Acknowledging Systemic Racism in the Outdoors Community
WORDS AND INTERVIEW BY CHEYENNE SMITH
PHOTOS BY DALTON JOHNSON, ERIK ANDERSON, CHEYENNE SMITH, MATT BURBACH
After years of dreaming, it was finally time to start the ascent up the most spectacular peak I’ve ever laid my eyes on, The Grand Teton. The energy was high as my climbing partner and I left our tent, looked up at the beaming stars, shuffled for our headlamps, sipped on a cup of strong coffee, and embarked on a 2:30 am alpine start. We journeyed through Garnet Canyon alongside Glacier Creek in hopes of reaching the base of the Grand by sunrise. The trek to the lower saddle consisted of filling our filters with stream water, admiring beautiful alpine wildflowers, and navigating gigantic granite boulder fields. With every step of the approach, my legs and breath weighed more heavily. Somewhere along the way, I found the glory in thin air. After a great deal of hiking and scrambling, the sun had risen, and we arrived at the base of my dream route—Full Exum Ridge: 18 pitches, 14 miles round trip with a 7000ft elevation gain.
After racking up, we ascended the first four pitches through a series of chimneys, ledges, cracks, and a lot of ChiChoMaMa action (Chimney Chockstone Mantel Maneuvers). I sat in stillness at the bottom of the 5th pitch and took a breath, acknowledging the sheer exposure around me. The fifth pitch is the crux on Exum Direct, otherwise known as the “Black Face” pitch. It’s intimidating—pure slab, completely vertical, thousands of feet above the ground, and surrounded by magnificent exposure everywhere you look. As my partner began to lead the route, we quickly realized it was more difficult than intended. I knew this part of the climb was the crux, but as I belayed, something about my partner’s movements didn’t look 5.7.
The moment intensified as his hands started shaking and I belayed out of fear rather than enjoyment. As his gear gradually diminished from his harness from over-protecting the route, he decided to build an anchor halfway. I climbed up to his anchor and prepared for my second-half lead.
The doubt kicked in—the feeling of not knowing the correct path cultivated fear, insecurity, and immense tunnel-vision. I questioned my route-finding skills, my capability, and my strength. Adrenaline and I became best friends, and I asked myself, “Why do I do this?” “Is this for me?” “I don’t belong up here.” I had a deep feeling of estrangement. I knew deep down I had the necessary skills to move forward, but something was telling me otherwise. Unknowingly, we ended up on a 5.10a/b variation of the route called “Gold Face.” The grade itself was familiar, but the variables of exposure, thin air, and fear added a bit of spice. I took a deep breath and said to myself, “You know what to do.” I led the rest of the pitch with no stress.
Unfortunately, our attempt to summit the Grand did not end up on top. We were naively climbing into the late afternoon and decided it would be best to bail. I found a lot of peace in bailing just shy of the summit. Knowing when to turn around felt more honorable than catching summit fever and taking a fatal risk. I know I’ll be back for round two one day.
I find the most valuable part of a mission are the thoughts, lessons, and reflection once it’s over. Often, our limitations are reinforced by what society believes we can and cannot do. In predominantly white, male spaces like alpinism, I understand my adversity is something I cannot change: my skin color. When I doubt myself, it often stems from my inequitable personal experiences within the climbing community. With any endeavor, like-minded peers, role models, and community are essential to keep the fire going. As a black woman, there is the reality of little to no black female climbers/alpinists to identify with. It can be lonely and leads to unwanted headspaces and immense imposter syndrome.
