The Racism of the Great Outdoors

Hikers and climbers of color face a host of obstacles, from bigoted route names to Confederate flags. This D.C.-based group is trying to change that.
Gabrielle Dickerson, a member of Brown Girls Climb, along the Northwest Branch Trail in Silver Spring.

A previous version of this story misstated the nature of the mission and the origins of Brown Girls Climb. The mission is to create inclusive and accessible opportunities for self-identifying women and LGBTQ people of color in the outdoors, not just women of color. The group was launched by Bethany Lebewitz, Brittany Leavitt, Monserrat Alvarez Matehuala, Laura Edmondson, Sasha McGhee and Jael Berger, not only Lebewitz and Leavitt.

Five years ago, Gabrielle Dickerson, then a sophomore at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, lay awake in her sleeping bag on her first overnight climbing trip, enveloped by the woods of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve near Fayetteville, W.Va. Like many rock climbers in the D.C. area, she’d been drawn to the New, as outdoor enthusiasts call it — a five-hour road trip from Washington — because it offers 1,400 of the best climbing routes in the United States.

The rest of her group had swiftly fallen asleep after a day of projecting — the process of strategizing about, and eventually completing, a climb with no breaks — but apprehension took hold of Dickerson. “I was very aware of how uncomfortable I was in the backcountry of West Virginia,” Dickerson recalls. “Not only because I was a Black woman, but also because of the relationship and trauma my ancestors had with the woods.” Her grandfather had been born on a North Carolina cotton farm in 1930 and picked cotton until he escaped from the owner in his teens. On his way to Philadelphia and a new life, he witnessed his best friend get lynched in the woods.

Loneliness sank in as Dickerson realized that no one in her campsite would be able to relate: She was the only Black climber in her group. She’d been climbing in a gym in Rockville, Md., for six months; that day in the New was her first experience projecting in a natural space. She’d spent the afternoon struck with a sense of wonder, but that didn’t offset her disquietude in that moment. She knew that the deep canyons that surrounded her overflowed with histories of Black families just like her own.

People of color have been historically locked out of the outdoors. Virginia’s first national park, Shenandoah, remained segregated until 1950; even after the integration effort, basic amenities like hotels and gas stations surrounding Shenandoah were still segregated. D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, designated as a national park in 1890, only began desegregating in 1949 — a delayed result of a federally mandated push to improve morale in communities of color to boost the war effort.

Meanwhile, along the New River Gorge, where formerly enslaved migrants had sought work in coal mines and railroads along the east side of South River in the early 20th century, route names such as “Tar Baby,” “Aryan Race” and “Slave Fingers” on “Cotton Top” crag are painful reminders of a not-too-distant scarring history. “You have that connection, and you have that remembrance, and then you pair it with going to Cotton Top and reading the name of a route that a friend is about to gear up and get on,” Dickerson, who has since become a strong enough climber to gain sponsorships from sports brands, told me. “I’m in this state of conflicting [emotion] where I’m excited to be outside, but also I feel wildly uncomfortable and unsafe, and I’m in a space where the people around me usually won’t understand that.”

A year into the sport, however, Dickerson found an Instagram account filled with images of women of color climbing. The account belonged to a D.C.-based group called Brown Girls Climb, and now, Dickerson climbs primarily with women she met there. Over the past 4½ years, Brown Girls Climb has been committed to creating inclusive and accessible opportunities for self-identifying women and LGBTQ people of color in the outdoors — and in the process, it’s challenging the narrative around what a climber looks like.

Brittany Leavitt of Brown Girls Climb finds deep fulfillment in being able to “redefine who is a climber and who is considered ‘outdoorsy.’ ”

Brown Girls Climb was launched in 2016 by Bethany Lebewitz, a biracial climber living in Austin. A year later, when Lebewitz moved to D.C., she met outdoor instructor Brittany Leavitt, and together withMonserrat Alvarez Matehuala, Laura Edmondson, Sasha McGhee, and Jael Berger, they built an infrastructure of meetups for Black and Brown women in climbing gyms and at outdoor spots in the Washington region. “I was just floored by the fact that there was this large group of people of color climbing,” Dickerson says of her first Brown Girls Climb meetup, “because that wasn’t like what I had seen when I went to my climbing sessions at the gym, and definitely not when I was climbing outside.”

As the Instagram page continued to grow — it now has nearly 40,000 followers — Brown Girls Climb went national. There are eight chapters across the country, from California to New Hampshire, run by 23 leaders. The organization has built relationships with gyms to designate times throughout the month when Brown Girls Climb members can have dedicated space, and an app helps users find routes and like-minded climbing partners near them. It’s a community-driven organization, says Leavitt: “We have the knowledge to share and we want to share it with our community, and do so by creating these meetup spaces or creating events or having conversations online and in person.”

Leavitt, 32, wants Brown Girls Climb to encourage conversation within the climbing community around the structural inequalities — cost, historical discrimination, displacement from land, and flat-out being told that you don’t belong — that make the sport less accessible for Black and Brown women. She points to the surveillance women of color often face in the gym, because they don’t fit the typical image of what a climber looks like. “Without it being said, it’s kind of like, ‘Why are you here?’ ” she explains.

