When Al Hospers awoke on a muggy morning in late July, he was displeased with the view from his back window.
The North Conway, New Hampshire-based climber, who runs the blog NEClimbs.com, saw American, Pride, and Black Lives Matter (BLM) flags proudly hanging high on Cathedral Ledge — the centerpiece of trad climbing in the Northeast. Hospers expressed his frustration in a Facebook post that quickly gained hundreds of comments.
“I'm a supporter of BLM,” wrote Hospers. “But I don't believe that this should be hanging on the cliff. This needs to come down soon!”
Debate between climbers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard ensued. Should crags be used for political displays, people wondered—and would doing so be a dangerous step toward turning natural landscapes into billboards?
Climbers have been flying flags on the East Coast since at least 1875, when Newell Martin and Charlie Beed scaled the Rainbow Slide on the Adirondacks’ Gothics, leaving a large handkerchief as proof of their feat. More recently, in 2002, a “Jeanne Shaheen for Governor” banner was hung under Echo Roof on Whitehorse Ledge before being removed just a few hours later.
What can and should be left on a cliff has long been a topic of debate within the climbing community. It's controversial to add a bolt to a runout section of a climb or leave a fixed rope unattended. But today, politics and statements about civil rights are spilling over onto the wall.
“These are crazy times”, said Freddie Wilkinson, an accomplished climber and writer and the owner of Salt Pump climbing gym and Cathedral Mountain Guides. “The [Black Lives Matter and Pride] flags are simply about promoting the promise of the constitution, which is liberty and justice for all. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bigotry and racism in these rural communities that surround many popular climbing destinations.”
That’s why Wilkinson and approximately a dozen other climbers decided to raise flags on the cliff again—this time, 12-by-18-foot Pride and BLM flags, along with a canoe, during Labor Day Weekend.
The canoe had no significance other than paying tribute to a similar “canoelian traverse” conducted on the cliff in 1986, but it did help turn a few heads.
Even Hospers, who vehemently opposed July’s rogue demonstration, supported the second, based largely on the fact that the climbers involved took ownership and physically stood behind their message (the originators of the first stunt did not). At the end of the day, the climbers packed everything up, leaving no evidence other than a few photos.
Throughout the day, dozens of onlookers engaged with the climbers and the message.
And even after all traces of the demonstration were cleared from the cliff, conversations continued online for days. In addition to traction on social media, the display gained local and national attention, with coverage in both the Union Leader and The Boston Globe.
While those for and against the display had valid points about counter-protests and leaving “political” statements out of nature, there is no denying the whiteness and lack of diversity that exists within the climbing community and rural areas that often surround climbing destinations. Piseth Sam, a climber, adventure sports athlete and member of the LGBTQ+ community from Medford, Massachusetts, feels that if there is a time when climbers should push the boundaries of ethics to make a statement, that time is now.
“As black and brown folks, we don’t get to tap out of the conversation because we are the ones being politicized. We have to stand up for ourselves.”
Sam continued on, noting the influx of Trump signs surrounding North Conway.
“I can’t speak for the black community, but as a queer, brown person, there’s no misinterpreting what these Trump signs stand for,” Sam said. “It feels terrible. It just feels so bad. It makes me feel unsafe. Sometimes I don’t even have the emotional energy to drive up there and subject myself to those signs.”
Dan Alroy, a Somerville, Massachussetts-based climber who identifies as queer and has been climbing in the North Conway-area since the early 1990s, also expressed support for similar statements at crags. “When I look at the BLM flag and the LGBTQ+ flag flying over North Conway, I’m not looking at it as a rebuke to the racists in New Hampshire,” said Alroy. “I look at it as signaling to people of color and queer people that they have allies here.”
Of course, there are a number of rules that must be considered when conducting such a display. According to New Hampshire State Parks, unattended equipment breaks a very clear state park rule. By staying with the equipment throughout the day, participants of the Labor Day demonstration attempted to navigate murky waters and keep the display legal; as a result, they were allowed to fly the flags.
Today, the debate about demonstrations in natural spaces continues within the climbing community. And now, instead of discussing whether or not the new route on Cathedral Ledge is sandbagged, climbers are having meaningful conversations about how the community could be more inclusive, and additional action that needs to be taken aside from demonstrating.
Such demonstrations, Alroy said, are only a small step toward making the climbing community an all-inclusive space. He believes kiosks at crag parking areas should have flags or diversity statements and local businesses should also speak up. He also stressed that much of the discomfort he’s felt within the climbing community has manifested itself in the form of climbers using phrases like “that’s gay,” or “don’t be a pussy.”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if the kiosks at all these crags had a statement saying everyone is safe in these woods?” asked Alroy. “This isn’t a war against religion or whiteness. It’s an invitation for everyone else.”