After I attempted to summit the Grand, a few undeniable facts have come to light—adversity is a source of power. Digging deep is vital. Heroism is leadership. Leadership has significance. For many, success is inspired by the old, bold, and known. For some, it’s the crushers who don’t fit the narrative. Becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community can combat unwanted headspaces and imposter syndrome among BIPOC climbers worldwide. To keep the conversation going, I reached out to a hero and fellow female black climbing queen, Genevive Walker. We embarked on a conversation about systemic racism in the outdoors community and inclusivity in the climbing scene:
Genevive Walker: The major takeaway is that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to build the community into a more inclusive, equitable space. A community that has been built and centered around white cisgender men naturally doesn’t take into account people from other backgrounds coming into that space. With climbing becoming more popular, especially with the Olympics, many more people will enter the sport or at least consider trying it. Therefore, we need to stop living in the past and continue to grow as a community. Changing racist and demeaning route names is a start. It’s not acceptable to arrive at a crag and find routes with racial slurs, insinuations, etc. The same goes for trail names. There’s no reason a day pass to a climbing gym should cost $25. For many people, the gym is where you first learn to climb, and the outrageous cost only excludes more people from the sport. Businesses and outdoor industries are trying to capitalize on the Black Lives Matter movement and “include” more diversity within their ad campaigns, ambassador programs, and athlete teams while leaving their internal branches untouched. People of color are being tokenized left and right. Instead of presenting our skills and talents, we are offered positions that profit off our skin color. So 2020 was a small step in the right direction, but this is only the beginning.
Cheyenne Smith: With the rise of the BLM and the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) movement, I’m excited that diversity in the outdoors is a topic of conversation. But it’s true; big businesses are taking advantage of it and tokenizing black bodies. Education is key. As the sport of climbing becomes popular, it’s important that everyone of all colors feel welcome, not just for being black, but for being them.
GW: Climbing is being outside in nature with friends enjoying what mother earth gave us. It’s about supporting one another to be the best version of ourselves that we can be - psychically, mentally, and emotionally. Forcing yourself to get out of bed before dawn only then to be reminded that it’s worth it by the beautiful sunrise you experience on the hike up. Meeting new friends at the crag and again at camp, and then again a year later in a new area. Pushing my body past the unthinkable. It’s the community that keeps me coming back for more—making friends from all walks of life who come together to do this thing called climbing for a myriad of reasons. It’s about being present with oneself, even if it’s only for a couple of seconds. And the list goes on…
CS: For me, the outdoors is my physical and mental health. Feeling left out of that space is taking away the basic human right of joy. Climbing is joy. Nature is joy. Access is joy. Why would anyone want to take that feeling from someone? Inclusivity is so important.
GW: An inclusive environment is more than inviting people into a space. It’s about treating people with the same courtesy and respect you give to everyone else. It’s about providing equal opportunity. And most of all, it’s about wanting to include everyone into a space - not feeling pressure to do so. People from all different backgrounds should be filling roles that entail more than DEI efforts. An inclusive environment means growth from within.
CS: Sometimes, I feel like I need to, quote on quote, be my own hero. As in, stand up for myself and/ fight for people to see my perspective. But most of the time, I remain passive in situations where I should have said something. I am still trying to figure out the best ways to go about the leadership of my own life. Have you experienced similar feelings?
GW: I don’t know if “hero” is the right word, but there are many times I feel the need to stick up for myself because there’s no one else around to support me. Being the only Black girl at a crag brings about a different attitude. When things are said or inappropriate, I don’t have anyone to have my back. Sure, I have friends who will “be there for me” if I ask, but no one really understands how I feel because they don’t experience the same things. I can’t blame them, but it starts to become draining. Last summer in Tensleep, Wyoming, I was at a bar with some friends. Some local kids were acting passively aggressive to my friend, who was also black, and myself. We both knew what was going on, while our white friends had no idea. I was the friend I never have in these types of situations - who knew what was up and automatically knew it was time to remove ourselves from the space. Even when one of my white friends tried to explain that we were overreacting, I quickly put my foot down and said it’s time to go.
CS: Moments like that require grit.
GW: Grit, to me, is about doing the hard work. I don’t mean putting up an FA or bolting a route. I mean the real hard work. Stepping into the uncomfortable and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Accepting that you’re mistaken sometimes, and that’s okay. Learning from your mistakes instead of defending your ego and listening instead of always trying to speak. Grit is about growing even when you think it’s hard.
Talking with Genevive verified I am not alone. I encourage all reading to have these types of hard conversations with your outdoor community. It is important for progress.
Climbing is important to me. I am grateful to climb on Shoshone Bannock, Eastern Shoshone, and Cheyenne land. I am thankful to get out there and “say yes to life!” I am grateful to stand face to face with ambition. There comes a moment to dig deep in the vertical world, find your grit, and do what you have to do.