HEADING FOR HOME, we hurried down the wooded trail from our base camp on Mt. Baker. More than twelve hours earlier, our small team had stood atop one of the most glaciated peaks in the Lower 48. With almost three decades of mountaineering experience, Stephen Shobe had the steady, confident strides of a man who knows exactly where he’s going. Despite his heavy pack, his face glistened with only the slightest sheen of sweat. He never paused to catch his breath, even as he vaulted over fallen trees and errant boulders. Instead, he kept up a constant stream of tales, recounting his adventures around the world.
THOUGH TEN YEARS YOUNGER, I struggled to keep pace. Sorely winded, I desperately tried not to laugh, but each story Shobe shared was more hilarious than the last, and the sharp intakes of air with every chortling gasp caused my lungs to ache–a night retreat from a climb with a skittish client, a rodent that nibbled a fixed line to tattered threads, each near tragedy turned to triumph with a comic punch line. His buoyant sense of humor seemed to lift the straps of my pack and lighten my load. During my early days in the mountains, I’d had few role models who shared my heritage as a Black man climbing in America. Now, I wanted to follow wherever he might lead.
Born in 1956, Shobe grew up in a neighborhood similar to my own in Los Angeles County, California. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Black people such as Shobe’s parents and mine were prohibited from living, working or playing wherever they desired. His was one of the first Black families allowed to purchase a house in the rapidly expanding suburban sprawl of LA, in an area that is now known as Compton, but was once farmland. Blessed with a profound capacity for wonder and curiosity, Shobe and his brothers loved to explore the green spaces that still rimmed the edges of their community in those days. They climbed trees to test their fear of heights and rode bikes to see what lay beyond the railroad tracks.
Shobe’s mother later became the head of the Salvation Army’s social services in Omaha, Nebraska. His father worked in LA as a field engineer for NBC. Both parents encouraged him to excel at every endeavor. Despite his good grades, however, he was denied admission to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, told that he couldn’t compete with (white) students from schools more prestigious than Compton High. Undaunted, he enlisted as a common seaman and trained as a diver and a helicopter pilot. After his service, Shobe took a job as an AT&T line technician, scaling high towers for a living. When he began climbing mountains, first as a novice and later as a professional guide, he discovered a perfect outlet for his adventurous and irreverent spirit.
“I was always a guy on the outside because I hadn’t found my niche. Rock climbing was my niche,” he once told me. “It was something that I was good at. And I had a decent personality, so it was easy for me to meet people. And when they met me they would say things like, ‘You’re the first Black rock climber I’ve ever met.'” Over the years, Shobe has summited peaks as far ranging as Aconcagua, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Kosciuszko. He has also climbed hard sport routes at crags such as Owens River Gorge and Mt. Charleston. In 2013, at age fifty-six, he joined Expedition Denali, a group of nine Black climbers who seek to promote diversity in outdoor recreation. After attempting Denali together (an electrical storm at 19,700 feet forced their retreat), he and other members have spoken at schools, neighborhood centers and churches, aiming to reach audiences who might not see themselves as the protagonists of climbing stories–and who might not realize they too could enjoy the freedom of wild places. “He has a genuine love for the mountains that is inescapable,” says teammate Stephen DeBerry. “When I might find myself doubting or wondering why the hell I would spend my free time suffering on a giant rock, I would hear Steve joking and chiding and living free, and then I’d remember why. He is the enduring, breathing, yearning definition of what it is to be a climber.”