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To the Mountaintop

A team of black climbers blazes a new kind of trail on Mt. Denali

Text by Brittany Johnson | Photography by Hudson Henry

Briscoe: The 14,000-foot camp was beautiful, but not just in the aesthetic sense. Another team was there with Jon Krakauer; [climber and author] Conrad Anker; Phil Henderson, an Everest climber who, with Conrad, attempted to be the first African American male to summit Everest; and [snowboarders] Ryan Hudson and Jeremy Jones. Conrad specifically set up his trip to meet up with the Expedition Denali team in support of our message. It was the night of the solstice, and we had a solstice party with all of them. There was an incredible feeling of inclusion—we were just part of this big mountaineering community. To have other mountaineers come over to our camp and converse with us—to have this sense of normalcy—that was really important to me.

Saal: That team could have done a show on the Food Network with the kitchen they had set up. We had a drum circle with pots and pans. We were singing and dancing. It was just a really good time.

Kagambi: There is this song called "Kata, Kata." The word kata literally translates to "cut," but it also involves dancing. Like one dance move is a "kata." So we would play this game on Denali. I would call, "Kata, Kata," and that means I am telling everyone to dance. And when I say your name, you have to go in the middle and do the dance that I tell you to. It was something to get our minds off the climb.

Saal: The first time we tried to move from 14,000 feet to the camp at 17,000, that was my hardest day. The packs were crazy heavy. And it was the steepest part of the whole climb. I kept calling "yellow," which means to slow down, and "zero," which means to stop. People were telling me the window of time was short because it was really hot and they were worried about rockfall and icefall. They were like, "Rosemary, we need to go now and hustle or turn around." I really didn't want to be the one to turn everyone around that day. But I just could not do it. That was one of my biggest insecurities going into the expedition—I didn't want to be that person. But it turned out I was that person that day. When we turned around, they kept trying to make other excuses, like the weather was bad, or we'd started too late. But I knew it was because of me. I cried the whole way back to 14,000 camp.

Wynn: On the mountain, I was really focused on being present and living in the moment, riding the emotions. I remember being so exhausted and thinking, "I really don't want to carry all my crap up this wall again." And just taking the moment to feel that, because I knew I was going to just get up the next morning and do it anyway. It was just a really long, exhausting day. The next day we were successful—it felt good to make it closer to the summit.

Briscoe: The last day before our summit day, I was talking with my tentmate Stephen Deberry. He was like, "Scott, what can I do to get you to the top of that mountain?" I told him, "Steve, I am already at the top. I was at the top when the team met for the first time in Tahoe."

Wynn: Summit day was pretty damn memorable. We woke up that morning to beautiful blue skies. We were like, "Oh my God, it's in the air. We're going to do it." We made it to this area called the Football Field. This is around 19,600 feet. We had one more hill left, one more push. We could see the summit. And then these clouds roll in.

Briscoe: It was so dramatic. The clouds engulfed the summit. Thunder and lightning struck. I've been scared two times in my life, and that was one of them. I held my ice ax up a little bit and could hear it buzzing from the electricity in the air. I remember looking at the instructors. They had this moment, I could see, where they were thinking, "What are we going to do?" and "Is it worth moving on?" And just as quick as that thought came, it left. They just said, "Let's go," and we turned around.

Kagambi: Usually I have very high summiting success, but there comes a time when you cannot compete with the mountain. The mountain has its own way of giving us feedback, of letting us know it is tired of us right now. And we had to respect that.

Wynn: I never felt such a letdown. I know I am not supposed to say that. But we were so close. And for me, just learning how to deal with that—I guess, like, what other people call failure. Learning how to take pride in that was hard.

Briscoe: I was not disappointed at all. There are many components to the experience on Denali. It was beautiful. It was hard. It was rewarding. It was never about the summit; it was about what we were doing to inspire the black community.

Shobe: You know, for over a decade I've been trying to encourage diversity in the outdoors, and I'm happy that groups like NOLS are catching on. But at the end of the day, the mountain, the outdoors—it doesn't really care if you're black, white, blue, or green.

Saal: Now that it's all over, I feel so empowered. I've been saying that word all the time lately. On my Twitter, I'm like, "I am so empowered. Empowered, empowered, empowered." After something like that, you think to yourself, "If I can do that, I can do anything."

BRITTANY JOHNSON is a former Sierra intern who is a graduate student in journalism at UC Berkeley.


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