Looking up at Zoë Raynor, a climber participant, during the LGBTQIA2S+ Single Pitch Instructor Course in Joshua Tree National Park
pitched into presence
How do you land your dream job, when that position isn’t available to you? Sometimes you have to create a new space. In partnership with the American Mountain Guides Association, six climbers participated in a LGBTQIA2S+ Single Pitch Instructor Course in Joshua Tree National Park in 2020. We are proudly continuing this program on an annual basis to help expand its success and impact on our community.
It’s no secret that climbing,
as a sport, is homogeneous...
Surveys from the American Alpine Club’s State of Climbing Report and Outdoor Industry Association confirm what can be observed at most gyms and crags around the country: the climbing community is predominantly white men. For folks who fall outside of these demographics—women, queer people, trans people, people of color, or people with any combination of these identities—it can be difficult to access climbing instruction and mentorship.

These difficulties arise from negative experiences in climbing and outdoor recreation that make people feel unwelcome—and unsafe—because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or other identities. Being scrutinized intensely on a belay test compared to a white male partner, having climbing partners repeatedly use the wrong pronouns, being asked, “did you toprope that pitch?” after leading it, driving past a confederate flag on the way to the crag: These are just a few experiences that women, queer people, and people of color have reported. These experiences result in fear, anger, alienation, and self-doubt that makes it hard to participate in climbing or learn new skills, and even harder to stick around and be a mentor for other people with similar identities.

Across identities, safe and dedicated learning environments are essential for learning and developing the skills associated with mountain guiding. In creating these environments, the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) considers diversity and inclusion to be a risk management issue. Physical and emotional risks are inherent to climbing and skiing. Mountain guides are trained to evaluate and manage the physical risk and safety of terrain, weather, and technical systems. However, the emotional risk is a bit more complex. Some emotional risk is part of the appeal of climbing–we push past fear and discomfort to finish a climb and experience the joy that accompanies a send. But, emotional safety should be prioritized when it relates to participants’ social interactions within a group and to how their personal history and identity shape the way they participate in a learning space. When educational spaces are designed without the emotional needs of underrepresented identity groups in mind, they often alienate and hurt the students they’re trying to serve.

Affinity courses bridge this gap to create an intentional and dedicated learning space for underrepresented groups. Instructors for these courses hold underrepresented identities in outdoor rec, as well as demonstrated commitments to diversity and inclusion. And, the benefits are clear…
Lila Leatherman (they/them)
Lamella Consulting
Climbing participant, Ada Jones, puts on a rainbow Mountain Hardwear sticker on their van.
The AMGA ran our first affinity program in November of 2018 and we have continued to create spaces throughout that time to serve our historically underrepresented members.
With an average of four affinity programs a year, in both climbing instructor and mountain guide programs, we have made a longer-term commitment to these initiatives.

However, affinity programs are a small piece of our larger vision for an inclusive guide association and community. We know that affinity spaces cannot solely change our organizational culture. As the leaders in our industry, we strive to center Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work at the foundation of our organization by looking at external and internal work that we need to do.
Monserrat "Monse" Alvarez (she/her)
Membership & Inclusion Coordinator, AMGA
Distant shot of participants at the SPI course in Joshua Tree National Park.
Portrait of Sean Taft-Morales (they/them),
AMGA Rock Instructor & SPI Provider
Over the years and the repeated attempts to find myself by defining myself to others, I also learned that the climbing world was tolerant, if not particularly excited to see and welcome the fullness of my trans and non-binary identities. I was lucky; many others have found their welcomes to be far less warm…

