“I thought there was no place for me in a world of rugged men clothed in dark earth tones,” climbing photographer Irene Yee writes in a chapter of She Explores, a 2019 anthology of women’s outdoor stories and photos. “And then I realized…nature makes rainbows, too.” She goes on to explain the importance of representation: “One photo of a woman climbing changed my perception of what I could or couldn’t do, and I can only hope that my photography does the same…. Most of us are not pushing the limits of climbing, we are pushing the limits of ourselves. It is about capturing that struggle and accomplishment in all of us and not just the elite few.”
The pages of She Explores abound with pictures of adventurers displaying an immense range of backgrounds, ages, shapes, pursuits. The words capture glimpses of infinitely varied outer and inner worlds, of countless journeys through landscapes, memories and minds. Each chapter seems like an essential contribution, a chance to listen to once seldom-heard perspectives. Agnes Vianzon describes how her experiences of roaming amid the spiny peaks and fragile meadows of the Eastern Sierra led her to found a conservation corps–in order to introduce more people to a world that seemed full of wonder. “It is no secret,” she says, “there are not a lot of people who look like me working in our National Parks and Forests.” She notes the need for more opportunities for women–especially women of color–in outdoor recreation work: “Each women-based trail crew we fund contributes to evening the playing field.”
Another contributor, Ashleigh Thompson, an Ojibwe woman and archaeologist, recounts how she began daydreaming over photographs of “rocky, awe-inspiring vistas” and imagining herself wandering up those vertical landscapes. As she started to climb, she strove to honor the histories of prior Indigenous presence in such spaces:
Acknowledging whose land I am recreating on reminds me, and whoever listens to me, that we are on Indian land…. Although the land looks “wild” and untouched by humans, it’s not. Indigenous people have been swindled out of much of the land [that] treaties were supposed to reserve for them, but we have lived here since time immemorial…. I feel a sense of duty to protect the land my ancestors managed for millennia before me. My mentors tell me to think ahead to the next seven generations because the earth is borrowed from them. This worldview cultivates actions based on sustainability and reciprocity. Reciprocal relationships in which we care for everything around us, including animals, water, rocks, plants, landforms, and the cosmos, are vital to keeping the earth healthy for future generations.
Ambreen Tariq, founder of @BrownPeopleCamping, explains how public lands shaped her vision of the potential of the US: “Born and raised in India, I learned this country the way any eight-year-old child learns anything. I was afraid and excited and fell in love with the wild spaces that lay at the outskirts of my new American life…. My immigrant parents took a chance on camping. They wanted to give us America and so on we went to explore her, with a single tent and a few sleeping bags.” Since she became an adult, those memories of tall grass, fragrant evergreens and snowy lakes have continued to guide her. “I am scared for my country’s future,” she writes, “but unwilling to stop fighting for its betterment. I am a lover of wild spaces and a proponent for sharing their grace with others who haven’t had the opportunity to experience them.” Amid vast, natural landscapes, she imagines a future that could be “grounded in humility and gratitude and driven by a desire to share, protect, and diversify.”
As we read through these and many other stories in She Explores, we felt struck by two thoughts: how rare outdoor publications like this book, showcasing such a variety of women’s experiences, have been; and how much the field of outdoor literature still needs to broaden to include the vast constellations of under-represented and long-silenced voices today.
In a 1987 talk at the International Festival of Mountaineering Literature, British writer Dave Cook lamented that climbing writing had grown so narrow in its focus that its inspiration appeared to be “close to ‘running on empty.'” Stories had become too formulaic and controlled. This problem, he added, was exacerbated by the lack of diversity in the genre. “I think we can now begin to pinpoint some of the costs to climbing literature of its location on the escapist margins,” he explained. “The sources of nourishment are pretty thin.”
Cook argued that more “fuel” could come from stretching the boundaries of climbing writing–from letting in more stories that connected the experience of ascent to the whole of human lives, and from creating tales that took greater risks by acknowledging “wider issues in society,” including those of gender, the environment and race. It was crucial, he felt, to encourage a broader range of voices:
Climbing writing is crying out for the interconnections between work, relationships, art and scaling mountains. It’s crying out for outpourings of emotion…. It’s crying out for the reassertion of some of the values of humanity and fellowship against the imperial colonization of the hills by hi-tech climbers. It’s crying out for the insights of feminism…. It’s crying out for a bit of poetry, even….
