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, to work together toward achieving a common goal.

Laura, rock climbing

I grew up in San Diego, and my outdoor experiences consisted of riding my bike and going to the beach. I didn’t know about Denali or climbing mountains and never thought about the lack of female role models in big, inspirational outdoor places.

What I did know about was Southern California beach culture, where the dudes surfed and the girls watched. I always wanted to surf. I can’t recall ever seeing a girl on a surfboard. (OK, yes, I’m dating myself since we now have plenty of ass-kicking women in surf. But I’m willing to admit I was alive in the '70s for the purpose of making this point).

As I was learning about Expedition Denali, I started thinking again about surfing; thinking about how I missed my chance. Wondered how I, a self-assured ocean swimmer and beach-loving young woman, could have just assumed that “it wasn’t for me.” So, as I heard about how this eclectic group of African Americans (students, engineers, journalists, entrepreneurs and experienced climbers among them) are going to take the mountain and then tell that story, I got it.

Above: Watch this Kickstarter video about Expedition Denali and their fundraising goal to create a feature film.

We may all like to think we are adventurers and so self-motivated that we don’t need to see someone go before us or show us how it’s done. But if we’re honest we know it’s not true. High mountains and big surf have their glass ceilings, too. Cracking them open makes room for more fun, bigger adventures and the next generation of stewards of our environment.

The expedition’s hammer is a feature-length documentary. This documentary will enable the team to tell their story to the broadest possible audience and to inspire the next generation to discover their own Denali. But like all good stories, there’s that moment where you don’t know if the happy ending will actually happen.

The team is 1 week and $66,000 away from sending a film crew along with the expedition. They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to help close this gap, and REI is going to match the next $10,000 in contributions. At REI, we love when people smash glass ceilings in the outdoors! Please join us and make your contribution before May 10.

My Denali might be the North Shore. What’s yours?


Posted on at 12:15 PM

Tagged: Climbing, Expedition Denali and Mountaineering

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Thanks for sharing this incredible story Steve! Unfortunately the link for the Kickstarter campaign is attached to an email address! Contributors to the Expedition Denali film project can make a donation at

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Thanks REI for donating to a worthy cause. My brother an I have talked over the years on the subject of how not enough has been done to connect all segments of our population to the outdoors. Hope the documentary helps to rectify this.


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