The fight for inclusivity in outdoor sports
Illustration Credit: Ella-Rae Heyns

In 2018, millions of people around the world were stunned when Alex Honnold scaled 900 feet of rock on Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope.

National Geographic’s documentary Free Solo generated an unprecedented media spotlight on climbing. The sport exploded, with a wave of people trying climbing for the first time and dedicated gyms popping up across the world. In 2018, The Guardian proclaimed that climbing had become a “worldwide sensation”, and it was set to be represented at the Olympics for the first time this year.  

But climbing, and the outdoor industry generally, has a problem. This niche community once known for its ‘hippy’ culture and seemingly impossible feats may be rising in popularity, but it still lacks diversity and representation. 

Outdoor sports are not accessible to everyone. Black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) are not represented or offered the same opportunities as white people in the outdoor community, especially in climbing.

“The outdoor industry has been ignoring Black people for years”

In a piece for Outside, Black professional cyclist Ayesha McGowan explains “the outdoor industry has been ignoring Black people for years.” Industry leaders have created an exclusive environment accessible to only the white middle class.

The climbing world has been dominated by white people for decades. Documentaries such as Free Solo and Dawn Wall depict white men climbing impressive routes in Yosemite, while the spotlight on BIPOC athletes achieving amazing things in the outdoors is practically non-existent.

Brands single out athletes to appear heavily on their websites and social media with sponsorships, but many companies choose predominantly or exclusively white athletes. Even the most well-respected brands– including The North Face, Adidas Terrex, and Wildcountry– have shocking track records with diversity in their sponsored athletes.

I reached out to Jennifer Langen, a half-Asian woman in the climbing community, to hear her perspective on this issue. Jenn shares creative YouTube videos about climbing for over 20,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel Jenn Sends, in addition to studying for a PhD in neuroscience.

On the lack of brand representation and whether or not it represents the climbing community, she wrote, “I’m reluctant to say that these athletes represent an accurate image of the climbing community, since the climbing community is so much more than our top elite athletes…my short answer is that those with the resources available to pursue climbing to a professional degree will mostly represent the most privileged athletes in the sport, as climbing is a very expensive sport to maintain.”

“Money is a huge barrier to entry for many who wish to climb.”

Langen highlights the cost of the sport and how this adds to its exclusivity, “I absolutely believe that money is a huge barrier to entry for many who wish to climb. A membership for the most popular gyms in California can run over $80 a month. Climbing shoes range anywhere from around $50 to around $200 dollars, and can wear out within half a year. The cost of gym memberships and gear are non-negligible and do present considerable accessibility issues.”

I asked Langen about the importance of the representation of BIPOC women. “A huge barrier for BIPOC climbers specifically is the lack of representation and community,” she explains, “If you scroll down to the comments section of any popular post or video regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion in climbing, you’ll inevitably find a comment from a non-BIPOC that reads, ‘climbing doesn’t discriminate! Climbing for everyone!’ While the intention behind these comments doesn’t seem inherently malicious, it illustrates a lack of empathy and understanding.”

“As far as the lack of representation of BIPOC women/nonmales specifically, I’ve found that the climbing industry (as well as most other sports) mainly focuses on and showcases those climbing elite grades at a professional skill level. We are conditioned to believe that climbing media must highlight an elite climber overcoming an insurmountable task.”

“In order to include more women and nonbinary people in these narratives, filmmakers should reassess the nature of the conflicts they’d like to present in their movies…In the future, I (and countless other women and POC) would like to see different challenges presented, such as racism and sexism, and the stories of BIPOC women climbers who were able to overcome this adversity in their climbing journeys”

Native Americans have conserved and helped shape the wilderness.

The lack of Native American representation in the industry is particularly harmful considering the history of damage done by those seeking access to the outdoors. 

Climbers and hikers are often accessing and climbing on land stolen from indigenous people. In fact, Native Americans have been evicted from National Parks because conservationists believed they were a desecration to the land, despite the fact that Native Americans have conserved and helped shape the wilderness. 

Devils Tower in Northern Wyoming is an example of conflict between climbers and Native Americans. More than 20 indigenous communities claim ties to Devils Tower, but the land was stolen in 1868 and today sits in a National Park.

This has caused conflict between the indigenous people of America and climbers, with climbing bans being threatened due to the noise and disturbance on ceremonies. This issue is a complex one, but there has been a large amount of support of voluntary climbing bans on Devils Tower. 

Devils Tower is just one example, and the damage and offence to the indigenous communities cannot be easily undone. This means an entire group in society sees the negative side of outdoor sports and may never want to participate.

Outdoor brands have acknowledged that they must do better. Many posted a black square on Blackout Tuesday to show awareness of their complacency in allowing the outdoors to be dominated by white voices and narratives.

As Ayesha McGowan writes, “we must consistently push for an anti-racist outdoor industry.” Diversifying staff and athletes is one of the ways brands can fulfill their promises to make progress.

“Filmmakers should highlight stories of those who have overcome systematic oppression to excel in their climbing.”

The responsibility of diversifying the outdoor industry falls on the whole community. As Langen writes, “I think the onus is on any individual or collective group that holds privilege to redistribute it equitably among those with less power. Climbing teams ought to offer scholarships for underrepresented climbers, gyms should aid those who cannot afford gym memberships, and filmmakers should highlight stories of those who have overcome systematic oppression to excel in their climbing. Those who have a platform (such as content creators) have a responsibility to uplift diverse voices.”

The outdoor community needs to come together for BIPOC to thrive in the industry. When Coral Cliffs– the only climbing gym owned by a Black woman– was recently under threat due to COVID-19, over $100,000 was raised by the community to ensure their future.

The support of brands is essential for creating a more diverse community. KAYA, an app to share information about gyms, monitor your performance and communicate with others in the climbing community, have started a fundraising campaign to support and promote the inclusion of BIPOC in climbing. They are raising money for The Brown Ascenders, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the representation of BIPOC in outdoor spaces, and donations will go towards equipment and meetups. 

In addition to their fundraising efforts, KAYA has created ‘The Climbers Pledge’. This pledge invites climbers to confront racism in climbing gyms and sponsorship programmes; signatories include well-known climbers such as Alexander Megos and Emily Harrington. 

Brands that have posted statements of support now need to take continued action to support BIPOC and make the outdoors accessible for all. Athletes must confront their sponsors on their racist and exclusionary behaviour. Coral Cliffs and KAYA show that the outdoor industry is ready for change and that an anti-racist, diverse community can be achieved.