Climbing Privilege

Narinda (left) and Diana

Over the past several weeks I’ve had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people. On the road across the west on the 5Point to Mountainfilm tour my travels have taken me to a few of the premiere climbing spots in the nation. Along the way I’ve shared a bit about my personal life in adventure. Through the course of that exploration in particular I’ve connected with several people who each continually struggle with their identity in the wild world as a person of color. Several online articles and discussions have sparked up on other web sites. And as it happens I had the pleasure to meet one author on my way through Los Angeles.

Narinda Heng and I connected with her partner Diana at the Pie Hole in the newly gentrified Downtown. Her essay posted to the site Girls Like Giants, An Ideological Mess or: How I Learned to Not Stop Worrying and Still Love Rock Climbing examines race, gender and class within the climbing community and naturally caught my attention. So we arranged a meeting.

Over green tea and a delicious Lemon Meringue we talked about some of cultural limitations we face as climbers of color. And despite what you might think much of what I discovered was that rather than feeling discriminated against by others we, at least the three of us, tend to self-select ourselves out of experiences in which we are likely to be the only non-whites.

Climbing by its very nature is a sport that opens up an individual to profound vulnerability. The exposure to altitude and gravity weighs heavy on the mind as well as the body. Add to that the psychological pressure of standing out because you’re different from everyone around you and the fear becomes all the more confounding. As you press arms and hands feet and legs to perform it’s hard to put aside the idea, real or imagined, that all eyes are upon you, minds wondering if this brown person will fall.

“White people have no idea what that feels like,” Narinda said.

As first generation Asian-Americans Narinda and Diana also have to contend with the cultural expectations of their families. Coming to this country to give their children a better life immigrant parents have difficulty reconciling the notion of self-imposed struggle. Diana, a medical student, said her folks hope climbing is just a phase she’s going through. One day she’ll go back to playing the violin. The same might be said of my own mom and dad who fought racial segregation through the 60’s to make a more comfortable life for themselves and my four brothers and sisters. It’s tough to honor their sacrifice and my legacy while in pursuit of adventure living out of my car eating cold canned sardines and tortillas steamed over a backpacking stove.

But this is a privilege I have assumed for myself. Like any undertaking in life I must make the most of the opportunities with which I’ve been blessed to create an excellent expression of my highest ideals. I really can’t afford to devote much time to what other people think about my efforts as a climber or a writer or as an artist. I must put aside my fears and apprehensions to lead the life that suits my talents and interests. That’s a privilege we all enjoy regardless of race and today in this free nation of ours it is one of the few rights we can only deny ourselves.

Through this journey I’ve come to understand that my purpose in exploring these very complex issues to is hopeful help others to realize that any limitations they experience in life come from within. And though we struggle to overcome external forces that seem dead set against us it’s indeed our privilege to find the strength within ourselves to climb up and ascend to the height of our greatest ambitions.

Go be joyful!
The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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