Hot Chocolate Works Wonders in the Cold
Words & photos by Leon Hodge
Leon Hodge (@hotchocolate_in_hikingboots) appeared in our social media feeds last year after tagging us in a photo of himself carrying one of our Ice Packs. When this happens with a cool post, we frequently reach out to the poster to ask if it's alright to share it on our page. That was the case here, but Leon piqued our interest as an uncommon climber for obvious reasons. In an industry that, historically, has put forth a minimal amount of effort into the inclusion of people of color, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Black participation in the outdoors is depressingly low and underrepresented, not to mention in something as niche as Alpinism. Acknowledging the dichotomy, we asked him what the story was, and he obliged with the following. Keep an eye on Leon–he's got big, bold adventure plans, and after meeting him, we have every reason to believe he's going to accomplish them.
Hi. Leon, here. By day, I work as a CG Artist at Nickelodeon. I love being an artist. I also love exploring and climbing in frigid Alpine zones, even though I don't always have access to the good stuff in Southern California! Sometimes, though, a simple hike in LA’s Griffith Park does the trick.
And what do you know, I happen to be Black. To some of you, this might seem unique–maybe even more so because Alpinism in and of itself is far from a mainstream activity. I didn't even know it existed growing up.
I was born in Germany in a military family, so I am pretty well-traveled. But even with that, I was still consciously and subconsciously aware of "the things Black people do and don't do." Even when I thought of being an astronaut, what I saw led me to believe it was not possible. The same went for wanting to be an artist at Disney; I didn't see it happening. (*Ed. - Leon let us know he was recently offered and accepted a job at Disney–very cool! Congrats, Leon!)
I think in my heart, I was always an explorer; I just didn't know where to go. As a result, I didn't have a place I belonged–nowhere was "home" in my mind. Over time, I knew it wasn't going to be in the military. At times, I began to wonder about society in general or being in a relationship, being a father to a son, or anything really. I felt like a danger to everyone around me, so I created distance mentally and physically.
I began to battle with thoughts of suicide each day, slipping into a daily flush of not belonging on this earth. All these ups and downs had to go somewhere; unfortunately, where they went didn't help me get any closer to where I needed to be. Sitting in jail and looking up at the moon made me remember how much I dreamt about exploring it or other vast lands of high mountains. While I wondered if it was going to ever be possible to do these things, I knew for certain it wasn't going to happen in a jail cell.
Being outdoors keeps my mental state and inner demons in check. For a while, I couldn't see past the far mountains to old age, or even that I wanted to reach old age.
Now, when I'm out climbing and exploring the cold and snowy peaks, I feel more alive than ever before–even when it's tough, and I complain! My appreciation and respect for the mountains have grown tremendously.
I have never competed with anyone but myself. I want to bring awareness to people of color climbing outdoors–not for my benefit–but to see everyone together, braving the challenges in the mountains that all hikers and climbers face.
It is my goal to climb Denali Cassin Ridge, unassisted, from the base to the summit in 2021 or 2022.
For me, alpine pursuits are never just about doing death-defying stunts. I also do them because my presence, and that of every race, is needed to create a universal understanding of the beauty we are surrounded by. Because of that, I'm in the outdoors for the long haul.