This spring I was gifted with a seat at Patagonia's Clean Climbing event in Manchester. Me, an average guy with a small handful of outdoor climbs under my belt, suddenly having a beer with Jerry Moffatt, Emma Twyford and Pete Whittaker. What was I doing there?
As a co-founder of Colour Up, a group which brings together ethnic minority climbers, I was invited to reflect on the last 50 years of the Clean Climbing philosophy and, more importantly, what the future brings for this beautiful collective we are.
I've always thought of climbers as a funny group of people: we take going up rocks so seriously, we spend countless hours in and around this activity and we have built an entire community around it. How great it is that from something so simple, we've built a place for all of us to converge and feel like we belong.
Yet even though climbers spend so much time outside and feel more like ourselves when in nature, we tend to forget one of its most valuable lessons: everything is ever changing and evolving. So is climbing, as deeply-rooted in traditions as it might seem, and so too the people within it.
Our sport is in a unique moment: presence in the Olympics, new walls popping up in every city, the surge of affinity groups making the outdoors more accessible. But I refuse to think that our community is perfect, and I refuse to think that we don't have the power to change it. In fact, we haven't had this much power before!
In a 2022 survey, 93% of all respondents who indoor climb were of White ethnic heritage, with 7% accounting for Black, Asian and minority ethnic heritages. Outdoor climbing proved even less diverse, at 94% and 6% respectively. I think a lot about building something better. I don't have all the answers, but I'm convinced there are ways to make our sport more inclusive. There cannot be a "one size fits all" solution, but we must start somewhere.
Snapping out of tunnel vision
A passion/obsession for climbing can cause tunnel vision. I remember being a teenager and obsessing over GTA San Andreas. I played it on our family's PC for hours on end day after day, until I got headaches from looking at the screen for too long. You know who hated this? My mum. I can still hear her nagging at me, threatening to unplug the damn thing if I didn't help her with tidying up. Like she didn't know I was a selfish teenager, too busy trying to complete that mission and boost my street cred.
Now look at climbing. A paradise for obsession. We can spend hours researching gear, training plans and so on. We always find time for our projects, we're always chasing the horizon and looking for the next beautiful line or eye-catching boulder. We love this so much that it takes over our lives and mutes everything else around us. But what are we missing by being elbow-deep in this pursuit? This sport is built upon individualistic feats, and I fear that this translates into an individualistic community, as oxymoronic as this sounds.
Growing up Latino, you're taught to share and be generous in an almost dogmatic way. As critical as I am of my culture and my people, I appreciate our capacity to give indiscriminately, or 'hacer el bien sin mirar a quien' (do good regardless to whom). As a result of this your neighbours, your parents' friends, that little kid across the road, they all become 'familia' and deserve generosity.
Maybe this upbringing made me extra sensitive to selfishness: you don't want to let your community down or be the odd one out for not sharing. Giving becomes a big part of who you are. Now flash forward to me entering the climbing world with its propensity for big egos and seemingly frivolous pursuits. How would I not be critical of this?
This broadening of perspective and attention might not be easy to master overnight, but whenever I find myself immersed in tunnel vision, I try and think of my mum nagging at me. It makes me snap out of my focus and pay attention to something else more or as worthy as my projects.
Knowing our power
Alongside having a Latin American mother to keep me on my toes, I try to remember that nothing exists in isolation. Our actions have ripples, ripples that reverberate in those around us.
This concept is exactly what makes me see climbers as agents of change. We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that our frivolous hobby is just harmless fun. Buying that new pair of shoes has an impact, challenging our belayer's misogynist remarks has an impact, our ascents have an impact.
When Colour Up started running bouldering meet-ups, we wanted no more than to be a place to have fun and feel safe, but my goodness, how far we've rippled: I've had members of our group (now also my best friends) telling me we've been a pathway for finding their identity, or considering the group as the backbone of their climbing.
What we started as a small seedling is slowly growing — and so is the impact of our actions: people have found not just a sport and a means of physical fitness, but also a sense of purpose, belonging and community.
I'm not gratuitously blowing our own trumpet here. What I want to highlight is the capacity that we all have to change our own narratives and those of the people who surround us. We can be agents of change, if we choose to be.
I encourage everyone to think about their influence on peers and the environment we all share, within and outwith climbing.
Passing on the gift
For me climbing was a gift, as I'm sure is the case for many of us. A gift that my friend Lea put on my lap by taking me to an indoor wall, and soon became one of the biggest things in my life.
Some climbers might have received this treasure from parents, relatives, friends or through chance encounters with climbing. Wouldn't it be a shame not to pass on this beautiful gift to someone else? This community has been so kind to me, and most climbers I know already share this sport with as many people as they can. For them, I am grateful.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of giving, I can't recommend it enough. Take someone climbing, and make it about them. Give them all the knowledge you can. More importantly, give them all the support and kindness you received (or wish you did) when you started. Feel how magical this is.
There will always be other ways to give back, of course: skill-sharing, gear donations, mentoring, etc. The important thing here is enabling others, growing a stronger and more diverse community.