Charles Crenchaw: The First African-American to climb Denali

Charles Crenchaw, the first African-American to summit Denali on July 9, 1964, climbed the peak as a member of a Mountaineers trip. His story is one of many told in the book "The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors" by journalist James Edward Mills, excerpted here.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
March 08, 2016
Charles Crenchaw: The First African-American to climb Denali
Photo of Charles Crenchaw—photo credit Dee Molenaar, cover image of The Adventure Gap, photo of James Edward Mills, courtesy of James.

Charles Crenchaw, the first African-American to summit Denali on July 9, 1964, climbed the peak as a member of a Mountaineers trip. His story is one of many told in the book  The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors by journalist James Edward Mills, excerpted here. 

"It had been so easy today for most of the climbers that it was hard for them to realize they were actually standing on the summit of Mt. McKinley, the highest point of North America," read the archive log. "Climbers found themselves searching through the clouds for something yet higher."

Crenchaw arrived on the summit at 1:30 p.m. accompanied by Frances and Al Randall. A photograph of the three climbers together taken by Charles DeHart illustrates the pages of the team’s official report.

“We congratulated each other, wiped away a few tears and then went to work,” Crenchaw wrote. Making the first high altitude radiotelephone transmission in history, Chuck DeHart placed a collect call to his landlady in Seattle before turning the device over to Randall who called Ome Daiber of the Seattle unit Mountain Rescue Council to report the successful summit. He also placed calls to the superintendent of McKinley National Park and pilot Cliff Hudson.

The team made it back to high camp by 5 p.m. Although they had hoped to make an attempt of Denali’s somewhat shorter North Peak, the following morning, heavy snow began to fall and didn’t let up for the next two days. Recalling the tragedies that had befallen past expeditions on their descent, the team decided to pack their gear and head for home. Pat Chamay was still in a weakened state and Crenchaw had a badly infected finger that was not responding well to antibiotics. As soon as the weather permitted on July 12, the entire party descended to the camp on Karstens Ridge.

"We proceeded with care, fully aware that Mt. Koven and Mt. Carpe had been named for climbers who had been swallowed by a crevasse in the Greater Icefall," wrote Norman Benton in his 2003 memoir of the climb. "We were not hankering to have a mountain named for any of us."

Over the next three days, as the team made their way down the mountain, the weather grew progressively warmer, but the going was slow through the Great Ice Fall and even slower through the Lower Ice Fall. Several recent avalanches had dislodged massive piles of ice and rock and dramatically changed the landscape from what it had been just two weeks earlier. Crenchaw described this portion of the route as being "like going through the gates of hell." The team finally made it back safely to McGonagall Pass. After being on the move for 22 hours on July 14, they were all relieved to be off the Muldrow Glacier.

The team spent one final night by the McKinley River then began to cross early the next morning. A sudden surge of water swept seven members of the team off their feet, and Pat Chamay was carried downriver almost 25 yards before he was able to regain his balance and stand. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt and the only casualty was some lost equipment. Back out on the highway, they hitched rides back to the bus. When they reached the hotel, Crenchaw received medical attention for his finger. After hot baths and long overdue shaves for the men, the team gathered for a farewell dinner.

"The Mountaineers' McKinley Outing had been a complete success," wrote Crenchaw, "because of careful planning and attention given to each minuscule detail, the close teamwork of the party and the exceptional leadership of Al Randall."

In all accounts of the expedition, Crenchaw was an equal and well-supported member of the team. The fact that he was black appeared to be wholly irrelevant. His race is mentioned only once at the end among the list of the team's accomplishments. "The First Negro to climb Mt. McKinley — Charles Crenchaw" is included with the same weight and bearing as "The largest number of women to reach the summit — 3 in one party" or "the largest number of husband-wife teams — 2." These details were recorded for posterity like baseball statistics, worthy of note but hardly a Jackie Robinson moment. Like so many achievements in climbing, the fact of its having occurred would be recognized and celebrated only by those to whom such things truly mattered. Crenchaw, like most climbers, upon his return probably took a day or two off from work before heading back to his job at Boeing with a few new water-cooler stories and snapshots.

Crenchaw went on to climb many more mountains over the course of his lifetime and served on the board of directors of the American Alpine Club for many years. He died after a long illness in 1998. Tragically, his accomplishments and legacy went completely unknown and uncelebrated by the next generation of African-American climbers, who might have followed in his footsteps and tackled McKinley themselves if they had only known. Now, in 2013, the members of Expedition Denali aimed to duplicate his feat with similar style, passion, and humility.

Since the release of The Adventure Gap in October 2014, author James Edwards Mills has given presentations around the country, from Princeton University to Colorado Outward Bound’s Annual Dinner. Attend a live, local author presentation and film screening on April 21 at Renton’s Carco Theatre with King County Library; for more information contact Mountaineers Books,

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