Walking the Vertical Walk

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An Indigenous climber takes on racism and white supremacy in the climbing community.

by Ashleigh Thompson

One of the first things I learned about rock climbers is how disrespectful they can be.

Over a decade ago, as an undergraduate student in American Indian Studies, I learned about Bear Lodge Butte, also known as Devil’s Tower. This rock formation protrudes from the earth in northeast Wyoming, giant cracks clawed into its side. Tribal Nations of the Great Plains have oral histories about how it was formed, and it is a sacred place to many Indigenous people. Today, it is a National Monument managed by the National Park Service.  Each year, thousands of climbers try for the summit.  

In class, I read about how climbers were disrupting Indigenous summer ceremonies at Bear Lodge Butte. In the 1990s, recognizing the disruption, the National Park Service issued a voluntary ban on climbing, encouraging visitors to abstain from rock climbing during summer ceremonial time in June. But then a group of rock climbers sued the NPS over the ban.

Ultimately, the climbers lost their court battle, but the case illustrated to me and other Indigenous people how the culture of climbing can be deeply problematic, racist, and rooted in white supremacy.

I paid close attention to the story—and others like it—because I was interested in the sport of rock climbing. In high school, I’d seen photographs of a woman climbing a fiery sandstone tower under a blue sky in southern Utah. The idea of rock climbing, moving high above the ground while protected only by a rope, terrified me but also thrilled me. To climb up rock faces set in beautiful landscapes was something I hoped to experience if I ever had the opportunity.

When I moved to Tucson six years ago, I finally got the chance. It was January, but even at the base of the Catalina Mountains, the afternoon was warm and full of sunshine. After loading our packs with gear, I followed my climbing partner on a faint trail through a boulder-strewn streambed. After a half mile of hiking and rock-hopping, we stopped at a granite wall and pulled out our harnesses, shoes, rope, and gear. He handed me a belay device and explained how to catch him if he fell. I watched as he moved up the wall, grabbing the thin edges of rock with his fingertips.

When it was my turn, the questions came tumbling out of me. What if the bolt fails? What if the rope fails? What about the gear—does it ever fail?

My climbing partner explained calmly that bolts rarely fail; there are two at the anchor just in case, and ropes typically only fail when they’re worn out. Then he pointed to the tag on a quickdraw, showing me how many kilonewtons of force the draw could withstand before breaking.

It seemed legit. So, I took a deep breath, put my trust into the gear and my partner, and started up the granite. 

Using the sticky rubber of my new climbing shoes, I learned where I could place my foot and feel solid, even on edges of rock only a few centimeters thick. I moved up but much more slowly than my partner.

“Find the foot holds and the hands will follow,” he called out from below.

When I made it to the top of that wall—my first—I was thrilled, and relieved. My heart was racing from the fear, but, like my partner assured me, I stayed safe.

“Before I lower you, make sure to take a look around,” he shouted. The sun shone on the canyon walls and made the creek below sparkle. Saguaros dotted the landscape, waving at me from below. Not only did the view amaze me, but I was enamored with entire experience: the hike in, gear, rope system, teamwork with my partner, and the sport of moving up the rock.

Ashleigh climbing in the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson. She wears a bike helmet because she didn't have a climbing helmet yet.
Ashleigh Thompson’s first climb in January 2016 in the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson. She wears a bike helmet because she didn’t have a climbing helmet yet.

After that, I started climbing nearly every weekend, squeezing trips in between graduate school duties. With climbing friends, I traveled to Arizona’s canyons of Sedona and rocky spots in the Dragoon Mountains, and white granite walls in Utah’s Wasatch Range. Climbing took me places I never would have paid attention to otherwise. I loved it so much I considered dropping out of graduate school to pursue a lifestyle that would allow me to climb all the time.

As I progressed in my skill and strength, I felt proud of accomplishing harder grades the longer I climbed. All along, I met kind, down-to-earth people.

Yet, I never quite forgot that story of Bear Lodge Butte. A memory of the way some climbers—while moving gracefully up a rock wall—can so easily forget or not care where they are in time and space.

The longer I’ve been a part of the climbing community, the more troubling things I’ve witnessed. For example, some first ascensionists—climbers who find, clean, and create climbing routes—have given names to those routes that are violent and racist. “Trail of Tears” in the Rocky Mountains, for example, or “Black Dudes on Welfare” in Owens River Gorge.

I’ve also met climbers who—like those at Bear Lodge Butte in the ‘90s—believe they have the right to climb any rock they want, no matter if it’s located in protected wilderness areas where climbing is prohibited or sacred places on Tribal Lands where climbing is banned.

I’ve witnessed privilege and ignorance among climbers who don’t think they need to change. One time I joined an online forum about equity, diversity, and inclusion in climbing and made a point to explain that it can be difficult for Indigenous and other people of color to access the knowledge, community, or resources to start climbing. My comment was met with defensiveness. I was told that nobody is preventing anyone else from climbing; to stop whining; and that hand-holding and safe spaces are unnecessary. Racism, access issues, and lack of diversity, I was told, aren’t an issue in climbing.

Then, there’s the language of climbing, which is sometimes shared by the wider outdoor recreation community. Terminology such as “conquer” or “discover” when referring to a climbing or hiking route is prevalent. People who created the sport as we know it today are called “Pioneers of climbing.” Referring to Native land as a “playground” is also common.

For me, Turtle Island—what many Indigenous people call North and Central America—is sacred. I would never use terms such as discover, explore, or pioneer, which are full of colonizing connotations. The Americas have been occupied by Indigenous people for millennia. To claim to “discover” any part of this land is a way of erasing Indigenous presence. To “conquer” is to cause harm. To “pioneer” implies there was no one here first. When I think of pioneers, I think of unwelcome settlers who violently pushed Indigenous people from their homelands and forced them to live on tiny, often less fertile or less abundant tracts of land known as reservations.

