When Stephen Shobe first heard about Expedition Denali he was all in. As he says, in this day and age to have an expedition of this magnitude fully funded is practically unheard of, especially if you’re not a professional climber. The expedition was to be the first all African-American ascent of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The film An American Ascent, which debuted in 2015, not only tells the story of Expedition Denali’s summit attempt, but also addresses a long-standing issue within the outdoor community, the lack of diversity. We sat down with Stephen to talk about the film, climbing, and how the outdoor community might go about tackling this problem.
When did you first get into climbing and were there any difficulties you faced getting involved with a sport that is lacking in diversity?
I’ve been climbing for over 20 years now and sure it was very white back then, but that was it, there was never a situation where I felt strange for doing what I was doing. If anything I felt emboldened and special, at the beginning it was all good. The one thing I did notice was in advertising, all the climbing magazines, the retailers, there was never any color, it was all white, and that’s what it was. Eventually that started to change.
How did this expedition come together?
One of the guys on my climbing team had worked at NOLS, and he was another African-American, and NOLS put the whole thing together to raise awareness about diversity, and they pulled me in to add to the roster. The guys from An American Ascent came on once we’d started training.
What kind of impact do you think this film could have on would-be climbers, whatever their background?
I look at it as an awareness, making them aware of what could be done. That’s how I started climbing, I was exposed to it, I’d never thought about climbing until I was exposed to it. So, to me a lot of it is about exposing young people to this sort of thing. This particular film is an exciting film to watch, you have people from varying backgrounds in the process, it’s not just professionals, we were all just regular people. It’s empowering.
What sort of experience did you personally and the rest of the crew have going into this climb?
Most of the climbers had not done anything to this extent, while they were all required to go through multiple NOLS courses to be on the team, 90% of them had never been above 9,000 feet. I was not included in that group, I already had four of the Seven Summits under my belt. At the end of the day, and this is where my hat really goes out to NOLS, they made something happen that had never happened before. To get 19 people from diverse backgrounds all onto Denali would have never happened without them.
Were there any effects of changing climate that you were able to see while on the climb?
When you fly into the area you actually land on the Kahiltna Glacier on a ski plane. By the time we left they’d had to move the airfield higher up because the original landing strip had melted out and it was all crevasses. The glacier had begun to move, the hot weather had moved in. From what I’ve read there was much more snow melt than they were used to, but that was the first time I’d ever been to Alaska so I had nothing to compare it to. Where I first noticed climate change in relation to glaciers was in Africa when I was doing Kilimanjaro. You could actually see where the snow used to be, and where it used to be glaciated.
Why do you think it’s taken this long to get diversity integrated into the outdoor industry?
I think there are a certain percentage of white people who are afraid to let you in, because they think ‘we own this, this is ours.’ If you look back at all the sports in the world, it’s the same story. And now it’s become economically viable to let black people in, it’s a business decision. The history is that there are so many African-Americans that have contributed to the outdoors, from Matthew Henson, the first African-American on the North Pole to Charles Crenchaw, the first African-American to summit Denali. I think this is just the melting away of some old walls.
You’ve been involved in the outdoor community for years, what sort of organizations are out there dedicated to helping young people, from any background, get involved in the outdoors?
There are tons of organizations out there, from Outward Bound Adventures to my organization, Pioneer Climbing Kids Foundation, and there are tons more. They help by teaching kids that the only limits you have are the ones you put in front of yourself, by eliminating those imaginary boundaries of what you can and cannot do.
Rumor has it you might be thinking about doing the Seven Summits? Is that what’s next on your climbing agenda?
Oh it’s not a rumor, it’s something I’m doing, I’ve already climbed Aconcagua, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, and Kosciuszko. I’m either gonna be the oldest dude to climb all Seven Summits or I’m gonna take up permanent residence on one.
Do you think this film will have historical significance within the outdoor community?
You know what, I can’t see the future, but all I can say is that I hope so. I can testify to the fact that every screening I’ve been to has been greeted with so much enthusiasm and positivity.
To learn more about the film check out An American Ascent’s website.
Interview & Story by Colin Houghton