Mountaintop Chill

A key member of the first all-African-American ascent of Denali, Adina Scott also goes against type as a scientist and musician

Almost as soon as their grand destination first came into focus, one of the most significant mountaineering expeditions in recent years was greeted, not as conquering heroes but as invaders. Thunder boomed around them like canon shots. Dark, cantankerous clouds roiled in from the west.

Adina Scott not only was thousands of miles away from home, and nearly 20,000 feet above sea level, she was in precisely the wrong place in exactly the wrong time. Scott, however, was equipped with considerable scientific training and a lifetime of experience in the outdoors. So as the storm and gloom and panic swirled, she was, much as she could be, the calm in the middle of it all.

“The mission changed,” Scott said almost matter of factly, months later in Ada’s, a technical bookstore and café in Seattle that provided a perfect setting for the nerdy and artistic alpinist. “I became very focused on making it happen.”

The history-seeking, first all-African-American attempt at the summit of the continent’s highest peak, Denali, or Mount McKinley, in Alaska, had toiled for 19 days during the summer of 2013 and was within a scant two hours of fulfilling its quest. But lightning and mountaintops make for an extremely lethal brew. So the mission was to abort.

The degree of difficulty of the retreat was unavoidably daunting. In a whiteout, the group had to evade electrical charges while employing equipment made of materials known to attract them. They had to navigate the Autobahn, the narrow, steep and icy trail from Denali Pass back to High Camp, historically the deadliest passage on the mountain.

And then there was the only real obstacle that Scott actually feared: Other people.

Weather had forced the Expedition Denali group to bunker at 14 Camp for a week, during which several other groups flowed into the bottleneck. When the skies finally cleared, more than 60 climbers bolted High Camp (17,200 feet) and broke for the summit.

“Often when I’m in the mountains I like to do more solitary climbs,” Scott said. “I’m a lot more worried about other people’s decision-making than mine.”

This is no spoiler, since Scott was interviewed for this story, but the Expedition Denali group navigated safely back. They were not geared up for another attack of the summit, so theirs is a story of inspiration and harrowing escape. The effort is the subject of both a book, ”The Adventure Gap” and a documentary, ”An American Ascent”, which was screened at the White House at the end of June.

Scott, 35, is central to the story because she may have been the most accomplished climber in the group. She shrugs this off as something that happened by default, but Scott nevertheless is testimony to how exposure at a young age can imprint a passion for the outdoors that persists and can be passed on.

It’s no stretch to surmise that someone who visited Everest Base Camp (17,598 feet) on a family vacation when she was 7 years old would not freak out in a thunderstorm at 20,000 feet on Denali. Her father, David, was a mathematics professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., her hometown. He was on a nine-month sabbatical in India when a colleague helped arrange the trip to Nepal for him, Adina, his wife Aviva, and son Jonathan.

David Scott said it didn’t seem to be a dangerous place to bring young kids. In fact, “Having children along was an incredible icebreaker,” he said. Dizzy and suffering from gastro-intestinal distress, Adina likely suffered some altitude sickness at Base Camp, and was taken to lower altitude – the most effective healer – by Sherpas.

Maybe not so coincidentally, Adina Scott says, to this day, “I don’t deal with altitude super well. I can’t deal with anything else going wrong. If I get really fatigued or if I get dehydrated or anything else like that, plus the altitude, then I’m useless.”

The altitude-plus combination contributed to her worst days on the Denali climb. Along the route from 11,000 camp to 14,000 camp, she was “really struggling with that left-foot, right-foot thing” after getting heated and not stopping enough to hydrate because of the need to get quickly past rock hazards. From 14,000 to 17,000, she was carrying extra gear to the fixed line, but the group was forced to turn back and try again the next day. Scott didn’t feel up to it the next morning, and her energy tapped quickly.

Still, Scott’s lifetime of outdoors experience helped her shine for most of the Denali expedition. A longtime family friend, Doug Walker, now chair of the Wilderness Society governing council, remembers carrying Scott to the summit of Granite Mountain, in the Cascades, when she was just 1. The Scott family vacationed or day tripped to backcountry throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as places such as the Grand Tetons. Adina Scott wasn’t always a willing participant; her father rewarded backpacking accomplishments with M&Ms and singing favorite songs.

By then, David Scott also had lived a young life outdoors. He grew up on a woodsy, suburban campus in southern Pennsylvania and went on trips with his parents. He hiked and camped around the Northeast with one college buddy, then took a two-month camping trip with another buddy throughout the West. He has a lasting, August vision of a snow-capped mountain in Washington state, to which he later lived up to his vow to return.

David Scott said he was aware of often being the lone African American in his outdoor pursuits, but never was deterred by race.

“I resolved to engage in activities that were important to me and not mold myself to fit someone else’s stereotype about what an African American should be doing and what they should be like,” he said. “Most of the people I met in the mountains were not African American but were, like I was, interested in the out of doors and were not much concerned with divisions of race.”

Race is slightly more complicated for his daughter because her mother Aviva is Jewish. In fact, during the initial meetings for Expedition Denali, Adina Scott thought she was not a target participant because she identifies more strongly as multiracial than African American.

“I’ve done a lot of diversity and inclusion type things and spent a lot of time reflecting on my identity,” Scott said. “Being mixed you’re always one of a kind. And with a lot of things I do, there aren’t a whole lot of folks like me in the room.”

Being multiracial and female isn’t the extent of the unique qualities Scott brings to mountaineering. She has a PhD in electrical engineering and has studied nanotechnology. She has spent much of the time since Expedition Denali working at Palmer Station, on Anvers Island, the only U.S. research station in Antarctica located north of the Antarctic Circle. There, Scott maintains and builds scientific equipment. That often means being on research cruises for 1-3 months at a time.

The gig combines many of her favorite things: “Nerding out with some engineering/science types, building big things and camping out in whacking places that are really beautiful.”

Scott also busts out her music background in Antarctica. She is a classically trained violinist and played fiddle and mandolin in a roots rock band. She and other musically inclined scientists have played shows at Palmer Station.

It’s tempting to hate on a person who glides through so many of life’s challenges with apparent effortlessness. That appearance had something to do with Scott pushing herself to new heights on Denali.

Adina Scott volunteers at the YMCA’s Boys Outdoor Leadership Development (BOLD) and Girls Outdoor Leadership Development (GOLD) programs. It’s how Expedition Denali reached her, in fact. Before that, she was leading one of the groups on a backpacking trip in the North Cascades. It was extremely taxing for several of the kids and at the end of each day, they’d all collapse in a heap of exhaustion.

One day, a kid looked over at Scott and said, “This is really hard for us, and you’re not really working over there. How are you going to make us work like this, when it’s not really that hard for you?”

It made Scott reconsider her role in the programs. The volunteer work was easy and enjoyable. She hadn’t thought much of the kind of example she was setting.

So Scott went for a very high mountaintop, found herself in an extremely inhospitable environment, and actually had to push herself to survive it.

Mountaintop Chill
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