Documentary Shifts “Mountain Climber” Stereotype

Pick up any outdoors adventure magazine or catalogue at the doctors office, scan the photos in the articles and ads. What do you see? Practically every image is a white male or female hiking a trail, kayaking a river, putting up a tent, or climbing a mountain (unless they’re a Nepalese sherpa.)


Climber, Expedition Denali

The truth is most publishing institutions, gear suppliers, and adventure companies show the outdoors as belonging primarily to white people. If you ask the average person to imagine the skin color of a mountain climber, they would probably think of a tanned, healthy, slightly scruffy white guy. (Indigenous Americans might have a different opinion.) This white guy or gal would be carrying all kinds of bright-colored gear, look confident and prepared, ready to conquer the world.

What this says to people of color is that the outdoors is not for them.

It’s easy to let racial stereotypes determine how we think about mountain climbing and who gets to do it. But it’s not just stereotypes that limit access to the outdoors. Lack of financial resources, transportation, and mentorship, are also part of the toxic brew that limits wilderness experiences to the privileged (white) few. But within a few decades, the Unites States will be a majority-minority nation. This next generation will be responsible for our nation’s wilderness. Will they grow up believing this is something important to protect, nurture, and enjoy?

Female Climber, Expedition Denali

Female Climber, Expedition Denali

What will happen to our national parks and outdoor spaces if no one feels empowered or interested in protecting them? What will happy to this generation of young people if they grow up disconnected from the outdoors? Which brings me to the film, An American Ascent, coming soon to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater.

“An American Ascent” is a beautiful documentary that cracks open the myth of mountain climbing as only a white sport, inviting the viewer to expand his/her assumptions and sense of what’s possible for every American. It’s also about the beauty, wonder, and intensity of facing some of those most inhospitable wilderness conditions imaginable, and about living to tell the tale.

AAA Postcard Front-Nocopy

In June 2013, nine African Americans set out to build a legacy and become role models for youth and people of color all over America to encourage them to get outside. Some of these climbers were graduates of the NOLS Gateway Partnership Program that provides outreach and financial support for youth of color to participate in NOLS programs.

The Denali Expedition took on the grueling climb of the 20,320-foot Mt. Denali, the highest mountain in North American.

America's New Mountain Climbers

Denali Expedition Team, June 2013

Thanks to a successful Kick Starter campaign and some smart fundraising through NOLS and other outdoor companies and organizations, they made a movie of their journey. This in turn led to one magical success after another:

  • “An American Ascent” won numerous film festival awards
  • Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, makes it possible to bring the film to DC
  • Team and film makers are invited to attend 2 packed White House screenings in June 2015
  • Many screenings and talks across the country that have touched the lives of countless youth of color around the country.

It was in this spirit that Bay Area Wilderness Training reached out to journalist and Denali Expedition leader James Mills of the Joy Trip Project. As a member of BAWT’s board, I offered to contact James and ask to borrow the film for a local fundraiser. Thanks to James and filmmaker Andy Adkins, BAWT will get to show this remarkable film. Proceeds from the benefit film screening will help increase BAWT’s capacity to train youth workers and lend free gear to school communities throughout the Bay Area.

James Mills, Joy Trip Project

James Mills, Journalist, Climber, Instructor, Expedition Denali

So come shake out the cobwebs of your own “American mountain man” and join me for a special matinee screening of “An American Ascent” on Sunday, November 15, 12:00-2:30pm at the New Parkway in Oakland. Proceeds from ticket sales and a small silent auction will all go toward Bay Area Wilderness Training, an Oakland-based non-profit dedicated to making the outdoors accessible to all youth.

After the screening, Scott Briscoe, one of the climbers on the Denali expedition, will be available to talk about and answer questions about the experience.

Buy your tickets today! Adults $20, Youth and Students $5.00


(Anna Edmondson is a writer and editor and serves on the board of Bay Area Wilderness Training,

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