In Tanzania, a team of climbers co-led by a Seattelite are casually making history: They're about to become the first all-black expedition team from the U.S. to take on Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.
As you read this, a 34-year-old accountant, a 59-year-old Air Force veteran and a 25-year-old leader for diversity and inclusion in the outdoors, along with eight others, are in Tanzania, where they’re about to become the first all-black expedition team from the U.S. to take on Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.
The team is made up of 11 leaders for Outdoor Afro, the nationwide organization that connects African-American communities with the outdoors. In their respective cities, the team members serve as guides and organizers, setting up local events like hikes, bird-watching outings and even overnight sailing trips. Now, they’ll represent those communities as they take on the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a popular destination for climbers, drawing more than 35,000 each year. And it is quite the challenge: The ascent to the summit is 19,431 feet through bushland, forest and alpine desert. The eight-day schedule the Outdoor Afro team has planned will require four to seven hours of hiking each day, with 20-pound packs — a task that will only get harder as the altitude climbs and the air gets thinner.
But according to Yanira Castro, who oversees communications for Outdoor Afro’s leadership team, this expedition is about more than just the physical challenge. “For Outdoor Afro, this is a journey that doesn’t start at the base of the mountain and doesn’t end at the top of the mountain,” she writes in an email sent in the midst of hiking a mountain. “This is a journey that is lifelong. This is an opportunity for people to return to the motherland… Our leaders are going to Tanzania with the mindset of absorbing and learning the culture. Not bringing Western culture.”
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For Rosemary Saal, a Seattle local and one of the technical co-leaders of the expedition, the journey to Kilimanjaro began at age 12, with a rock-climbing course for girls and young women operated by Passages Northwest, a youth outdoor-leadership organization now known as BOLD & GOLD. (Back then, it was run out of a little blue house in Seattle’s Central District.)
The course brought together young women and girls through climbing and talking about discrimination, harassment and their changing bodies, with the goal of empowering them to face these and other issues that impact young women.
“I always from that moment forward associated the outdoors with that sense of empowerment and that sense of inner strength,” says Saal.
Since then, she has led group expeditions in Alaska and the Patagonia region, and was featured in a documentary about her involvement with the first all-Black expedition team to take on Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America.
“I’m lucky that my work is wilderness. I am hiking and carrying backpacks. Work is training in a sense,” Saal says over the phone from a gas station in New Mexico, where she and a van full of international boarding-school students will soon head into the wilderness with Saal as their guide. For Saal, this is her job, but it’s also a part of her training for Kilimanjaro.
Each team member has a different approach to preparing for the climb, but for most, the physical aspect is not the main focus.
“It, from the beginning, was never a thing that we’re like, ‘We’re gonna get a group of the most athletic people that are Outdoor Afro Leaders and see how fast they can run up to the top.’ It was never that,” says Leandra Taylor, who, at 25, is the youngest member on the expedition team. “It was like, ‘We’re gonna go and we’re gonna go to the motherland and respect her and learn from her and challenge ourselves and grow as people.'”
Given Kilimanjaro’s reputation for attracting adventurers and thrill-seekers, this more relaxed approach has been confusing for some. When Taylor mentioned her plan to take “a leisurely hike” up the mountain to a group of her co-workers, she recalls, “everyone literally laughed at me.”
“We’re gonna just hike and take one step at a time and enjoy the view and the laugh and the conversation and the wildlife. So I meant ‘leisurely’ when I said it,” she says. “And I realize that there’s this different culture in America where it’s like, ‘It’s so intense! You have to be ready to compete and get outside and have on the coolest gear and all these other things, but the climbing culture in many countries of Africa is to appreciate the landscape and the company that you’re with.”
As one of the team leaders, Saal is on-board with this holistic approach to training and climbing. She’s focused on “the bigger picture” of what the journey means for “current and future outdoors enthusiasts.”
“We’re not only looking at the physical preparation and mental preparation of a mountain climb, but we are also including elements of what does black leadership look like to us? How are we going to share this experience with our community?” says Saal. “And you know, coming into it with the lens that this activity in general has been so exclusive for so long so even engaging in climbing and outdoor sports… has not provided the same opportunity for so many members of communities that we identify with.”
It’s a community that includes parents as well. Katina Grays is one of them. It was a difficult choice for Grays to make the trip to Tanzania, leaving her daughter Seraphina behind, with little opportunity to communicate, but Grays felt it was important to set that example both for her daughter and for other women with children.
“I am making these choices precisely because I want to push my own particular boundaries as a mother. I want Seraphina to hopefully remember the experience of her mother pursuing a personal goal and trying hard to see it through,” Grays writes in a blog post on Outdoor Afro’s website. “But more than that, I want to expand her awareness of everything that is possible for her. But I also make this choice because I want other moms to know that they are seen and that their personal goals and dreams matter.”
Olatunde Gbolahan, an Outdoor Afro leader from Austin, Texas, faces a similar challenge as the father of two daughters. Though he’s added swimming into his busy weekly routine in order to prepare for the high altitude conditions on the mountain, Gbolahan writes in another Outdoor Afro blog post that he makes sure training never gets in the way of making time for family.
“My father/daughter and wife/husband date nights are nonnegotiable. I wouldn’t be able to do this expedition without the support of my daughter and wife, so these repeating events in my calendar and are not overwritten,” he writes. “There have been times that we had to resolve to a simple meal out and conversation instead of the more active trampoline park due to fatigue, but these have been some of the best outings in my opinion. I have gained greater insight into the minds of my family.”
Though the team only met once in-person during their year of preparation, they’ve gotten to know each other and build connections through online tools like WhatsApp and Facebook, and the group’s shared understanding of what their journey will mean for the Black community.
This has created a strong connection both on the team and within the national Outdoor Afro community. Back in the United States, Outdoor Afro meetups are scheduled in several cities this weekend in a show of solidarity and support for the Kilimanjaro team.
Castro hopes to bring this sense of community to Tanzania as well. “This journey to Tanzania is an opportunity to be part of a different community,” she writes. “To learn the culture and the traditions of a different community, a community that is inside of us historically and ancestrally but that many have not gotten a chance to be a part of.”