“It’s rad. If you allow it to, it’ll change your life forever.”
These two sentences could apply to innumerable things; for Abby Dione, they whole-heartedly apply to only one: rock climbing.
Dione is not only the owner of Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she is also the first black woman to own an indoor climbing gym. As part of her initiative to “redefine the outdoors,” Outdoor Education’s executive-in-residence, Britt McClintock, invited Dione for three days of discussion and climbing clinics at Colorado College, culminating in an outdoor trip to Red Rocks Canyon Open Space.
“I read an article about her and from there I just started to do some research, look into her more,” McClintock said. In terms of diversity and inclusion, McClintock wished to demonstrate that “this is what rock climbing can look like” and believed it would be “inspirational for [Dione] to come through.”
To kick off her visit, Dione fielded questions about her journey with a panel of students over pizza at the Outdoor Education Center. She explained that she’s originally from Canada but moved to South Florida for undergrad to study oceanography. There, some friends visiting from Europe introduced her to indoor climbing, and she became hooked. She has now been climbing for 12 years and has owned the gym for seven. “I’ve been at it for a while, not just consuming climbing, but selling it, too,” Dione said. However, she lamented that climbing consumption is not easy due to her location: “Having lived in South Florida for such a long time, I need to travel to climb.”
Coral Cliffs is actually the gym where Dione learned to climb. “I liken it to buying the car your parents taught you how to drive in,” Dione said with a laugh. There, she loves instructing all sorts of people, helping them literally and figuratively reach new heights, and she particularly enjoys “teaching kids and seeing them develop.” She’s proud of her ability to “spread [her] climbing seed,” as numerous climbers from Coral Cliffs have gone on to accomplish incredible climbing feats. She admitted her physical climbing strength has taken a backseat to her teaching, but it doesn’t bother her. “It’s not all about me anymore,” she said. “And that’s a good thing.” Moreover, she can now “get anybody up something.”
Since she first began climbing, Dione has noticed the increase in climbing’s popularity and thus the increase in diversity. However, risk mitigation and crag consideration has decreased among all climbers. “Lots of people are not educated; how to protect nature, how to exercise Leave No Trace principles, how to treat other climbers,” Dione said. For these reasons, she tries to foster good climbing ambassadors within the gym to “build their confidence, understand the mechanics going on, and mitigate risk” when they reach the crag.
Though climbing demographics are shifting, Dione still repeatedly finds herself the only person of color while outdoor rock climbing. This also doesn’t bother her: “The point I really want to stress to you guys is that I’d be doing this either way. [Rock climbing] calls me.”
One student asked what to do when climbing becomes frustrating — when one feels they’re not improving. “I’m either doing something out of fear or I’m doing it out of love,” Dione responded. “Try to do it [rock climbing] out of love.” She reminded the panel, “You know how to climb before you know how to walk.”
With such a positive reception at the lunch meeting, it was no surprise that many students chose to attend Dione’s clinics at the Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym. One of the two beginner bouldering clinics was co-taught with student climbing instructors Nikki Mills ’19 and Grace Ford ’19 at Women’s Wednesday, a two-hour window for solely female-identifying climbers. The other clinic took place the following day for all gym participants.
At both clinics, Dione had participants state how long they’ve been climbing and what they’re looking to improve upon. Afterwards, she led the group in a thorough warm-up, consisting of stretches and TheraBand exercises to warm the shoulders, wrists, and fingers and to loosen the hips, knees, and ankles. To finish, Dione raised everyone’s heartrates with jumping jacks and high knees, cheering, “Beautiful! Beautiful! You are ready to climb!” amid peals of laughter. Participants broke off into groups to attempt boulder problems while Dione weaved in and out, offering advice and encouragement.
Participants at both clinics spoke highly of their experience working with Dione. Kyle Zinkula ’22 attended the open clinic and said Dione “was really kind, enthusiastic, and informal throughout the clinic, to a point where I thought she was a student.” Others spoke of what they learned from Dione. BB Hall ’22 left with the realization that “it is okay to fall off the wall or fail as long as you get back on to try again and stay positive.” Lucy Wagner ’22 learned “to trust my strength and to have confidence in my climbing skills.”
Dione’s visit culminated on Friday afternoon with an all-female rock climbing trip to Red Rocks Canyon Open Space. Co-leading with student leaders Grace Ford ’19, Eva Bombeck ’19, and Sarah Laico ’19, Dione showcased her climbing skills and empowered participants on several routes on a crag named “The Whale.” Moving outdoors allowed Dione to demonstrate how participants could apply what they learned in the gym to a real rock setting.
CC truly benefitted from Dione’s enthusiasm, expertise, and perspective throughout her visit. As Ford said, “Abby is one of those people whose stoke is infectious, you can’t help but get more excited about climbing and being around her.” With McClintock’s and Outdoor Education’s support, CC will hopefully continue to have inspirational figures such as Dione share their love for adventure. “I want you to enjoy this as much as I do,” Dione said. By the end of her visit, it seems like CC students certainly did.