Don Nguyen & Climbers of Color Are Closing the Mountaineering Gap

Don Nguyen’s first commercial guiding trip out of Mt. Rainier did not go as planned. Midway up the mountain a slow moving client stopped suddenly in his tracks while clutching his chest in pain. He was having a heart attack. It was Nguyen’s first time in charge of a rope team on Rainier and one of his clients was in serious danger of dying. To make matters worse, a storm was bearing down on the group, complicating the already complex medical evacuation that would unfold over the next several hours. Talk about beginner’s bad luck.

Then there are trips that go without a hitch. During his most recent Denali climb Nguyen was assigned to assist Vern Tejas. He’s a 65 year old commercial guide with 59 Denali summits who runs his trips like a well oiled machine including a guitar, a harmonica and camp songs each night.

 Mountaineering guide Don Nguyen at Ingraham Glacier on Mt. Rainier (Photo credit: Dan Bott)

Mountaineering guide Don Nguyen at Ingraham Glacier on Mt. Rainier (Photo credit: Dan Bott)

According to Nguyen, neither scenario is typical. Most guided trips fall somewhere in between. With three years of commercial guiding experience and over ten Rainier summits under his belt, Nguyen could still be described as an industry newcomer. But he’s been taking notes and he’s ready to make some changes.

Nguyen grew up in a Vietnamese immigrant family, the second youngest of six children. To say his family is deeply influenced by the Vietnamese War would be an understatement. His father, a physician and an Army officer, survived four years as a prisoner of war. They are also deeply influenced by Little Saigon in Oklahoma City, where they made their home and its environs where Nguyen grew up hiking, fishing and rock climbing. His four older siblings who immigrated to America with his parents all became physicians. He and his younger sister, who were born in Oklahoma, took less traditional tracks. They both studied pre-medicine in undergrad. Then she went east to Baltimore to become a painter and Nguyen went west to the Colorado Mountain College to study mountaineering.

As a young adult he had fallen in love with climbing and the allure of the distant Rockies. There was also a practical aspect to studying mountaineering. He realized early on that becoming a successful climber required finding a mentor and developing professional skills. But that was easier said than done. During undergrad, he struggled to find someone who was willing to take on a new climber. Between living life and going to school he noticed that friend groups had already been formed. He kept searching for mentors before finally deciding to study mountaineering and become the person he had been searching for.

At guide school in Colorado, Nguyen met some amazing mentors to include leaders who spoke warmly of their own outdoor role models. One such example was Kent Clement, an outdoor educator at the Colorado Mountain College who told stories about his mentor, Paul Petzoldt; a famed mountaineering prodigy and the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School. Nguyen tells the story of Clement and Petzoldt with the familiarity of a practiced business pitch—which it is: “The relationship between Clement and Petzoldt unfolded over 35 years. That’s a lot of time. Those decades long mountaineering relationships which are necessary for the development of outdoor leaders and the transfer of mountaineering skills don’t exist within the POC community. So the reality is there’s a multigenerational gap in outdoor relationships.”

The premise isn’t new. Multiple scholars, athletes and journalists have spoken about #theadventuregap in outdoor communities of color. According to Nguyen, here’s why it matters: the mountaineering community is modeled upon a mentor-mentee approach to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. It’s a hands on industry, and that aspect seems to stay the same—even in the age of smart phones and mobile apps. So if you’re a Person of Color trying to get folks in your community excited about mountaineering, how do you catch up with that?

Nguyen’s answer is simple: “to catch up you either wait 30 or 40 years or you do it fast. I’m trying to do it fast.” Last winter, he sat down with co-collaborators, Chris Chalaka and Mariko Ching of Outdoor Asian in order to design Mountaineering Leadership I. He describes it as “a boot camp for mountaineering to make up time.”  It’s a weekend course focused on preparing outdoor leaders from grassroots diversity and inclusion organizations to be successful within their current leadership roles as outdoor guides and educators. Nguyen defines success as this: I’m going to train the mentors so they can mentor someone else.  His train the trainer approach has a name: Climbers of Color.

Nguyen is also keenly aware of his own limitations. He explains that “as a mountain guide I see people for a few days and they move on. There’s this limiting factor to time as a commercial guide. You’re not really a friend or mentor. So for climbers of color to enter that mentorship scene I sought out folks who are already mentors in outdoor education.” The first iteration of the course included outdoor leaders such as Alfonso Oroszco and Michelle Piñon from Latino Outdoors and Brown Girls Climb Leader, Monserrat Matehuala who was recently featured in The North Face Walls Are Meant For Climbing campaign.

His efforts represent a new way of thinking about People of Color in the outdoors from the guiding industry’s perspective. Nguyen is frank about his observations of the guiding industry. It looks like “rich old white dudes in charge of a younger set of rich white dudes in charge of a poor set of white dudes.” His goal is to change that.

As a new guide he worked for a very prestigious guiding service in the Pacific Northwest where he was the only Person of Color in staff. He jokes about the experience now saying “I quickly realized that I was a token. Then I realized I was a token in a hostile work environment.” He also noticed that the clientele seemed to nearly exclusively reflect their hiring practices. Whenever he discussed diversity to include the creation of a diversity themed Instagram tag, he recalls that “management looked at me funny. They told me that’s not who they work with. They expected their client to be a conservative white male around the age of 40.”

Initially, Nguyen remained optimistic that things would change. A natural problem solver, he also took matters into his own hands. “Every time there was a POC client it was kind of like a little resistance movement. I would talk to them and ask them to tag their photos #Climbersofcolor to help get the word out.” Eventually he made the decision to leave; resolving that “if I have to hide who I am and the fact that I care about diversity what am I doing here?” He noticed that Alpine Ascents was making some bold moves towards diversity. In his few interactions with them he had already met multiple Sherpa guides and an African American woman in an administrative leadership position. So he quit and tried out for Alpine Ascents. The decision paid off. Alpine Ascents is supporting his efforts to get Climbers of Color off the ground and subsidizing costs for Mountaineering Leadership II.

Mountaineering Leadership II will be held August 8-10. It’s a glacier skills course focusing on rope skills and group management. There are nine slots available. Climbers of Color is currently soliciting monetary donations as well as used gear to include boots, axes, crampons, screws, pickets, carabiners, cams, nuts. For a complete list or for questions please email climbersofcolor@gmail.com.

To learn more about Climbers of Color check out their website and Instagram. Don Nguyen and Climbers of Color were recently featured on Outside Online. You can find that article here.