Ryan Edwards clips protection in Rumney, New Hampshire.

BY ANNE CRUZ

On a sticky afternoon in Rumney, New Hampshire, standing at the base of a 70-foot cliff, Ryan Edwards selects his next project. He settles on “Flying Hawaiian,” which is one of area’s the less demanding climbs but is by no means easy. The route requires strength and technical precision, particularly in the V-shaped crevasse that’s both beautiful and terrifying. He ties his rope into his harness, checks on his belayer and begins powering his 6-foot body up the rock’s face.

The 25-year-old acoustics consultant grew up in a secluded cabin in “the-middle-of-nowhere” Nevada and was introduced to rock climbing at age 6 by his parents.  Edwards recalls rock climbing on weekends and freely drifting around the remote homestead in an ATV.  Now a Boston resident, his Facebook feed is an ode to climbing and the outdoors: photos include selfies from mountaintops and powdery ski slopes.

But despite 19 years of experience, Edwards says that when he meets other climbers, they oftentimes don’t take him seriously. Why? Because he’s black.

“When I’m climbing outside, I’m the only black person within a 100 mile radius,” Edwards says with a shrug. “This has often led to people making assumptions about my skill level and talking down to me as if I’m a beginner.”

Stories like Edwards’s are common among climbers of color. The outdoors have historically been white spaces, due to reasons ranging from the fact that many minorities live in dense urban areas, with less access to public outdoor land, to cultural stigmas in minority communities that prioritize traditional sports over hiking or climbing. When people like Edwards do find their way to outdoor sports like climbing, they don’t always feel welcomed by the existing communities.

“I’ve also gone through periods in my life where I’ve either stopped climbing altogether or only climbed occasionally due to feeling out of place amongst the climbing community,” Edwards says. “It’s hard for me to find people who I can relate to.”  

Minorities in climbing are a small, but growing force. No studies have examined race and climbing specifically, but the a National Park service survey of racial diversity found that minorities comprised 22 percent of National Park visitors, despite comprising nearly 40 percent of the nation’s population. Climbers say anecdotally that they’re starting to see more minorities in the climbing gym, but not in climbing-related media. The sponsored athlete pages of many outdoor retail companies (Patagonia, The North Face, Adidas Outdoor) remain overwhelmingly white. There’s a glimmer of hope in the likes of Kai Lightner and Ashima Shiraishi — both minority athletes under 20 that have a shot at climbing in the 2020 Summer Olympics — but in traditional climbing media sponsorship and coverage, they stand alone.

This lack of visibility plays into the difficulties minority climbers face in trying to find a community. However, groups like Brothers of Climbing challenge the cultural status quo, showing minority climbers they’re not alone in the climbing community, even if it might seem like it in their town. Based in New York City, BOC has more than 3,000 followers on Instagram and recently was featured in a REI short film that went viral among climbing circles. Mikhail Martin, one of the founders of BOC, says that people come to him constantly with stories about how BOC has helped minority climbers feel seen and heard.

“I bumped into this one random black guy [in Moe’s Valley, Utah],” Martin says.  “He was there climbing with his girlfriend and he was like ‘What!? There’s another?!’ He got so excited and he’s like ‘I’m the only one in Salt Lake City,’ and I’m like, ‘No, you’re not because in the process of working on BOC, we’ve received emails from other people within the Utah and Salt Lake City who are out there.’”  

James E. Mills, author of “The Adventure Gap,” agrees that the number of people of color participating or working in outdoor recreation is increasing, but there still isn’t much representation for them in the climbing industry or media.

“If you’re going to do an ad campaign, you’re not going to try to challenge the perceptions of your audience by depicting someone who they don’t think looks like who should be spending time in the outdoors,” Mills says. “You’re going to get a picture of a bearded white man in a plaid shirt. Because that’s what you think of when you think outdoorsman.”

Martin cites the lack of portrayals of people of color in the outdoors as one of the reasons why BOC is so dedicated to their social media presence.

“Instagram is such a powerful tool that we use, to share our experiences,” Martin says.  “The climbing media isn’t sharing it. So if they don’t, we can.”

Martin also says other groups apart from BOC are doing more to shed light on minority communities in the outdoors.

“There’s a huge misconception that being in the outdoors is a white person thing,” Martin says.  He points to groups like Outdoor Afro or Latino Outdoors, and Melanin Basecamp that, like Brothers of Climbing, aim to increase awareness of minorities in the outdoors.

The dramatic increase of rock climbing gyms within the last decade has helped to open access to climbing to those who don’t live near climbing spots or don’t have a car to travel there. Many rock climbing gyms started as training centers for when climbers couldn’t go outside, but they inadvertently are giving rise to diversity within the gym by introducing people in urban centers to the sport. Still, Mills doesn’t see rock climbing gyms as the solution to getting people of color to embrace climbing and the outdoors. Rather, he says that people’s mindsets surrounding race and the outdoors need to chance.  

“The fact that there’s a segment of the population that stops themselves for whatever reason is a problem,” Mills says. “When you ultimately say I can’t go climbing because I don’t have a 350 dollar Gore-Tex jacket, that’s different from saying I can’t go climbing because I’m black. But both are equally capable of dissuading someone from spending time in the outdoors. Either way, we gotta fix that.”