An Ideological Mess: Or, How I Learned To Not Stop Worrying And Still Love Rock Climbing

By Guest Contributor Narinda Heng, cross-posted from Girls Like Giants

Ashima Shiraishi via author. Courtesy: Julien Jarry Photography

I’ve been climbing fences, balconies, and trees for years, but it wasn’t until January of 2011, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that I went rock climbing for the first time at Malibu Creek State Park. It’s funny that instead of participating in a Day of Service, I went rock climbing. I guess that could be seen as one of the very first moments when I had to grapple with feeling a contradiction between pursuing rock climbing and the many other ideals and identities that I hold dear. And now here I am–here we are–discussing race, gender, and class in rock climbing.

And it feels good. Really good. Even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult. Because I don’t feel like I need to ignore or hide the fact that I think about and experience these contradictions and, what’s more, I’m seeing that there are so many people out there who are supportive of talking about it. And my partner, who has been climbing and dealing with this for much longer than I have, gets to heal a bit from her earlier discouragement with discussions like this in the online climbing community.

I submitted the link to Melissa Sexton’s article Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?”  to Climbing Narc because recent discussions made me feel like there were people in the climbing community who were ready and willing to talk about it. I was also ready to see people be defensive and assert that there’s no race/gender/class on the rock, and I actually agree with that–those delicious moments of just climbing are part of why I love it. So I understand why Guidoprincess said this:

I think the reason many people, including myself, find this offensive is that we turn to climbing exactly to avoid worthless BS like this. While many other public forums are full of this “racial landscape navigation” nonsense, climbing is a pure activity where everyone can just chill the f-ck out.

The thing is, for me, it’s not nonsense. I navigate my race/sex/class everywhere, all the time, and telling me to “chill the f-ck out” is like telling me to perform a lobotomy on myself. I can’t “chill the f-ck out” because there’s a lot more in play when I’m trying to get into the “pure” part of the activity.

As [commenters] Brad, Tyler, James, and Jason have helped articulate in their thoughtful replies, these issues are real for people, and it’s not about whether the climbing community is racist, but that society is racialized, that there are financial challenges to participation, and that gender and sexuality affect us when we’re at the crag, and that all these things intersect and affect us before we even show up at the crag.

To have people help articulate this reality and why it’s important to talk about it actually makes my eyes sting with relief and joy. Tyler put it well:

… So yes, once you are in the climbing community, race and class have little influence. But one’s access to our community is decided in large part by a vastly unequal society, and we should therefore address this inequity and work to eradicate it.

… There is a difference between looking to a category of people and blaming them for inequality and simply looking at our society and recognizing that inequality exits and the need to address it.

And James Mills points out:

The freedom to defy cultural norms and live for the pleasure of adventure is something that few people of color today enjoy. Sitting here in Yosemite now and camping last night in Camp 4 I for one am infinitely grateful for the opportunity and I know from personal experience that to get this far is not easy and horribly lonely. So when I see a fellow climber of color you bet I think they deserve credit for their accomplishments because of their race. To “not see color” today in any human endeavor that is disproportionately biased toward one race over others is at best naive and at worst a blatant show of support for the status quo which for the long term preservation of public lands and our natural resources is unacceptable.

What James wrote is particularly powerful because it’s a story from a person of color who has actually been in the outdoor industry, which I haven’t. I am looking forward to seeing what RockGrrl thinks of this discussion, too, as a woman of color who has been climbing for almost 20 years. What I have to offer is my own story.

I didn’t find much discussion of intersecting identities in climbing media until I read James’ post about Expedition Denali. This isn’t theoretical; this is our reality. I dealt with feeling that the climbing world was filled with people I had a hard time relating to outside of the crag and then decided not to avoid doing something I love because of it.

