Why don’t we see more South Asian rock climbers?
Shabana Ali on the unequal barriers faced by climbers of colour.
In 2014 I found myself at a sprawling gated estate in the dusty desert of Hueco, Texas for an all-climbers vegan dinner party, when I noticed a Brown girl sitting in an armchair in the living room. I was stunned. In my mind’s eye she glowed like a fluorescent construction cone. I tried to act natural as we were introduced and started to make regular climber conversation.
At one point she joked, “We should totally boulder together, you know, just to freak everyone out!” I understood immediately what she meant. As a climber of Bangladeshi descent, I rarely see other climbers who look like me.
To be honest, this wasn’t the first time that I had a fluorescent-construction-cone experience. Over the last 20+ years, I have climbed at no fewer than 56 different outdoor climbing areas across Canada, the US, and internationally, and about 18 indoor climbing gyms. In total, I have probably logged over 3000 climbing sessions, both indoors and out. In all that time, I remember seeing exactly 12 other climbers who may have been of South Asian (i.e., Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) descent. I only recently started to question why that was.
Coming from lands of social and economic disparity, where education may seem like the only way to a better life—most South Asian parents seem to revere academics and a lofty (read lucrative) career path above all else. This fits my own narrative, given my own mother’s reaction to my pronouncement as a small child that I wanted to be a Disney animator when I grew up: “If by animator you mean doctor, then yes, by all means!”
Some parents believe outright that participation in basically anything outside of school will hurt scholastic performance. In a 2019 Vice article “The Hidden Stress of Growing Up a Child of Immigrants,” Tomás R. Jiménez, a professor of sociology at Stanford writes: “This is especially true when it comes to American ideologies of ‘find[ing] your passion,’ which may be fundamentally incompatible with an immigrant parent’s extremely high expectations for how their children can and should succeed.”
If that isn’t telling, then the numbers might be. In 2001 when I was only a few years into climbing, there were 15 per cent more people of South Asian origin who were enrolled in a full-time educational program, or who already possessed a university degree, than the overall population of Canadians of the same age group.
We might look to the systems in which parents were raised for some insight, where athletic activity—though understood to be important—wasn’t prioritized in a structured or consistent way from a young age. In Bangladesh and India, there are PE classes in school, but they operate more as free play time that incorporates various sports.
As of the last Summer Olympics in 2016, Bangladesh—though it’s the eighth-most populated country in the world—has never won a medal. That year, out of a population of 171 million, they only sent seven athletes, all but one of whom reached the Olympics through a wild card system rather than on pure merit.
The challenges of accessing outdoor spaces
I had almost no relationship with the outdoors growing up (I never went to camp, had access to a cottage, or was enrolled in Girl Guides). Almost everything I learned about camping, climbing, and being in the outdoors—in a pre-smart-phone era—was learned the hard way. I froze through cold days and colder nights with only a fashion “down” vest and a K-Mart sleeping bag. I almost set a picnic table on fire using a camping stove.
Of course, many of these struggles are not unique to the South Asian experience. Discussing the challenges of the South Asian diaspora is not meant to diminish anyone else’s accomplishments or struggles. To be sure, people of various cultural identities may face the same challenges, even if they occur for different reasons.
We are often told that great outdoors is a part of Canada’s national identity, yet for a lot of immigrants who actively make efforts to assimilate into the culture, this seems to go largely ignored. With the myriad things that immigrants have to learn when they arrive in a new country, it’s not difficult to see how climbing and camping can fall low on the priority list. But I don’t think it’s just as simple as that. Statistically speaking, if you are a member of an immigrant family, you most likely live in an urban area (88 per cent), which already physically removes you from exposure to wild natural spaces. Climbing and camping equipment is expensive and requires specialized knowledge for its use. Outdoor climbing also demands a greater time commitment when compared to a lot of other sports. It might also be a challenge to find other friends in your community willing to partake in the experience, and not everyone has the temerity to go it alone.
