Climbing Through Barriers

Climbing Through Barriers

From the moment I first arrived I was made to feel welcome. I remember on that first day, years ago,  I was greeted so warmly by Jim Olver the director of customer service at the Banff Centre For Arts & Creativity.

You just showed up and glommed on to one of my tours,” he reminded me. “Now look at you. You’re back as a big-time speaker.”

For more than a decade I’ve enjoyed the privilege of attending the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in Alberta, Canada. Like most aspiring adventurers I first became aware of Banff through the amazing films that tour the world every year and feature the best athletes in the sports of skiing, climbing, mountain biking and kayaking. I was also inspired by the remarkable stories of passionate people and communities that express their place in the world through an active relationship with nature. And despite marginal skills and few noteworthy accomplishments as an alpinist I managed to become part of this annual 9-day celebration of mountain culture. 

I was really honored when my friend and festival director Joanna Croston asked me to moderate a panel discussion on opening night. Called “Climbing Through Barriers” the conversation aimed to address the limitations and obstacles that still exist in the world of adventure. As a person of color I am painfully aware that too few black and brown people are part of our community, but over the last few years there have emerged several organizations and individuals dedicated to making the outdoors more diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI). With an appreciation for the interests of all people including the indigenous, the differently abled and those who identify as LGBTQ there are now many different national affinity groups that can provide everyone with a pathway into the outdoors. Joanna invited four of the most prominent leaders in the field to come to Banff and share their thoughts through a rousing conversation in front of live audience of more than 500 people.

Mikhail Martin began rock climbing in the summer of 2009. He was born and raised in New York City. Since then has experienced climbing in many countries around the globe. By day he works as a software engineer. With the rest of his time he runs the organization Brothers of Climbing (BOC) which was created to spark discussion on diversity in rock climbing and create a more diverse climbing community. Mikhail is also co-founder of the Color the Crag Climbing Festival.  

Bethany Lebewitz is the founder and CEO of Brown Girls Climb, a climbing collective of women and femmes of color that provides accessible and affordable climbing and mentorship. Bethany is also the co-founder with Mikhail of the Color the Crag Climbing Festival which celebrates diversity and culture in climbing.  

Erynne Gilpin is a saulteaux (soh-toe) cree Métis community member, PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, birth doula and rock climber. She is the founder of Indigenous Womxn Climb, an online community that aims to decolonize the land upon which we live, work and play. Her aspirations call for indigenous leadership in all spaces of society: education systems, health care practice and even rock climbing.  

Kai Lightner has earned 12 National Championship titles (10 in youth categories; 2 in the adult circuit), and is a 5 time youth world championship medalist. Kai has a passion for indoor competitive climbing and enjoys “pushing the limits” through outdoor sport climbing.  In 2013, Kai reached new heights outdoors, climbing his first 5.14a route.  Since that time, he has climbed numerous 5.14 graded routes, reaching a new milestone in April 2015 with his ascent of Era Vella (5.14d) in Margalef, Spain.  

It was such a great pleasure to introduce these remarkable individuals to the Banff community. Like my friend Jim Olver did for me I wanted to make each of them feel welcome. When I think back on career in the outdoor industry I am reminded of a quote by the late great Mia Angelou.  

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”



I believe that much of the work moving forward in DEI hinges upon how we can best make everyone in outdoor spaces feel welcome to engage and participate. As we rethink outside and what it means to experience nature, the pathways we take into outdoor recreation and environmental conservation must be made clear by those of us who have already arrived. It’s our responsibility to support and nurture as mentors those who are coming in to join the celebration. Though there are indeed still barriers to access that seem so insurmountable I know that if we work together we can make it to the summit of any mountain we dare to climb.

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The day after the panel discussion our spouses, partners and guests ventured with us out to visit the vivid blue waters of Lake Louise. We really enjoyed spending time with an aspiring young film student from New York University named Marie-Louise Nkashama. A member of Brown Girls Climb she recently received a modest grant from The North Face to create a documentary film about her family and their early experiences in the outdoors as immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo. So bright and optimistic, her infectious enthusiasm filled me with hope for a bright future ahead. 

“My climbing family just got bigger! This past weekend I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Banff Mountain Film Festival,” she wrote of Facebook. “It’s a special treat getting to watch my passion for film and the outdoors collide into one epic festival.”

Together we hiked over a snow-packed trail from the Fairmont Hotel to a scenic over look at the base of a mountain called the Bee Hive. With more than 1,900 feet of elevation gain over a 5-mile round trip it was a steep climb. But at the top we received the wonderful blessing of an indigenous song and prayer of gratitude to land from our friend Erynne Gilpin.

“We ask for permission to be in this place in a good way,” said prayed with reverence. “We ask for consent to receive the medicines this place so it can fill our hearts, calm our minds, lift up our spirits and bring our hearts and minds together so that we may do good work in this world.”

After so many years of attending the Banff Mountain Film Festival I have always felt at home in the Canadian Rockies. But this time I had a much deeper since of being part of global community beyond the world of skiers, climbers, bikers and kayakers. On this visit in the company of these DEI activisst I imagined more than ever before at least a few of those barriers to the outdoors coming down.

Many thanks to the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival for hosting our panel discussion and visit to Canada. And much gratitude to the continuing support of funding partners The National Forest Foundation, American Rivers and Patagonia.