23 Oct Color The Crag ~ The Climbing Culture of Inclusion
At first I was afraid I’d have to say no. When the organizers of the Color The Crag Climbing Festival reached out to me to be the keynote speaker at their second annual event, I was already heavily booked. I was scheduled to make presentations at the Adventure Film Festival in Boulder and the Society for Wilderness Stewardship Workshop in Gunnison in early October. Hurricane Florence had forced the rescheduling of a photo story sharing project in South Carolina to the week before. And I had promised my brothers and sisters that I would help take care of my dad, who’s on home health care in Los Angeles, while they go on a long overdue vacation. But it just so happened I had a 48-hour opening in my travel plans that would allow me to make a stop in Steele, Alabama.
Color the Crag is unlike any climbing festival in the world. Set in the heart of the former Jim Crow South, about 45 miles from Birmingham, the CTCCF is the only event of its kind, organized for people of color by people of color. Put together by the POC affinity groups Brown Girls Climb and Brothers of Climbing, the gathering at Horse Pens 40 has the feel of a family reunion. Black and brown folks from all over the country came together to get their collective climb on. Though all climbing festivals are open to anyone who wants to attend, CTC offers a safe space for folks across the racial spectrum to share their passion for outdoor climbing, to practice their skills, swap stories and build community. Dominated by a culture steeped in white masculinity, gender bias and privilege, rock climbing festivals can be an intimidating space for under represented minorities who are new to the sport. Color the Crag works at stripping away those limitations and opening up a world of possibilities to a new generation of aspiring climbers. They’re creating a culture of inclusion.
My first climbing event was almost 30 years ago. In 1990, the year after I graduated from college, I drove my late model Suzuki Samurai convertible to Park City, Utah for the Snowbird Sport Climbing International World Cup competition. As an African-American kid from L.A. just starting out in climbing I was more than a little nervous to simply show up and get involved. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. But attracted by a general call for volunteers to help out during the event I figured I’d make the drive to see what would happen. What did I have to lose?
During the time I spent at Snowbird I met and became acquainted with many people who are still my friends to this day. I met Nancy Prichard Bouchard who now is a freelance journalist and works for Five-Ten and Adidas Outdoor, Alison Osius who is my editor at Rock & Ice Magazine, Bobbi Bensman who is now an outdoor industry sales rep in the Rockies, Kurt Smith who is a sales rep in the South East, Will Gadd who is a prominent adventure writer and filmmaker in Canmore, Alberta and Hans Florine whose book called On the Nose, about his 100th ascent of El Capitan, was released in 2016. It was during that weekend that I also the met Todd Skinner, a good friend who sadly died in a tragic climbing accident on the Leaning Tower in Yosemite in 2006. And of course there was where I met the event’s creator Jeff Lowe who passed away only a few weeks ago after a long battle with a degenerative illness similar to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
It’s safe to say. That first climbing event helped me to establish many of the long-standing relationships that began my career in the outdoor industry. At Snowbird I also met Ann Krcik who, while I was at The North Face in the early 90’s, became my first professional mentor. She also passed away this year after a tough fight with cancer. Among the many things that I learned from Ann was the importance of paying forward the support and kindness you receive from other people. She went out of her way to make feel welcome and supported my ambitions to become the outdoor professional I am today. How could I do any less?
As I looked out over the crowd at Color The Crag I thought back to that young man who believed that he might find a place in the world of adventure. I imaged that everyone there might one day go on an expedition, write a story, design a product or start a company with someone they only just met. Even though I recall being the only person of color at Snowbird in 1990 I know that I belonged there and I was encouraged by all those around me to fully participate. We must continue to do that today.
In the years since I first put on climbing shoes, a harness and a chalk bag the number of black and brown faces in the outdoor industry has slowly grown. With the rise of urban climbing gyms there has emerged a thriving community of climbers that includes people of color. Though many show up at the other climbing festivals and events around the country Color The Crag offers a special setting that allows those who attend to unapologetically be themselves and celebrate their heritage of exploration and adventure. From that climbing culture of inclusion will one day come the remarkable innovations of our industry that have yet to be discovered. As a 30-year veteran of the outdoor industry I am now part of its history. But with so many bright and aspiring young climbers of color taking their place on the rock walls, boulder fields and crags of this exciting new landscape, I look forward to seeing them fulfill the promise of tomorrow. I can only image what everyone who came this year will accomplish in the future.