When guiding, especially, I always find myself weighing the potential risks of opening up against the discomfort of not sharing my authentic self. While I have found many strong allies and friends among clients, co-workers, mentors, and colleagues, this course was the first time in over 15 years of guiding that I have felt fully able to be out, to be seen, and to celebrate the trans part of my identity while working. Being able to play a role in creating that space for others queer and trans climbers just starting their guiding careers was one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my career. I can’t wait to see how this team of instructors will make their mark and welcome an entire new generation of climbers to the sport and industry.
Sean Taft-Morales (they/them)
AMGA Rock Instructor & SPI Provider
Sean giving a knots clinic to Mari and Zoë during the AMGA SPI course
I’ve been climbing for over 21 years, and in that time, I’ve undergone numerous journeys of self-discovery and come out to my friends, family, and my various communities countless times, in different ways, to different reactions, as my knowledge of self has evolved and grown.
Sean giving a knots clinic to Mari and Zoë during the AMGA SPI course
All of the LGBTQIA2S+ Single Pitch Instructor Course participants in the distance on a rock in Joshua Tree National Park
participants
Portrait of Ada Jones
Ada Jones (they/them)
Being around more non-binary folks than I ever had in the same climbing space calmed my nerves.
As we started to practice technical skills, I started to feel confident in my skills and safe: able to learn and be vulnerable enough to be bad at the things I was learning. I was able to share life experiences and outlooks with the group in a way I never had before in the climbing community, and even though I felt small and scared because I was younger than everyone else, I still felt appreciated and accepted.

Before the class, I just wanted to take an affinity course so that I would be comfortable and not have to hide parts of my identity or be misgendered during my training. I hadn’t considered the fact that a door was being held open for me or the responsibility I have to use this opportunity to open as many doors for other people as I can. I hadn’t fully embraced the role I could play as a leader, nor my own space in the queer community, and the support and encouragement I experienced made me realize the influence I have and how much impact taking up space could have on future generations.
Mid course, Ada jots down notes in her notebook while sitting on a rock.
This course has changed how I look at myself and how much space I take up in the community. Beforehand, I was more comfortable leaving many parts of myself hidden so that I could learn without having anxiety-inducing conversations and leave myself open to opportunities from people who didn’t accept me.
Ada particpating in the SPI course, on belay.
Being around so many people who respected and supported me without question made me confident in who I am, allowing me to start having difficult conversations in the aftermath of the course. It also made me take my own role more seriously. I now feel prepared to go into guiding, to be out in the climbing community, and to eventually start my own programming. Every person deserves to and should have positive and welcoming experiences in the outdoors and in the climbing community, and at the moment, most people don’t have those experiences.

Although I felt overwhelmingly positive about this course, the participants were still majority white or white-passing. I am certain that the space wouldn’t have felt as welcoming if I wasn’t white, and I hope that the AMGA continues to work on making climbing a safe space for BIPOC. This is just a start in the work that the organization needs to do, but it’s a really exciting start.
Portrait of Ada Jones
This course has changed how I look at myself and how much space I take up in the community. Beforehand, I was more comfortable leaving many parts of myself hidden so that I could learn without having anxiety-inducing conversations and leave myself open to opportunities from people who didn’t accept me.
Ada particpating in the SPI course, on belay.
Portrait of Mari Simpson
Mari Simpson (they/them)
I have always felt like an outsider. I grew up in south Louisiana, the lands of the Natchez, Chitimacha, and Choctaw peoples.
Any time I spent outside was on the water, where it was cool enough to keep away from mosquitos. I grew up with white-passing privilege. I also grew up with a lot of homophobia and outright hatred for queer and trans people. I knew I didn’t belong, even though I didn’t quite understand why I felt that way. I knew I wanted to be somewhere else, but I didn’t know where that somewhere else was.

I’ve learned many things about building an intentional community on my climbing journey... What it feels like to start to stand up for yourself and other people and try to change things that are unfair, unjust, and exclusive. What it feels like when friends stand up and show up for you, risking social ostracism and negativity. What it really means to be a good climbing partner. What it feels like when other people succeed at things that you taught them. What it feels like to witness representation. What it feels like to be seen and heard and understood. What it feels like to finally belong...
Mari inspecting a knot
My hope is that one day I’ll be able to help pass on the gift that I experienced on the first day I went climbing outside-that feeling of, “Wow, I can’t believe it took me so long to find this and how lucky I am right now to experience it.”
Mari between two boulders, smiling at the camera under her mask.
Before this course, I spent two weekends in a class where I kept getting misgendered, and it was annoying but just something that happens almost every day. Being in a class taught by someone who I knew understood me, it felt so easy to focus just on the learning.

