June 2013. It’s the 100th anniversary of the first ascension of Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. Rising to 20,310 feet, the mountain has welcomed many great expeditions. That summer, outdoors enthusiasts from all over the world reconvened for an anniversary ascent. Amongst them were nine climbers, the first all African-American team to ever tackle Denali. Through gripping storytelling, An American Ascent, directed by George Potter and Andy Adkins, retraces the team’s attempt to summit the mighty peak, and offers a eye-opening commentary on race and the need for inclusion in the outdoors.
After three years of planning and preparation, the nine climbers, sponsored by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), embark on Expedition Denali. The film opens with striking shots of the team’s plane flying between rugged Alaskan mountains, soon dropping the climbers and their gear at the foot of Denali. Each carrying 100 pounds of equipment in their backpacks and sleds, they begin their historic 20-day journey. Through diary cams and candid interviews, the documentary format allows us to peek into the day-to-day life of the team; we fear for them as they tackle the many difficulties of the climb — from facing freezing winds in the morning to risking heat exhaustion at midday — and rejoice when they clear an arduous section or get a bit of rest.
Halfway through the trip, the group reaches “14k,” the third camp of the mountain, sitting on a wide plateau at 14,200 feet. There, the mood is cheerful: present for the 100th anniversary of the summit’s first ascent, mountaineers from all over the world have pitched their tent on the snowy grounds. Climbers celebrate, enjoy the view and try to relax, though the anticipation is palpable.
Sheltered at the camp for a week due to menacing weather, the crew awaits a window of opportunity to continue the climb. “Part of me doesn’t want to leave,” says one of the climbers. Despite the harsh conditions and mental and physical challenge, however, being up there in the mountains seems unparalleled, almost blissful. And even more than the view, it’s “the bonds you create [that] make mountaineering amazing,” says another. Soon the sky clears and the team sets out. After an aborted attempt to get to the next camp, the last one before summit, the group finally makes it. The climbers begin preparing for the ultimate leg of their journey.
Day 19, summit day. The most physically demanding of all, the climb to the summit and back takes around 14 hours. Low-level clouds at the start of their ascent almost force the team to turn back, but soon the fog opens and climbers clear the final face under a bright, promising sun. Before them is now a wide plateau, accurately named the “Football Field,” the last remaining obstacle between them and the coveted peak, looming in the distance. On the field many other mountaineers are slowly hiking their way to the summit. Suddenly the skies darken again and thunder roars; an electrical storm has rolled in, forcing the team and many other climbers on the plateau to take an obvious yet difficult decision: to turn back. With lightning striking around them, continuing on could mean death, especially with their metal equipment. They climb down the mountain, slightly disappointed, yet proud and thankful of what they have accomplished.
From the first interspersed bits of interviews, the viewer quickly grasps the importance of the climb. Not only is it a testament to human prowess, but also a feat that has the potential to both inspire youth of color to discover the outdoors, and create a more welcoming environment for them to do so. In general, there have been very few mountaineering role models for African-American kids to follow; the outdoors have largely been a place occupied by and marketed to white people. “[Climbing] wasn’t cool,” says 20-year-old climber Tyrhee Moore.
Expedition member Stephen Shobe recognizes the lack of inclusion in the outdoors: “There is a certain percentage of people who look like me, who have also been told ‘You can’t because of your color,’ or ‘You live in the city, and this is not for you.’”
This underrepresentation is visually striking when more than 50 climbers at the 14k camp get together for a picture. The members of Expedition Denali are the only African-Americans there. Yet they are present, and they quite literally blaze the trail for current and future generations of black kids to go out and climb mountains of their own. Although the mountain in An American Ascent is quite literally a geographic formation, it can also stand for any of the numerous challenges facing African-American youth today.
An American Ascent is a mountain of a film. It’s grand, beautiful and challenging. It’s a deeply powerful documentary, one that is both inspiring and thrilling to watch. It showcases the incomparable virtues of mountaineering, from living in the moment to letting go of material possessions, but also the difficulties of it, like knowing when to turn back. Therein lies one of the great teachings of the film, and one that often means the difference between life and death when up in the mountains. It takes strength to turn back, especially when the summit represents the culmination of three years of preparation and 19 days of incredibly challenging climbing. But for the team, it was not about that. The climbers all achieved a feat that stands beyond anything they had imagined. They inspired many African-American youth, through the film and following the tour, to go outside and take on the challenges offered by the outdoors. As climbers descend Denali, one of them explains it best: “The summit is just an excuse, what matters is the human adventure. Find what challenges you.”
The DVD of An American Ascent is available to purchase on anamericanascent.com. The documentary is also streaming on iTunes and Amazon Video.