Outdoor adventure for all

Athletes and activists inspire Americans from all backgrounds to get outside.

It was the middle of the night in Nepal when the first members of the Full Circle climbing team reached the top of 8,849-meter Mount Everest.

For about five hours on that clear May night they’d been battling intense cold, each step on the steep snow and ice taxing their muscles and lungs. But now the hard work and training had paid off. With those final steps, the climbers made history. Never before had a team of Black mountaineers reached the summit of the world’s tallest peak.

“Pretty sensational,” is how team member Abby Dione, from Florida, described what the team did after she returned to American soil.

“Breaking down climbing for others so they can engage with it on any level, that is exactly what I want to do.”

And that’s exactly what she does. Dione owns a climbing gym called Coral Cliffs, and today her business exposes people of all backgrounds and races to a sport that, from the outside, can seem daunting and exclusive. She is part of a larger group of Americans dedicated to getting more people from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in outdoor adventure sports.

“Paddling a kayak is about group awareness. Backpacking is about responsibility and preparedness.”

Groups like Outdoor Afro help get Black Americans hiking, while the activist known as Pattie Gonia, based in Oregon, organizes outdoor outings largely for the LGBTQI+ community. Another group, Brown Folks Fishing, helps demystify fly fishing.

Person standing on surfboard in water (© Outdoor Outreach)
A beginner is thrilled to learn to stand up on a surfboard. (© Outdoor Outreach)

Respected outdoor magazines and newspapers are showcasing diversity in photos and stories. The May/June 2022 Outside magazine cover features members of “HBCUs Outside,” an outdoors-focused group of collegiate youth from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). HBCUs Outside is one group looking for “more Black faces running trails, climbing mountains and sitting at outdoor-industry boardroom tables.”

“I think a lot of minority participants look at things like camping and hiking and surfing and don’t really see anyone who looks like them and so they wonder, ‘who are these sports really for?’” says Ben McCue, director of the California-based group Outdoor Outreach. The group takes at-risk kids, most of them minorities, on outdoor adventures. McCue says it is important that the youngsters see diversity when meeting those in leadership positions at state parks or national parks, so that the next generation can “picture the possibilities.”

People watching man tether kayaks and canoes to truck (© New Treks)
In Denver earlier this year, participants prepare to learn how to kayak at the Academy of Urban Learning. (© New Treks)

Activities like kayaking, climbing and mountain biking — or even simpler pastimes like camping and hiking — have historically suffered from a lack of diversity among participants. The reasons for this are myriad and stem from the days when underrepresented groups were largely excluded from parks, swimming pools and campgrounds. Today the reasons are also economic (a kayak is expensive) and geographic (many live in cities, where enjoying nature can be difficult).

That was true for Andy Hartman, who is half Korean and grew up close to New York City. “The most outdoorsy thing I did was skateboard around or bike to the mall,” he says. “I never went camping, never went on a hike, never did any outdoorsy thing my whole childhood.”

Hikers navigating rocks in canyon (© New Treks)
A New Treks leader teaches people how to climb in Castlewood Canyon in Colorado in October 2021. (© New Treks)

But Hartman changed in his mid-20s when, after a stint in the military, he went on a winter backpacking trip in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York while attending college. “I got to the top of this mountain, in the cold, quiet air, and threw my hands up, like, ‘Yeah! This is awesome!’” he says. “I’d never had that experience before.”

Today Hartman runs a Colorado nonprofit called New Treks that goes into schools serving large populations of low-income families and teaches students how to pitch a tent or swing an ice ax. New Treks then takes them on outdoor adventures as part of their education.

“These kids have never left Denver at all,” he says, adding that most of them had never even seen a real cow, “let alone gone rock climbing.” But what’s really great, according to Hartman, is that what the kids learn from being outdoors applies to their daily lives.

“Rock climbing is really about communication and trust and learning to communicate when you’re in an uncomfortable situation,” says Linnea Delucchi, the assistant director of New Treks. “Paddling a kayak is about group awareness. Backpacking is about responsibility and preparedness.”

McCue agrees that the benefits go far beyond how fun it can be to be outdoors.

“There’s a wealth of scientific studies that show the physical, emotional, social and mental health benefits of having regular access to nature,” he says.

7 hikers posing for photo on mountain (© Full Circle)
The Full Circle expedition team takes a break during their Mount Everest climb. (© Full Circle)

As for the Full Circle team that scaled Mount Everest, it is embracing its new mission: creating ways for kids of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds to get outdoors. In the words of team member Manoah Ainuu, who works with Memphis Rocks, a climbing gym in Tennessee that offers lessons to underserved youth, “We need to get the word out.”

This article was written by freelance writer Tim Neville.