White climbers can separate climbing from everyday life in a way that she and other Black and Indigenous climbers cannot, Leavitt notes. For instance: Before she heads out for the New, as Leavittt does every few months, she consults a mental checklist. She ensures she has the right equipment for the weekend, as any climber would do — but she also won’t leave without a full tank of gas and an expensive Garmin GPS device to emit her location in no-service zones. She braces herself for the Confederate and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags that she’ll see on the way; she thinks through what would happen if her car broke down. “When you stop at a town [in West Virginia], you don’t want to leave your car,” Leavitt says.

Black climbers are faced with reconciling the joys they find in being outdoors with the history that kept their grandparents from doing so. “While you all were in the golden age of climbing in Yosemite,” Leavitt says about her White counterparts, “you were kicking [Indigenous] communities out and Black folks weren’t able to go to national parks, so we can’t just separate that history.”

It’s even harder for Black people to compartmentalize the generational trauma they carry when they regularly encounter climbing routes with violently racist names. Route names are bestowed by whoever climbs the rock first. These first ascensionists, as they’re called, are highly skilled climbers — overwhelmingly White and male — who scope out new rock faces, clean them and test out routes for others. The route names they choose become solidified in physical guidebooks and online maps.

The New River Alliance of Climbers, a nonprofit climbing advocacy organization, determined that 68 route names in the New were racist, sexist or intolerant. Of those, 50 have been changed after members of the group’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee, which reviewed the names, spoke directly to the first ascensionists or guidebook authors. Brown Girls Climb member Marina Inoue, a 35-year-old tattoo artist in Richmond, serves on the committee. “I love the New, and I want everybody to be able to enjoy it and not experience harm from the climbing community,” she says.

Route names from California to Kentucky like “Tied to the Whipping Post,” “Runaway Slave” and “Lynch Mob” were redacted from online databases only this past year, after climbers of color in various organizations, including Brown Girls Climb, collected names that they found offensive in an open-source document. Volunteers reached out to authors and publishers to change the names, putting pressure on stakeholders through grass-roots organizing. Setting a route “is a privileged thing to do, and this goes way back to the history of segregation in the outdoors,” first ascensionist and JEDI Committee member Jay Young says about the name changes. (Young himself has labeled a few routes with names that might be considered lewd, and he has since proactively changed them.) “I can go back generations in my family, and I’ve ancestors who were playing outside. There are not a lot of people of color who can say the same thing.”

“I was just floored by the fact that there was this large group of people of color climbing,” Gabrielle Dickerson says of her first Brown Girls Climb meetup.

The women of Brown Girls Climb are taking other avenues to ensure the safety of their members. They recently launched an outdoor training program for local group leaders to help them get certified in wilderness first aid, climbing and environmental and outdoor education, so that they can bring these skills back to their communities and train others. Melissa Utomo, a 29-year-old web developer and member of Brown Girls Climb, is working with 15 other developers and climbers to create a climbing guidebook app that focuses on rooting out violent language. “We want to prioritize not just physical safety, but also emotional and mental safety,” Utomo says. Users will be able to signal when they feel unsafe or targeted in an area, she notes. Utomo attributes a large portion of her initial funding success for the platform — she raised $6,628 for its development via Indiegogo — to Brown Girls Climb’s amplification of her project. The app’s completion date has not been set, but Utomo says the team is wrapping its research phase in a couple of months.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle Dickerson is pushing the companies that sponsor her to support more climbers of color in achieving first ascents: “I talked to Marmot and El Cap” — the parent company of Earth Treks Climbing Centers — “in terms of breaking the status quo, like: Why is it that it is mostly White men that have the access to be outside and do the first ascent, and you’re always sponsoring them?” Dickerson has since ended her affiliation with Marmot: “I’ve been disappointed with their [diversity, equity and inclusion] and anti-racism efforts, especially given the amount of free labor I’ve expended in working with them,” she told me. Marmot did not respond to requests for comment, while a representative from El Cap wrote in an email that Dickerson “has been an integral part of our gym’s ability to live out our mission to advance representation in climbing.” Dickerson has started her own sponsorship initiative, Our Powerful People, to highlight and pay those who do anti-racism, diversity and inclusion work in climbing.

Leavitt, along with eight other climbers, two of whom are local leaders in Brown Girls Climb, has started building a new outdoor space in Southwest Baltimore. Pigtown Climbs, scheduled to break ground and start hosting events by August, with tentative completion in summer 2022, is envisioned as a community-led recreational facility that will help people of color deepen their connection to the outdoors. Leavitt finds deep fulfillment in being able to “redefine who is a climber and who is considered ‘outdoorsy,’ ” she says. For her, and for the members of Brown Girls Climb, every trip outdoors is a small revolution.

Ikya Kandula is a writer in New Haven, Conn.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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