When she thinks about the AdAmAn Club, Patricia Cameron sighs and looks down at her right hand, at the tattoo of her beloved mountain.
“I climb Pikes Peak,” she says. “There are plenty of people of color and women you can find.”
But you’ll find few to none in the historic group synonymous with America’s Mountain.
Every New Year’s when the AdAmAn Club braves the climb for Colorado Springs’ deep-rooted tradition of fireworks at 14,115 feet, the scene is always of white, middle- to late-aged men, save for the occasional woman or two. True to the name, a man has been added to the membership every year for all but three times in 99 years, when white women joined the roster.
Cameron, a Black woman who has called the Springs home since 1994, caught headlines last summer while thru-hiking the Colorado Trail and raising awareness about the lack of diversity on trails everywhere. She’s the founder of nonprofit Blackpackers, connecting underserved people to the outdoors.
And to her, the look of her town’s revered outdoor group is “disheartening.”
“And honestly, it’s kind of offensive,” she says. “I just don’t understand how that can happen. ... In this day and age and where we’re trying to go, and especially with just how front-facing underrepresentation is in the outdoors. It’s really out there and super front-facing.”
Outdoor circles have joined greater society in reckoning with racial and gender discrimination. From influential companies like Vail Resorts and REI, to the Sierra Club, to the Colorado Mountain Club, to the National Park Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, inclusivity has moved closer to the forefront of organizational goals in recent years. This, they have stated, is not only a matter of right and wrong, but also a matter of persisting or perishing in a country with changing demographics.
Several groups like Blackpackers have emerged in the last decade to see that change through. They’ve called on a change to white-focused advertising, media coverage, staffing and leadership and other systems at play that exclude groups and prolong prejudice in the outdoors.
Change starts at the local level, says Christian La Mont, a Los Angeles-based leader with Latino Outdoors who grew up in Colorado Springs. “Representation matters,” he says, echoing the movement aimed at creating welcoming atmospheres.
“It’s about community. You are stronger together,” La Mont adds. “There is no better time than right now to say, ‘You know what, we see it, we know it, and without the people that came before us, we wouldn’t be where we are, but we want to do better for the people that come after us.’”
’Good ol’ boys show’
Into its 100th anniversary year, the AdAmAn Club shares the recognition, says Dan Stuart, the group’s president.
Fellow leaders and members say they’ve made an observation: Perhaps the club hasn’t grown enough from its roots. The storied Frozen Five first ascended the snow- and wind-swept peak in 1922 to launch fireworks at the midnight turn of the new year.
These were five well-regarded men in town below. They proceeded to bring into the club people who looked like them. Friends and relatives became the trend.
And so it’s largely continued, Stuart says.
“I’m aware that we can’t change our past, but I do think we can change the club’s future,” he says. “And I do fully expect we’ll evolve and become more diverse, and I’ll be delighted as that happens. We’re absolutely hoping our applicant pool can grow and better reflect the community.”
The AdAmAn organization, he says, is not like others mentioned in this story. The Colorado Mountain Club, for example, has a wide reach and packed schedule throughout the year. With a small calendar of events leading up to the New Year’s Eve climb — at least one trail workday and a meeting preceding a dinner where the new member is announced — the club lacks a certain formality.
Only recently did the club become more active on Facebook, posting more year-round to its 10,000-plus followers, Stuart says. But “we don’t exactly have a process that invites thousands of people to be part of what we’re doing.”
On the contrary, the club is limited and exclusive. And “very, very competitive,” says Brooke Chestnut, the man added to the roster in 2016.
He enjoys the camaraderie every year, the trail banter and fun-filled overnight at Barr Camp en route to the summit. But he admits: “Because there has been no diversity, because there’s no inclusivity, it almost seems to me like the good ol’ boys show.”
The club has long expressed interest in more youths and more women. But Chestnut has advised a broader reach for the sake of the group’s ability to last.
“The club would be more sustainable, more interesting, more followed, if we get different genders and different people from different backgrounds,” he says.
Earning the honor
Chestnut’s is a fairly common track to prospective membership. He made the New Year’s journey as a guest seven times before attaining membership. Some guests climb more before being officially added, some fewer.
Always, a guest’s chances to tag along are based on the number of hiker slots available. Members have historically had first dibs, with the modern total of guests and members permitted on the trail being about 30.
And always for a guest to become a member, he or she must be liked by the wider club. A vote is made every fall.
These winter climbs are serious, deadly business, explains Ann Nichols, the last woman to be inducted into the club in 2011 and now serving as its treasurer. (The previous two women added were wives of members.)
“If you sign up for it, you have to be a companion, you have to be sociable, you have to watch out for other people,” Nichols says. “You have to like them, and they have to like you. It has to be a compatible arrangement.”
One submits an application with two pillars: mountain experience and community service. Bonus goes to someone certified to launch fireworks or someone with an interest to get certified. And bonus goes to someone with a “sponsor” — a member who can vouch for his or her worthiness in the club.
There might be 30 applications received annually, Stuart says. While he has no way of knowing if a person of color is applying — no box to check for that — he says there have been two to six women applying every year on average.
Stephanie DiCenso has been one of them for the past four years. “A name like (AdAmAn) alone has probably deterred women in the first place from wanting to join,” she says.
Not her. A Springs native and fourteener aficionado, she grew up watching the fireworks every year and feels she has what it takes to join the tradition. It’s been “disheartening” to not get the chance, she says. “They obviously keep on accepting men every year.”
Though, DiCenso can understand. “There’s only so many spots,” she says.
Stuart can count with one or two hands the number of applicants chosen as guest climbers each year, with priority typically going to returning guests. The limitations mean “the club grows very, very slowly,” he says. “If there’s a downside to that, it’s that we miss out on some wonderful people as members.”
Ling Li, for one, feels she was missed.
No doubt she had the climbing resume. She’s locally renowned for avidly ascending Pikes Peak and known by her clients as the travel agent taking them on far-flung trips around the globe. The Himalayas are among her summits.
Li considered it “a great honor” to be an AdAmAn guest in 2016. A film crew was along for that trip.
“Apparently I’m in the video talking about how great Ad-AmAn is and how it’s all about camaraderie and helping each other and it doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white or male or female or old or young, we all support each other,” she says. She chuckles. Having not received an invite back, she feels differently now.
Li recalls reaching the summit first that year, and maybe that was improper. Maybe, she thinks, she should’ve stayed with others struggling. Maybe there was something more to it, she thinks. Not worth debating, she says, speaking as a proud woman of Asian descent.
“I just want there to be change for the next woman out there,” she says.
Action for the future
In recent years, the club has added meet-and-greets to its list of events in an attempt to appeal to a larger community base.
But “we haven’t been able to generate a lot of interest,” Nichols says. “I think we’ve gotta think about why that is, and who we need to reach out to remedy that.”
It’s a good start, says La Mont with Latino Outdoors. For any group looking to change, he recommends inclusion and implicit bias training.
“We all have good intentions,” he says. “The bigger issue is whether those intentions are turned into actions.”
Cameron indeed sees an issue with the club she’s known much of her life. The AdAmAn makeup lends to that feeling she’s felt at times in the Springs. “Like I’m watching a movie,” she says, “but I’m not in the movie.”
She’s known those AdAmAn climbers as others have. Known them for bringing new year cheer no matter the conditions. Steep, rugged, snow packed and snowing, the winds furious and freezing. They bear the uncomfortable — at least physically, Cameron says.
But she wonders. “Are they putting the effort into an uncomfortable conversation?”