“The Climbing Community Has Been the Source Of My Deepest Pain:” AAC CEO

A leading member of the climbing community, Mitsu Iwasaki, speaks on inequity and racism.

Receive $50 off an eligible $100 purchase at the Outside Shop, where you'll find gear for all your adventures outdoors. Sign up for Outside+ today.

I’ve been a climber for 30 years, and an American since age six, when my family immigrated to Seattle from Japan. Our climbing community inspires and defines me; it is where I have found my closest friendships, yet it has also been the source of my deepest pain.

Just as everywhere else in our America, I’ve experienced racism in climbing: looks, comments, assumptions, harassment—most due to implicit biases. There’s also a significant difference when I’m out climbing with my white partners versus my Asian/BIPOC partners. In the latter case, we’re often asked about our backgrounds and/or provided with unsolicited advice. A few years ago in Moab, another climber at the crag attempted to teach me to belay. In the aggregate, these incidents reinforce differences in access, representation, and social power, diminishing a sense of belonging. With white partners in tow, I am less foreign to these individuals, perhaps through a halo of legitimacy signaling that I have assimilated.

I recently left a memorial for a climber friend at which the man next to me at dinner made racist comments about the Japanese—he saw himself as an expert since he’d taught English there for a year. What I find deeply troubling was his ease, the security he felt among fellow climbers—all of us gathered in memory of an alpinist who had immigrated from Hong Kong. After dinner, he asked me to go climbing sometime. I ignored his request. 

I find myself in conflict in these moments: In my American identity I would say something, but I usually default to my Japanese identity and the virtue of gaman (patience, tolerance). This means suffering indignities with stoicism—ironically, to protect the offender’s dignity. I wish I could say that these moments are unusual, but they’re all too common.

Perhaps because of my practiced code-switching—the ways in which I’ve chosen to suppress my identity to be accepted into this community—various partners have let their biases show. I’ve listened to too many racist jokes and comments in tents and bivvies. Once, as a partner put me on belay on El Cap, he said, “Let’s go—the Japs behind us are catching up.” I said a silent WTF and paused as I unclipped to lead off. In a sport in which trust is essential, tying in with persons who—consciously or unconsciously—exhibit racist behavior precludes the normal freedom to be candid or push harder.

I’ve experienced racism in professional settings, too. Once, as I led a different outdoor-industry nonprofit than the American Alpine Club (AAC), where I currently work, the board required me to take speech coaching. The coach they hired was confused, as my English is fluent and my slight accent had nothing to do with my ability to represent the organization.

Still, I’ve come to recognize that my deepest pain isn’t so much from these incidents but code-shifting. It’s the gymnastics I do: from how I hold my body, to how I communicate, to the recognition that my voice and opinions will usually be diminished. I’ll change from my Japanese impulse to occupy less physical and spiritual space to creating a larger stature, projecting outwardly, and speaking in a loud way, laced with absolutes. I need to be strategic with white partners to ensure that I’m heard, such as when debating whether to ski a slope or the soundness of an anchor. A recent survey by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH) showed that 42 percent of Americans can’t name a single prominent Asian American. We are simultaneously forgotten, expected to be silent, and to assimilate.

Still, I am optimistic. Countless people are working toward greater inclusion, both across outdoor brands and at our crags. In my work at the AAC, I’ve felt deep support from our board, our staff, and the industry to lean into difficult conversations: on mental health, eating disorders, misogyny, and equity and inclusion. In hopes of helping expand our community into a healthier, more welcoming space, I see our next step as reflecting with humility. Inclusion should not require assimilation, and homogeneity is not a preference in a community whose history is one of nonconformity. As barriers to entry have eased through gyms and with broadening interest, we’re ready to embrace a fuller diversity of human expression at our crags and on our summits.

Mitsu Iwasaki is CEO of the American Alpine Club. He’s been climbing, skiing, and running throughout the American West and abroad for the better part of three decades.