It was time, he wrote, to open wide the doors that seemed to shut out so many kinds of topics–and so many kinds of people–from the genre, so that “the rest of life will flood into the world of climbing literature.”
Cook ended his talk with a quotation from Norman Nicholson in Speak to the Hills, a collection of mountain poetry: “Mountains should not serve as an escape from reality. They are surely an escape back to reality.”
Over three decades later, Cook’s call for more inclusivity still resonates. Mountaineering has often been termed “the most literary of sports,” as Bruce Barcott referred to it in a famous 1996 Harper’s essay. The great stories of climbing literature have continued to move new generations of readers. But the genre is also haunted by lingering historical inequalities. And to continue to open up its doors, writers and editors alike must be willing to confront the ways in which the genre became relatively closed. One dominant form of Western mountaineering literature arose during an age of imperialism. European mountaineers returned from far-flung explorations with maps that, at times, later facilitated military invasions and political control. Many nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers used images of “conquest” from colonial adventure tales. Stories of ascents often reflected the values of the powerful groups in empires and left out the perspectives of the subjugated.
Some authors pushed against parts of this tradition to varying degrees: with narratives that described quests for communion with nature, that advocated for more harmonious and less destructive forms of expeditions, or that used stories of ascents to symbolize more counter-cultural ideals, such as women’s equality. Yet despite the participation of a few prominent female authors (and the subsequent rise of working-class writers after World War II), the most well-known early form of the genre, was often, as Cook wrote, “about a restricted experience–restricted in terms of class, sex and race.”
Similar forms of exclusion arose in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States mountaineering writing. In a 2014 book, Black Faces, White Spaces, cultural geographer Carolyn Finney explored how dominant American narratives of the environmental movement contributed to the social construction of a “white wilderness”–as the stories of early white writers often erased, ignored or even tried to negate the experiences of non-white people in the outdoors. Likewise, in a 2018 article for Alpinist 62, Joe Whittle, a descendant of the Delaware Nation and an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, recounted, “Growing up in the 1980s…as I flipped through pages of gear catalogues and outdoor magazines that belonged to my mother and stepfather, I rarely saw any faces of color. Articles about ‘bold’ adventurers in ‘raw’ and ‘desolate’ landscapes generally left out the cultural legacies and ongoing existence of Indigenous inhabitants. Outdoor enthusiasts at times joined conservation groups to try to prevent the return of ancestral territory to Native people–as if echoing John Muir’s belief in The Mountains of California that original residents of the Sierra “seemed to have no right place in the landscape.”
Scholars such as Mark David Spence and Kyle Powys Whyte point to similar problems as American environmentalism’s legacy of colonialism. And as Finney observed, the relative absence of stories about Indigenous people and people of color in outdoor and environmental writing also reflected the politics of a surrounding society: “While [Gifford] Pinchot and Muir explored, articulated, and disseminated conservation and preservation ideologies, legislation was being enacted to limit both movement and accessibility for African Americans, as well as American Indians, Chinese, and other nonwhite peoples in the United States.” Such legislation included the Curtis Act of 1898, which attempted to dissolve tribal governments and compel the assimilation of Indigenous people; and the Black Codes, a set of laws in the South almost exclusively enforced on African Americans in the South, such as the charge of “vagrancy,” which permitted black people to be imprisoned or sentenced to hard labor if they were unable to prove they had employment. Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, points out that similar kinds of “legalized discrimination” continue today in the form of mass incarceration.
