When Cason Crane, now 28, was about 18 years old, he was climbing Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. There, he encountered an obstacle he had never met before while ascending: homophobia.
Denali is already “the most physically rigorous” of the world’s tallest mountains, attests the gay mountaineer, who recalled the arduous task of dragging a sled across a glacier with an 80-pound backpack while also avoiding the lethal risks of crevasses and avalanches.
During this climb, he encountered a group of “wounded warriors,” military veterans who had been injured in service of their country. He was “so excited to see them” due to their life experiences. But as the saying goes, “never meet your heroes.”
“I was really, really crushed when they responded to my energy and enthusiasm and outspoken Pride with very nasty language…using words that I don’t care to repeat,” recounts Crane, who carried a rainbow flag with him to plant on the mountaintop. “It was very disappointing for me more than anything, because these are people who were heroes of mine.”
The experience of encountering hatred is not commonplace for Crane, a history-making climber who in 2013 became the first out gay person to conquer the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent. This group was “in the minority,” he assures.
However, Crane also recognizes how minority stress can impact an adventure. “Even just being an LGBT person in the outdoors, there’s always an element of anxiety,” he says.
On Denali, Crane was able to overcome this anxiety with the help of another LGBTQ+ person: Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, the first out gay woman to scale the Seven Summits. Her story will be featured in an upcoming memoir and film starring Selena Gomez. Both are also members of the Explorers Club, a prestigious society that promotes scientific exploration.
Crane was ascending with Vasquez-Lavado, and at one point she pulled him aside and came out to him. She told him that his outspokenness gave her greater confidence to be open about her own identity. It was “the highest compliment” he’s received, Crane says. It also drove home the importance of his bringing LGBTQ+ visibility to the Seven Summits, a quest that also raised funds and visibility for the Trevor Project.
“That’s the exact reason why: to empower other people in our community to feel comfortable being out and proud and visible in our outdoors,” he declares.
The symbolic parallels of climbing mountains and being out are not lost on the New Jersey native — as is the need for resilience. “When you’re at 28,000 feet, going up to the summit of Everest, it feels like you can’t breathe because there’s so little oxygen, and you can’t make it and you can’t take that next step,” he says. “But you just will yourself to place that foot in front of the other. And you do that on repeat. And I thought it spoke so accurately to the experience of growing up as an LGBT person.”
Denali was not the first time Crane has heard antigay slurs. After he came out at age 14, as a freshman in high school, an upperclassman screamed the f word at him across the campus. But rather than hinder Crane, the experience made him push himself harder in his athletic pursuits. He eventually became captain of the track and cross-country teams.
“Being openly gay, when you have negative experiences, it provides blueprints for being able to overcome obstacles in other aspects of life,” he says.
Crane, who in lockdown has launched the Explorer Cold Brew Co. to help energize others, encourages other LGBTQ+ people to conquer their fears and explore the great outdoors. He would give them the same advice he learned on that Denali climb: “Find a friend.”