“Something Yet Higher,” an exhibition featuring African American mountaineer Charles Madison Crenchaw, opened at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado, on February 6. Crenchaw was the first Black man to summit Denali in 1964, an accomplishment that remains relatively obscure despite its historic significance.
The exhibition consists of eight panels of text and images that introduce Crenchaw’s life, from his work as aerospace engineer for Boeing to his achievements as a mountaineer. The panels also situate Crenchaw’s life within the larger narrative of the fight for social justice during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. James Edward Mills, the exhibition’s curator, developed the panel text and provided the archival images, which he found through his original research for his book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors (2014).
As an author and journalist, Mills explores equity and access disparities in the outdoors for Black Americans. “Like much of Black American history, Crenchaw’s legacy was broadly ignored and [considered] inconsequential by the climbing community at large,” Mills says. “It wasn’t until I wrote about him in Alpinist magazine in 2012 […] that most modern climbers had even heard his name.”
People of color, and especially African Americans, remain largely underrepresented in climbing and mountaineering. According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report, 74.8 percent of people who recreate outdoors at least once a month are Caucasian, while African Americans have made up about 8 percent of all moderate outdoor participation since 2013. “Something Yet Higher” is a part of Mills’s ongoing project to inspire a new and diverse generation of outdoor enthusiasts with narratives that promote Black achievements.
Though Crenchaw modestly claimed that he was “no better or worse than hundreds of other weekend climbers with the same degree of experience,” Mills meaningfully positions his summit of Denali within a broader cultural and historical context.
In this way, Crenchaw’s summit has meaning that exceeds itself. Both Crenchaw and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were featured in the same 1963 issue of EBONY magazine, Mills explains: “A year later, seven days after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Crenchaw personified the metaphoric aspiration of King to reach the mountain top.”
“[‘Something Yet Higher’] is the first featured exhibit focusing exclusively on a Black mountaineer,” said Eric Rueth, who has managed the museum for the last two years. “I believe it is the first exhibit curated by a Black man but can’t confirm since we don’t have a comprehensive list of past curators.”
The museum was founded in 2008 and is jointly run by American Alpine Club and Colorado Mountain Club. It serves as an archive and a showcase of the achievements of international climbers and mountaineers, and remains the only museum of its kind. According to its website, it is “the nation’s foremost destination to experience and research mountain history,” and has an impressive collection of “over 5,000 pieces of gear, slides, prints, outfits and cultural artifacts” from around the world. That Crenchaw’s legacy should be featured by the museum in 2020 is a step toward filling in the gaps in the archives of mountaineering history, and perhaps the “adventure gap” as well.
“Something Yet Higher” will be on view until May 31, 2020.