Immigrants also tend to be more risk averse—being new to the lay of the land, cautiously figuring out all the new rules. Given both its perceived and inherent dangers, you can see how climbing would be a South Asian parent’s nightmare.
Indian-born Montréal climber Devansh Shrivastava recalls, “Man, when my mom saw pictures of me climbing, she freaked out. [She] told me, ‘You will die, stop climbing.’ Then when [my parents] came here [for the first time to visit] I showed them the gym and how secure it is and then they were like, ‘Okay you can climb in the gym, but not outside.’”
Prejudice, Bigotry, and Safety
On my first day on a climbing trip on the Grecian island of Kalymnos, I was a little nervous to take on a climb at the upper limit of my ability at the time. The island’s white limestone had been polished down to a glassy surface by decades of climbing shoes. As I was putting on my shoes and tying in I noticed an aging muscular climber staring at me in a rather obvious way at an embarrassing proximity. I remember my anger; it felt like he was waiting to see if the monkey could dance. When I got a few feet up the limestone face and inevitably slipped and fell, my first instinct was to look over at him. He grumbled in a language I didn’t recognize and dismissed me with a wave of his hand as he turned his back and walked away. I guess I was no longer worth watching.
I know that climbers observe each other all the time: for beta (information about a climb), out of curiosity when they notice new climbers they don’t recognize, and, yes, unfortunately to compare ourselves. More often than not, you can feel the intention. Sabrina Chapman, a sponsored athlete of Mauritius descent, who can now be found gracing the cover of the Ontario Rock Climbing Guidebook experienced similar frustrations. In a 2019 article “Why Womxn of Colour should take up space in the outdoors,”
Danielle Williams wrote of Chapman, “Like many people who don’t fit the conventional image of what a climber is supposed to look like, Chapman is often asked in subtle or overt ways to prove her competence or justify her presence—not just once, but over and over again.”
Natasha Jategaonkar, long-time British Columbia resident and my first climbing partner, also recounts, “It often happened when I was, for example, buying new climbing shoes that I was addressed as a ‘beginner’ even when I was climbing at a fairly advanced level.” Sophia Danenberg, the first American person of colour to climb Everest recounts, “I have one of two experiences: either people are excited and treat me like an absolute beginner or I’m just totally ignored as someone who is not going to be a good partner or someone they want to climb with.”
While these microaggressions can eat away at you, physical safety can be a more immediate concern. Climbing takes us to places around the world, including some with track records of hostility toward people of colour. In the video Brothers of Climbing: Represent and Reach, Black climber and Brothers of Climbing (B.O.C.) founding member Pieter Cooper muses, “I definitely have gone to places where you feel like maybe we should not be here. If you’re travelling in a car with other people and they all happen to be all Black or whatever, like you do put yourself in a certain [potentially dangerous situation].”
When I was at Miguel’s Campground in Kentucky in 2006, a local climber commented on the fact that I was “ethnic” in a way that made me feel less than comfortable. Besides being scary, dehumanizing, and anger-inducing, navigating these situations takes up a lot of mental bandwidth.
It forces people of colour to put up psychological armour, wasting energy that could otherwise be used for climbing.
Representation, Modelling, and Exposure
Recently, perusing The Curious Climber Podcast episodes, I noticed one entitled “Prerna Dangi: Moving Mountains” followed by the words “Delhi-based climber.”
Wait, locals in India climb? I mean, I knew that Hampi was a developed bouldering destination (made famous by superstar climber Chris Sharma in his campy video Pilgrimage) and that a few Bouldering World Cups had recently been held in India (with no one of South Asian origin making the top six in either female or male categories), but I always assumed that those were the undertakings of foreigners. Why was I only just finding out that India has their own local climbing culture?
