In the summer of 2013, a team gathered at the base of Denali, America’s highest peak. They were called Expedition Denali, and they had one goal in mind: to inspire youth of color to explore the outdoors by being the first all African-American team to summit the highest peak in the United States.
Two years later on July 3, 2015, some members of that team gathered again. This time they weren’t at the foot of a remote Alaskan peak—they were in the White House. They were invited to the center of American government to screen An American Ascent, the film documenting their summit attempt, which was introduced by Secretary of the Interior (and NOLS parent) Sally Jewell. Over the two years since the summit attempt, the team has visited schools and universities, gone on a national speaking tour, and worked tirelessly to inspire young people to go to the mountains and celebrate the nation’s wild places.
We were able to catch up with two Expedition Denali members, Rosemary Saal and Tyrhee Moore, to hear about what it felt like to see their expedition on screen at the White House and to learn more about the impact their journey has had, both personally and on their communities, since their Alaskan expedition.
How did you find out about Expedition Denali?
Rosemary: I was having coffee with one of the directors of Passages Northwest [a NOLS Gateway Partner that first introduced Rosemary to the outdoors] and she said that NOLS had been reaching out to them and was doing Expedition Denali. She asked, “Do you think you’d want to be a part of it?” and I said, “Yeah!” [Then] I did the NOLS Waddington Mountaineering course in British Columbia the year before Denali.
Tyrhee: When I was 16, I was offered a scholarship from the camp City Kids [another NOLS Gateway Partner] to participate in a NOLS course and I did a 30 day backpacking trip in Alaska ... The following year the camp gave me another scholarship to do a mountaineering course, and [later] I was offered a fellowship to work at the branch in Alaska, so I became more connected with NOLS. Right after that Expedition Denali happened and I said “of course!”
What did you learn from being a part of Expedition Denali?
Rosemary: So so much. Mostly my mentality. That climb taught me a lot about myself and just how powerful the mind is, because there were some times when my muscles were literally like “No Rosemary, you’re not taking another step, who do you think you’re trying to kid?” But there’s a time you really don’t have an option, you can’t just sit down and chill, you have to keep going. That mentality has definitely stayed with me … I’d think back to that experience on Denali, and it definitely instilled a sense of empowerment. That mindset has affected a lot of the things that I do now.
Tyrhee: One of the most important things I take from that trip is cherishing people during really tough times. I think we all helped each other make it up there. I take that to my daily life and just try to be more aware of how you can embrace the people around you during really hard times.
Another lesson was just being able to dig deep and push yourself harder than you imagined you could push yourself and accomplishing goals that you never expected yourself to be able to accomplish. Getting to moments where I really had to dig deep was an eye-opening experience, and that told me that things are going to be tough, and I think that was really good for me. I had never been pushed so hard in my life.
And the project itself really told me that there’s a lot of potential for people to be excited about the outdoors. I think Expedition Denali showed me that I can help people gain an interest in being outside. It’s been a source of credibility for me to be able to say that [I’ve done the expedition]. People were not really understanding what I did and the things I’d done [before Denali], so it helped me to help other people understand, and that’s been a cool thing to see people be inspired and want to be outside more.
What are your impressions from the White House screening last Friday? How did it feel to be in the White House?
Rosemary: Going to the White House was a really cool experience. That this expedition is something that has that exposure and got up to that level was really cool. I thought, “That’s going to be my stage, in the White House! Our story of the expedition is going to be in the White House!” Once we were there it was really cool to reunite with the team members that I hadn’t seen in a while, Tyrhee and Billy, Andy the [film] director and James the author [of the book The Adventure Gap].
And right when we left, that’s when they started to light up the rainbow colors for the Supreme Court ruling [legalizing gay marriage] and that was so cool to be there and be able to see that. It was a powerful atmosphere for so many reasons, for us right then, and then seeing the experience that everyone outside was having was really cool.
Tyrhee: It felt unreal. It’s really great for Expedition Denali that it’s been taken so seriously, and has really been valued by the White House ... I think it really helped us get the message out, and I was really honored to be there and that we got to speak and tell our story. It was a breathtaking experience and I was glad that even my mom got to be there.
Did audience members say anything that stood out to you?
Rosemary: These kids are from D.C., they’re from a city and that certainly poses a barrier between these kids getting outside and getting to the backcountry and to an authentic nature experience. It seemed like [the film] sparked a lot of genuine interest, which was really cool to see.