Obe Carrion. Courtesy: Climbing Magazine

Being a queer, Southeast Asian woman means I sometimes feel isolated when I’m around mostly straight white males, or when I’m devouring hours and hours of climbing media filled with them. But to be clear, I’m not condemning magazine editors or filmmakers or straight, white, males for it–it’s a reflection the world we live in, and of the history of this sport. There’s a part of me that couldn’t help but align the language of “first ascents” and “discovering new areas” with the painful history of colonization all over the world. Then, I worked to embrace the possibility that even though I’m triggered by it, and there’s pain associated with it, in Melissa’s words, “things don’t have to stay that way!”

In terms of class, for me, being low-income doesn’t just mean deciding whether I am willing to live simply and frugally. I already do that as a commitment to living a creative life, working toward social justice, and having a respectful relationship with the earth. But being low-income myself isn’t just about me; it means I have to be willing to be unable to help my working-class parents financially if they ever need it, which is something that is a very real concern for me. Whether that’s how it should be or not, whether that’s a race/gender thing or not, it’s part of my relationship with rock climbing.

For me, it’s not about how people look at Obe or Ashima. It’s about how their stories link to my own, and to other people who can relate. I’m not even calling for efforts to make the climbing community have matching demographics to the entire US population, nor am I even demanding to see myself reflected in it, though I do wonder why there’s resistance to the idea. Mainly, I’m talking about how meaningful it was when I did see myself, which Josh Lowell, the filmmaker, seems to understand:

It’s rewarding to know that it’s reached people who might not otherwise see themselves as fitting into the dominant climbing culture.

In the film, Obe said that rock climbing was “like a heart, like a lung, like a liver–like I needed it.” Watching him admit that was emotional for me, because the film showed what he went through before saying that-…and because I think about what it takes for me to let myself love climbing.

Narinda lives and writes in Los Angeles, where she has been working with various arts/community organizations since 2007. She keeps an online notebook called Long Cool Hallway, is co-founder/co-producer of a webseries called That’s What She Said, and blogs at Transitional Zone. She loves the Oxford comma, so please don’t take that away from her.

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  • Stacy Bare

    Really great article and much appreciate your willingness to discuss how it is ok to have contradictions and concerns, but still move forward with what we love to do. My thoughts on climbing have been that since I found it, it saved my life, and I want everyone to have a chance at experiencing that. The outdoor community itself can become elitist without trying to. Egos around the harder routes, the higher the climb, the more epic the expedition can create a barrier to entry for anyone, regardless of color, but especially to those who do not see themselves reflected in the media. As a straight, white male, its difficult sometimes to discuss issues around diversity, but as a veteran in a largely non-military world, I get an insight from time to time in the feelings of the other. We need to all do a better job of inviting our communities to the rock, where color really can evaporate. Hope to see you out on the trail. 

  • Terence Davis

    For me, it started with being a member of the  Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Explorers. Some folks were unaware that Negroes (I was a Negro back then) participated in Scouting. Then it was being a competitive diver and swimmer (Colored people don’t like the water or can’t swim) even though I had a Black coach and trained with another school’s team which was all black. On and on over the year, fishing, hunting, skiing, backpacking. Enjoying the outdoors as all of the men in my family had, but always one of the few African Americans participating in these activities. Always aware of the race and class implications, because it was so often thrown in my face, but doing it simply because I wanted to do ti and to hell with what anyone else thought. And I always wanted kids, particularly children of color, that they could do it too, they could do anything that they desired no matter what others, even in their own community, said. You can be selfish about your own life without being a selfish human being.

  • lynn

    My husband (who is black) has been rock climbing for over 20 years. He is a wilderness guide who takes city kids into the backwoods and teaches them camping, rock climbing, canoeing, etc. Most of them are black and Latino. It’s not the climbing part that’s hard for them it’s the other outdoor related stuff (going to the bathroom in the woods, all the bugs). Kids are natural climbers so the younger they get exposed to it the more we’ll see POC out there doing it.

    My husband really doesn’t deal with climbing-related media at all (no magazines, no social media, no forums etc.) so the whole whitewashing thing doesn’t bother him. He just goes out there and does his thing.