Last month, dozens of climbers made their way to Alabama to climb at Color the Crag, the first climbing festival ever to celebrate diversity in the climbing community. We awarded one member of #thecliffscommunity a scholarship to travel and attend this historic event, and bring back a taste of the weekend. The experience of POC climbers is often overlooked in climbing media, we’re excited for Maryam to share hers here:
Photo by Caitlin McNulty / @seecaitclimb
I liked climbing immediately. I cherish the close friendships, partners, and teachers it brings me. (Hi, Adrien, Rachel, Jessica, and Matt.) I appreciate how most days, it lets me practice a way of being that isn’t constantly in reaction to the world and its –isms and -phobias. When I climb, my focus narrows. Every thought that isn’t aimed at the direction of my hand, the tension in my body, or the aggressive step of my toe gets crowded out. The feeling never lasts very long, though. As soon as I down climb or get bucked off the wall, I turn around to face a gym full of people who look nothing like me. Some days I don’t notice; other days, it’s all I notice. When I stumbled upon groups like Brown Girls Climb, BOC, and Melanin Basecamp on Instagram, it occurred to me that it doesn’t need to be this way.
I wake up to cotton fields. Tufts of white on brown twigs stretching out toward a horizon that breaks into hills and more hills. From my seat on the bus full of climbers headed to Color the Crag, they look like the tiniest clouds. I don’t know it yet, but this is the first of many times I’ll feel vaguely in a dream.
This particular group of climbers had assembled in Atlanta, but in all the getting-to-know-you buzz, I start to hear the places they call home: the Bay Area, San Diego, Denver, my neighborhood in Brooklyn. On this bus, a fellow child of Nigerian immigrants does an impression of her parents trying to comprehend her affection for rocks, to warm laughter. A group of women of color compare septum piercings. A man who teaches French becomes the latest in a long line of people who’ve tried to get the subjonctif through my thick head. We trade stories about being asked where we’re “from from” as we slowly untuck ourselves.
Photo by Maryam Adamu / @maroadamu
But there’s still the cotton. When I fully wake, I can think only of plantations and the profound cruelty that created the American fabric. It faintly occurs to me that folks on this bus might be descendants of enslaved people who worked fields like the one through which we’re driving. Or of indigenous people. I can’t help but contemplate our individual and collective relationship to the land. To the outdoors. I wonder what history we carry like crash pads to Steele, Alabama.
The first night of Color the Crag is a fiesta. People talk favorite climbing trips and shared bouldering problems over tamales. It’s someone’s birthday, so we sing Happy Birthday (traditional), seamlessly followed by Happy Birthday (the Stevie Wonder version). As night falls and the autumn chill sets in, Stephen Shobe takes the stage. His experience as a climber and mountaineer stretches almost as long as some people in the group have been alive. As he casually mentions Aconcagua, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Kosciuszko, and the elusive Denali, I wonder if I, too, could collect similar stories. I decide it’s smarter to first focus on the next day, when I’ll get to climb real rock for the first time.
The next morning, Mechelle Davis leads a restorative yoga session, where many of us warm up with the day. It’s sunny and in the 70s by the time we disperse into our respective clinics. I look around and realize that I share important, visible identity markers with everyone in my clinic. I see people’s try hard faces for the first time. Our clinic leader, Joshua, and his friend, Brett, keep reaching inside a Mexican flag chalk bag. I pass by people who non-climbers might mistake for mimes as they plan their routes from the ground. There’s another cluster of climbers and beside them, a crash pad designed to look like the Pan-African flag. Spotters offer all manners of affirmation. All day and into the next, I hear us reach for language beyond burn, crush, and stoke. Too much chalk on the holds? They’re ashy. A group of spotters with their arms hoisted up? Praise hands. A climbing festival built for and by people of color? The family reunion.
In my Cliffs scholarship application, I wrote about beta. In my first year of law school, the President of the Black Law Students Association — which I was part of — would sign her emails:
Lift as you climb,
As a kid, I remember hearing: each one, teach one. It seems as if idioms like these are so common because sharing beta is the heart of communities of color. There’s a long history of people of color finding ways forward, stopping only to light one of many possible ways for those coming up next. I heard it most clearly during Saturday night’s panel discussion on cultivating diversity in climbing, which revealed different, sometimes conflicting beta. (That felt right.) I felt it most acutely when Josh Greenwood, headed to catch a flight, managed to squeeze in a quick slacklining crash course. I saw it most unmistakably when I walked up to a crag late on Saturday afternoon. A man had brought his two young sons to the festival, and he and Abby Dione, owner of Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym and all-around badass, were guiding and coaching them through problems. Ten or so of us stopped everything to cheer them on, all wanting for those two boys what we had found for ourselves that weekend and in the years before: satisfaction, inspiration, love, community, our thing.
After a sleepy bus ride back to Atlanta, a collection of us gathered to eat burgers in Terminal A. The West Coasters started to peel off, leaving a small group of New Yorkers. Eventually it was just me and Travis left, bleary-eyed on a late night A train back into Brooklyn.
Thank you, Eva, Lei-Lei, and everyone at The Cliffs; your support means more than you know. Thank you, everyone who came to the Inaugural Color the Crag. Lastly, thank you, Bethany, Mikhail, BOC, and Brown Girls Climb for making space for all of us.