A multitude of other forms of discrimination still exist in US society, as well as in other countries, and the outdoors is not free from them. As climber and Expedition Denali member Rosemary Saal said about outdoor recreation in Alpinist 52, “Messages are sent to so many people that the wilderness is not a place for them to be.“ According to the 2018 Outdoor Recreation Report, compiled and published by the Outdoor Foundation, of the estimated 146 million Americans who participated in outdoor recreation in 2017, 74 percent were white. Nationwide, interest in climbing continues to grow. Of the estimated 781,000 Americans who took part in traditional climbing more than eight times a year in 2014, 74 percent reported themselves as being white, whereas white people make up 60.8 percent of all Americans. In an article for Outside, journalist Glenn Nelson noted an important caveat to such numbers: “A lot of us [people of color] feel like we don’t count because we aren’t properly counted. Some of our immigrant tongues don’t have equivalent terms for words like camping or trailhead that make up the American lexicon for outdoor recreation. For others, our history in this country has conditioned us to believe that we don’t look or act like outdoors people, so we might call ‘out for a walk’ what a white person would readily identify as a hike.”
In recent years, many grassroots US organizations have formed to create more inclusive spaces in outdoor recreation, advocacy groups such as Outdoor Afro, Brothers of Climbing, Brown Girls Climb, Latino Outdoors, Indigenous Women Hike, Outdoor Asian, Climbers of Color, Melanin Base Camp, Color the Crag Climbing Festival, The Black Outdoors, Natives Outdoors, Unlikely Hikers and OUT There Adventures–to name only a few. Largely as a result of this activism, efforts to increase diversity have grown in some publications and media platforms. New websites and magazines have also sprung up with the stated intention of sharing the perspectives of previously seldom-heard adventurers.
Among these activists, Teresa Baker has long advocated for greater representation of people of color in outdoor industries and active-outdoor media. In an article for Alpinist online, published in 2017, she reflected, “At times, this work is more than frustrating. I cannot tell you how often I’m told that diversity and inclusion are important to outdoor organizations, brands and publications. And yet, even though new outdoor groups of color pop up daily, non-white faces remain mostly absent from the covers, storylines and social media sites.”
In July 2018, to address this demographic disparity in outdoor recreation participation and media representation, Baker released the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, which she manages along with Chris Perkins and a twenty-five-member steering committee. The website explains: “The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge pairs leading outdoor brands in one-on-one relationships with inclusion advocates to advance representation for people of color across the industry. We’re focused on enhancing representation across staff and executive teams, media and marketing, and athletes/ambassadors. By building a relationship of support, empathy and understanding, versus external skepticism and internal stress, we’re moving the outdoor industry towards authentic inclusion.” (Adam Howard, the CEO of Height of Land Publications–the company that owns Alpinist, Backcountry Magazine, Cross Country Skier and Mountain Flyer–has signed this pledge. We are continuing to strive to increase diversity within our own publication, showcasing more of the work of writers, photographers and climbers from often-marginalized groups in a variety of countries; and seeking out more stories that place the pursuit of mountaineering within a broader context of surrounding cultures and communities. But, like most publications, we are aware that we still have more to do.)
It’s in everyone’s interest to foster a culture of inclusivity. As Baker wrote, “By coming together to create a more inclusive industry, we can better guard against the threats to the environment that affect not only outdoor recreation, but our communities as a whole.” In a 2017 interview with Brad Rassler, James Edward Mills—author of The Adventure Gap, an influential book on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the outdoors—explained his hopes for a larger and more empowered constituency of future environmentalists: “I really think that if we can increase the diversity of outdoor recreation, of people who participate in adventure sports, we can ultimately protect and preserve our National Park systems, our wild and scenic places, and our natural resources.” By building connections across cultural divides, we all might better confront a host of environmental and social problems in mountain regions worldwide–from the impacts of heavy traffic on popular peaks to the exploitation of expedition workers in parts of the climbing and trekking industry. We might also find a stronger voice to advocate for the mitigation of a climate crisis; for, symbolized so starkly in the melting of alpine glaciers, the effects of a warming planet might ultimately threaten all people from the highlands to the coasts and plains.
In 2019, we’re at a moment in climbing history when many people are joining the pursuit from increasingly wide backgrounds, bringing new voices, perspectives and stories–and shattering old formulas, stereotypes and cliches. To us at Alpinist, this change could be the most exciting and significant one to happen in twenty-first century mountain literature, adventure media and outdoor recreation. The future might well appear to be one of greater experimentation, of more expansive imaginations and of broader significances. As mountain literature professor Stephen Slemon wrote in “The Literature of Ascent,” published on Alpinist.com in 2017, “alpinism’s growing engagement with social and planetary concerns–ecology, feminism, global inclusivity–are reasons to hope that mountaineering writing may in fact be mapping out some new, creative routes towards a better future. Mountaineering literature’s call to self-aggrandizing adventure may be diminishing in volume. Those in the margins of production may be moving to the literary center.”
At the same time, while diversity seems to be on the rise in the climbing world, forms of exclusion still take place: whether in conversations at crags that make people of color, women, non-binary people and LGBTQA+ people feel as if they’re being told they don’t belong there; or in route names that use references to marginalized people as a form of mockery; or in harassing comments posted on marginalized people’s Facebook and Instagram pages–as well as in the comments section of online articles on DEI-related topics. We still encounter implied assumptions that one particular set of demographics (powerful, white, heterosexual, upper- or middle-class, cisgender, non-disabled and so on…) can determine the “rules” for what “climbing culture” is or who a “climber” can be.
Yet the idea that only certain kinds of people represent “climbers” has always been an illusion. Long before the famous first ascents of major peaks in the Alps, a diversity of vertical cultures existed around the world, from groups such as Ancestral Puebloans, whose cliff dwellings remain in what is now Mesa Verde National Park; to religious pilgrims who?have?travelled over high Himalayan passes?for hundreds of years; to Indigenous people who?have?left?traces of early ascents?on summits across North America?and who have a continued presence in those mountain regions; to the yamabushi monks of Japan who?have?summited numerous steep peaks?as part of a centuries’ old religious practice, and many more. Today, as Nikki Smith said in a recent issue of Gripped, “People of all body types, genders, sexuality, races, religions, etc., are participating [in climbing], and it’s time we embrace everyone.”
Throughout the industry, much work remains to create more welcoming communities; to help ensure that the risks of taking part in outdoor adventures no longer include the dangers of having to face racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, as well as discrimination or harassment against any marginalized group; to support the rights of Indigenous people in mountainous regions; to help make journeys to wild places less expensive and more accessible for people who lack economic privilege; and to promote more equitable working conditions for people from all backgrounds.
All climbing and adventure media will need to try to help open doors ever wider: to acknowledge the realities of the experiences and accomplishments of under-represented people; to help amplify their voices in published stories; and to share stories and experiences of people relating to the environment in less consumer-oriented, extractive or colonialist ways. Some of these changes may be relatively small–such as the inclusion of Indigenous names of peaks and regions or the practice of land acknowledgments. Other changes will require an ongoing questioning of biased ideas about whose stories matter: To take one much-discussed example, why do clients of Sherpa guides continue, so often, to get more publicity than the Sherpa guides and workers who fixed the ropes, established the camps and bore so much of the load? Or, as Nick Mason wrote to us a few years ago: Why don’t outdoor companies consider some form of sponsorship for the low-altitude porters who “who carry their logo-branded kit bags around the mountains”? An even larger metamorphosis will require a re-envisioning of the genre itself. In a 2015 conversation with Alpinist staff, the anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa suggested one solution: “The story should be about the existence of multiple stories and about bringing them to light…. It should involve shifting our focus from one-way-of-being to recognizing the multiple-ways-of-being.”
The end result of such paradigm shifts could break down once-narrow confinements of the genre and give it significance beyond the pursuit itself. As Teresa Baker writes in She Explores, “Outdoor spaces lend themselves to conversations that can cultivate change and a stronger sense of self.” In the same book, climber Kathy Karlo explains, “Writing creates a space for others to feel safe enough to share their stories.” Perhaps an immersion in wild places and in creative storytelling could serve as one catalyst for transformation, not only of individuals, but of their surrounding communities. Within the tales that people tell about mountains, rivers and crags, there could be a chance to help inspire a better society–one, as Ambreen Tariq says, that could become “grounded in humility and gratitude and driven by a desire to share, protect, and diversify.”
[With additional thanks to: Teresa Baker, Marinel de Jesus, Stephen Slemon, Peter Hansen, Gordon Sayre, April Anson and Amrita Dhar]