In June 2020, Evan Gill had just been laid off and needed a way to cope with his anxiety, depression, and recently diagnosed PTSD. He was a chemical biological radiological nuclear specialist with the Army National Guard. The job was daunting. Whenever his phone rang, it usually meant he’d have to deal with hazardous material spills or much worse. He’d moved to Denver from Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife and two young boys in November 2018, and successfully summited Mount Elbert, his first 14er, in 2019. He loved the experience, and now that the pandemic had given him the time and the need, he set out on a mission in June 2020 to become the first African American to summit all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
But when he topped the 14,131-foot Capitol Peak on September 25, he was actually the fourth African American man to accomplish the feat. And that change in position speaks volumes about how people of color are represented in the outdoors.
Early in his effort to summit all 58 14ers, Gill began researching if anyone had beaten him to the record. Nothing turned up. Then, he was featured in a local TV news piece in September 2020 about his endeavor. “I want to be the first one,” he told 9 News’ Bryan Wendland. “If I am not the first one, I want to be the one to help diversify the 14er community. We are in every other sport, but not this.”
The next day, it was revealed that Michael Richardson, who moved to Colorado in the 1970s, had checked off all 58 peaks way back in 1995, and two other Black men had quickly followed in Richardson’s footsteps. At that point, Gill had 34 mountains left to go.
The fact that Gill’s research didn’t turn anything up doesn’t surprise Jessica Newton, founder and CEO of Vibe Tribe Adventures, a Denver-based national nonprofit that encourages Black people and urban youth to get outdoors safely and ethically. “It’s because Black history is not documented,” she says. After seeing Gill’s segment on 9 News, she immediately reached out to offer him any assistance her organization could provide. While he may have missed his chance to be the first, she says, it had been so long since an African American had hiked all of the Centennial State’s 14ers, he was basically starting from scratch.
“We knew it just meant so much to him, and it was just so important because, number one, how are we having such huge gaps between Michael Richardson and Evan?” she says. “It’s crazy. Richardson was in the ’90s.”
Vibe Tribe provided training, gear, and financial support. The latter has been key, says Gill. “We don’t grow up with generational wealth,” he says, “so to be able to sacrifice so much time and money to do this … well it’s really hard.” To illustrate the point, he tells the story of the time his car’s serpentine belt broke 19 miles down the dirt road leading to the trail up Mt. Lindsey. It cost $675 just to get it towed back to the pavement, and by the time it was repaired, he’d racked up around a month’s rent worth of bills.
Stories like that may be one reason why during all his summit attempts he’s never seen another person of color on the trail except for those that he’s brought with him. Another reason may be that, while he loves the mountains, the rural parts of the state have never been a particularly welcoming place. That includes an increasing number of Trump campaign flags since the last presidential election, as well as Confederate flags sporting slogans like: “The South shall rise again.”
“Am I allowing that flag to represent and speak for all? No, I’m not. Still, it just shows you that those people can be anywhere,” he says. “That stuff is there, there’s no denying it, but I didn’t let that stop me. I went into this with the mindset of, ‘If I can do it, anybody else can do it.’ ”
That’s the message he’s kept preaching as he continued his quest, particularly for those in his hometown of Baltimore. “Someone once told me, ‘You know that backpack you got on? That’s Baltimore. You’re carrying Baltimore with you,’ ” he says. And it’s not just a metaphor. Next summer, he’ll help Vibe Tribe host over 80 children from the city at a nature camp in Virginia for a free, two-week adventure.
Gill has also set another goal for himself—one that would surely see him finish first in the record books. Depending on how you count, there are more than 80 mountains in the United States topping out at 14,000 feet or more, and he plans to be the first Black man to tackle them all. “I’ve never been past Utah, and I’ve never seen California or Washington,” he says. “But, really, I want to continue my education so that I can pass that knowledge on to other people of color. It’s just lacking in our neighborhoods in our society. It’s not really talked about.”
If he manages it, his achievement won’t be lost like Richardson’s. Newtown is encouraging Gill and Richardson to share their photos and other media documenting their journeys with the archive at Five Point’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. “The library will hold it as history,” she says, “because if we don’t get articles written [about our achievements], if we don’t get publicized, we don’t get a stamp that says ‘Hey, we did this.’ ”