Ashleigh, an Indigenous woman with light medium skin and brown hair, is bouldering.
Ashleigh bouldering in the Black Hills. Photo by Sara Ponwith.

Even though white men are credited as “the fathers of modern climbing,” there are rock faces and mountains in North America that Native people have climbed for centuries. Sacred sites and dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, for example, were built high into cliffs in the American Southwest, only reachable by climbing and ropes. All across Turtle Island, artifacts and artwork are found on high peaks.

One such artwork is a 1000-year-old petroglyph panel depicting human-like figures on a wall of sandstone north of Moab, Utah. In 2021, a climber bolted a route through the petroglyph, drilling holes and attaching bolts directly above and beside the rock art. In photographs of the route, you can see a rope rubbing right up against the petroglyph panel. The bolts were later removed after public outcry, but the rock is damaged forever.

As an Indigenous archaeologist who works with Tribal Nations, this incident made me ashamed to be a climber. I felt like I was stuck on a smooth and slippery face, no longer able to see where to go, what to hold on to. How could I feel pride about an activity that has caused so much harm to the Native American community?

Shortly after beginning climbing, I sought out other Indigenous climbers on social media. I connected with Erynne, a Cree climber in Canada who invited me to British Columbia to climb with her. Meeting people from the Internet in person can be anxiety-inducing for me, but Erynne picked me up at the ferry landing, and right away said, “Welcome to T’Sou-ke First Nation lands.”  I knew we would be life-long friends. As Indigenous women who respect Indigenous land and values, there is mutual understanding and comfort between us.

Since then, I have met other like-minded climbers. At the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival, for example, I learned about Brown Girls Climb, an organization that connects and supports women climbers of color, and through them, met even more climbing friends. These affinity spaces made up of Natives, people of color, and women make it possible to simply have fun climbing without worry about microaggressions or other racist discourse—and that’s a relief.

When I wrote on Instagram about racism within the climbing community, someone shared with me that these attitudes had alienated them from the sport. This didn’t surprise me, but it saddened me. I find joy, mental fortitude, physical strength, mindfulness, and friendship through climbing, so it was disheartening to hear that other people of color were turned off trying it.

Ashleigh climbing off the shore of Gichigami (Ojibwe for Lake Superior)
Climbing off the shore of Gichigami (Ojibwe for Lake Superior).

And yet, things are changing. I’ve been invited to participate in a number of online and in-person events focused on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in climbing. Issues of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and more are being addressed by climbers who want to see our sport improve. These “isms” aren’t unique to climbing. Rather, they manifest in the day-to-day reality of many oppressed peoples. It is assuring that these conversations are becoming more prevalent in the outdoor recreation community.

“You’re talking the talk, but are you walking the walk?” Richard Morrison, an Anishinaabe Elder, once asked me and a group of young Indigenous leaders.

For me, one way to walk the walk is upward, toward the sky. When I’m on the rock, my sole focus is its surface, my body, and where to step and reach.  Never have I known such concentration, such meditation. I now see the world differently.  I have “climber eyes.” Instead of ignoring rocks around me, I scrutinize them, wondering if they are climbable. I’ve also followed rocks—via climbing routes I hear or read about—into some of the most beautiful, tucked-away places on earth where I then ascend in golden-hour light.

But the other way to walk the walk is on the ground, by speaking out when something feels wrong. By organizing conversations and panel discussions, making room for Indigenous land acknowledgements, that are followed by actions that empowers and supports Indigenous people, and creating space to hear thoughts from climbers of marginalized groups. By educating other climbers about sacred Indigenous sites, the connections Indigenous peoples hold to the places we climb. And by instilling in others reverence not only for the sport, but also for the land where it happens and the people who have stewarded it for thousands of years.

Climbing isn’t inherently racist or disrespectful. But climbers can be. I’m hopeful that our collective vertical walk and respectful talk brings a new level of dignity to the sport.

Ashleigh Thompson (she/hers) is a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation and a PhD Candidate in anthropology at the University of Arizona. She is passionate about all things Indigenous, especially Indigenous food sovereignty and recreating respectfully on Native lands. Find her trail running among saguaros with her dog, Benson, or hanging off a rope on Mount Lemmon granite in Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui lands (AKA Tucson, Arizona).

4 thoughts on “<strong><em>Walking the Vertical Walk</em></strong>”

  1. Beautiful article. As someone who failed her rock climbing test in Peace Corps training in the early sixties, I can’t imagine doing what this writer does, but her sentiments about the lack of sensitivity on the part of other rock climbers was disappointing. I would have thought that people who love being outdoors would understand that humans are part of Nature, and would accept all seekers and respect their beliefs.

    Reply
  2. Thank you for bringing this much-needed conversation to the table. As an avid outdoor lover, I’ve often struggled with making sense of this situation. Your article reminds me of my mother. As a woman, person of color, rafter and climber in what I noticed were highly male and white-dominated activities, she has always stood her ground without hesitating to let others know of the respect they ought to have for the lands and waters they traverse. Thank you for reminding me of this.

    Reply
  3. Love the emphasis here on respect in all its forms, and on communion with plant-animal-mineral relations.
    Beautiful stuff!

    Reply
  4. Great perspective. I would suggest author read Dave Robert/ Greg Child’s
    Books. These guys have been climbing for 30 yrs and have some interesting
    insights on native access to cliff structures.

    Reply

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