My intention in taking the SPI course was, and still is, to help people become self-sufficient climbers. Anyone who feels like they haven’t been able to find mentors or a way into their climbing communities, as I did and still do: that’s who I want to teach and help make climbing more accessible to. I am still figuring out what the next step is, but I feel like I have a lot more tools for the road ahead.
Portrait of Mari Simpson
My hope is that one day I’ll be able to help pass on the gift that I experienced on the first day I went climbing outside-that feeling of, “Wow, I can’t believe it took me so long to find this and how lucky I am right now to experience it.”
Mari between two boulders, smiling at the camera under her mask.
Portrait of Elli Jahangiri
Elli Jahangiri (she/her)
In a field that really lacks diversity, it is extremely important to educate diverse learners in order to help make the sport and outdoor crags more accessible and welcoming to people that otherwise wouldn’t have given climbing a chance.
It’s hard to see yourself doing an activity if there isn’t good representation in that specific environment or if you don’t have the tools to be out there safely. Especially with the SPI course, I think it can help bring down some of the barriers that exist to going outdoors and climbing for BIPOC, queer, and women climbers. I’m excited to pass on this knowledge to other climbers that might not have had the opportunity to find a mentor in their community.
Elli participating in the course, workshopping different kinds of anchor points while in her harness.
Climbing is heavily mentorship-based, especially when it comes to transitioning from gym to crag, and there aren’t as many people or resources for BIPOC and queer communities to access.
Elli participating in the course
Reflecting back on the weekend, I think most of the participants would agree with me that it was easier to learn being surrounded by other queer folks. I’ve had so many people in my own group say that they wouldn’t have gone to certain areas before had it not been in a queer or POC-specific space because they felt much safer in a group. Historically there is a lot of violence that has existed in the outdoors, especially for Black and Indigenous folks, so I think creating these spaces for people to learn and pass on knowledge is extremely important.
Portrait of Elli Jahangiri
Climbing is heavily mentorship-based, especially when it comes to transitioning from gym to crag, and there aren’t as many people or resources for BIPOC and queer communities to access.
Elli participating in the course
Portrait of Nikki Smith
Nikki Smith (she/her)
I've been a climber for 28 years and until the last few, had never knowingly encountered any out LGBTQIA2S+ folks in climbing.
Since coming out publicly in 2018, I receive messages each week from people all over the world who thought they were alone until they found me. This needs to change. We need more queer leaders at every level of climbing─guides, industry, athletes, etc. We need to be visible to help create affinity spaces for those who are afraid to participate and show them that they belong. Right now, there aren't enough queer guides, so I want to partner with guide services to offer queer programming and help create sustainable programs so they can continue after I leave.
Nikki participating in the SPI course
Although I'm paired with an AMGA guide, not having AMGA certifications prevents me from working with some companies due to insurance and many non-profits as a volunteer.
Nikki participating in the course
We need the outdoor industry, guide services, and guides to show their commitment to change by doing more to welcome folks from underrepresented communities into our ranks: supporting affinity space programming by working with guides and leaders from those communities to create these programs; hiring more employees from diverse backgrounds to serve the populations within the community the business is based in; doing more outreach to make others feel welcome and safe. This is truly necessary, and only the beginning. I really appreciate the AMGA working with our community to create this course, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Portrait of Nikki Smith
Although I'm paired with an AMGA guide, not having AMGA certifications prevents me from working with some companies due to insurance and many non-profits as a volunteer.
Nikki participating in the course
Portrait of Zoë Raynor
Zoë Rayor (they/them)
I felt an urge to push boundaries and create space for other LGBTQIA2+ folks and survivors of sexual assault within climbing.
During the height of the pandemic, I made the tough decision to close my business, Permagumby, and refocus the way I show up in climbing. I’ve recently become much more vulnerable and visible as a nonbinary climber, as well as a trauma and sexual assault survivor. By sharing my identity and experiences, I’ve come to realize that there are so many folks like myself who have embraced climbing as a form of healing, meditation, and stability.
Zoë sitting in between two massive rocks.
By becoming a Single Pitch Instructor, I aim to work with affinity groups to facilitate a safe learning environment, bringing together people with shared identities and experiences, and generating mentorship programs within queer and survivor circles.
Zoë coiling a rope during the course
By creating my own programming I hope to build new and inclusive avenues toward mentorship and instruction, with both the client and guide in mind.

