The First All African-American Attempt to Summit Denali: An Interview With Stephen Shobe

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Pho­tog­ra­phy pro­vid­ed by Hud­son Hen­ry from the film­ing of “An Amer­i­can Ascent”

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 Ascentwhich 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

https://vimeo.com/102678492

An Amer­i­can Ascent was Direct­ed & Pro­duced by Andy Adkins & George Pot­ter. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Hud­son Hen­ry.

To learn more about the film check out An Amer­i­can Ascent’s web­site.

Inter­view & Sto­ry by Col­in Houghton