Inside The First Climbing Festival To Celebrate Diversity

It was a beautiful, crisp and colorful fall afternoon in October when I pulled into the parking lot of Horse Pens 40. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I could feel the energy radiating around me. After months of anticipation, the time had finally arrived for Color the Crag—the first-ever climbing festival to celebrate diversity in the climbing community. The sprawling Alabama boulder field had very little cell service but it didn’t matter, I put down my phone and watched as my social media feed came to life in reality: I saw the faces of individuals who have inspired me for quite some time, including climbing photographer Irene Yee (Ladylockoff Photography), Shelma Jun (founder of Flash Foxy & The Women’s Climbing Festival), Mikhail Martin, David Glaché, Pieter Cooper (founders of Brothers of Climbing), Bethany Lebewitz (founder of Brown Girls Climb), Abby Dione (Owner of Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym), Arno IIgner (Author of The Rock Warrior’s Way) and Brittney Leavitt (Outdoor Afro Regional Leader). Everyone entered with a healthy dose of hugs, smiles and stoke, excited for the good times to come. It was truly a historic moment, as the first annual Color the Crag kicked off.

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Many of us who identify as climbers of color can relate to being the only person who looks like us at the crag or climbing gym. While the climbing community is extremely welcoming and accepting, it’s easy to feel socially isolated in a sport that doesn’t reflect the rich cultural and ethnic diversity in the United States. Especially if you’ve grown up in diverse neighborhoods with a diverse array of friends. Sports, like climbing, that aren’t well integrated, leave athletes of color with choices like: you can either have a diverse set of friends or you can climb every weekend. You can’t do both. Then there are the anxieties and insecurities of being “the only one.”  So many climbing videos, gear advertisements and brand ambassadorships feature only White faces; which makes a strong statement in 2017 when 38 percent of Americans are people of color, which leaves us wondering, “Is this space for me?” or “Am I welcome here?” Thanks to groups like Brothers of Climbing and Brown Girls Climb—the organizers of Color the Crag, Melanin Base Camp, Natives Outdoors, Flash Foxy, Latino Outdoors and a few other organizations, we now have online spaces in which we can share photos, videos and tell our own stories as women and men of color and lovers of climbing and the outdoors.

The first night of the festival was filled with laughter, local beer and delicious homemade tamales as we swapped tales of epic climbing trips and misadventures on extremely cold high-altitude mountaineering expeditions. The family reunion had begun; strangers we were no more. The event organizers, Mikhail and Bethany, kicked off the night with a reminder of why we had all traveled hundreds of miles to a cozy little boulder field tucked into the backwoods of central Alabama: to celebrate the diversity within our climbing community, to celebrate our brothers and sisters of climbing.

The Color the Crag celebration was preceded by a screening of An American Ascent, a film about the National Outdoor Leadership School Expedition Denali. The film told the story of the first African American crew to climb Denali. Their mission: to inspire future mountaineers and to remind people of color that this, too, is your space, our space; you are welcome here. We had the pleasure of hanging out with Steven Shobe, Expedition Denali Trip Leader, a man whose contagious smile reaches the corners of his face and whose gray hairs shine as if he’d just stepped off a mountain still covered with snowflakes. Steven answered all of our burning questions about the NOLS adventure and the lively crew that accompanied him on the climb. I found myself in awe listening to his other high altitude achievements, stories of climbing Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Kosciuszko, and Aconcagua. He was the mountaineer I’ve always dreamed of, a Black mountaineer, just like me.

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As I walked back to my tent reflecting on all the wonderful folks I’d met, I was pulled aside by Bethany and a crew of her friends, all dressed for battle (aggressive climbing shoes, chalky hands, bright colored crash pads). The plan was to head out for a quick late-night bouldering session. So I ran back to my car to grab my crash pad and set out into the boulder field, conveniently only a few feet away from our campsite. I found the crew covered in a mix of moonlight and headlamp beams, taking turns throwing down on “Hammerhead” a crimpy overhanging roof. I thought to myself, ‘’I’ve never felt so at home while at the crag, as this moment here and now.” I watched strong, stoked climbers from an array of different backgrounds, trying hard and rooting each other on. More and more climbers wandered over and our quick late night bouldering session became a full-blown event.

Although our bouldering session went well into the night, many of us still woke up at 7 am. to start the day off with yoga and meditation guided by Michelle Davis, the owner of The Yoga Hive Studio. One of the few African American-owned and -operated yoga studios in South Atlanta. We set our intentions for the day and then joined the Color the Crag clinic instructors at various locations around Horse Pens. There was an extremely impressive selection of clinics taught by remarkably talented individuals. Intro to Trad Climbing with Mario Stanley, Into to Climbing with Abby Dione, Adventure Photography 101 with Carlos Romania, Slacklining with Josh Greenwood, The Warrior’s Way Bouldering Clinic with Arno IIgner, and Advanced Climbing Clinic with Sam Elias, to name a few.

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There were old climbers and new climbers, and folks excited to try it for the first time. Those who joined the photography clinic went around capturing the intimate moments between climbers and cruxes and the bonding moments that develop naturally at the crag. Many of the clinics morphed into clouds of crash pads and crews of excited climbers hopping from one classic route to another, kicking back with their new friends.

Climbing morphed into conversations—conversations about our individual and collective experiences in the outdoors as people of color. I’ve felt welcomed in most of the outdoor spaces that I’ve traveled to, but there is also a sense of loneliness I feel when I attend climbing festivals or visit ski/mountain towns. Rarely are there other individuals at these events or in these places who look like me, sound like me, or come from a similar background. We talked about moments and experiences like mine. Eventually the evening transitioned into panel discussions. To me, this was one of the most healing parts of the festival, finding out I was not alone in my feelings of loneliness and confusion in my connection with climbing and the outdoors. I listened while the panelist spoke of their own stories and proposed solutions to the questions that we all ask ourselves, offered solutions that we can send to the world. Like: Promote, hire and celebrate the diverse faces and spaces within your communities. Doing this will not only benefit people of color but everyone involved. We are stronger together, and must continue to seek to understand each other. Look for similarities between your brothers and sisters and celebrate the differences.

Color the Crag will forever stay with me as a historic event, a life-changing moment, a family reunion. I am extremely grateful for each and every individual who traveled to Alabama for the festival and completely honored I got to spend a little time with such crushers of color.

See you all next year!