Once I receive my SPI certification, I will be able to operate as a instructor and can start making moves toward creating my own guiding service and collaborating with other queer folks and survivors to start programming specially designed for our communities.

In order to create new pathways in the outdoor industry it is imperative that we can dream together and envision futures defined by equity, inclusivity, and empowerment.

At the beginning of the course we introduced ourselves with our pronouns. Someone pointed out that there were more folks with they/them pronouns than not—and wow, what an amazing moment! I have never experienced that within any affinity group before, and it brought tears to my eyes.

We are here and there are so many of us within the climbing community. This physical representation of nonbinary-ness, of trans-ness, of queerness was absolutely beautiful and I was honored to be a part of it.

Creating accessibility and affinity projects like the LGBTQIA2+ Single Pitch Instructor course gives me hope that progress is happening in the guiding industry. Affinity groups and organizations that embody excluded communities hold knowledge and perspectives that are integral to creating an equitable and sustainable future for outdoor enthusiasts everywhere. Collaboration is the only way forward and I’m stoked to see the progress that has been made so far, and am excitedly looking forward to the future. Together we can create the future we want to see in the outdoors!
Portrait of Zoë Raynor
By becoming a Single Pitch Instructor, I aim to work with affinity groups to facilitate a safe learning environment, bringing together people with shared identities and experiences, and generating mentorship programs within queer and survivor circles.
Zoë coiling a rope during the course
Portrait of LB Gunter
LB Gunter (they/them)
My identity is changing and has shifted and been recreated and polished by this course. This will forever shape my experience and the work I can and will do in my lifetime.
Identity is a nebulous thing, something we constantly create and recreate in our lives but something that is deeply reflective of our individual personhoods. This sanctuary of self-discovery happens over a lifetime but is caught and held in moments where we seek intentional transformational opportunities and are supported in our growth.

I have been interested, in my professional life, in the creation of transformational space, particularly in the outdoors. In the last decade, I have worked to create a culture of inclusion and celebration of diversity and identity in conservation work. These spaces that have traditionally been dominated and steered by the voices, needs and desires of a singular group are now themselves undergoing transformational change.
LB participating in the course
With this systematic change, there is an ever more present need for change in the way programs are managed, in how individuals are included and welcomed, in the kind of support that is needed to create equitable spaces, and in the creation of a different lens, to look a policy and tradition in the light of these new participants.
LB participating in the course
In my work in collaboration with Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps and directly with the California Conservation Corps Foundation, we are creating programming in a way that centers JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) work. We believe that genuine access and inclusion is a driver of diversity and equity and culturally and individually informed support is a means of sustainable social and environmental justice engagement.

For years I have been hoping to include climbing as an element of our programming. Hiring a certified climbing instructor has always felt like a financial impossibility and becoming a certified climbing instructor myself was not even a whisper of a dream, until now.

I knew going into the course that I didn’t quite have the same level of experience as many of the other candidates. My resources have been limited as to how far I could push myself and experience climbing. I have never been in a position where I could spend the money to get all of the gear and necessary training to gain higher level skills. I had also never seen a path forward for people like me. I didn’t know any queer climbers who were out and celebrated. I didn’t have any models of representational leadership that were supported in the space of professional climbing. Until now.

There is a compounding effect to this kind of impact that reaches beyond individuals into their communities. Not only will this certification further enrich my life and professional career, it will have direct implications in the lives of the youth we engage as they gain the skills and confidence to become the next leaders in the outdoors, and consequently, in the lives of youth they serve through their leadership.
Portrait of LB Gunter
With this systematic change, there is an ever more present need for change in the way programs are managed, in how individuals are included and welcomed, in the kind of support that is needed to create equitable spaces, and in the creation of a different lens, to look a policy and tradition in the light of these new participants.
LB participating in the course
All the climbing participants in the AMGA SPI course walk to the crag in Joshua Tree National Park
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