In Indigo Johnson’s Climbing magazine article “Diversity in Climbing: A Difficult Conversation,” the industry and climbing professionals she asked mostly cite “lack of exposure to rock climbing and low numbers of role models in the upper levels of the climbing community” as reasons for a lack of diversity in the sport. I would add that the outdoors has traditionally been coded as a space for White people.
By the sheer influx of bodies now occupying space at climbing gyms and crags, it feels like climbing is on the rise. The representation of minority groups in the sport, though, just isn’t growing as rapidly. Climbing as a sport doesn’t need more exposure, but it does need to be exposed more to marginalized groups. One way to do this is to include these groups in ongoing conversations and to create more visibility for those already participating.
Thankfully, there are some companies who are working to be agents of change. In 2018, after acknowledging in an open letter that “White athletes hold the spotlight” in advertising and marketing, former Mountain Equipment Co-op (M.E.C.) CEO David Labistour set out to diversify the company’s board members, producing a noticeable uptick in non-White models on their website and non-White elite athletes receiving sponsoship. All of this was part of an effort to more accurately reflect M.E.C.’s five million members.
I have been deeply inspired by watching professional female climbers excel. It’s fun to watch strong climbers climbing hard (no matter how repetitive and formulaic these stories have become). But what if there is no one who looks like you climbing at elite levels?
I realized pretty quickly that Prerna Dangi and others like her weren’t getting much airtime because they aren’t crushing super-hard climbing grades. Maybe this idea should be reframed then: are the stories and faces of elite athletes the only ones with value? I’m not suggesting that sponsored/pro athletes should stop being featured. But perhaps climbing content creators not already doing so should start to re-examine what kinds of stories have value for the community at large and make meaningful shifts by actually featuring diverse athletes.
One of the things I’ve been grateful for over the years are all the White allies that I’ve encountered who made me feel seen. They forego their privilege of not having to care and choose instead to acknowledge the challenges that exist for others beyond their own singular experience. This is no small feat for people who come from a world that, while it values community, deeply valorizes individual achievement. Seeing a photo of Matt Segal, a White The North Face sponsored athlete, serving food as a volunteer at the 2018 Color the Crag event (a P.O.C.-centred climbing festival in Horse Pens 40, Alabama) really warmed my heart. There are a million different ways to support people from marginalized groups and even seemingly little things can count for a lot.
My cousin Bobbin, a university professor in Bangladesh, saw a photo of me standing atop a high rock pillar with the forest floor falling away around me. He asked if he could use it to show the girls he taught: “See! It’s totally possible for a Bangladeshi girl to accomplish something like that!”
It was cool to think that maybe my participation in a sport could deconstruct a belief system and inform future experiences for others: that these young women might now know of its existence, might believe it possible, may even discover a hunger they didn’t even know they had, all because they saw someone who looks like them do it first.
Looking for an entry point into outdoor culture? These resources for BIPOC can help.
Gives voices of colour (including those of East Asian origin, in case you aren’t sure if you fit under this banner) a platform to share experiences and knowledge and speak to the issues that affect them most.
Brothers of Climbing (B.O.C.)
This Brooklyn-based initiative has created meet-ups to climb both indoors and out. It’s welcoming to Canadians, female-identifying climbers, and even those who aren’t Black. B.O.C. has chapters starting to form in other parts of the U.S.
The Outdoor Journal
Features news from unreported regions and stories not told, in the form of videos, articles, and podcasts. If you’re looking to see the intersection of brown faces and outdoor adventuring more often, you just found your source.
Color the Crag
A multi-day climbing festival in Horse Pens 40, Alabama with the mandate to educate, promote leadership and address the barriers P.O.C. experience when climbing.
Though Vasu is not a climber, he is an elite The North Face sponsored skier and an example of Brown excellence in the world of outdoor athletic leisure.
Shabana Ali has been climbing rocks and informally protesting the Whiteness of the American and Canadian outdoors by her occupation of them since 1997. She lives and works in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal.