Take Me Off Belay and Hold Me Accountable

Photo by Lane Mathis

By Ari Schneider

The “sharp end” of a rope is the end that a lead climber ties into. It’s the most commanding place to be in climbing—at the front, pushing up to the top of a route, focused on nothing else besides the climbing ahead. I’ve been at the sharp end my whole life—benefiting from the many privileges that come with being a white cis man in America, ascending a ladder in my climbing and writing careers without looking outside of my upward trajectory. But I cannot justly remain on the sharp end, aided by my privilege, while people of color are being killed in the streets, attacked, and stripped of their human rights every day. Systemic racism has silenced black voices and has made my voice heard. I need to untie.

2020 feels like the year the world changed. But none of this is new. 2020 is the year white America started to open their eyes. Black Americans are being murdered by cops and armed white civilians. It’s Pride Month and trans and nonbinary folx continue to face discrimination and violence every day. A virus is spreading around the world and it’s disproportionately killing people of color. Health care is a privilege, not a right in America. Meanwhile, I have been complicit in the racism and failures of justice that have put me ahead in the world. Climbing used to be everything that mattered to me, but now it could not matter less.

In 2016, when I was a naive college senior and president of my university’s mountain club, I was approached by a student who was writing an opinion article for a campus magazine that questioned the mountain club’s role in Indigenous erasure. I was asked whether the club, which had a largely white membership of over 800 students, would endorse the university changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day on the academic calendar.

I chose to stay out of the issue, citing the club’s long-standing policy of being apolitical. When pressed if the mountain club would help organize protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline—which not only posed environmental consequences, but specifically threatened the people of the Standing Rock and surrounding Indigenous tribes—I said members could go protest, but the club wouldn’t get involved. I was quoted saying, “We’re a club with a very simple mission statement, to go outside,” as if that was an excuse for ignoring injustice. I have to admit that was a load of BS.

Issues like these aren’t political, they are issues that place us either on the right side or wrong side of history. Failing to stand up for justice, remaining silent through these important fights, puts us on the wrong side of history.

Photo by Lane Mathis

All fifty states have protested racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of racist police in Minneapolis on May 25. There is no political candidate to side with on this issue. You either join the fight, or you remain complicit in the violence of white supremacy. Where do we want our largely white community of outdoor adventure enthusiasts, the likes of which love reading ROAM, to be?

White Roamers benefit from adventure without facing the same discrimination that endangers black folx. Climbers, like I, often enjoy life on the road. The simple pleasures of packing up a van—traveling North America to climb beautiful cliffs from the Red River Gorge to Squamish—are pleasures that white climbers have the privilege of enjoying in blissful ignorance. But as Tariro Mzezewa wrote in the New York Times, for many black travelers, “the road trip has long conjured fear, not freedom.” There are towns across America where people of color must navigate a high likelihood of being stopped by police or harassed by white locals. And the truth is, these dangers exist everywhere for black travelers. If you think climbing transcends racial boundaries, then you are blind to the various barriers to entry, the inherent privilege required to participate, the cost associated with the sport, and the glaring whiteness of the climbing community.

I still care about climbing. The sport does great things for many people. But if you’re not putting issues of injustice ahead of climbing on your list of important things right now, then you need to ask yourself what side of history you want to be on. And for most diehard climbers I know, climbing has been and will continue to be at the forefront of their minds, 24/7. It is a great sport. It’s a sport that I’d encourage everyone to try. But at the end of the day, it’s just a sport.

Systemic racism improves the lives of white people. Racism contributes to the privilege white people have to travel and climb and dedicate their lives to flailing up arbitrary routes on chunks of rock while other people struggle to stay alive.

Photo by Lane Mathis

Posting a black box on your Instagram then going back to sharing climbing photos is not enough. Black civilians are treated like enemy combatants in this country, and white people have the privilege to put their bodies between black lives and racism without fearing that the police will kill them, without fearing that they will lose their jobs, without fearing that they will be thrown out like trash.

If climbing is your number one, ahead of the lives of your fellow humans, then you’re letting the problems continue. Fighting injustice every single day is not just on black folx. It’s not just on me. It’s not just on you. Nobody can change the world on their own. But together, we can show the world that black lives matter. We can show the world that we will not accept injustice.

The problems worth addressing go far beyond what I can write in 1000 words. This is a start. Let’s not finish here then run off to play. Find appropriate ways to pursue your recreational passions. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. But also don’t let the pull of the mountains keep you from standing up for what’s right every chance you get, every day of your life.

Ari Schneider is a climber and freelance writer. He specializes in first ascents, solo climbing, and remote mountain adventures. When he’s not in the mountains or typing away at his computer, he enjoys coaching the young comp climbers on Team Movement in Boulder, Colorado.

Follow Ari’s adventures on Instagram: @ari_schneider

View more of his work here:

Dancing with Failure

Desert Treasures: Climbing New Routes in the San Rafael Swell

Climbing Alone: Self Reliance, Making Calls, and Bailing Solo