Color the Crag: Bringing Diversity to the Boulders of Alabama—and the US

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Nina Williams flashes the Classic Bumboy (V3), HP40.

Nina Williams flashes the Classic Bumboy (V3), HP40.

“You should try!” Nina Williams told one of the dozen climbers watching her slap up the bulbous slopers of Bumboy, a classic V3 at Horse Pens 40, atop Alabama’s Chandler Mountain. Situated in St. Clair County, near Steele, Alabama, HP40 is home to over 400 problems from V0 to V12 on a dense cluster of roughly sandstone 100 boulders, and has long been a must-stop on the Southeast circuit. The 115-acre park is owned by the Schultz family and regularly pays host to Bluegrass festivals, motorcycle rallies, Native American pow-wows, and the annual Triple Crown bouldering event. Last October 18 through the 21, it was also home to the second-annual Color the Crag event, which drew 240 climbers from over 20 states.

In 2017, Mikhail Martin of Brothers of Climbing and Bethany Lebewitz of Brown Girls Climb organized the first-ever Color the Crag at HP40. Their goal, according to the event’s mission statement, was “To increase the presence of people of color outside, encourage community leadership, and provide positive representation of climbing and physical activity among populations of color.” The first year saw a strong gathering of over a hundred climbers. The 2018 event saw the attendance double and sponsorship increase as well, with large brands like The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Patagonia setting up booths and supporting the festival. The 2018 event hosted the writer James Mills (The Joy Trip Project), who spoke on the “adventure gap”—why minority populations are less likely to seek outdoor recreation; NPR Tiny Desk Concert performer and musician Deqn Sue; clinics on bouldering with professional climbers Nina Williams and Sam Elias and other industry members; panel discussions about working in the outdoor industry, community-building and visibility, and conservation and environmentalism; yoga; an amazing dance party; food catered by local companies owned by people of color; and, of course, climbing.

For minorities looking to enter the sport, there’s a notable lack of peers outside. For example, National Parks visitors consist of 3 percent Asian, 7 percent African American, 9 percent Hispanic (any race), and 78 percent white, non-Hispanic, yet the the US population on the whole is 4.8 percent Asian, 12.6 percent African American, 16.3 percent Hispanic (any race), and 63.7 percent white, non-Hispanic. Ideally, outdoor visitation, including climbing, would reflect the demographics of the nation. According to Martin, this discrepancy gives people of color the impression that “they were alone, that the outdoors and rock climbing weren’t for them.” Mills, meanwhile, notes that historically people of color had difficulty traveling across the country to climbing areas, finding themselves unable to sleep in hotels and unwelcome in many parts of America. “There are a lot things that people of color weren’t allowed to do,” says Mills, “and climbing was one of them.” However, the past two decades have seen a shift. Gyms have begun popping up in cities, making the sport more accessible. Social media has increased the visibility of climbing, with people of color appearing in campaigns by large outdoor companies. And events like Color the Crag are happening with increasing regularity. “It was very exciting,” says Mills, a climber of 30 years. “I’d never seen that many black, brown, and nonwhite climbers in one place in my entire life.”

Flash Foxy founder Shelma Jun climbs the amazing arête of Mortal Combat (V4).

Flash Foxy founder Shelma Jun climbs the amazing arête of Mortal Combat (V4).

It might be considered ironic, then, that an event encouraging minorities to participate in rock climbing was held in the Deep South, where many still hold onto the loss in the “War of Northern Aggression”—and with it cling to the white supremacy that fueled the Civil War. As you drive into HP40, Confederate flags hang in front yards, while the slogan “The South will rise again!” hangs from a sheet on a fence just minutes from the boulders. But Alabama has also long been a hotbed of civil-rights activism. Two hours south of HP40 in Montgomery, Rosa Parks in 1955 refused to sit in the back of the bus, defying segregation. And in 1965, the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches pushed the Voting Rights act of 1965 into legislation.

