Identity Steps toward inclusivity among climbers

Attention turns to a sport with room for improvement

Most climbers are white. As the makeup of their community expands, discussions – and initiatives – concerning racial equity emerge.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
A research group at Clemson University found that 1.5% of USA Climbing members and affiliates identified as African American. The number for mixed-race climbers was 4.7%. Source: Climbing Magazine

When Robert Quesada watched people climbing on a boulder with a prehistoric rock carving in California, he explained to them why it was disrespectful to ascend there. 

The petroglyph, he said, is a sacred site for the Paiute-Shoshone people who regard the area as their ancestral homeland. And Quesada noticed something culturally significant when he started climbing five years ago. 

In an outdoor sport dominated by white men, there was little acknowledgement of the Indigenous people’s stewardship of the land.

Now Quesada labels each climbing photo on his social media platforms to reflect the people who once inhabited the area, rather than listing the names given by European settlers.

“Instead of writing ‘Yosemite Valley,’” he said, “I’d write, ‘Home of the Ahwahneechee people.’ That way people would see that these lands were … maintained by people far before others came to take from it and experience that enjoyment.”

Climber Robert “Coyokiztli” Quesada labels each climbing photo on his social media platforms to reflect the people who once inhabited the area, rather than listing the names given by European settlers. “Instead of writing ‘Yosemite Valley,’” he said, “I’d write, ‘Home of the Ahwahneechee people.’ That way people would see that these lands were … maintained by people far before others came to take from it and experience that enjoyment.” (Photo by Mayela Castro)

Climbing is gaining momentum, with sport-specific gyms in nearly every U.S. state. For the first time, 40 climbers will compete in the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer

But the climbing enthusiasts numbers show that Black, Indigenous, people of color are still underrepresented in this outdoor experience. 

In 2019, Climbing Wall Association, a trade organization, conducted a survey with 12,000 climbers. The association’s summary reports that 82% were white, 12% Asian, 6% Latin or Hispanic, 2% American Indian/Native American and 1% Black or African American. (The study’s researchers allowed people to select more than one ethnic/racial category.)

In the gender category, the surveyed climbers were 56% male, 43% female and 1% nonbinary. This equals 101% due to the allowance of multiple ethnicities. 

As more nonwhite people participate in the sport, concerns about inclusivity, racial equity and social justice are surfacing. Groups such as The Brown Ascenders, Brothers of Climbing, Climbers of Color and Indigenous Womxn Climb organize panel discussions, meetups and after-hours climbing time at predominantly white gyms.

Caleb Robinson, a 20-year-old Black man, has felt uncomfortable walking into a climbing gym when he’s the only person of color in the place. “You’re bombarded with all these questions of self-doubt,” said the head route setter at the indoor climbing gym Tufas Boulder Lounge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

“You have a lack of representation,” said Robinson. “For a person of color or any minority to go into that space, you think, ‘I don’t even see anyone who looks like me.’”

Founded by white men in 2018, Tufas Boulder Lounge adopted an inclusive climate and anti-racist initiatives such as recruiting a diverse and inclusive staff and consulting with the  People of Color Climbing Club to develop an anti-racist statement. It also offers a gym scholarship, prioritizing nonwhite youths, ages 8 to 18.

Robert Quesada climbs Mickey’s Beach, Calif., in 2015. (Photo by Diego Gamez)

The company also enacted sliding-scale prices for every customer. “(A) sliding scale … avoids the assumption that all BIPOC need financial support,” said Rachel Fifer, general manager at Tufas Boulder Lounge. “Many of our BIPOC supporters have given extra on the sliding scale in order to support others accessing the space.”

The Bouldering Project, a climbing gym, located in Austin, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Seattle, Washington, formed an emergency Racial Justice Committee in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Tonde Katiyo, director of route setting, joined the effort. He was among the five people who attend weekly Zoom meetings to discuss ways to acknowledge systemic racism and the wealth gap. 

“We are moving into neighborhoods that are participating in gentrification,” said Katiyo. “We want to be very mindful of our impact as a business and ensuring if we do move into a neighborhood that has people of color, that our impact is positive on the community.”

Meagan Martin, a seven-season “American Ninja Warrior” participant and ESPN commentator for USA Climbing competitions in 2019 and 2020, isn’t immune to the issues that BIPOC climbers face. 

As a professional climber, the Sacramento, California, resident has been been in obscure outdoor climbing situations where she hasn’t felt safe because of being a person of color. 

In 2020, Martin went climbing with friends at Shuteye Ridge in Bass Lake, California. When a car with a Confederate flag drove past, the man inside looked at Martin and shook his head. 

Martin was the only Black person in the group. “It felt less than ideal,” she said, adding that the incident made her feel uncomfortable for the remainder of that day’s outing.

Martin serves on USA Climbing’s diversity, equity and inclusion task force, and she makes a point of giving presentations and keynote addresses about confidence and breaking through barriers to girl-focused groups, such as Brown Girls Climb

Recently Martin worked with a young, biracial girl for a sponsor’s photo shoot. She and the young girl share a similar racial background: Both have a Black father and a white mother. 

“Growing up, I never I never realized how powerful that can be to see somebody who looks like you doing well,” said Martin. “I think it is really important to have role models who look like you to show you that it is possible. I feel like with (2020), it’s more important to speak up about things and bring attention to certain circumstances.”

Share your thoughts

Vanessa Infanzon

Identity

Abiding Faith

Stories left today Choose a subscription level (one is free) or login
Episode Steps toward inclusivity among climbers