How Climbing Gyms and Climbing Gear Companies are Attempting to Diversify the Sport

Rock climbing has historically been heavily dominated by white men of means. In recent years, more women have been attracted to the sport. However, both male and female people of color are underrepresented in the sport, the advertising, and the professional levels of rock climbing. There are few statistics pertaining to the growth of women and people of color in climbing. The International Federation of Sport Climbing, which is the governing body for climbing competitions, states that 849 of the 2,179 licensed athletes are women. This is 39 percent of the competitors.

Ashima Shiraishi featured on a poster for Reel Rock 11. Image courtesy of CC Outdoor Education

Climbing companies such as Black Diamond sponsor similar numbers of male and female athletes, but most are white North Americansand European athletes. Because Black Diamond gets most of its advertising from its sponsored athletes, the representation of their brand is predominantly white. Fortunately, BD’s brand will soon reflect greater diversity: the company recently announced that they will sponsor Kai Lightner, an 18-year-old African American from North Carolina. He is BD’s first African American pro athlete.

Another up-and-coming person of color in the climbing world is 16-year-old Ashima Shiraishi. Shiraishi is from New York and grew up climbing in Central Park and at gyms with her father, who emigrated from Japan in 1978. She made news after she became one of only a handful of people, not to mention one of the youngest people, to climb a route with a difficult rating of 5.14d/5.15a at 15 years old. She has won the 2015, 2016, and 2017 lead climbing and bouldering IFSC youth championships. In 2017, she started competing as an adult.

Both Lightner and Shiraishi were featured in the Reel Rock 11 film festival in a short film called “Young Guns.” Reel Rock is a national film tour created by Sender Films. The production company was created by Colorado College graduates and is located in Boulder, Colo.

As climbing gyms multiply across the country, climbing has the potential to reach more minorities and more females. However, it is hard to tell exactly how many people are participating. At Brooklyn Boulders, a New York-based climbing gym, much of their media features people of color. They also have a women-only climbing program called “Climb Like a Girl”.

One of the biggest hurdles facing diversity in climbing is a socioeconomic one. Climbing isn’t a cheap sport to get into. Take Colorado Springs, for instance. At our local gym, City Rock, a day pass with rentals is $28 dollars. However, if someone really wants to get into climbing they will need to purchase their own gear. New shoes cost at least $50 and a City Rock membership is $79 a month. If someone wants to climb outside, the access is easy. Every Colorado Springs city park is open to climbing with a free permit. However, protecting oneself from falls gets expensive. A bouldering crash pad costs about $150 and top rope gear can quickly add up to hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

It’s unclear whether the climbing industry will ever be truly diverse even though many gyms and companies have started the slow process of change. Gyms often offer cheap rates for first timers, and the major companies have made efforts to diversify their teams of athletes. At CC, the Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym is free to all students and faculty and offers free instructional clinics, and Outdoor Education offers subsidized outdoor rock climbing trips.

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