Group of Indigenous climbers from Alta. trying to summit North America's highest peak

Team Denali 2023, shown here at their media launch on Oct. 22 at the climbing gym at the University of Alberta, will be climbing Mount Denali in Alaska in May. (Submitted by Leo Namen - image credit)
Team Denali 2023, shown here at their media launch on Oct. 22 at the climbing gym at the University of Alberta, will be climbing Mount Denali in Alaska in May. (Submitted by Leo Namen - image credit)

A group of mountain climbers from Alberta, most of whom are Indigenous, are preparing to tackle the highest peak in North America — and break world records doing it.

Leo Namen, a 52-year-old heart attack survivor from Edmonton, will lead seven other mountaineers up Mount Denali, in Alaska, in May. The expedition is part of Namen's goal to summit the highest peaks across all seven continents.

"I always thought, 'Well, Denali has to be for the Indigenous people,'" said Namen, who is not Indigenous.

Denali is southwest of Fairbanks, Alaska, and falls under the Alaska Range. Rising 6,190 metres above sea level, it is the third-most isolated peak on Earth.

In 1913, Hudson Stick, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum became the first people to successfully climb the mountain's south summit.

The first fatality on the mountain happened almost two decades later, in 1932. The mountain's success rate is about 50 per cent.

Submitted by Leo Namen
Submitted by Leo Namen

Team Denali 2023 is made up of members of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Bigstone Cree Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation and Woodland Cree Nation.

If successful, the group believes it would be the first Indigenous male-female team to summit the mountain. Additionally, Namen would become the first heart attack survivor to reach the top.

Shawna Goodstriker, a 41-year-old woman of the Blackfoot Confederacy, is excited to be part of the team, despite the associated risks.

She hopes to inspire younger member from her community to find opportunities, such as hiking and mountaineering, that are minimal cost.

"It doesn't cost a lot to be able to go out and to be one with nature," Goodstriker said while on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"I'm 41 years old, I'm a grandmother. But is that stopping me? No. It's making me try harder."

Submitted by Shawna Goodstriker
Submitted by Shawna Goodstriker

Namen says he has never encountered any Indigenous people during his previous adventures.

Part of that is due to lack of funding, Goodstriker said.

"We have many community members who, due to high unemployment rates, just don't have that support system in place," she said.

"If we had more services, more providers to help, we would have a lot more of our kids that would be a part of these programs."

The Denali expedition team is raising money for the Indigenous Sport Council of Alberta. A GoFundMe campaign was created; its goal is to raise $80,000.

The team is also looking for sponsors to help fund the expedition.

Training in the Rockies

Goodstriker and her brother, Joseph Many Fingers, who is also part of the team going to Alaska, are avid hikers and have climbed a variety of mountains in southern Alberta.

Before and after every climb, they pay respect by laying down tobacco at the bottom of the mountain.

Goodstriker has been training daily and plans to use the winter months to prepare for the cooler temperatures on Denali.

Namen, who, earlier this year, made his first attempt to climb Mount Everest, says Denali comes with its own challenges.

"Everest was full of assistance," he said. "In Denali, there's no such thing."

Submitted by Leo Namen
Submitted by Leo Namen

As a consequence, the training in preparation of the climb is a bit more intense, he added.

Namen has been leading his team on short but rigorous training sessions each month in the Rockies, ahead of a trial expedition in Mexico in February.

The mountain they will climb in Mexico is the third-highest on the continent, so it should more closely mimic the altitude they will encounter on Denali, he explained.