Tyrhee: Being from the same exact city, being in the same exact circumstances growing up, I think I appealed to them more, and it was cool to...come home and talk to people. Just them seeing someone firsthand from D.C. doing something totally different than they had ever seen. I know growing up that basketball and football were the really popular things, which they still are, but just having that firsthand example right in front of them I think had a huge impact on them and gained their interest.
There were a lot of questions about programs they can join or how they could start this, so I thought that might have struck their interest the most, just seeing that this is really [possible], because there's someone up on that stage that was in their shoes at one point.
What kind of impact have you seen of your story within the communities you’ve been talking to?
Rosemary: I have seen an impact especially in audiences where there are a lot of youth present, and we want to inspire those younger kids in having an interest in the outdoors. It’s cool to see their faces watching the film or hear some of the questions that they ask. My favorite story to tell was the summer right after the climb, and I was in San Francisco and and Scott Briscoe and I did a talk about the climb at a summer camp in the Bay Area. If I were that age I’d be distracted by [all the activities there], but they came back to us a couple hours [after our talk] wanting to ask more about the climb and learn more about it. So that was one of the coolest moments, just the fact that we talked about it and they came back and asked us more, that the interest was still there.
Tyrhee: I’ve received a ton of emails from kids I’ve spoken to. I’ve even personally seen a lot of City Kids look for different ways they can get outside and take NOLS courses. It really makes me happy and want to continue to reach out and do speeches in different places. I do think it‘s starting to catch fire or start a spark in kids’ minds.
What are you up to now?
Rosemary: For the most part it’s been really simple for the last academic year with school, work, and family life. I just finished community college last month. Now I have a summer job in California where I’m a camp counselor. I’ve also been talking with [fellow Expedition Denali member] Adina Scott, and depending how conditions are at the end of the season, we’re talking about climbing Rainier when she’s back from Antarctica. Rainier’s been that mountain in Seattle that I’ve been staring at my whole life, so I’d love to be on top of that mountain.
That was the coolest thing for me about mountaineering, since my first mountaineering experience was in the North Cascades; those were the mountains that I’d been looking at since I was a little kid and I never really realized that I could be in them, you know? I always looked at them as some far away, unattainable Never-Never Land, and then when I was actually sitting in them, I thought, “Wow, I never thought that I would ever be here, and I am, and it’s beautiful.”
Tyrhee: I just got back from a trip to Kilimanjaro. I went with the founder of City Kids and a couple of his close friends, and it was a really amazing experience ... Just being able to climb another huge mountain and stand at the top and really take it in and be able to say I’ve accomplished something else. To me that was just as amazing an experience as Denali, and it added fuel to my fire to keep wanting to do cool things.
What has changed in your life since coming back from Alaska?
Rosemary: From training and getting to know the team members and then into the climb itself I learned so much about myself and so much about my teammates and it’s been a super profound and transformative experience. I’m very thankful to NOLS for even making that happen and I’m really excited to see how that changes people’s mindsets towards the outdoors and how that inspires more kids to get into the outdoors, even over the coming decades. Even though the climb is over and even though Project Inspiration is technically over, the journey itself isn’t over, and I’m excited to see where it goes.
Tyrhee: I never was interested in doing big climbs or pushing my boundaries as much as I did on Denali, but ever since I came back from there I’ve had a much greater thirst for adventure. I think that’s been my biggest change, trying to find cool adventures and cool trips to do, and continue to keep my excitement up to do things like that.
How people respond to me has been the biggest change. I think people really listen to me now. I think the film and the book made my friends have a written and visual story they can watch and see how beautiful that mountain is and how tough that climb really was, and that helps them understand when I’m telling them about things that I’ve done. It makes them want to listen to what I have to say and want to do those things more, because they can see what it’s like out there. I don’t think anyone can ever understand just by me telling them, “it’s one of the hardest things of my life,” it blows over their heads.
Would you try to climb Denali again?
Rosemary: Yes! No doubt. We were so close, and we knew that we were physically capable getting the last 600-700 feet and then the storm came out of nowhere, so we definitely thought, “we’re going back, that’s not it, no way.” I plan on going back someday for sure. I just have to find the crew to go!
Tyrhee: Of course! I think that it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever been in. That mountain is really cool, I met a lot of great people up there, the scenery was breathtaking. I’ve never been anywhere as beautiful as when I was at the campsite at 14,000 feet. That mountain showed me a good time the first time, so why not a second time?
Editor's note: Post updated 3/14/18
Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber