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Safety Means More than a Good Belay

[Photo] Derek Franz collection

[Photo] Derek Franz collection

The partnership of the rope embodies the relationship between climbing partners–our reliance on each other for safety, security and success. We usually think of this interdependence as something unique to a particular team, but what if we start to imagine this relationship as one that extends to all climbers?

Climbing can be a wonderful gift to one’s life. Vertical pursuits give us lasting friendships, push our physical and mental limits, and deepen our connection to wild landscapes. As more and more people find joy, challenge, friendship and passion at the gym and crag, we have a special opportunity to share what we know about managing risk and protecting the places we climb and cherish.

We all face unsafe situations in the outdoors. But it is sometimes hard to know how to respond or intervene. For example, it might feel awkward to step in when we see someone belaying incorrectly. Handled poorly, intervention may come off as arrogant or preachy. But the alternative can have dire consequences. Helping each other stay safe is part of our responsibility to each other as climbers.

But there is another type of safety that doesn’t get mentioned much: the right to feel physically and emotionally safe from discrimination, harassment and assault while in the gym, at the crag or on a remote mountain trip.

More than 5,000 climbers participated in a Sexual Harassment and Assault in Climbing survey that we distributed with Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Climbing and other climbing publications and organizations a few months ago. When the survey first went online, we saw a variety of social media comments, many in support of the need to conduct this research. But we were troubled by a chorus of voices from people who seemed to assume–because they hadn’t experienced the problem firsthand–that these issues did not or could not exist in the climbing world.

Even before the survey was launched, we knew that our community had work to do to make climbing more welcoming. We have seen harassment occur in social media and witnessed, or been the recipient of, belittling comments at the crag. Learning that approximately 1 in 2 women and 1 in 6 men* had experienced some form of behavior that could be classified as sexual harassment or assault while in a climbing setting reinforced that this is a real, measurable and serious issue.

As the data analysts who conducted the Sexual Harassment and Assault in Climbing Survey explain, “Climbing looks a lot like society.” Activities in the mountains have always been interwoven with the complexities, opportunities, conflicts and problems of the cultures in which we live. To ignore this reality–to mislead ourselves with the idea that climbing is somehow immune from the problems of the ordinary world or that our camaraderie somehow precludes bad behavior–is irresponsible. To fail to educate ourselves about the experiences of others weakens the rope that ties us together.

We speak frequently about objective hazard, less about subjective hazard. The human element in climbing can be a source for all manner of risk. We know that group thinking can support poor decisions such as deciding to enter into avalanche-prone terrain under hazardous conditions. Most climbing involves partners and teams in whom we place our trust. Trust makes us all vulnerable–dependent on each other’s judgment, goodwill and integrity. Also worrisome is the fact that climbing often takes us into less-populated locations, where if harassment or assault were to occur, it might go unchecked and unreported.

Harassment and assault are not the only issues that we need to address. Let’s not tolerate discrimination based on race, culture, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, physical abilities or sexual orientation, in the gym, at the crag or on the mountain. Climbing offers a wonderful and healthy lifestyle to many of us. But our craft is not truly healthy if we don’t open the conversations necessary to manage risk of every kind, including the discomfort and fear someone might feel as the only person of color at the crag or as the sole woman in a posse of men.

As the CEO and Board Chair of America’s climbing organization, we recognize our responsibility to align the organization’s actions and behaviors with our intention. We believe the way forward starts internally and that it must be part of an ongoing conversation and a call to action. In the spirit of transparency, below are a few steps the AAC is taking to ensure that all climbers feel welcome, supported and safe:

–In partnership with Alpinist and other climbing magazines and organizations, we promoted the Sexual Harassment and Assault in Climbing survey to our membership and are collectively working with the other national climbing nonprofits to treat this topic by opening the conversation and raising expectations of each other.

–We are auditing our internal processes, policies and procedures to understand where gender, culture, race or other biases may influence hiring practices or choosing volunteers. We are also examining our interviewing procedures and our methods for recruiting board members.

–We hold all employess and volunteers accountable to represent the organization in alignment with values such as inclusivity and equity and we take action when these standard are not met.

–We continue to evaluate our marketing and communications to ensure all people who enjoy climbing see themselves represented.

–We made mistakes with some of our events in the past year that left members of our community feeling marginalized. As part of our efforts to respond to such errors, we changed the date of a Craggin’ Classic event because it occurred on a significant religious holiday that would have precluded some members’ attendance. And when we were alerted to Native rights issues regarding the land on which we were holding a Craggin’ Classic, we added a panel discussion and facilitated a dialogue to help attendees understand these concerns. While we strive to bring a cultural lens to all our decisions, we will continue to respond to and correct mistakes when we make them.

–We are launching programs, such as the Universal Belay Card, to offer climbers a common conversation platform about safety in one of the most ubiquitous and essential climbing practices.

–We will continue to work to ensure all aspects of the organization reflect the identities of those who share a love for the craft of climbing. We know that there are simply not enough role models yet for the diversity of people who imagine climbing as something that might give their lives direction, meaning and deep satisfaction.

Although humans have been climbing to the tops of mountains since before written history, the pursuit remains young and in flux; the boundaries of its possibilities continue to grow. We can still talk with the people who opened the first routes on many big walls or high peaks. Today’s climbers make significant first ascents and achieve breakthroughs in difficulty, speed and style at an accelerating pace. The growing diversity of a new generation of climbers brings exciting new ideas, perspectives and achievements that will continue to broaden and enrich both the activity itself, as well as its representation in photography, film, art and literature.

As climbing gains greater participation, we have a special opportunity to shape it into something that serves as an example of cooperation and support in a complicated and even divisive modern world. Climbers have often been at the edge of current culture, searching for new ways to live and thrive. Let’s use our willingness to break new ground to advance a conversation about inclusion.

Whether in the mountains, at the crags or in the gym–or anywhere for that matter–when we choose to welcome, share and lift each other up, we strengthen the rope that connects us all.

Deanne Buck is the American Alpine Club President. Phil Powers is the American Alpine Club CEO. *For a complete list of survey numbers and percentages, as well as an explanation and examination of the methodology, see our report on the survey analysis here.