Despite any lingering racial tension, HP40 offers a central, affordable location with adjacent camping for the event, as well as a climbing venue for all levels of boulderers. “Even if you’re not a climber, you can walk into the park and appreciate what a boulder is,” says Lebewitz. Martin, who has climbed across the US, emphasizes the quality as well: “I love climbing in the South.” Wind and rain erosion have carved the sandstone of HP40 into smooth, aesthetic formations reminiscent of Fontainebleau, with similarly friendly landings. The problems tend toward moderate, with classic lines like the technical slab Merlin (V1), the physical Ring My Bell (V2), and the groove-crack of Earth, Wind, and Fire (V3) just a few feet from harder challenges like the technical arête Mortal Combat (V4), the steep jugs of Hammerhead (V5), and the compression slapping of Trick or Treat (V6).

“Press! Press!” Sam Elias said, coaching the half dozen climbers trying the Sandbox, a notorious V2 mantel. Next door on The Beach (V4), Nina Williams pointed her toe down, explaining to three women from the Bay Area how to better heel hook for the compression moves. In a nearby circle, a half dozen climbers followed Abby Dione, owner of the Coral Cliffs gym in South Florida, as she led some basic warmup techniques. The climbers encouraged each other, spotting and shifting pads, learning how to boulder together.

Taimur Ahmad slaps up the deceptively difficult Trick or Treat (V6).

Taimur Ahmad slaps up the deceptively difficult Trick or Treat (V6).

“Many of us grow up in families that don’t have experience with the outdoors,” says Martin, who started climbing in 2009 at a gym in New Rochelle, New York. Lebewitz, who grew up in Cut and Shoot, Texas, started climbing while volunteering at a children’s home in Baños, Ecuador, and then got more into it later at the Austin Rock Gym. “It's challenging for communities of color to enter and stay in the sport. From explicit harassment from other climbers to pressure from our families and cultures to direct our attention to more traditional paths, becoming a climber means facing a lot of doubt, internal and external,” she says.

On Saturday evening, a hundred voices sang out from the pavilion, “Watch me crank it, watch me roll, watch me crank dat Soulja Boy,” their voices floating over to the Flat Roof Boulder where Shelma Jun, the founder of the Flash Foxy Women's Climbing Festival, and I struggled on Crisifix, a contortionist’s V4. “Then Superman dat oh!” the crowd sang.

“Maybe we should be over there,” Jun said.

Earlier in the day, Jun had taught an intro to bouldering clinic and then spoke on a panel about ethical and culturally sensitive approaches to environmentalism. Jun and I pointed our headlamps toward the silent disco, where the climbers were dabbing under the pavilion, dropping their heads into a bent elbow. Desiigner’s “Panda,” mixed by a DJ in an enormous truck by the picnic tables, played into the headphones that each climber wore.

Matt Segal serves up his Alpine Start coffee for climbers getting ready to launch their bouldering session.

Matt Segal serves up his Alpine Start coffee for climbers getting ready to launch their bouldering session.

Earlier in the day, the climbers had been spread across the boulderfield, communing with each other and the stone; now they joined over dinner and music. In just four brief days, Color the Crag had built a community of climbers from across the nation through a shared love of climbing, through clinics on mindfulness, slacklining, anchor building, positive masculinity—and through music. During the silent disco, the climbers’ chalked hands waved in the air as they danced. Dancing was in fact a common theme at the event: Just two nights before, Deqn Sue had sung her single “Magenta” from her Zeitgeist album while her producer Kelvin Wooten played keyboard. “So many different shades, I’m so many different shades,” Sue sang as the pavilion filled with excited climbers, all happy to have found their home at the rock. “I am a color.”

Access Wins and Red Flags

The Access Fund (AF) has been lobbying for access since 1991. We’ve teamed up with them to present key victories and threats.

Big Wins

  • Chris Winter has been appointed Access Fund’s (AF’s) new executive director, bringing 20 years of environmental-law experience to the role.
  • AF and Texas Climbers Coalition acquired and permanently protected Medicine Wall, a limestone bluff in San Antonio, Texas, that had closed in 2015.
  • In a precedent-setting move, AF is working to help create federal laws that legitimize climbing as an activity in America’s wildnerness areas.

Red Flags

  • The 2018/2019 government shutdown has resulted in lasting environmental damage to public lands, plus trash and sanitation problems. It has also derailed dozens of climbing-management planning processes in national parks and forests, including Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Williamson Rock, delaying AF’s advocacy work at these key climbing sites.
  • The Department of the Interior has proposed revisions to the Freedom of Information Act, which would undermine AF’s advocacy work by limiting info regarding land-management decisions.