The rock climbing industry has struggled during the months of the coronavirus pandemic, with an estimated revenue decline of 28 percent in 2020. Despite the steep drop this year, the industry grew by 3.9 percent annually in the United States over the past decade, Australian research company IBISWorld calculates, and climbing was added to the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Usually growth means new people join in from unique walks of life, but the rock climbing community has struggled with welcoming the new. According to its 2019 “State of Climbing” report, the American Alpine Club, a century-old organization that has been involved in historic summit expeditions, has a membership that is 85 percent white and 72 percent male.
“No one should be surprised to hear that climbing is dominated by white men,” James Edward Mills, author of "The Adventure Gap," which documents the first all-African-American attempt to summit Denali, is quoted as saying in the report. “But rather than getting defensive over a statistical fact we should concern ourselves with how to go about fixing it.”
The good news is that there are organizations striving for inclusion, from the cost of equipment to the accessibility of gyms and crags. This year, for example, marked The North Face’s fourth Global Climbing Day. The August 22 “Walls are Meant for Climbing” event invited people to climb with the purpose of supporting greater accessibility, inclusion and equity in the community. The brand also contributed funds to organizations that are making concerted efforts to lower barriers to entry for people of color, women and individuals with disabilities — organizations like Memphis Rox, Paraclimbing London and The Brown Ascenders. This year, the company is donating $80,000.
Another note of progress comes from USA Climbing, the national governing body of competition climbing, which appointed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force last year. Last month, it launched a diversity, equity and inclusion survey, with the purpose of identifying research areas and action items for the USA Climbing Board of Directors. The survey is still open.
A big concern for the rock climbing industry during the novel coronavirus pandemic is longevity. Due to hygiene concerns, many gyms have had to close their doors temporarily. Hence outreach is a priority.
Of course, reaching new groups is the ethical thing to do, but there are other practical reasons for inclusion. For one, the United States is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. In a blog for the advocacy organization The Access Fund, climber Taimur Ahmad notes, “If we want to ensure that the places we love, and climbing itself, continue to have a robust constituency that is impassioned to step up and defend them, we need to ensure that we are welcoming new voices.”
Echoing that sentiment, in an interview with REI, Mikhail Martin, co-founder of Brothers of Climbing in Brooklyn, New York, said, “With more diversity, more people would feel like they belong and become protectors of the sport and its associated outdoor spaces.”
Climbing gyms can do their own part to expand their customer base and contribute to nationwide change. The Access Fund lists four steps for LCOs (Local Climbing Organizations): Organizations can learn from those they’d like to better include; actively invite individuals and groups to gyms, activities and expeditions; examine whether communication materials are targeting a broad audience; and seek to make events accessible in cost, time and distance.
Any organization that endeavors to improve accessibility and inclusivity is also adding to the comfort of the atmosphere. The biggest thing you get from a community that represents you is comfort," Martin explained in his interview with REI. “As a member of the community you can be yourself and relax because you don’t have to explain certain things — the others already understand.
“There is a higher level of familiarity and more situations where you can relate. Being around people with a similar point of view can offer validation, and that can lead to confidence allowing you to be able to do things that you might not have thought you could. Love, support and energy can go a long way.”
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