Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Climbing

By Lisa Jennings

“In diversity, there is beauty and there is strength” -I forget but it’s damn good.

Disclaimer: I don’t have the answers; this is just how I’ve learned to contemplate, navigate, explore, gain strength, stumble, heal, cry, and laugh in climbing and other outdoor spaces. 

Climbing is a feeling. It’s this innate and primal pull and curiosity to explore. I love that it can be as simple as you and a rock (or tree!). I also love that it can include complex anchor and rope systems that challenge our limits of organization, foresight, and trust. Arriving to a place, both mentally and physically, where I feel comfortable calling myself a climber and feeling at ease in climbing environments has been the greatest challenge of all though. 

LGBTQ+ and BIPOC in the Climbing World

The world of climbing is changing rapidly, but I argue, is still hetero-white-male centered/dominated. Yes, when I go to the gym these days, I increasingly see people of all shapes and colors. My local gyms host Queer Climb nights and give out stickers with rainbows professing to be yourself. It’s an honest effort to be more inclusive, but where does equity fit in? I think it has start with introspection on the part of the dominant culture. As a community, climbers (white and mostly male) need to reflect on their relative positions of power and their ability to create more welcoming atmospheres. It won’t be a comfortable process but is critical for more BIPOC, LGTBQ+, and other minoritized populations to feel as though they belong, specifically in rock climbing, and more generally, in the outdoors. 

So, how could this look in real life? It’s a tall order to ask anyone to look introspectively without any guidance, so gyms, climbing brands, and pros need to aid this effort. Nothing like consumer buy-in when people see a person, brand, or organization that they already respect taking part in or guiding an initiative. Thankfully, there are more professional climbers of color, who are part of the LGTBQ+ community, and/or are people with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Yes, they can advocate and mentor; however, we also need allyship from those in the dominant culture. If the white-bro culture of climbing begins to shift fundamentally from within to be more inclusive, I believe more marginalized people will not only participate, but also thrive in climbing pursuits. 

What Can And Should We Do?

I’m not quiet, for one. I’ve learned to speak intelligently about the whats, whys, and hows of bigotry in the outdoors. This includes talking about the importance of changing derogatory route names and how stereotype threat is not reserved for academia. On the inside, I may be raging, but outwardly I try to calmly explain how these seemingly small occurrences can have long-term and devastating consequences for people who have historically been excluded from the outdoors. I submit suggested revisions for route names on Mountain Project and I write emails when I see microaggressions occurring at the gym. Recently, a group friends and I wrote emails addressing the increase in gym fees, as this practice will continue to create gaps in who has access to these spaces. 

Secondly, I travel in groups with people from similarly, or other minoritized, communities. Growing up in Virginia, I quickly learned there are places that I’m not welcome. Unfortunately, many of these remote and rural areas and nearby towns, are where some of the best climbing is. So, I remain aware of my surroundings, and travel with others. Thankfully, climbing typically requires a partner, so this generally isn’t an issue. Over the years, I’ve cultivated my “power stance” which is really just good posture, but it helps remind myself that I belong in these spaces. It looks like this- shoulders up and back, head and neck long, and I look forward. I actively tell myself not to be intimidated at gas stations, small cafes and bars, and markets. I belong.

Thirdly, and possibly in contrast to guideline #2, I’ve also learned to be as self-sufficient as possible. This also aligns with how I travel in general as well as leave no trace principles, but it’s a safety mechanism. If I can avoid having to visit establishments in small, rural towns I will. I bring the necessary food, drinks, water, fuel, equipment, and other gear. Camping can be an issue as the best spots are often off the beaten path, leaving you in areas frequented by locals. I have yet to run into an issue camping in these types of places, but again, I remain aware of my surroundings, travel in groups, and do as much research about the area and nearby town as I can.

Concluding Thoughts

Over the years, I’ve witnessed a shift in the climate of some small towns near crags toward a more welcoming atmosphere, but its slow and not universal. I fell in love with climbing over 10 years ago during a time when I was often the only women of color at a crag. 

Today, I cherish the experience of climbing with or near groups of all women, groups of color, and groups with people who don’t fit the 0% body fat category

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